The Arthur Ransome Society has launched a new venture: Sail Swallow and Amazon
The classic dinghies from the original Swallows and Amazons 1974 film are being restored by Hunters Yard at Ludham on the Norfolk Broads. We are looking forward to welcoming people to come and sail, or row, the boats in due course. Hopefully, the Amazon may be ready this June, but Swallow‘s keel needs attention so she will be not be seaworthy until next season.
From 28th-30th June 2024, both boats will be appearing at the 50th anniversary celebrations of the 1974 filmat Windermere Jetty in the Lake District. All welcome! We are hoping the dinghies will be joined by some of the traditional steamboats that appeared in the Rio Scenes such as Osprey and the Lady Elizabeth.
How old were you when you first read Arthur Ransome’s books? Did you have a favourite storyline or character?
My father devoured the Swallows and Amazons books as they were published in the 1930s. I was a slow reader but must have started the series aged about ten or eleven as I’d read seven of the twelve by the time we arrived in the Lake District to make the film in 1973. I enjoyed the practical aspects of the books and most readily identified with Mate Susan, although I counted all the characters my friends. Ransome published thirty other books. Some are heavy going, but I enjoyed his autobiography.
Have you re-read the books since your childhood? If so, how has your perception of the books and the characters, in particular Titty, changed?
I’ve re-read most of the books in the Swallows and Amazons series and gain something new each time I read Swallows and Amazons, recently appreciating how important Titty’s imagination was to progressing the story. Her ideas take the plot forward. I ended up writing an article on how Swallows and Amazons can be seen as an allegory to missionary work undertaken by Arthur Ransome’s great aunts, one of whom received a Boxer arrow in her bonnet for her efforts in China.
Do you think playing Titty influenced your own personality? If so, how?
Titty helped me to look beyond the saucepans and concentrate on creative endeavors rather than getting bogged down by management and administration. Acting in the film instilled in me a work ethic, responsibility and striving for excellence. Looking back, the part was a huge burden to lay on the shoulders of a twelve-year-old but it was worth it. The film has had an enduring quality and is still broadcast today. I find constant interest when I’m in social or sporting situations. For me, it has truly been a case of ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’
Do you remember what you wanted to be before you became an actress? Did a writing career ever interest you as a child?
I acted professionally from the age of ten until I was twenty-one, going into television production at the BBC before I became a writer. I’ve also worked as a safari guide, wildlife artist and – thanks to Titty – as a cartographer. You can see a few maps I drew on my website here.
I’ve undertaken quite a bit of charity work, fundraising and acting as webmaster for The Waterberg Trust. I can’t remember having strong career ambitions as a child but knew art to be my strongest subject. I have a visual brain that flits about. Keeping a diary and constant letter writing has helped me develop my writing and has given me a huge quantity of material to draw upon.
What led/inspired you to become a producer?
Claude Whatham was a ground-breaking director who inspired all those around him, but directing became a viable option at Opera Camp, annual amateur productions we took part in over our summer holidays as teenagers. I began directing plays at university and developed a burning desire to direct for television, always ‘looking for the shot.’ By producing documentaries, I got to direct and put them together, editing voice-overs into a narrative arc. I would now like to adapt my own stories for film, so have Final Draft software on my laptop and Witness Films Ltd registered as a UK company, but although I have a couple of ideas out to tender, I’ve been concentrating on polishing my historical novels.
I’ve read that before filming Swallows and Amazons, you were in a production of Cider with Rosie. Was playing Titty anything like your experience of playing Eileen Brown?
Claude Whatham directed bother Cider With Rosie (1971) and Swallows and Amazons (1974) so the experience was similar. I also appeared in a Weetabix commercial he made in the Cotswolds. All three productions were set in roughly the same period, but Titty’s costumes, designed by Emma Porteous, were easiest to wear. Cider With Rosie was the most daunting production as I had to play the piano, which required three days of intensive practice. Titty only had to draw, write and row a boat, which was much more my thing.
Working with Virginia McKenna was amazing. Hugely inspirational and one of our most iconic British film actresses, she taught me a great deal – and still does.
What were your favourite and least favourite parts of the filming process?
We loved eating iced buns on set but hated hanging around in the cold. There was a lot of waiting for clouds to pass in the Lake District where I spent days clad in nothing but a thin cotton dress and enormous pair of navy blue gym knickers. I became more interested in the technical aspects of filming rather than acting, which for us children was more a case of ‘Let’s pretend.’
