The original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ featured in the Radio Times as Film of the Day on Sunday 30th August 2020

‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974) starring Virginia McKenna was broadcast on BBC 2 on Sunday 30th August 2020, recalling the adventures of the Walker and Blackett families on a ‘Lake in the North’ in August 1929 before the school term began. Hailed as ‘The feel-good film of Lockdown’, it transports us back to a time of freedom, celebrating the beauty of the English Lake District. It is available on BBC iPlayer here.

You can watch a short re-mix here:

It was wonderful to see the feature film heralded as Film of the Day but Hilary Weston of The Arthur Ransome Society pointed out that there are a few errors in the write up.

Arthur Ransome wrote the novel ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1929, published on 1st December 1930. There are 12 books in the series, however only five are set in the Lake District. ‘Missee Lee’ sees the Swallows and Amazons exploring the South China sea with Captain Flint, while Dick and Dororthea join them all on the Sea Bear to cruise the Otter Hebrides in ‘Great Northern’. The 13th story in the series, an unfinished manuscript entitled ‘Coots in the North’, is set in Cumbria.

Props used in the original film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

Arthur Ransome died in 1967, aged 83, so was not around to see this feature film made. He had been grumpy about the 1963 BBC serial made in black and white, which starred Susan George as ‘Kitty’ (rather than Titty). His wife Evgenia was determined to avoid what they called a ‘Disneyfication’ of the books and kept a tight hold on the script, character names, locations and casting of Richard Pilbrow’s 1974 adaptation. As a result, David Wood’s screenplay adheres to the story and was approved by Mrs Ransome who gave the go ahead. On watching the finished film, her only adverse comment was that one of the kettles used was of the wrong period.

Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan Walker with Sten Grendon as Roger

Arthur Ransome’s father died when he was thirteen and the theme of fatherlessness flows though his books granting the young characters independence. In ‘Swallows and Amazons’ it is Nancy and Peggy, the Amazon pirates, who have no father.

Kit Seymour as Nancy & Lesley Bennett as Peggy Blackett sailing Amazon

The story opens when the four elder Walker children are given permission to sail off to camp on an island by their father who is absent, in Malta with the Navy, and sends the famous telegram: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN (with no apostrophe)

Swallows and Amazons
Simon West, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton receiving the telegram from Father.

Vicky, the fifth sibling and baby of the Walker family, keeps the Swallows’ mother at Holly Howe farm on the mainland. Tension is created after the Amazons let off a firework on their uncle’s houseboat while he is absorbed in his writing and ignoring them. He shook his fist at the crew of the Swallow assuming they were responsible for the damage and was labelled ‘Captain Flint’.

A Theatre Project by Richard Pilbrow

Richard Pilbrow describes in his memoir, ‘A Theatre Project’, how the idea of adapting ‘Swallows and Amazons’ came to him as he watched the sun set over Windermere one night when visiting the Lake District. He put the idea to Nat Cohen of EMI who was looking for a classic book adaptation similar to ‘The Railway Children’, which had been a box office success. Nat Cohen hadn’t heard of Arthur Ransome but his assistant loved his books and raved about the idea. EMI Films provided the initial budget of £250,000 although more was spent. It was directed by Claude Whatham who may well have been influenced by the Children’s Film Foundation but he was regarded as avant guard at the time and, like Richard, motivated by the beauty of the Lakes.

Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham at The Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water
Producer Richard Pilbrow with Director Claude Whatham in Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water

The original poster for the film used an ampersand in the title graphics but this was lost as it was translated, sold worldwide and remastered. Someone who must love the old film said the error in the write up was that it was only given three stars. The DVD now has a 4.5 star rating on Amazon but it only gets 6.5 out of 10 on IMDb – the International Movie Data base, which is equivalent to three stars. You can add a review on this site here.

 

Mark Walker of the Arthur Ransome Group added: And they got the title of the article completely wrong. “Film of *Day*”, indeed..!! Film of the Year, Decade, Century, Millenium….any of the above could have been more appropriate..!!

If you would like to learn more about the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ there is now a paperback entitled ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’  It can be ordered direct from the publishers and is available from Waterstones

A second edition of the ebook entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons(1974), the first section of which you can read for free here.

