The school term is over, ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is on BBC iPlayer and Christmas missives are arriving in the post. I have just been sent this homemade card from someone who came to the premier of the original film in 1974, when I was fortunate enough to play Able seaman Titty.
~Captain Flint hanging Christmas decorations around his houseboat on a card made from a Puffin book cover~
I dug out the Puffin paperback of Swallows and Amazons my father gave me when I was a girl and read avidly, along with other books in the series, by the time I was eleven years-old. It is a 1970’s edition in which I’d underlined everything Titty said. I must have re-read this copy when busy preparing for filming the 1974 movie financed by EMI.
Kaye Webb, the editor, had written an introduction saying, ‘This book is about sailing, fishing, swimming, camping, and piratical exploits.’ She wanted to make it available to children, thinking that discovering Swallows and Amazons ‘for the first time must be as exciting as a Christmas morning.’
Underneath, I’d noted down the skills I would need to acquire before playing the part of Titty. ‘Owl Hoot’, was one item, ‘wisle’ (sic) another. I was somewhat apprehensive about dancing the Hornpipe but excited about ‘being a cormorant’, having no idea how cold this experience would prove.
A new edition of the Puffin paperback was brought out to accompany the film. A still was used from the scene where the Swallows sail both dinghies from Cormorant Island.
Today, I am most interested in Ransome’s prose, amused to find the phrase ‘X marks the spot where they ate six missionaries’ does not appear within the pages of the book. It was given to Titty in 1973 by the screenwriter David Wood. However, there are words of wisdom a-plenty that were not used in the film adaptations:
‘I like cooking,’ said mate Susan.
‘If you want to go on liking it, take my advice and get someone else to do the washing up’, is Mother’s reply. (I wonder who might have said this in reality.)
‘You can be wide awake and not see a thing when you aren’t looking’ is one of Roger’s observations.
John was able to look back to ‘a different, distant life’, which is exactly how it feels when the excitement of Ransome’s world spoils you for the ordinary. It’s true: those involved in outdoor activities develop in leaps and bounds ending up, ‘not at all what they had been.’
What is it about Arthur Ransome’s writing that captures your imagination? Rowing? Sailing? Cooking over a camp fire? Which book has most influenced your life?
At least one film fan held a TV party with and 1930’s theme to celebrate. Others stoked up the wood-burner and settled down to spend an afternoon re-living summer in the Lake District. It is as if Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – a timeless classic to watch again and again.
For the latest edition of the paperback on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons(1974)’ with details of where the film was made and what those who appeared in it are doing now, Please click here
The ebook, entitled ‘The secrets of filming Swallows & Amazons (1974)’ is the same with a few more stories for adult readers and has links to behind-the-scenes cine footage. It can be downloaded from iTunes, Smashwords,Kobo and Amazon Kindle
It would be lovely to hear from anyone who saw it in the cinema when it first came out in cinemas in the summer of 1974 – more than forty-five years ago.
Simon Hodkin kindly sent in this cinema programme that he has kept since watching the movie when he was a boy growing up in North Wales.
Arthur Herbertson managed to track down these rare publicity sheets for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ typical of movie games of the period:
Arthur has a collection of the four jigsaw puzzles and the Puffin paperback that came out with the film.
There was a vinyl LP narrated by the screenwriter David Wood that you can still purchase.
Arthur found a publicity brochure that I had never seen before.
To read comments from people who saw the film at the cinema in 1974, please click here
The original story was written by Arthur Ransome in 1929 ninety years ago, so the film hits the half-way mark between the original readers and today’s audience. It’s funny, the critics in 1974 are asking the same question as raised in the billing this week: Do ‘modern youngsters struggle to relate to such old-fashioned game playing’?
Do add your thoughts to the comments below.
~Billing in the Christmas edition of the Radio Times 2019~
You can discover what it was like to appear in the movie, in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’, an illustrated paperback published by the Lutterworth Press. Although written for adults, it is suitable for all ages and quite fun for anyone interested in acting or keen on visiting the Lake District. It can be ordered online, from good bookshops or your local library. If you already have a copy, do add a review to the online sites or email a photo – it is always great to hear from readers.
