Auditioning to play the part of Titty Walker in the original film of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 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.

Producer Richard Pilbrow with Neville C Thompson on Derwentwater in the Lake District in 1973
Richard Pilbrow and Neville C Thompson in the Lake District in 1973

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:

Wendy Clarke’s mother, Joy Matthews, kept a diary every day of her life

‘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!’

Wendy Clarke, aged 12, who auditioned for a part

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.

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.

Sophie Neville with Claude Whatham

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

Wendy Clarke, whose website can be found here

‘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.

Claude Whatham with the children he eventually cast as the Swallows

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

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville'
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville’

with an audiobook, narrated by me, Sophie Neville, available on all the usual platforms.

Dame Virginia McKenna and her work on the classic film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Virginia McKenna in 'Swallows and Amazons' (1974) by the film poster artist Arnaldo Putzu
Virginia McKenna in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) immortalized by the film poster artist Arnaldo Putzu (c) StudioCanal

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.

Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm
Dame Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

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. 

Virginia McKenna holding the telegramme
Dame Virginia McKenna on location at Bank Ground in Cumbria ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

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. 

Virginia McKenna with Hairdresser Ronnie Cogan
Dame Virginia McKenna with Ronnie Cogan ~ photo:Daphne Neville (c)

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.

Sophie Neville as Titty
Sophie Neville as Titty in 1973 – photo: Daphne Neville (c)

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.

Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island
Dame Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

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.

Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville
‘They were very savage savages’ ~ Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

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.

The Walker Family at Holly Howe
Sten Grendon, Simon West, Virginia McKenna, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville at Bank Ground Farm, in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

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.

The Walker family played by Suzanna Hamilton Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Virginnia McKenna and Simon West at Bank Ground Farm in Cumbria
Suzanna Hamilton Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Dame Virginia McKenna and Simon West – photo Daphne Neville (c)

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.

Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground

Her letters and cards also inspired me to keep raising funds for wildlife conservation in Africa.

Merry Christmas African animals card design by Sophie Neville
A Christmas card design by Sophie Neville

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.

Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2000
Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2001 – photo Daphne Neville (c)

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:

Interview with Virginia Mckenna

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’~

Sophie Neville has been speaking at the Stroud Christian Book Festival.

A write up of Sophie’s talk for BookBlest – the first Stroud Christian Book Festival – on The Making of Swallows and Amazons can be found on this website here

If you missed Sophie’s talk on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, you can read about her adventures in one of these editions, available online.

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville'
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville’

There is a brief resume of the talk on this website, here Prepare to be taken back to the 1970s:

Sophie Neville speaking at the Southampton International Boat Show #SIBS22

Inspirational speaker, Sophie Neville
Southampton International Boat Show 2022

Swallow, the iconic dinghy who starred in the original film Swallows and Amazons is currently on display at the Southampton International Boat Show, greeting families as they arrive.

Sophie Neville who once played Titty Walker with her good little ship

I have been giving talks on filming afloat and how we made the movie on location in the Lake District nearly fifty years ago.

Over 103,000 people are expected to visit the show this year. Although busy, it does not feel crowded. There is a lot to see and do.

Speaker Sophie Neville
Sophie Neville speaking on the Foredeck Stage at #SIBS22

Thanks to the help of excellent technicians, my presentations proved popular, ‘inspiring talks on the Foredeck Stage’.

On the cover or Britain’s bestselling boating magazine

I later sign copies of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons‘ at Future Publishing’s corner stand. It has been a great opportunity to meet film fans, readers and feature writers.

Nick Jeffery the yacht publicist with Sophie Neville at the Southampton Boat Show

You can find a four-page feature on how we clubbed together to buy Swallow in this month’s Practical Boat Owner magazine.

A 4-page feature article in the bestselling magazine Practical Boat Owner

You can apply to SailRansome to take her out yourself. She is sea-worthy but we are looking for sponsorship from a boatbuilding company to help re-varnish her and repair a small hole in her bow.

Sophie Neville with Swallow from Swallows and Amazons (1974)

If you were are unable to get to the Southampton International Boat Show this year, you can watch an in-depth interview released this week by Your Take:

Your Take interview Sophie Neville on Zoom

Writers and illustrators inspired by Swallows and Amazons

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

Puffin edition of Swallows and Amazons
1974 Puffin edition of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

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 Commitments written 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

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville'
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville’

For a list of other well known writers who have been inspired by Arthur Ransome, please click here.

20 Novelists who mention Swallows and Amazons or other Arthur Ransome books in their work

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 that Monica Edwards has 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.’

Coniston Water in the rain

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.

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.

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”.

The Slate Quay on Coniston Water ~ photo: Sophie Neville

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.

Tessa Hadley wrote about the Mate Susan being dull, tame and sensible in her short story entitled Bad Dreams. Tessa Jordan says that it, ‘contains the most remarkable depiction of the spell cast by Swallows and Amazons.’ It was reviewed in the Guardian here.

Other authors, playwrights and illustrators have expressed their love for the Swallows and Amazon series:

Garth Nix who wrote The Left-Handed Book Sellers of London specifically calls out ‘Swallows and Amazons’ as an inspiration at the end of his book.