What were your first impressions of the Lake District? Had you ever been to the Lake District before filming Swallows and Amazons?
My parents had taken me to the Lake District as a three-year-old and loved going themselves, so it was a treasured destination in my family. I was dazzled by the lakes and mountains. Holly Howe (Bank Ground Farm) above Coniston Water is a very special place. I love gazing up into the Langdales and walking up into the fells. We were members of the Steam Boat Association, something I have written about in my book,Funnily Enough and I returned over Lockdown to appear in BBC Antiques Roadshow when Swallows and Amazons was profiled.
How detailed was the diary you wrote during the filming? Had you ever thought about turning your notes into a book before you were persuaded to write The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons?
I’ve put every page of my diary kept whilst making Swallows and Amazons on my blog at Sophieneville.net/swallowsandamazons My mother kept them, nagging me to write them up for years. Finding the time was difficult but I got there in time for the 40th Anniversary of the film’s release when StudioCanal brought out a DVD with an Extras package we appeared in.
What was the writing process like? eg. challenges
The challenge with adapting a diary is to eliminate inevitable repetition but something extraordinary or disastrous happened everyday whilst filming Swallows and Amazons. With so much filmed afloat or on islands, it was an incredibly difficult production to work on and made a story in itself. I enjoyed finally bringing the book to life and interacting with readers who so kindly sent in reviews and comments. Some love hearing what we all went on to do after the film. One reader did not want to know, but I included this as there were many interesting links and coincidences, especially since I worked on the BBC serialisation of Coot Club and The Big Six.
and favourite moments?
It is very exciting when the first paperbacks arrive. Every author enjoys unpacking that box.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned as a writer?
I never guessed how many times I would need to re-work my books. Each one is read though and edited repeatedly, on and on until it flows well and reads flawlessly. Recording the audiobooks has opened up a whole new world. I narrated them myself, which was far more complicated than I imagined. It’s difficult to digest the fact that I am on Spotify and the audiobookstore. Funnily Enough is selling well on audible.
Do you have any events lined up to promote the book?
Yes, I list the events on my website sophieneville.net/events I’m hoping to be signing copies at the Royal Thames Yacht Club in April and Southampton International Boat Show in September.
I often give illustrated talks on how Swallows and Amazons was made and Q&As at cinema screenings. I’ve begun running workshops on photographing books at literary conferences, which is proving popular.
Could you tell me a little bit about your other books?
Are you currently writing anything, either to do with Arthur Ransome or entirely separate?
I often write articles for magazines, which have connections to Swallows and Amazons, and have completed two historical novels, which are set in East Africa.
Finally, could you tell me about your other pursuits such as your litter picking, art and the combination of the two? Have art and conservation always interested you?
I have always been passionate about wildlife conservation, often giving talks about otters since they are the key indicator species we have been active in protecting as a family. I am taking part in the Race for Reading by litter picking whilst walking the coast to raise funds for the UK literacy charity SchoolReaders. I sometimes make collages out of the rubbish to attract attention to the composition of sea plastic. You can see examples of this and my paintings on Instagram @Sophienevilleauthor
David Wood, the award-winning playwright who adapted ‘Swallows and Amazons’ for the big screen in the early 1970s, wrote to say, “A fan recently reminded me that SWALLOWS, the film, will be celebrating its 50th birthday next year! Hard to believe, but true!”
He’s right. The Royal Gala that launched the film was held at the ABC in Shaftesbury Avenue on 4th April 1974. I still have the dress I wore and found a copy of the programme signed by other children in the cast. You can see photos in post I wrote about it here.
“I couldn’t attend the premiere,” David said, “I was rehearsing in Manchester!” This was a pity as it would have been amazing to watch the first film he’d written on the big screen with members of the cast present.
The event was followed by the publisher Kaye Webb’s Puffin Show at The Commonwealth Institute in Kensington High Street where the dinghy Swallow was on display from 9-21st April. I remember going along to meet readers. One of them wrote to me years later, thrilled that she’d won a new copy of the book. You can read her letter and find the Puffin Post article in an earlier post here.