 

Points to add to the third edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) – part one

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville in Swallow about to leave the Houseboat. Amazon’s white sail can be seen the other side ~ photo: Daphe Neville

Viewers of the original film Swallows and Amazons'(1974) have written to point out that when the Amazons sailed up to Captain Flint’s houseboat there was a terrible crash. I found the quote from ‘The Picts and The Martrys’, which made me realise why this horrified anyone who knows the characters well:

“…when you come sailing along and fetch up with a bump against Jim’s new paint.”

“We never do,” said Nancy. “Remember when we came and made you and Uncle Jim walk the plank last summer? We were aboard and rushing the cabin before you knew we were anywhere near.” ‘Picts and Martyrs’ by Arthur Ransome p.14

Simon West and Sophie Neville on Captian Flint's Houseboat
Simon West as Captain John and Sophie Neville as Titty taking Captain Flint’s Houseboat : photo~ Daphne Neville

Jane Sullivan noticed Captain Flint yelled, “Death or Glory!” as the Swallows and Amazons laid siege to his houseboat. ‘Is that a pre-echo of the East Anglian stories?’ she asked.

Jane also noted: In the closing credits, I notice they spell For Ever as two words, which it is as it should be, rather than the modern way which confuses the adjective “forever” with the adverbial phrase “for ever”.’

Peel Island whilst we were filming in 1973 ~ photo: Martin Neville

Most people are familiar with the fact that Peel Island was used as the location for Wild Cat Island in the 1974 film.

Peter Dowden of the Arthur Ransome Group, pointed out that Peel Island is a classic example of a rocher moutonnee or sheepback, shaped by glacial erosion. Larger examples in Sweden are known as flyggbergs. Others comment that it’s easy to imagine the island as Captain Flint’s schooner the Wild Cat,  sails to the Caribees in ‘Peter Duck’ and set on fire by Gibber in ‘Missee Lee’.

Peter also wrote about burgees. He noted, ‘Traditionally, creatures shown on flags face towards the “hoist” – the bit of the flag that is attached to the mast. So head near the mast and tail near the flappy part of the flag (called the ‘fly’). He went on to say, “someone did the research and Arthur Ransome drew the Swallow flag both beak to hoist and beak to fly!”

Our art director, Simon Holland, made what I considered the mistake of having the swallow on Swallow’s burgee flying away from the mast. 

My publisher asked me to draw our crossed flags, a sketch which was later stolen and used all over the place from the call sheet of the 2016 movie to badges for sale on eBay.

Paul Thomas, of the Arthur Ransome Group, explained that Swallow and Amazon are standing lugsail dinghies, rather the balanced lugsails as I had been told. “Swallow’s keel was designed for sailing in shallow estuaries and grounding on shifting shoals with sails tanned to protect them from rot and sunshine.”

“What is particularly impressive, to me,” Roger Barnes, president of the Dinghy Crusing Association, commented, “is how well done the sailing scenes are, and sometimes in pretty strong winds. Most sailing in films is really unconvincing.” Roger added: “The boom jaws off the mast as they first approach Wild Cat Island is the only major flaw with that aspect of the film.” I had never noticed! We were bitterly cold on that day when we first sailed Swallow in front of the camera.

Roger Barnes’ illustrated book, The Dinghy Cruising Companion, published by Bloomsbury, included my behind-the-scenes photo of Swallow, where you can see the jaw back in place.

You can also see the jaws in this film still (c) Studiocanal:

The Swallows on their voyage to Wildcat Island
Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West as the Swallows sailing on Coniston Water in 1973 (c)StudioCanal

Please do write in with any points you notice that I can add to a third edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, an ebook available from a variety online stockists. You can look at the first pages here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments on social media while the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) was broadcast on BBC Two this April

‘Hurrah!’ – BBC presenter cried.

RTE Guide declared, ‘The definitive adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows & Amazons’ is on BBC Two.’ More people than ever seemed to watch the classic film, starring Virginia McKenna, which attracted comments on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram while emails were being sent in.

Virginia McKenna in Swallows and Amazons 1

Gabrielle Baalke Off to the Lakes! 

M.J. Probyn #StayAtHomeAndStaySafe Swallows and Amazons on BBC2 today! Break out the grog and pemmican. Stay home and watch this excellent film adaptation today…

Virginia McKenna as Mother in Swallows and Amazons 1

Graeme Wood – Just what we need in these extraordinary times…

John Greenhough  …such a well loved film

Dr Lucie Bea D – And Swallows and Amazons is on! A very very early cinema memory for me; I saw it in Hereford and was given a colouring in picture of the Amazons hiding in the reeds watching Swallow.

