50th Anniversary of the 1971 BBC play ‘Cider With Rosie’ directed by Claude Whatham

Christmas Day 2021 marked the 50th Anniversary of the first BBC adaptation of Laurie Lee’s evocative book ‘Cider With Rosie‘, a story that tells of growing up in rural Gloucestershire before the combustion engine destroyed rural life as it had been led for centuries.

First published in 1969, the memoir sold six million copies. The 1971 BBC play was screened in the UK, France, West Germany and Japan, becoming regarded as an avant garde, ground-breaking drama that received four BAFTA nominations – Best Script: Hugh Whitemore Best Actress: Rosemary Leach, who played Mrs Lee Best Design: Eileen Diss Best Drama Production: Claude Whatham

Sophie Neville playing Eileen Brown

And I was in it, as a girl, playing the part of an urchin who could play the piano called Miss Eileen Brown. We were able to use the original village school in Slad as the location for both the classrooms and parochial Christmas concert. I can almost smell the chalk and dusty books mixed with hairspray used by the crew to limit unwanted reflections or dirty-up anything that looked smart and new.

As we ran out into the school yard, which was tiny, the director, Claude Whatham asked if any of us knew any skipping chants. No one said anything. I had been to a village school nearby and knew loads but was too shy to chant them. What a regret.

We used Laurie Lee’s village school in Slad as a location

It was June 1971. We had glorious weather. Prolific wildflowers made the drama special. I remember a bunch of buttercups standing in a classroom window. My scenes were set in 1925, when Laurie Lee was aged about eleven. I was used to having my hair tied in bunches but not up in hair ribbons. It felt strange. I wasn’t very happy about my dress, which was itchy and didn’t fit well. The costume designer assured me that Eileen would have only possessed one dress in real life. I was well aware that it would have been a hand-me-down, as were the boots.

The classroom scenes demanded little of me, I simply sat next to ‘Laurie Lee’ and reacted to the violence exhibited by the teacher. My challenge was that I had to play the accompaniment to ‘Oh Danny Boy’ on the piano. Laurie Lee had to play the violin but the boy playing him was given a double. I had to practice six hours a day, for three days, to get it right. In the end the director said, “Do you think you could play a little faster?”

“These are crotchets,” I said. “They don’t go any faster.”

The result is agonizing but authentic and brought tears to Rosemary Leach’s eyes. The author, Laurie Lee, who still had a cottage in Slad at the time, told my mother that Eileen Brown was the first girl he fell in love with, which was daunting but all this entailed was having to smile.

Sophie Neville with Philip Hawkes as Laurie Lee

My mother appeared in dream sequence, aged 34, looking beautiful in a neatly starched uniform, playing a housemaid when Mrs Lee remembered working with lovely things in a great house. Laurie Lee appeared as himself wearing tweeds – right at the end.

Two years later, in 1973, Claude cast Sten Grendon, who played Little Laurie Lee, as Roger Walker in the Theatre Projects/EMI movie ‘Swallows & Amazons’. He chose me to play his elder sister, Titty.

Sten Grendon with Claude Whatham

The actors John Franklyn-Robbins and Mike Pratt also appeared in both dramas. I didn’t remember this until I looked up the credits on IMDb years later. In 1983, I worked with Rosemary Leach in Norfolk on the BBC adaptation of ‘Coot Club’, when she played Mrs Barrable. I met up with the designer Michael Howells who had a small part as one of Laurie Lee’s elder half-brothers. Both have sadly died. All these amazing actors have sadly passed away, but were captured on film at their most vital.

The film score of Swallows and Amazons (1974) was composed by Wilfred Josephs who also wrote the haunting theme music for Cider with Rosie (1971). You can listen to it here:

The closing title music can be found here:


You can read an earlier article I wrote about appearing in Cider With Rosie (1971) on my other blog here and read more about Claude Whatham’s career here.

Claude Whatham ~ photo: Daphne Neville

This item presented by Paul Martin includes a clip of a black and white BBC documentary made with Lauri Lee in 1960 outside the school where we shot the drama. According to his biographer, he said of Rosie, ‘She was someone, she was no one, she was anyone.’

Secrets of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island, Coniston Water ~ in 1973

Arthur Ransome’s description of Wildcat Island is based on two real islands. The landing place and open grassy camp site illustrated in the books can be found at Blake Holme on Windermere but when Richard Pilbrow went there in 1972 he was so disappointed by the sight of caravans, and the fact it was so near the shore, that he decided to make the film almost entirely on Peel Island where you find Ransome’s Secret Harbour. We never went to Blake Holme.