“Do you think anyone will do anything to celebrate the anniversary? Are there any producers or distribution companies that might be approached? I am in touch with Richard Pilbrow, in America. I might drop him an email… Let me know if you think we ought to try to do something… a special screening, perhaps?”
When I suggested a few News presenters who might be interested in becoming involved, David replied saying:
“John Sergeant and I were at Oxford together, and performed in revue and cabaret….I directed him in a musical!
“Libby Purves interviewed me a few years ago at The Story Museum, Oxford. I was on Midweek twice too….”
“Have never met Ben Fogle, but years ago I knew his mother, Julia Foster. Her first husband was Lionel Morton, pop singer and Play School presenter, who played Owl for me in the first London production of THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT WENT TO SEE……in 1969!!!!!!”
“I was delighted that Virginia McKenna got her Damehood! Well deserved.”
This year marks the 50th Anniversary of making the film in the Lake District. I explained that I had been invited to give a talk to members of the Royal Thames Yacht Club in Kensington in April, hoping her could join me.
“I will put your April 18th talk in the diary – not sure yet if I will be free to come! But would appreciate you asking if I could attend. Last time I was there I gave a magic show for the members’ children!! About 50 years ago….just like the film!”
“The plans sound exciting. I wonder if the Arthur Ransome Society, to whom I gave a talk not long ago, might be interested in arranging something…”
They are. The idea is to put on an event at Windermere Jetty Museum in July 2024, under the auspices of Lakeland Arts. The Arthur Ransome Society are hoping to have both Swallow and Amazon there.
David then wrote to say: “The Cinema Museum, a rather wonderful institution in the Kennington area of South London, have pencilled Saturday April 6th 2024 for two screenings of SWALLOWS, to celebrate fifty years.” We have been invited to give Q&As and sign copies of our books. “Martin Humphries, who runs the Cinema Museum, organised a similar event about IF…., when I did a Q&A after the screening.”
This year is also the 50th Anniversary of the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Steam Railway where we spent the very first day of filming on 14th May 1973.
Fifty years ago this day, auditions were being held at 10 Long Acre near Leicester Square in London for parts in the original film of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ produced by Richard Pilbrow of Theatre Projects with the help of Neville C Thompsom and financed by Anglo EMI Films. It was to star Dame Virginia McKenna, but the leading roles were all for children under the age of thirteen who needed to be able to row and sail.
I recently received a Tweet from the award-winning author Wendy Clarke who wrote: ‘Funnily enough (many, many years ago) I auditioned for the film role of Titty Walker… I would have been 12 then. I didn’t belong to a sailing club and couldn’t sail! Amazed I got the audition!’
When I asked if she could tell me more, she replied: ‘I have next to no memory of the day so wouldn’t have very much to say about it! I’m seeing my mum tomorrow and have asked her to bring her 1973 diary!’ Here it is:
‘This is where I went for the audition apparently. Was that the same place as you?’
It was! I remember the actual room.
Wendy explained that her mother, Joy Matthews, ‘has written a diary every day since I can remember (even if it’s just to say what the weather was like). Over the years it’s been very useful. She is now 91. I think this was the photo we sent!’
‘I’ve just been reading your post and laughing at the escapades during the shooting of S&A. Can I really picture myself in your shoes… if I’m honest, no! I would have been too much of a scary cat. Especially when the mast broke!‘
A friend of mine also auditioned for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ but she couldn’t remember any details. Simon West, who ended up being cast as Captain John, told me that he met Richard and Neville for a first audition at his sailing club. His sister, Ginny, who was keen on acting, spotted a notice, but his father was amazed when he said he would also like to be considered for a role in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Aged eleven, he was a little young for the part of John, but he was bright, practical with a passion for sailing. Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett, who would eventually play the Amazons, also heard about the opportunity at their respective sailing clubs. Richard Pilbrow was very keen to find children who could sail and were able to swim well.
Kay Frances Ecclestone wrote to say she saw a, “poster in my sailing club. If it was in 1973, I’d have been 12 or 13 & had been sailing since I was 9 & just started helming in races.” This was at “Pagham Yacht Club which was where my family sailed… I didn’t (audition) although I seriously thought about it, but I didn’t want my long hair bobbed! I can remember clearly being at the Club noticeboard and excitedly reading the poster. I loved all the Arthur Ransome books and spent my first ever sailing prize that year (which was a book voucher) on buying the final in the series of Puffin paperbacks that I didn’t have. I have no idea why my Mum didn’t point out that my hair would grow back!” She is still racing her Scorpion dinghy today. “The original Puffins (with some replacement Puffins as the original fell apart from constant reading) in my AR book collection.”