Claude Whatham directing Swallows and Amazons 1974 with Simon West and Sophie Neville

 

I’ve just enjoyed watching the film on tv again (I watch it every time!) I can remember watching the film in 1974 with my mum and grandma when I was a nine or ten year old, at the then called Mecca Cinema in Horsham,Mecca Cinema in Horsham, Sussex (sadly now demolished) I remember loving the natural setting and the adventure in the film and remember it being thrilling and suspenseful! Still my favourite film, so cheerful and uplifting. The lovely music! All still brings a tear to my eye.

Filming Swallows and Amazons at Bank Ground Farm

Back then in the 70s we didn’t have the lakes but at every opportunity our little band of local children would run off over the fields playing, building camps and climbing trees in the woods – such happy, carefree days. Been looking at your website too –  what a huge resource about the film  –  good time at the moment to look through it! Thank you for all the information and being in such a happy film, John Rose

Sophie Neville as Robinson Crusoe with film director Claude Whatham

Michael – I spent my summers up in the Lake District as a boy and loved/love the book

Peter Hamilton – Swallows and Amazon’s was one of my all time favourites as a child, it was an adventure that seemed more attainable than famous five etc. I really hope my son loves it as much as I did when he’s older…. I adore lake Coniston. Even in high summer that water is icy and very deep innocent happy times… I‘ve tried to sail out to the island on Coniston lake but there wasn’t enough wind so didn’t quite make it. I collected a fair few of the books in my 20s, brings back lots of memories

Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville in Swallows and Amazons

Duncan Hall It’s such a good film. Doesn’t feel dated at all, to me.

Peter Ashby something timeless about the film. I can happily sit and watch it any time

Graeme Wood – Just goes to show how timeless the story is..

Launching Virginia McKenna's native rowing canoe

Graeme Wood – It’s a lovely film. As a kid I wanted to jump through the TV screen and join in (ditto the BBC adaptations of Coot Club and The Big Six). Hopefully kids will watch and want to read the books.
Michael – I’ve loved it all my life. I remember my dad rowing me out to an island on lake Windermere and showing me holes in trees, he said they’re from arrows!!!!!!
Filming with Virginia McKenna on Coniston Water
Maddy Knibb – I also had a wooden swing that collapsed so I turned it into a boat, with broom handle and sheet mast and sail. Guess which books were played out – Swallows and Amazons! It was by a laurel hedge and the leaves made great fish to be cooked on pretend fires!

Perfect opportunity for children to replicate #WildcatIsland with homemade tents in the living room

Glenn Evans – Read this to all my children when they were toddlers. And saw the film in 1974 myself.

Michael – It was only yesterday as far as I’m concerned
Virginia McKenna as Mother in Swallows and Amazons 2
Jude – Remember watching the boats on the lake being being filmed from my bedroom window – what a lovely way to slip back into my childhood
Mandy Morley The most classic, and my favourite quote: “I’ll shiver your timbers for you if you don’t stop chattering Peggy!”
Portway Junior School say, ‘the Portway Press also contained a link to the children’s classic ‘Swallows and Amazons‘ film – an excellent watch in this wet weather’.
The rehearsal and the shot in 1973 3
Alice ShelmerdineI love that music SO much… proper scenic escapism for cooped up people…!
Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)
Anna – Fantastic – thank you! And since your message earlier, my husband has bought me ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’.
Gabrielle Baalke I love the backstory of this film and so… I took a 1-minute detour from watching and just purchased the Kindle version of The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons!
MarshManJimbo – It’s on my wishlist already! I think you were fabulous as Titty.
'The Making of Swallows and Amazons' by Sophie Neville

 

The original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) screened on Wednesday 18th December on BBC Two

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Please click here for details of the broadcast

If you enjoy ‘Swallows and Amazons’ do think of joining The Arthur Ransome Society who often visit the film locations or the Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook where you will meet like-minded people – of all ages. Most are dinghy sailors who love the books.

At least one film fan held a TV party with and 1930’s theme to celebrate. Others stoked up the wood-burner and settled down to spend an afternoon re-living summer in the Lake District. It is as if Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – a timeless classic to watch again and again.