It was Peel Island on Coniston Water where the real Swallows, the Altounyan children, camped. Roger Altounyan told Bill Frankland that he secretly spent the first three nights of his honeymoon camping there. It must have been magical. We loved going there – it was hugely exciting, even in the rain. There is something about the steep sides, which makes it like a fortress, the ancient Viking settlement WD Collingwood believed it to be.

Had I been producing Swallows and Amazons I would have used Peel island for the unique Secret Harbour but used the peninsular nearby on the mainland for the landing place, if at all possible. There is a nice open beach there and one wouldn’t have had to lug all the heavy paraphernalia of filming over the water – you can imagine time and effort  involved in taking a 35mm Panavision camera across with its mountings and track. I don’t know how they powered the arc lamps we needed to light the campsite, which was quite dark beneath the trees.  They must have run the cables under water. We loved crossing over there but getting us back for lessons and lunch wasn’t easy. There was no loo.

Sophie Neville, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Stephen Grendon on Wildcat Island in the scene where the Swallows find a place to camp

But – the wonderful thing is that now, when children reach the island, nearly all the places from the film are there. The Landing Place has nearly washed away.  We never knew it at the time but one great secret is that it was created for the film. They must have dumped a huge amount of shingle there.  The other secret is that there weren’t actually enough trees for the Swallows to erect the tents their mother had made for them. Two had to be added by the construction team. Arthur Ransome’s tents are not as easy to put up as you’d imagine. It is difficult for children to get the rope taut enough between the trees to take the weight of the canvas. You need to use wagon knots or twist it with a stick. If you tie the rope too high the tents ruck up. The reality was that Suzanna had Bobby-the-prop-man to help her.

One thing that is not a secret, but can take you unawares, is that there never seems to be any firewood on Wildcat Island.  It is the reason why the Swallows went to the mainland in the book. Roger really did struggle to find sticks to pick up on that wet day in May. Mine were carefully set out for me to find by the Designer.  Poor Roger did fall over and he did get quite badly scratched by thorns. Claude gave him a bit of  ‘Danger Money’ for being brave about it and not complaining.

Stephen Grendon playing young Laurie in the BBC Play ‘Cider with Rosie’

I’m not sure if Sten had ever received Danger Money when he played Laurie Lee in Cider with Rosie, which Claude had made two years before. We watched it that night when it was broadcast on television. It must have been shown quite late as it was was labelled as avant garde.  We had to stay up as of course VHS machines hd not been heard of.

Rosemary Leach played Laurie’s long-suffering mother, Mrs Lee, quite beautifully. She was later to take the role of Mrs Barrable, the Admiral, in the BBC series Coot Club. Mike Pratt, who played Mr Dixon in Swallows and Amazons was Uncle Ray, and Young Billy – John Franklin-Robbins was The Stranger.  Claude cast me as a little girl from Slad called Eileen Brown, who Laurie Lee always said was the first person he ever fell in love with. He was a friend of Mum’s and was around during the filming, since he still had a cottage in Slad. I’d been to a village school in the Cotswolds myself and enjoyed being in the classroom scenes, despite have to wear a drab and rather itchy green dress.

Sophie Neville with Claude Whatham on location at Slad in 1971

I was too shy to put myself forward when Claude asked if anyone knew the chants to playground skipping games, but I did work hard to prepare for my big scene. I had to play quite a difficult piece on the piano, accompanying the ten-year-old Laurie Lee as he sawed away on his violin at the village concert, while his mother looked on with tears in her eyes. I was only given the music three days before the filming and had to practice eight hours a day, for those three days, before I got it right. We plodded through Oh, Danny Boy but were so relieved to get it right that our smiles were real enough. At one point Claude took a deep breath and said, ‘Do you think you could play a little faster?’  I looked at him and replied, ‘They’re crochets. They don’t go any faster.’ He claimed that he didn’t know what a crotchet was.

Wilfred Josephs, who was familiar with crochets, wrote the most beautiful music for Cider with Rosie. You can listen to some of it on You Tube ~

Sophie Neville as Eileen Brown and Philip Hawkes as Laurie Lee in ‘Cider with Rosie’ directed by Claude Whatham in 1971.

I have written more about appearing in ‘Cider With Rosie’ here

Sophie Neville playing Eileen Brown

You can read more in one of the editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ available online here

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