Wendy wrote: ‘Second interview… so I couldn’t have done too badly! (Probably still hadn’t mentioned the small matter of not being able to sail)… I may not have got the part but least I got to go to Madame Tussauds and the Planetarium!’
My parents only received a letter asking if I would like to be considered for a part on 26th March 1973. It was addressed to my father who was on an export mission to South Africa and the envelope lay unopened in our hall for a while. Luckily it was printed with the Theatre Projects logo and Mum did open it. We collected Dad from Heathrow and drove straight to Leicester Square and walked through China Town. I remember Claude looking rather intense as he asked me questions. He wanted to know what my favourite television progamme was. I don’t think he asked me to read anything, which was just as well as I would have been hopeless. Did he ask if I could row or sail? I might have told him that I could swim well, as I’d just gained a bronze life saving medal, one of my few achievements to date.
I too was taken to Madam Tausauds when the ticket took you to the neighbouring Planetarium as a double bill. We possibly went after another visit to London for ‘Swallows and Amazons’.
Wendy returned to Theatre Projects’s offices in Long Acre for a third interview. She was doing well:
I was fortunate in that I’d worked for Claude Whatham in 1971 when he had cast me as Eileen Brown in the first BBC adaptation of Laurie Lee’s book ‘Cider With Rosie’, set in the 1920s. We later found out that Claude liked working with actors like Brenda Bruce who he had employed on previous occasions. I’m not sure when he joined the production of ‘Swallows and Amazon’ but it could have been late in the day as he was the second director taken on board.
We were told that 1,800 children had been considered for the six parts in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Most of them had been members of sailing clubs. Claude had not wanted to visit stage schools but Suzanna Hamilton, who was cast as Mate Susan, had been going to the Anna Scher after school Theatre Club in Islington, which he may have visited. I had first met him at a drama club in Stroud in Gloucestershire in 1971.
Our final audition was held afloat, when about twenty children spent a weekend on a scout boat at Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex. This can’t have been an easy location for my parents to get to but Richard and Claude wanted to see how confident we all were on the water. We were taken dinghy sailing in wet and windy conditions. I remember Kit and her twin sister Alison Seymour facing the waves without a qualm. Richard bought his children Abigail and Fred along and I knew Sten Grendon who had also been in ‘Cider With Rosie’. We might have travelled to Essex together. The five girls up for the part of Titty all shared a cabin. I thought I was too old, too tall and too gangly. We were not aware of a screen test but Richard’s assistant Molly took super 8 cine footage.
Meanwhile, Wendy Clarke had been taken to Cumbria by her parents: ‘We’d gone to the Lake District to get a feel for it. Hadn’t heard anything about interview so Mum rang and, as she so very succinctly put, ‘that’s that’. That made me laugh.’
I noticed they had been to see the waterfall where we eventually shot a scene on the way to visit the charcoal burners.
Wendy wrote: ‘That May, mentioned in Mum’s diary extract, was my very first time in the Lake District. It was only years later, in my forties, that I visited again and fell in love with it. Maybe I’m destined to sail that boat after all! So lovely to ‘meet’ you (even though I probably hated you at the time for taking my part (which I would have been rubbish at anyway!) x
‘My husband has just said, ‘why did you not tell me any of this?’ I was probably just relieved I didn’t have to get in a boat!In later life I discovered I was better at novel writing than acting!’
She added: ‘I’ve just found something else that links us. We both entered our books into the Flash Fiction Novel Opening Competition. My debut psychological thriller What She Saw, which was set in the Lake District, won it in 2017!’ I had a story shortlisted in 2022, which was encouraging.
I would love to hear from others who auditioned all those years ago – do email me or leave a comment below. I have written a little more about the gaining the part from my perspective on an earlier post here.
We are approaching the 50th Anniversary of the filming, which began on 14th May 1973 – only a few weeks after my first interview. I’ve been asked to give a few talks on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, which I will detail on my Events page. You can find different editions of my books listed here
with an audiobook, narrated by me, Sophie Neville, available on all the usual platforms.