Swallows & Amazons film billing

For the latest edition of the paperback on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons(1974)’ with details of where the film was made and what those who appeared in it are doing now,  Please click here

The Making of Swallows and Amazons' by Sophie Neville

The ebook, entitled ‘The secrets of filming Swallows & Amazons (1974)’ is the same with a few more stories for adult readers and has links to behind-the-scenes cine footage. It can be downloaded from iTunes, Smashwords, Kobo and Amazon Kindle

The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons

It would be lovely to hear from anyone who saw it in the cinema when it first came out in cinemas in the summer of 1974 – more than forty-five years ago.

9a. Leaflet programme for S and A film Theatr Clwyd 1976_reverse.JPG

Simon Hodkin kindly sent in this cinema programme that he has kept since watching the movie when he was a boy growing up in North Wales.

9. Leaflet programme for S and A film Theatr Clwyd 1976_front

Can anyone remember the films scheduled later that long hot summer of 1976: ‘The Long Goodbye’ (1973) with Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt and Sterling Hayden, ‘What Next’ and ‘Black Beauty’ starring Mark Lester?

Swallows and Amazons comic 1

Swallows and Amazons comic 2

Arthur Herbertson managed to track down these rare publicity sheets for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ typical of movie games of the period:

Swallows and Amazons 1974 camp scene

Arthur has a collection of the four jigsaw puzzles and the Puffin paperback that came out with the film.

Puzzels

There was a vinyl LP narrated by the screenwriter David Wood that you can still purchase.

Arthur found a publicity brochure that I had never seen before.

Swallows and Amazons sales book 2

To read comments from people who saw the film at the cinema in 1974, please click here

The original story was written by Arthur Ransome in 1929 ninety years ago, so the film hits the half-way mark between the original readers and today’s audience.  It’s funny, the critics in 1974 are asking the same question as raised in the billing this week: Do ‘modern youngsters struggle to relate to such old-fashioned game playing’?

Do add your thoughts to the comments below.

Radio Times billing of Swallows and Amazons Christmas 2019

~Billing in the Christmas edition of the Radio Times 2019~

Swallows, Amazons and Archery

Much has been written of the legacy left by Arthur Ransome’s, who inspired so many go camping, fell walking or sail the seven seas. I hope he would be amused to learn it has been the arrow, fletched with green parrot feathers, that has flown through the pages of my life.

Sophie Neville the archer c 1969~Sophie Neville dressed as a medieval archer in 1969~

 Archery became a popular sport for ladies in Victorian England. The influence was not lost on Arthur Ransome who writes in his autobiography that his Great-aunt Susan was a keen toxophilite who attended bow meetings at Belle Isle, the long island on Windermere. Another great-aunt was shot in the bonnet by an arrow when the Boxer Rising reached Peking while she was serving as a missionary. I gather it was his sister Joyce who owned a green parrot whose feathers made good pipe cleaners. Did they ever get used for flighting arrows? Arthur doesn’t seem to have taken up a bow beyond, perhaps, playing Red Indians as a child with his friend Ric Eddison. Does anyone know otherwise?

Titty may not have known that the real Queen Bess was a proficient archer, but Roger certainly expected savages to be armed with poison-tipped arrows as he took dispatches across the Peak at Darien.

Did Nancy and Peggy ever don Red Indian head-dresses? Since they are described as wearing red caps when the Swallows first encounter them, I assume this idea was instigated by Helen Edmundson’s musical and reinforced by the 2016 film. Although far from nautical, this is akin to certain antics in Secret Water and certainly adds visual drama to the confrontation.

Practicing with bows and arrows

~Sophie Neville with Peter Robb-King, Ronnie Cogan, Lesley Bennett, Kit Seymour and Terry Smith~ 

I learnt how to shoot in 1973 when the Amazons were being taught how to pull a bow made of Lakeland hazel for the original movie of Swallows and Amazons. As children, we all wanted a go. I still have a practice bow and a couple of arrows whittled on location by Bob Hedges, our property master. I remember one hitting the campfire. ‘Don’t touch the point – it might be poisonous!’ Please note that the shot of the arrows zooming over our heads looks so dangerous on screen that it was cut from the television version of the feature film. This was no snazzy visual effect. The arrows were genuine, however they were strung on taut nylon fishing line rigged over our heads to ensure we would not get hit. They were fired by the prop men and not the Amazons.

neville002

~Daphne Neville who won many archery prizes teaching Lesley Bennett (Peggy Blackett)~

As female Amazon warriors were redoubtable archers it is easy to imagine Captain Nancy bent a sapling to her will and had Peggy making arrows. It is reasonable to assume they used longbows on Wild Cat Island, but in Swallowdale it is a crossbow that graces Ransome’s illustration. How Nancy got her hands on one is unknown but it must have been simpler to use in a boat with discretion and accuracy. Did Ransome ever try this out?