The second edition of the ebook, entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons (1974)’, is similar but includes a few more stories from the Lake District and links to behind-the-scenes cine footage. It is out on Kindle, Smashwords, iTunes, Nook/Barnes&Noble from £2.99 If you already have the first edition you can re-load the up-dated version free of charge.
If you enjoyed the original film adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ broadcast on BBC Two today, do think of getting a copy of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, published by The Lutterworth Press or the ebook entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’. You can read the first section for free on Kindle here. Quite fun!
It’s surprising ‘Swallows and Amazons’ hasn’t been re-made a number of times. The 1974 movie was sold all over the world and has been screened so often it’s become regarded as iconic, labelled ‘a cult classic’ or ‘enduring success’. You can listen to Wildfred Joseph’s film score here:
Thanks to Claude Whatham’s extraordinary skill in creating a period film that never dated, cinema audiences emerge asking if it was made last summer.
Although it was shot 45 years ago, fan mail still arrives from Australia, the USA and Japan. Families can quote David Wood’s script fluently, having watched the DVD thirty times or more. The biggest complement is that they talk of being ‘Titty-ish’ or ‘just like Titty’, the little girl whose imagination gave her the strength and courage to excel.
-A carefully made fan letter showing Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker in 1974-
When I went to watch the 2016 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ being made on location, I warned the actors they were in for the long haul. Although the new adaptation has older children in the cast, and additions to the plot, it was heralded as a great British film, a landscape movie of significance about the thrill of exploring the great outdoors. Broadcast on BBC Two earlier this December and it is out on both Blu ray and DVD. For the Hanway Films billing of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ 2016, please click here.
Signing copies of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ in Cumbria
1 – How did you get the part of Titty?
In March 1973, a letter arrived, out of the blue, inviting me to audition for a role in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I was twelve years old, an ordinary school girl at a convent in Berkshire. I’d read the Arthur Ransome books but had no idea I was up for the lead in a major EMI feature film intended for a universal international audience. The movie was directed by Claude Whatham. Back in 1970, he’d cast me as Eileen Brown, opposite a boy playing Laurie Lee, in the BBC’s first adaptation of ‘Cider With Rosie’. It was a role that demanded learning a piano piece so complicated it took twenty-one hours to master, but I did it. Claude must have respected my hard work. I was too tall to play Titty but, after a sailing audition at Burnham-on-Crouch, I was offered the part. He cast Sten Grendon, who’d played the young Laurie Lee, as Roger, Suzanna Hamilton was Susan and Virginia McKenna starred as our mother. She later admitted to finding her character rather dull but it was her name, in lights outside cinemas, that drew big audiences. We’ve kept in touch. She is still acting, aged 87, and has led the Born Free Foundation’s international campaign to redeem the lives of wild animals held in miserable conditions since 1998.
With Virginia McKenna on location at Bank Ground Farm near Coniston, in 1973
2 – Why was it so suitable for you?
We loved visiting the Lake District as a family. My father helped the Maryport Button Factory with their publicity and once took us to stay on a farm near Castle Craig above the River Derwent. I spent my childhood camping and messing about in boats, adding a sail made from a dust-sheet to an old rowing skiff. The great thing about the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was that Simon West, who played Captain John, was an exceptional sailor. He went on to become a national champion. Kit Seymour, who played Captain Nancy, also had a natural command of the waves. It shows on screen. They were able to handle our small boats when squalls rolled down from the fells. I didn’t have their innate understanding of the wind but it was Titty’s job to row everywhere – back from the charcoal burners and off to One Tree Island on Derwentwater. “Pull harder, Roger!” I managed to row Amazon out of Secret Harbour in one take, with the cameraman and a massive 35mm Panavision Camera on board.
Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville in Swallow, 1973
Casting-off Swallow was more of a challenge. It doesn’t show on a small screen, but when ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is screened in cinemas, you can spot the sequence when I slip on a rock with the telescope in one hand. I was up to my waist in water but got back on my feet and battled on, waving as the others sailed up Coniston Water. I knew how difficult the shot was to achieve and was desperate to do my best for Claude Whatham.