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.

Arthur Ransome books are mentioned by in Elinor Brent-Dyer in Changes for the Chalet School

Windermere, Cumbria

Many authors have been inspired by Ransome:

Duncan Hall brought out the Brambleholme series of books for children aged 8-80 set in the Yorkshire Dales.

Jon Tucker has 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 Jones and Frances Wheen at Pin Mill with Sophie Neville

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 science fiction author Charles Stross also features Ransome in Russia during the Civil War in one of The Laundry Files novels: The Apocalypse Codex.

Please leave any other connections who might have spotted in the comments below.

Well known people who love Swallows and Amazons

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.

Rupert Maas on Windermere, valuing Swallow on BBC Antiques Roadshow in 2021

Jeffrey Archer was 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:

There are more enthusiasts listed in the previous post here.

You can read more about Oscar winners, actors and other well known people associated with the original film of Swallows and Amazons here:

Celebrities who love ‘Swallows and Amazons’

When Jonathan Cape first published Swallows and Amazons on 21st July 1930 for the price of 7/6d, it was eagerly received by numerous authors including JRR Tolkein and AA Milne. I’m often asked which well known people alive today have expressed an interest in Arthur Ransome’s series of books.

Griff Rhys Jones, who presented The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome using clips of the 1974 film of Swallows & Amazons in which I played Titty, joined me at Pin Mill in Suffolk for a marathon reading We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea, Ransome’s novel that tells of the Swallows’ hair-raising voyage to Flushing. You can find Griff’s books here.

Griff Rhys Jones at Pin Mill for a reading of ‘We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea’

John Sergeant, the veteran newscaster, has made a number of documentaries about Arthur Ransome, chatting to Griff on The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome, and The Secret Life of Books.

Geraint Lewis of The Arthur Ransome Trust sailing with John Sergeant

Ben Fogle interviewed Suzanna Hamilton and myself on Countryfile and Big Screen Britain after exploring the locations around Coniston Water. You can watch the episode here.

Ben Fogle interviewing Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville on Countryfile

Libby Purves, author and broadcaster, is now President of The Arthur Ransome Society. She refers to Swallows and Amazons in at least one of her novels.

Libby Purves afloat

A keen sailor, she also took part in the marathon reading of We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea organised by The Nancy Blackett Trust who own and look after the Goblin, the yacht portrayed in the story.

Libby Purves reading ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’

Dame Ellen McArthur, yachtswoman and Patron of The Nancy Blackett Trust, claims that Arthur Ransome’s novels inspired her to sail. She gives Swallows and Amazons a good mention in her book Taking on the World. Ellen was portrayed by Suzanna Hamilton in a Stephen Sharkey play at a festival at the Southall Playhouse. Suzanna played Susan Walker in the 1974 film of Swalllows and Amazons.

Sir Richard Branson often says how much he loved the book as a boy, describing it as, “a lovely kids’ adventure book.” He told The New York Times: “As a very young kid, I loved the Arthur Ransome novel Swallows and Amazons. It’s about a group of children having adventures in England. Now I read it to my grandkids. It’s a beautiful book.” I met Richard years ago when I worked on The Russell Harty Show. To may amazement, he recognised me when I was filming in the street in Kensington months later, so perhaps he has watched the original film of Swallows and Amazons.

John McCarthy, the journalist and keen sailor, made a radio programme called Paddling with Peter Duck, sailing Swallow, the dinghy featured in the 1974 film. You can sail her yourself via SailRansome.com

Peter Willis on Ransome’s yacht Nancy Blackett with Kevin Dawson and John McCarthy

Theresa May said she loves Swallows and Amazons. ‘When she was young she appears to have enjoyed reading… listing… Swallows and Amazons among her favourites.’ Mirror and Daily Mail She gave a copy to Baroness Davidson, once leader of the Scottish Conservative Party.

Dame Judi Dench also read the book as a girl: “…Swallows and Amazons, I remember that very well indeed.” Good Housekeeping

David Dimbleby loves gaff-rigged boats and recently helped with PR at the London Boat Show. He visited us on the set of the BBC Drama serial Swallows and Amazons For Ever! filmed on location in Norfolk.

Sophie Neville with David Dimbleby on location in Norfolk back in 1983

Sir Ben Ainslie ~ Steven Morris of the Guardian reports: “He recalled how he started sailing in Cornwall on the creeks around Falmouth as a boy. Ainslie has called it a Swallows and Amazons kind of childhood. He had friends on the other side of the creek so he sailed over to see them.”

Ben lived in Lymington – and came to our club to celebrate after the Olympics.  

Congratulating Ben Ainslie on his Olympic gold medal

Nikki Henderson, the youngest ever Clipper Around The World yachtswoman was inspired by the book Swallows and Amazons naming Swallow and one of the coolest sailing boats ever in Yachting World as reported by the Nancy Blackett Trust.

Alan Smith of BBC Radio 4, appeared as a boy in the scenes shot at Bowness. He was on location at the Haverthwaite Railway Station in May 1973 on the first day of filming Swallows and Amazons(1974) with Virginia McKenna who starred in the film as Mrs Walker. To read more, please click here.