Sophie Neville shooting

~Sophie Neville shooting with a compound bow in the Emirates 2016~

What happened to the bows and arrows after Swallowdale? Archery is something you usually grow into, rather than out of. By the age of fifteen, I’d gained the part of an archery champion in an adventure movie called The Copter Kids. This necessitated target practice with a modern re-curve bow and ended with me shooting from a helicopter.

I now belong to a number of archery societies and, like Great-aunt Susan, set out with my tabs and tassel, quiver and longbow. Luckily the skill, much like an appreciation of Arthur Ransome’s writing, is something that tends to improve with age. I met my husband at one bow meeting, have held three Ladies’ Championship titles and managed to reach a distance of 145 yards when we celebrated the 600th Anniversary of Agincourt.

I have never fired a crossbow. Since they are potentially lethal weapons, Nancy could have been detained for firing hers even if the tip was not deemed poisonous.

Author Sophie Neville

 ~Sophie Neville at a West Berks bow meeting~

A version of this article was originally published in Mixed Moss, the journal of The Arthur Ransome Society.

‘I Chaperoned Six Film Stars’ Daphne Neville’s memories of making the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 part three

Daphne Neville in about 1973
Daphne Neville in about 1973

I clearly remember my mother winding carbon paper into the roller of her portable typewriter and bashing out articles. Ping! the bell would ring as she reached the end of a line. She would then pull left on a shiny paddle, with relish, to begin a new paragraph. She seemed to type like the wind, it was only a pity she didn’t write more. Was it more time-consuming when making changes was so laborious and a dictionary needed to be flicked through to check spelling? I was forever pouring through a thesaurus and looking for reference books in libraries as a child in the ‘seventies but find computers seems to steal more time.

Sophie Neville with the cast of Swallows

~The photograph that illustrated an article in Woman magazine taken at the Commonwealth Institute in 1974~

Here is the second part of the article Mum wrote for Woman magazine when the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was screened in cinemas around the country in April 1974. Earlier pages can be read in a previous post here and there is also a programme she wrote for BBC Radio Bristol on the same subject here.

Jean McGill, Jane Grendon, Sten Grendon, Kit Seymour, Sophie Neville, Claude Whatham, Simon West, Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Ronnie Cogan, 1973

Daphne Neville giving Lesley Bennett (Peggy Blackett) archery lessons, 1973

The Saucepan and her mother, Daphne Neville in 1973

Terry Smith, Sophie Neville and Daphne Neville on location in the Lake District
Wardrobe Master Terry Smith with Sophie Neville and her mother Daphne Neville outside the Make-up caravan on location near Keswick in Cumbria

I’d forgotton that Kit was sent half a Birthday cake but do remember Ronnie Fraser arrived at her party quite tiddly. I am amused to learn we finally left Oaklands Guest House with fifty peices of luggage but I still have a hazel bow and arrow set, which I don’t expect ever fitted into a suitcase.

Please let me know if you would like to see old scripts and letters relating to the original publicity for the film, kept in my mother’s archives.

To read more about Daphne Neville’s adventures in film and television please click here

‘I chaperoned six film stars’ my mother’s memories of working on the 1974 movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’-Part Two

Daphne Neville presenting 'Women Only'1

In 1974, my mother, Daphne Neville, was commissioned to write an article about working on the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ for Woman magazine, which claimed to be ‘The world’s greatest weekly for women’. Here are some extracts from her type script:

Simon West, Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville playing the Walker children in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ 1973 ~photo: Daphne Neville

 

Daphne Neville with Sophie Neville and Simon West on Coniston Water

Our guests: Jane, Michael, Clare and Lucy Selby and their dog, Minnie on the shore of Conniston Water with my sisters Perry and Tamzin in 1973

I was amazed to read some of this. ‘….a dirth of birds’? Was that really how my mother spoke in the early ‘Seventies? I had no recollection that ‘Nomansland’ had been displayed on the front of our double-decker bus. I never remembered there only being bathroom at Oaklands Guesthouse or that Mum had to wash out clothes. I do remember Ronald Fraser shouting, ‘Piss off you little monster’.  I have the photo:

Sten Grendon irriating Ronnie Fraser
Sten Grendon sitting on top of Ronald Fraser during a break in the filming of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

More to follow…. If you would like to see photos of Daphne Neville appearing in movies hereself, please click here

If you would like to read about what we did on 10th July 1973 – 45 years ago please click here

‘I Chaperoned Six Film Stars’ – Daphne Neville’s memories of working behind-the-scenes on the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ 45 years ago.