3 – Did it fire your wish to work in TV?
No! It was directing plays while reading Anthropology at Durham University that ignited a desire to work on television dramas. However, the experienced I’d gained acting in movies helped me win a place on the BBC TV Graduate Trainee scheme. After working on ‘The Russell Harty Show’, I grabbed the chance to cast children on the adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s books set on the Norfolk Broads: ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’. I found Henry Dimbleby, then aged thirteen, to play the lead and spent three months on location with Julian Fellowes and Rosemary Leach – who I’d met when she played Laurie Lee’s mother. I later worked on ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Eastenders’ and ‘My Family and Other Animals’, before producing an INSET series, directing one episode at a village school in Cumbria. I began casting children in the Lake District to appear in BBC adaptations of Arthur Ransome’s Lakeland books but they were axed, which was sad, as we were all set to make ‘Swallowdale’ and ‘Pigeon Post’ on the high moors.
4 – What does the Lake District in general, and Keswick in particular, mean to you?
We live on the south coast but take the train north at any opportunity. I’m now President of The Arthur Ransome Society and came up for a fabulous weekend in May when we sailed from the jetty at Bank Ground Farm – Holly Howe in Ransome’s books. I gave an illustrated talk on the secrets of making ‘Swallows and Amazons’ at the Bassenthwaite Institute, using behind-the-scenes photographs taken when we were filming on Derwentwater forty-five years ago. We shot all the scenes involving Captain Flint’s Houseboat in a bay on the western shore. She was played by the Lady Derwentwater, converted for the drama by Ian Whittaker, a talented young set dresser who went on to win an Oscar for set decoration on the feature film ‘Howards End’ starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. We shot the lighthouse tree scenes near Friar’s Craig and used Lingholme or One Tree Island for Cormorant Island, where Titty finds the treasure chest. We enjoyed making Ronald Fraser, the film actor playing Captain Flint, walk the plank and sailed up Derwentwater to the strains of ‘What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor’, played as the end credits roll. Forty years later, Suzanna Hamilton and I were asked to lunch with Richard Pilbrow the producer of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Buskers were singing this song outside the restaurant in Covent Garden. We couldn’t believe the coincidence.
Meeting fans of Swallows and Amazons at Keswick in July
I meet people from far and wide who tell me the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ inspired them to visit the Lake District. It has been broadcast on television every year for the last forty years and was last shown in Australia on Boxing Day. It has been dubbed into Czech twice and is often shown at festivals as only ‘U’ certificate movies can be screened outdoors. I just hope this has proved a blessing to the people of Keswick, which I so loved visiting as a child. I thought the 2016 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – that I appear in for approximately two seconds – would overshadow the classic version but it has simply raised awareness along with DVD sales. Fan mail continues to arrive. A beautiful card came today. Arthur Ransome would have been touched. It had fish on it.
Editorial coverage and a literary award for ‘Funnily Enough’
5 – Do you want to mention mental health/physical health issues are always in the news?
I find that many of my readers are stuck in bed or battling with ill-health. I hope they are amused and uplifted in some way by stories in my books. ‘Funnily Enough’, a diary I kept after collapsing at the BBC, is about my own struggle with what I am pretty sure was a tick-bourne disease. I lost my job but recovered in Southern Africa, where I fulfilled Titty’s dream of seeing “forests full of parrots” and produced decorative maps for a living, inspired by Spurrier’s illustration on the original cover of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I used maps and details from my sketchbook to illustrate a paperback entitled, ‘Ride the Wings of Morning’, which is out in colour as an ebook.
On the crew of the Gloriana in the Boat Race Flotilla in March featured on BBC Television
6 – What else?