Alan Smith in the doorway of the train with his friend John Eccles

Miranda Hart (Miranda, Call the Midwife, Not Going Out) “Oh, I love these wonderful stories about outdoor life in one of the most beautiful parts of our country – the Lake District. Camping, sailing, exploring, discovering – it’s still the stuff of dreams for me. My favourite character was Peggy. She was shy and a little nervy but always kept up with her sister, who was captain of their boat. It was rather like me and my sister; although I was the elder, I was the shyer one, and often had to rely on my little sis to do the grown-up things. And I have to say Peggy is my favourite character still, because that’s partly who my dog is named after. I love that this book celebrates the importance and joy of friendship. But above all it harks back to a time when children had to use nature and their imagination to have fun through the long summer holidays. No iPads on tap here. I hope it inspires kids and adults who may have forgotten about the bliss and thrill and beauty of nature to rediscover it.” You magazine.

The list continues in the next post here.

The end-title theme music to ‘Swallows and Amazons’ composed by Wilfred Josephs

You can read about The Making of Swallows and Amazons in paperback or on Kindle. The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons is available on all the ebook platforms. There is a review here.

The Making of Swallows and Amazons by Sophie Neville
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ by Sophie Neville

Sophie Neville interviewed by Jadzia Smeaton on The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)

Sophie Neville author of The Making of Swallows and Amazons
Sophie Neville

What is most memorable about the making of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ for you?

I love exploring the places Arthur Ransome features in his stories. We were privileged to live out the pages of the book on location in the Lake District, but sailing in nothing but a short cotton dress and a pair of navy blue gym knickers was decidedly chilly – we earned our passage.

Would you consider Susan to be an influence on Titty within the story?

Susan made camping on the island possible. Suzanna Hamilton, the remarkable British actress who played Susan in the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, became our rock without becoming prim or losing the joy and excitement of adventure. She went on to play leading roles in a number of major movies including ‘Out of Africa’ opposite Meryl Streep and ‘1984’ with John Hurt and Richard Burton. She is still working on cutting edge productions and recently had a guest appearance in ‘Eastenders’.

Time Out – April 1974

Is there anything you think should always be included in different versions of ‘Swallows and Amazons’?

You must feature the green parrot! It’s vital to enter the world of a 9-12 year old child, capturing the trepidation. It would be interesting to adapt Arthur Ransome’s books without featuring adults, or only including them as shadowy facilitators.

How did you feel about playing a part where you were able to be the cunning and playful younger sister?

In real life, I was the elder of three sisters so took on the roles of both John and Susan. Playing Titty felt something of a release. I was freed from the responsibility of taking the helm.

Titty is well-read and bright, creative and imaginative but I wouldn’t call her cunning. She longs to be alone on the island to experience what it was like to be Robinson Crusoe, which is why she volunteers to stay behind to light the candles, but is that a cunning plot? She is an innocent.

What was your favourite line in Swallows and Amazons?

Titty’s lines are challenging and can only be uttered with humour and an acceleration of charm. I rather enjoyed, ‘X marks the spot where we ate six missionaries’, although I don’t think it can be found in the book. ‘Thank you so much for letting us see your lovely serpent’ would probably be disallowed these days.

Did you have a favourite scene?

Finding the lighthouse tree was a short sequence that worked well. We shot it on the banks of Derwentwater towards the end of the filming. But I most enjoyed our day with the charcoal burners. They were wonderful.

What did you enjoy most about filming in the Lake District?

We loved High Force, the waterfall, and exploring the mossy woodlands. Secret Harbour on Peel Island is very special, as is One Tree Island where we found the treasure.

Do you feel that you and your character influenced children?

Even now, nearly 48 years after the film was released, I receive correspondence from people telling me how the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ influenced their lives or helped carry them through a tough patch. It is always wonderful to hear how Titty has inspired others.

Maurice Thomas who used to live in Cockermouth wrote: ‘My mum and my Auntie Gladys took me to see this little children’s flick in 1974/5 as it was a double bill with ‘The Railway Children‘. I remember ‘The Railway Children‘ reasonably fondly, but ‘Swallows & Amazons‘ had me utterly mesmerised.’

If you were to give any advice to actors wanting to perform in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ what would it be?

Visit the locations. Go to Bank Ground Farm and run, fast, down the field to dip your hands in the lake as Arthur Ransome did as a child. Capture that feeling and carry it with you as you sing out the lines.

And be prepared for the impact the story will have. It could follow you all your life.

To read another recent interview with Authors Reach please click here

If you would like to read more about the secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons, you can ‘Look inside’ the ebook free of charge here:

Titty’s Tooth in The Times

Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville – trying to row with her mouth shut.

The story of my missing tooth published in The Times! A great honour. The indignity of being toothless still rankles but I now have a full set.

You can find the whole story on The Nancy Blackett Trust website

It’s possible to spot the gap by watching the film trailer for the 1974 movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ with further information on the International movie data base also seen here:

Sophie Neville, aged 12, without tooth. Suzanna Hamilton, aged 12, with beautiful teeth.

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