I was so thrilled to read that Virginia McKenna has been awarded a DBE for services to wildlife conservation and to wild animal welfare in the New Year Honours. When I last spoke to her, she was working tirelessly for the Born Free Foundation that she co-founded with her son Will Travers OBE.
I first met Dame Virginia in 1973 when she agreed to star in the first big screen adaptation of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, produced by Richard Pilbrow, directed by Claude Whatham and released by EMI Films in 1974. She played the part of my mother, Mary Walker. The movie was shot entirely on location in the Lake District where Arthur Ransome set his classic series of children’s books.
The film has been broadcast on British television more than any other but it is when you watch it on the big screen that you can appreciate what made Virginia McKenna such a great star. Her face conveys a thousand tiny emotions that sweep you into a long-forgotten time when children were able to run free.
Dame Virginia had originally been scheduled to come up to Cumbria for the first ten days of the seven-week shoot but, since wet weather closed in, she was obliged to return when the sun came out for the famous scene when Roger tacks up the field at Holly Howe to receive ‘despatches’ in the form of the cryptic telegram BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN.
Dame Virginia enjoyed the discipline and focus of concentration on set and helped centre us from the start. If you watch other movies made at the time, such as ‘The Railway Children’ (1970), most of the adult actresses are wearing wigs with a district nineteen-seventies feel to their costume and make-up. ‘Swallows and Amazons’ owes its timeless appeal to the fact that Virginia simply had had lovely thick hair scooped into a bun and wore her original 1929 garments with grace.
I played Titty Walker who inveigled her mother into playing Man Friday to her Robinson Crusoe when she came to visit Wild Cat Island. The sequences were shot on Peel Island on Coniston Water where Ransome was taken as a boy by his own parents and met the Collingwood family in the 1890’s. He later became a good friend of Dora Collingwood whose five children became the inspiration for the story ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Her third daughter, the dreamer, was nicknamed Titty.
It can not have been easy for Virginia to act with me, a child of twelve, while frying pemmican in butter on a camp fire. I was self-conscious about having lost an eye-tooth the night before and had rather a sore mouth and she later had to row from the island with a 35mm Panavision camera in her boat.
What I’d forgotten until recently was that Bill Travers watched the filming that day on Peel Island. He’d been a hero of mine ever since he played George Adamson in ‘Born Free’ and Gavin Maxwell in ‘Ring of Bright Water’ opposite Virginia. Their film, ‘An Elephant Called Slowly’, was released as a double bill with ‘Swallows and Amazons’.
You can see a few more behind-the-scenes photos here and I’ve written more about being Robinson Crusoe here.
Looking back, I realise how fortunate we were to be able to play out the scenes from the iconic book in the actual locations, such as Bank Ground Farm where the Collingwood children had stayed one holiday as children, so they could visit their grandparents who lived at Tent Lodge next door and were too unwell to have them in the house.
We were not so keen on the publicity photographs taken for the film even though Virginia tried to make it fun. Right from the the very first day of filming, she worked hard to bring us together as a cast, playing games such as ‘Consequences’ to help us laugh and relax, while concentrating on the task of bringing the book to life.
In 1980, I went to work for Ginny and her husband Bill Travers, as a housekeeper for a few months. She needed domestic help while she was appearing with Yule Brynner in ‘The King and I’ at the London Palladium, for which she won an Olivier Award for Best Actress in a musical. I looked after her youngest son, Dan, who later worked as a safety officer and consultant on the 2016 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I met him at the cast and crew screening in Leicester Square.
– Dan Travers and Sophie Neville in 2016 –
Ginny and I kept in touch. She was ever-supportive, encouraging me to keep raising funds for anti-poaching in South Africa, where she had been evacuated as a child during WWII.
It was only when I heard her speak at the Kempsford Literary Festival in the Cotswolds that I learnt that other ships in her convoy to Cape Town had been torpedoed and sunk crossing the Bay of Biscay. By some miracle, her ship had been delayed in Liverpool but she described finding the flotsam left by the ships that had been hit.
Having written a number of books herself, Ginny encouraged me to write, urging me to keep focused on one thing.
Her letters and cards also inspired me to keep raising funds for wildlife conservation in Africa.
In turn, I supported the Born Free Foundation, printing them greeting cards, donating a Christmas card design for their catalogue and a picture that was auctioned at the Big Cat Open Day in Kent.