People often ask how ‘Swallows and Amazons’ influenced my life, keen to know what I am doing now. I am still keen on rowing. I completed the Voga Longa, a 32 kilometre marathon through the Venetian lagoon with Olympic gold medallist Ed Code and was on the crew of The Queen’s row barge Gloriana for the Boat Race Flotilla this year. This summer, I grabbed the chance to row through the canals of Amsterdam, which was fascinating. However, it was the Amazons bows and arrows that impacted my life. After learning to shoot on the shores of Coniston Water, I was cast as an archery champion in another movie and have since won three Ladies Championships. I met my husband at an archery match. My stepson shot for England in July, winning a tri-annual match against the Royal Company of Archers (so proud!) I gave a talk recently demonstrating how the arrows in ‘Swallows and Amazons were’ fired over my head. The shot looks so dangerous that it was cut from the TV version of the film, but is included in the re-mastered 40th Anniversary cinema Blu-ray version, which we are now able to watch on the big screen.
Rowing in from De Hoop Rowing Club in Amsterdam, July 2018
Much has been written of the legacy left by Arthur Ransome’s, who inspired so many go camping, fell walking or sail the seven seas. I hope he would be amused to learn it has been the arrow, fletched with green parrot feathers, that has flown through the pages of my life.
~Sophie Neville dressed as a medieval archer in 1969~
Archery became a popular sport for ladies in Victorian England. The influence was not lost on Arthur Ransome who writes in his autobiography that his Great-aunt Susan was a keen toxophilite who attended bow meetings at Belle Isle, the long island on Windermere. Another great-aunt was shot in the bonnet by an arrow when the Boxer Rising reached Peking while she was serving as a missionary. I gather it was his sister Joyce who owned a green parrot whose feathers made good pipe cleaners. Did they ever get used for flighting arrows? Arthur doesn’t seem to have taken up a bow beyond, perhaps, playing Red Indians as a child with his friend Ric Eddison. Does anyone know otherwise?
Titty may not have known that the real Queen Bess was a proficient archer, but Roger certainly expected savages to be armed with poison-tipped arrows as he took dispatches across the Peak at Darien.
Did Nancy and Peggy ever don Red Indian head-dresses? Since they are described as wearing red caps when the Swallows first encounter them, I assume this idea was instigated by Helen Edmundson’s musical and reinforced by the 2016 film. Although far from nautical, this is akin to certain antics in Secret Water and certainly adds visual drama to the confrontation.
~Sophie Neville with Peter Robb-King, Ronnie Cogan, Lesley Bennett, Kit Seymour and Terry Smith~
I learnt how to shoot in 1973 when the Amazons were being taught how to pull a bow made of Lakeland hazel for the original movie of Swallows and Amazons. As children, we all wanted a go. I still have a practice bow and a couple of arrows whittled on location by Bob Hedges, our property master. I remember one hitting the campfire. ‘Don’t touch the point – it might be poisonous!’ Please note that the shot of the arrows zooming over our heads looks so dangerous on screen that it was cut from the television version of the feature film. This was no snazzy visual effect. The arrows were genuine, however they were strung on taut nylon fishing line rigged over our heads to ensure we would not get hit. They were fired by the prop men and not the Amazons.
~Daphne Neville who won many archery prizes teaching Lesley Bennett (Peggy Blackett)~
As female Amazon warriors were redoubtable archers it is easy to imagine Captain Nancy bent a sapling to her will and had Peggy making arrows. It is reasonable to assume they used longbows on Wild Cat Island, but in Swallowdale it is a crossbow that graces Ransome’s illustration. How Nancy got her hands on one is unknown but it must have been simpler to use in a boat with discretion and accuracy. Did Ransome ever try this out?
~Sophie Neville shooting with a compound bow in the Emirates 2016~
What happened to the bows and arrows after Swallowdale? Archery is something you usually grow into, rather than out of. By the age of fifteen, I’d gained the part of an archery champion in an adventure movie called The Copter Kids. This necessitated target practice with a modern re-curve bow and ended with me shooting from a helicopter.
I now belong to a number of archery societies and, like Great-aunt Susan, set out with my tabs and tassel, quiver and longbow. Luckily the skill, much like an appreciation of Arthur Ransome’s writing, is something that tends to improve with age. I met my husband at one bow meeting, have held three Ladies’ Championship titles and managed to reach a distance of 145 yards when we celebrated the 600th Anniversary of Agincourt.
I have never fired a crossbow. Since they are potentially lethal weapons, Nancy could have been detained for firing hers even if the tip was not deemed poisonous.