My mother is a squirrel. She arrived at my house, not with nuts, but a large envelope. Amongst other things, this contained the transcript of a piece she wrote almost forty-five years ago for BBC Radio Bristol, when she presented a programme called ‘Come Alive’.  The four flimsy sheets of copy paper have only just been unearthed, along with a similar article for Woman magazine.

Daphne Neville was commissioned to write about her experience working on the original feature film, Swallows and Amazons, filmed on location in the Lake District in the summer of 1973 and brought to cinemas in 1974. Sold worldwide, has been broadcast on television for the last forty years and was last shown on TV in Australia on Boxing Day.

Daphne Neville with Sophie Neville while filming 'Swallows and Amazons' in Cumbria
Daphne Neville with Sophie Neville while filming ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)

It is interesting to have Mum’s perspective. Some of the details are new to me. She timed this piece for BBC Radio as taking ‘8 minutes’ to read:

Suzanna Hamilton, Lesley Bennett, Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour and Simon West before their hair was cut for the film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Daphne Neville Chaperone

~ On Derwentwater in 1973: Suzannah Hamilton, Kit Seymour, Daphne Neville, Sten Grendon, Simon West, Sophie Neville & Lesley Bennett ~ photo: Martin Neville

'Swallows and Amazons'(1974) Daphne Neville with Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, fellow chaperone, Jane Grendon and Simon West on location in 1973
Daphne Neville with Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, fellow chaperone, Jane Grendon and Simon West on location in 1973

A Day Off in Blackpool - Suzanna Hamliton, Simon West, Claude Whatham Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour, Jean McGill with Daphne Neville kneeling at Blackpool funfair in 1973
Suzanna Hamliton, Simon West, Claude Whatham Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour, Jean McGill with Daphne Neville kneeling at Blackpool fun fair in 1973

But Mum, were we ever ‘Film Stars’?

We scowled at the terminology at the time. Ten years later and I thought of us a merely puppets, marionettes of the director who carefully honed our performances. I can now see the contribution we made when I watch the film, but we were never film stars.

What do I wish? I wish that we’d been able to make a sequel and develop our work more fully. The flip-side of this would have been that any more success, or more publicity, might have stripped us of our anonymity, which is the bain of real film stars. We’d have had to go around wearing sunglasses.

The film star Ronald Fraser with Daphne Neville and Sophie Neville in 1973

If you would like to see what we were filming 45 years ago, on 1st July 1973, please click here.

Let me know if you would like to see more archive material. I have the draft of my mother’s article for Woman magazine – it’s a different version of the same but with added detail. She needed permission from Anglo EMI Film Distributors before it could be published. There is also a draft of another radio script and a number of letters. If you would like to see vintage photos of Mum appearing on television herself, please click here

Longing to add more stories to ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’

Almost as soon as we published the second edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ in May 2017, a number of facts and stories washed up on the incoming tide. I didn’t know that Ransome was aged twelve – Captain John’s age – when he first met the Collingwood family on Peel Island. I knew he went to Rugby School but not that he was given the study once used by the English author Lewis Carroll. I’m not sure if that inspired him to write children’s books but he certainly borrowed the term galumphing from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).

~ Lewis Carroll’s plaque at Rugby School ~

I never knew that Rusland, where Arthur and Evgenia Ransome lie buried at St Paul’s Church, is also a name for Russia, where of course they met in what was then Petrograd when Evgenia was working as Leon Troski’s private secretary. Thanks to the feature writer Maggie Dickenson, I’ve learned that this kneeler at St Paul’s was embroidered by Jean Hopkins:

Cross flags at Rusland Church where the Ransomes are buried - photo Sophie Neville

Brian Crawley has just written in to say that, in 1973, our visit to the charcoal burners was filmed less than a mile to the west of the church in Glass Knott Wood. I gather the remains of the wig-wam’s fireplace can still be seen. I didn’t know it was so close, and just assumed we had been in the Grizedale Forest. I’ll have to add it to my map!