In 2014, StudioCanal invited us both to appear in the DVD Extras package for the 40th anniversary DVD of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974). While we were waiting for the crew, she told me that she’d appeared in more than thirty movies. I know she’s made a few more since then.
You can watch her interview here:
I released the first edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ for which Virginia graciously provided a quote. You can read the first few pages in the preview of the ebook, entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons 1974’here
To hear Virginia and her son Will Travers talking about receiving her DBE, please click here for BBC Sounds
~ ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons 1974’~
Tom Stoppard, the playwright,said he turned books over as a child hoping they might be ‘Swallows and Amazons’. (The Guardian) In Hermione Lee’s recent biography of Tom Stoppard, she notes that as an eight-year-old boy, ‘The first real book he picked up, soon after getting to England, was Arthur Ransome’s Peter Duck, the third in the Swallows and Amazons series, a 1930s epic of Atlantic Ocean travel, shipwreck, hostile pursuit and secret treasure. He spotted on the jacket that Ransome had written some other books too. ‘My method of searching for these books had a sort of pathos about it: I simply went around picking up any book I saw lying about to see if it was called Swallows and Amazons. But it never was.’ Luckily he found a full set of Arthur Ransome books at school. ‘Stoppard, that enchanting master of the English language, was a Czech refugee, and Ransome was therefore one of his early English-language influencers.’
Melanie Philips lists Swallows and Amazons as one of the ‘great childhood books’ that ‘stay with us for ever’. ‘Books that make a profound impression on us in childhood can form part of our mental scaffolding throughout our lives.’ The Times
When asked , “What was it that first gave you the reading bug,” author Sarah Moss said, “Arthur Ransome: Swallows and Amazons. I was an outdoor child — though not always by choice — and I knew and loved the landscapes where the series is set. I re-read them with my children and they are classics with strong, likeable, flawed characters, a family dynamic that’s in some ways more interesting to me as an adult (John has some serious issues with the patriarchy) and a satisfying interest in fruit cake and pork pies. (Daily Mail)
Tony Ross – illustrator of Horrid Henry and The Little Princess, said, “I absolutely loved this book as a boy. I read it when I was ill with the mumps. The simple line drawings were just wonderful; they gave the feeling of wide open spaces and freedom. When you’re bound up in bed, when your jaw is aching and your face is the size of a football, it’s nice to be wafted out into the water. Swallows and Amazons gave me a lifelong love of sailing. I’m a bad sailor, but I love messing about on boats.” Daily Telegraph
Sir Antony Jay, the author and co-writer of Yes, Minister and Yes,Prime Minister, who was editor of the BBC Tonight programme and Head of Television Talk Features, was a fan. Janet Means of the Arthur Ransome Group said that when she was a child, and he was a very young BBC producer, that he used to lend her Swallows and Amazons books.
I had been asking if Agatha Christie referred to any of Arthur Ransome’s books. She didn’t, but I’ve been told that in the recent adaptation of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Frankie Derwent reads Swallows and Amazons aloud to a young boy who has had a traumatic experience that day, as he falls asleep. The passage she reads includes: “But the big hills up at the lake helped to make him feel that the houseboat man did not matter. The hills had been there before Captain Flint. They would be there for ever. That, somehow was comforting.” The book was adapted for television by Hugh Laurie.
Julian Fellowes acted in the BBC adaptation of Coot Club but I’m not sure if he has referred to Swallows and Amazons in any of his novels of screenplays.
Tony Collins, who brought out 1,400 books as a publisher, mentions that he grew up reading Swallows and Amazons in the first page of his new memoir How to Make Mistakes in Publishing.
Sometimes it’s the Swallows and Amazons lifestyle that people speak of. Santa Montefiore ~ ‘I had an idyllic Swallows and Amazons childhood growing up in a beautiful Jacobean house on a farm in Hampshire.’ Guardian
Frances Wheen who wrote the a-claimed biography of Karl Marx joined us at Pin Mill for a marathon reading of We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea hosted by the Nancy Blackett Trust
Janet Mearns, of the Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook, spotted several references to Swallows and Amazons and Titty, ‘with the assumption that the Radio 4 audience would understand the reference’, in series 6 of the Radio 4 sitcom No Commitmentswritten by Simon Brett.
Brian Doyle, the publicist of many iconic movies including the original film of Swallows and Amazons, wrote about Arthur Ransome in his book, The Who’s Who of Children’s Literature, claiming that he launched a ‘new age’ in children’s literature by writing about his own childhood by the lakes he loved so much. He is featured in these books about making the film, available from all the usual sites online
For a list of other well known writers who have been inspired by Arthur Ransome, please click here.
Many esteemed authors have written biographies of Author Ransome and the places that inspired him. Here, I list novelists who acknowledge Ransome as an inspiration or have references to his books within their own work. It is a list that will no doubt grow. Please add copiously to the comments below.
Sir William Golding, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, mentions Swallows and Amazons in Lord of the Flies.
Debbie Welch points out thatMonica Edwardshas her character Andrea reading We didn’t mean to go to sea in Punchbowl Midnight. ‘She slams it down when Peter has let Midnight (the calf) out.’ TARS member Elizabeth Williams said that Pigeon Post is being read in Summer of the Great Secret. “Monica Edwards was a great Ransome fan. She wrote a letter to him after the publication of Great Northern? There isn’t a record of a reply.”
Nevil Shute mentions Swallows and Amazons in No Highway. Eddie Castellan of the Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook writes: ‘Ronnie Clarke is spotted reading Coot Club as a bedtime story in the closing pages of The Rainbow and the Rose.’
Katie Fforde, president of the Romantic Novelists Association, mentions Arthur Ransome in her novel A Vintage Wedding. Martin Allott spotted this, explaining, ‘It’s a gentle romance about the love lives of three female friends who set up a wedding planning business… Lindy mentions some favourite books, one of which is Old Peter’s Russian Tales.’
Liz Taylorson has recently brought out a romance entitled Summer Showers at Elder Fell Farm that not only features the book Swallows and Amazons but makes quite a thing of Titty’s name. You can find the extract here.
Kit Pearson wrote the Guests of War trilogy (The Sky is Falling, Looking at the Moon and The Lights Go On Again). Adam Quinan explained that they are about a British sister and brother evacuated to Canada during the early days of the Second World War. ‘The older sister loved Ransome’s books and compares his stories to Ontario lakeside cottage life.’
In Red Letter Holiday by Virginia Pye the mother of the family is reading Swallows and Amazons aloud.
Teacher, Teacher!, by Jack Sheffield, has one of his star pupils reading Swallows and Amazons.
Magnus Smith says that How the Heather Looks by Joan Bodger and Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr mention Ransome’s books.
In The Boyhood of Grace Jones by Jane Langton, an American book from 1972, the main character is obsessed by the books, and fantasizes about being as good a sailor as John Walker.
Danny Brocklehurst mentions Swallows and Amazons very briefly inStone.
Catherine Lamont from Australia said, “Just read a 2020 book mentioning ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (someone spotted in a bookshelf belonging to one of the main characters): The Enigma Game, by Elizabeth Wein.” Elizabeth Wein wrote in to say, “Not just in The Enigma Game – I namedropped Swallows & Amazons in my novel Code Name Verity, too! It was given to me by my grandmother’s best friend when I was seven and was one of my favorites. My own children, who never actually read it, were huge fans of the film”.
Libby Purves, now President of The Arthur Ransome Society, mentions Swallows and Amazons in her novel Regatta. I need reminding if she mentions Ransome in her other books.
Victor Watson references Swallows and Amazons in his Paradise Barn quartet. I think one of the kids wants to borrow it from the library.
The Swallows and Amazon series gets mentioned An Island of our Own by Sally Nicholls, Coming Home by Rosamun Pilcher and Impossible!by Michelle Magorian. Does she also mention We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea in Goodnight Mr Tom?
Clare Havens refers to Swallows and Amazons in The Bellamy Bird, a novel which she asked Virginia McKenna to narrate when it came out as an audiobook.
Philip Pullman chose We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea as one of his 40 favourite children’s books in a Waterstones promotion and borrows Ransome’s phrase ‘signaling to Mars’ from Winter Holiday in La Belle Sauvage.
Jeanne Birdsall‘s Penderwicks books are highly recommended for young Ransome fans. Alan Kennedy has also written in what has become a Ransome genre.
Katherine Hull and Pamela Whitlock were young fans of Arthur Ransome who helped and encouraged them to publish their novel The Far-Distant Oxus.