The Russian edition of Swallows and Amazons, that can be borrowed from The Arthur Ransome Society library, has proved a great source of reference. Donated by the Gatchina Library it is the only copy in the UK. I learnt from the comments at the back that the Black Jack is a pirate flag, which I’ve always called a Jolly Roger, and that ‘in one’s mind’s eye’ is an expression used by William Shakespeare in Hamlet. “Tip us a stave” means “give us a song”, a term used in Treasure Island.

Other flotsam and jetsam on my tide-line  is  a wonderful quote to accompany this behind-the-scenes photograph when re-reading Winter Holiday written by Arthur Ransome in 1933:

What’s in that box?” asked Roger.

It’s just about big enough for you, isn’t it?” said Captain Flint.

Sten Grendon in the camera box~ Sten Grendon playing Roger in the Panavision camera box in 1974~

A member of the Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook commented on how annoying it was that Ronald Fraser made a funny face when he first sipped the tea Suzanna Hamilton offered him. Captain Flint ALWAYS enjoyed Susan’s tea.

Contact sheet - Ronald Fraser with Lesley Bennett

There was some discussion amongst members of the same Arthur Ransome Group about how female characters depicted in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Eddie Castellan wrote: Ransome is remarkably non-sexist for his era and remains so by today’s standards. Mind you, most great storytellers realise that weak female characters are simply dull… great storytellers seem to give women better roles than mediocre ones.’ 

Contact sheet - Claude Whatham directing on the houseboat

Fionna Grant added: Arthur Ransome had a range of roles for his female characters from Nancy to Susan to Titty…. not only represented, but honoured for their contribution to the group… All the kids in Swallows and Amazons are encouraged to learn through achievement but they are also allowed to choose their own path, follow their own interests.

Contact sheet - Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville on Cormorant Island

At a talk given about the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen given by Simon Browne, at a meeting of The Arthur Ransome Society, we were given a definition of the word Hero: one who combats adversity through integrity, bravery or strength, often sacrificing personal concerns for the greater good.

Titty was brave but all she really did was to grab a chance to swipe Amazon. It meant she had to sleep on board, which was rather uncomfortable, but what made Titty a true heroine in the film was her determination and persistence: she woke up early and persuaded Roger to help her find the treasure hidden on Cormorant Island. Like Ransome himself, she was prepared to grab a chance, take a risk – even if it meant being cold and uncomfortable for a while.

Contact sheet - blurred images of Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville rowing to Cormorant Island

I received another lovely note on Facebook from Zena Ashberry (nee Khan) who appeared as a film extra in the Rio scenes shot at Bowness-on-Windermere when she was a little girl, despite being of half-Asian descent:

‘I was nine at the time and my sister was eight. I remember going through an audition – which was really just a panel of three or four men looking at Mum, my sister and me to see if we would be in keeping with the ‘look’ of the film. They seemed very keen on having Mum. My sister, at the time had sandy coloured hair and so was not at all problematic, however I was very dark and because they wanted Mum they said that they could hide ‘it’ by putting me in a white dress and hat! How times have changed…obviously I remember other things too, like feeding the horses which pulled the open carriage and the horse standing on my foot oouuch!, the strange awkwardness of having to act ‘naturally’ whilst being watched through a camera, having to repeatedly carry out the same activity to ensure a good shot – how many times did we throw stones into the lake? The ice-cream tricycle with real ice cream mmmm a treat … being watched by crowds of tourists gathered along the footpath and flower beds. It was a strange and unreal experience, doing what as children we would normally do but doing it in ‘dressy-up’ clothes that weren’t from our own dressy -up box and playing the game with Mum and her friends with total strangers telling us what we should do…just a bit bewildering really, but funny in retrospect.’

Contact sheet - Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton night sailing

Please let me know if you have any points of interest that I could add to ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ that you think might of interest to readers. The great thing about ebooks is that they can be updated and re-loaded free of charge.

I’m going to be giving a number of talks on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ this summer. Please click here for details.

Meeting up with Mate Peggy – part two

Amazons meet the Swallows

The Amazons confronting the Swallows on Peel Island in the movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

In the feature film ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) the part of Peggy Blackett was played by Lesley Bennett. She was an experienced dingy sailor and enjoyed the scenes on the houseboat although she told me she didn’t want the parrot to flap onto her shoulder, which was understandable. Its claws dug into mine.

Sophie Neville with Lesely Bennett and a green parrot in 19730003

~Sophie Neville as Titty with the green parrot and Lesley Bennett as Peggy~

When I met up with Lesley in the Netherlands this summer, we looked though the photographs she’d been given by the producer and kept for posterity.

Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett at Brown Howe boathouse on Coniston Water in 1973

If you don’t recognise the scene above it is because, although the  shot was taken at Brown Howe, where the Amazon boathouse can be found, they were rehearsing the scene at Secret Harbour on Peel Island when the Blacketts find their boat has been captured. ‘She can’t have drifted against the wind.’ This was the first I knew of this. Perhaps they were waiting around for the camera to be set up or for a decision to be made about their red hats, which they were not wearing. This was rare. They wore them in every other scene.

The Amazons sailing on Derwentwater

Lesley didn’t have much time for Ronald Fraser, who played her Uncle Jim, renamed by Titty as Captain Flint. “He wasn’t very nice to us. I think he regarded us as a bit of a nuisance but as soon as the cameras were on him, he’d change!”

Ronald Fraser with Lesley Bennett and Kit Seymour on Peel Island, Coniston Water in 1973

Lesley, who grew up in Kent, remembered my mother taking her shopping in Ambleside on one of our rare days off. “She had an appreciation of how important it is to buy a good top, explaining that she needed a selection for her work as a television presenter. I remember her waiting for ages while I tried on one after another.” I was amazed when I heard this. My mother only ever took me shopping once or twice when the first Laura Ashley shop opened in Cheltenham. This was deeply exciting but a rare treat. It was my poor father who was dragged from one shoe shop to another. It was difficult to find decent shoes in the ‘seventies.

Leaving London for the Lake District in May 1973 – photo Evening Standard

It was difficult to find decent clothes, that didn’t cost a fortune. There was a reason why dressmaking was so popular – we had to make our own garments. At the age of twelve I made a navy blue skirt for school so that it had a fashionably broad waist band. Flared dungarees were all the rage, worn with a stripy polo-neck or blouse with a large collar. Kit, Lesley and I all wore these, although sadly my brushed-cotton dungarees grew rather short during the filming.

Lesely Bennett's visit to Chiddingstone School's Boat Fair in 1974

Lesley signing autographs at the Chiddingstone School Book Fair in 1974

Lesley managed to find what I’d thought was the ideal outfit for our afternoon film premiere, which I’m pretty sure she is wearing in the shot above. Although we were almost obsessed with clothes, they were not a subject people discussed with new acquaintances, which was a pity as it would have provided us something neutral to discuss with the press.

“I remember the journalists at the hotel in the Lake District,” Lesley said, “and Claude saying, ‘Be careful what you say to journalists because they will turn it against you.'” However, when it came to film publicity Lesley was both enthusiastic and gracious turning up at a local school book fair and posing for newspaper photographers. I can see that tank-tops had come in by this time and it was possible to blow-dry your own hair.

Lesley Bennett in 1974

Lesley enjoyed drama at school and looked into going to RADA, but after auditioning for one film decided the acting profession was too precarious. I think we were both interviewed for parts, possibly the same part in the same film. It was set in Wales and involved rock climbing. I said I wasn’t scared of heights, which was a lie! Sadly it was never made. I told her that Ronald Faser wanted us both to appear in another movie but that the funding fell through. She wasn’t disappointed. I was able to tell her that there was an actress called Lesley Bennett of about our age who once had a part in the long-running soap opera ‘Coronation Street’ but she confirmed that this was not her.

Lesley always loved meeting people wanted to travel, so went into marketing, working for Unilever on the first ‘Just one Cornetto’ campaign. She later branched out into international event management, which took her all over the world. She married a tall Dutchman and has two grown sons. They have a policy of visiting a different place each holiday, there by exploring different places, and they lived in Dubai for a while before returning to the Netherlands where she has been based since the early 1980s.

The cast of Swallows and Amazons with Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm in 1973

Lesley looks back fondly on what she calls “The Swallows and Amazons era”, appreciating what recollections mean to those who have grown up with the movie and enjoy Arthur Ransome’s books. “Innocent films like ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) appeal to those who know exactly how the books were written.” One thing she kept was the original film poster. Here she is with it more than forty-three years after the release. And she hasn’t changed a bit.

Lesley Bennett, 2017

Lesley today, with her original film poster of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)