BJ Pitman references Swallows and Amazons in Airmid and Satori in the Banduri series.
Duncan Hallbrought out the Brambleholme series of books for children aged 8-80 set in the Yorkshire Dales.
Jon Tuckerhas written a series five Those Kids books set in Tasmania and New Zealand that effectively bring Ransome into the 21st Century.
Julia Jones, whose Strong Winds series begins around the Shotley Peninsular where the Ransomes once lived, is a great fan of the Swallows and Amazons series. She has been sailing Arthur Ransome’s yacht Peter Duck since she was a little girl and mentions his books in her novels. She writes on behalf of other authors who quote Swallows and Amazons: ‘All of us are honest about our inspiration: we acknowledge Arthur Ransome in our credits / we join The Arthur Ransome Society / introduce a Swallows and Amazons-reading child into our stories and in my case, at least, get our lead characters thinking desperately ‘what would the Swallows do next?” You can read more in her article about authors who have been inspired by Ransome’s writing entitled X Marks the Legacy.
Julia reminds me that Marcus Sedgwick wrote a whole novel based on Arthur Ransome’s adventures in Russia where he met Evgenia, the woman who was to become his second wife, entitled Blood Red, Snow White. I have a copy.
The Duke of Edinburgh is reputed to have spoken of a ‘Swallows and Amazons spirit’ or ‘the spirit of Swallows and Amazons’. The books are certainly loved by many.
I was interviewed by the antiques expert Marc Allum who reckoned my collection of memorabilia from the 1974 film would be worth about £5,000. You can read more about this here. I have a feeling this episode recorded at Windermere Jetty might be repeated someday soon.
Rupert Maas the art expert on BBC Antiques Roadshow, who watched the film as a boy, said that the Arthur Ransome books inspired him to sail across the Atlantic. He valued Swallow, the dinghy we used in the movie at more than £10,000.
Jeffrey Archerwas inspired by the book: “I love Swallows and Amazons because it has the sense of children working together. It was very moral in that it made clear that individuals don’t matter.” (The Independent) “Swallows And Amazons was unputdownable – though I did not try to emulate their adventures.” (My Weekly) “It’s a story with enduring appeal” (The Express)
Kate Adie, the News correspondent, who, on ‘I’ve never seen Star Wars’ (BBC Radio 4 ), gave ‘Swallows and Amazons’ 10/10 a few years ago.
Labi Siffre, the singer-songwriter said on Great Lives that Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books taught him responsibility and a morality that shaped and influenced his life.
Jane Garvey, of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, chose We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea as one of her five favorite books. “I’ve no idea why I loved this book so much, but I know I did. It’s one of the Swallows and Amazons series, and involves an accidental trip to Belgium. I found it absolutely hair-raising – I’m not exactly intrepid myself so it probably petrified me.” (The Week)
David Bellamy, the botanist and television presenter who lectured at my university ‘… said he was inspired in his love of nature as a boy by the books of Sir (sic) Arthur Ransome, author of Swallows and Amazons. “By the time I was 14 I’d read all his books and saved up so that I could go to the Lake District to camp and learn to sail. It tipped me towards natural history.”’ The Guardian
Norman Willis, former General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress and president of the European Union TUC, became President of The Arthur Ransome Society, which is going from strength to strength.
AA Gill, the British journalist said, “Swallows and Amazons:- Being dyslexic, I started reading late and this was the first book without pictures that I read on my own. My Grandmother gave it to me for Christmas when I was nine. It took me about three months to read but I was gripped.”
Adam Hart-Davis, the cycling TV presenter, actually met Arthur Ransome as a boy. He has often spoken at The Arthur Ransome Society’s events and has written a number of non-fiction books on what the past has done for us.
Benjamin Britten who was born in Lowestoft had a well known love of Swallows and Amazons and was keen to base a children’s opera on one of the books. ‘So desperate was he for Ransome’s We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea that at one point he swapped his composition draft of the newly completed cantata Saint Nicolas for a copy of the book!’ BrittenPears Arts
Dick Strawbridge, and Dr Alice Roberts the anthropologist, presented a documentary devoted to the landscapes that inspired Ransome as an author in both the Lake District and East Anglia, which was repeated on television recently. I think Dick Strawbridge may have stumbled on the drystone remains of the the charcoal burners’ hut that we used in the original film, without knowing it. You can watch their explorations here: