I wanted to thank all those who have sent letters and emails about ‘The Secrets of Making Swallows & Amazons’. These have come in from around the world. Many people have taken the time and trouble to leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads, which is hugely appreciated.
I have been asked to write about other classic dramas I’ve been involved with but before I move on, I thought I could post some of the feedback and comments that have come in:
‘It’s my favourite book!’ a little girl said on spotting ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’ on sale at Brantwood
‘It’s wonderful! (almost as great as reading the original book) Carl – USA
“Thank you” for writing that marvellous book, “Secrets of filming Swallows & Amazons”. I purchased it on my Kindle from Amazon thinking it would be my “summer holiday” read – but was truly unable to put it down so it only lasted a day or so! As a devoted Arthur Ransome fan (and proud dad to two daughters – 13 and 10 – who love the books and film also) your words really brought the film to life. Such wonderful stories in the book. How I wish that Claude had also made ‘Pigeon Post’ with the same cast! There are few films (and books) that evoke childhood in this way. ‘Swallows & Amazons’ will always take me back to being ten years old, and your film was one of the truly rare occasions when a film adaptation did justice to the book. I guess it’s because everyone involved truly loved the story – it shows. Thank you again for sharing those few weeks in 1973.’ Paul – To read his review please click here
‘…I loved the movie when I was young. I only saw it once but was given the LP by my Godmother and played it — on my parents’ radiogram — until I knew it by heart. When I took my own children to see the movie (in the Aldeburgh Cinema a few years ago) I was still word perfect, much to their embarrassment! We now have the DVD and it was the movie of choice for my children a couple of summers ago so they are now pretty word perfect too! It’s great that the old film is going to be re-released at the same time as the new is coming out, though we are looking forward to that too.’ Lucy
I’ve just read this delightful ebook – thank you so much for writing it! …Many thanks again for giving me such a delightful film to immerse myself in as a child.’ Helena
I have just finished reading ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’. Apart from your wonderful narrative, what a task you undertook, I especially enjoyed reading all the amazing credits you’d researched on the film makers! John
A reader has written in, saying: ‘Much of what one hears about life behind the scenes for younger actors has to do with schooling on set. Did you have tutors all the time or only if you were shooting during the school year? And were you able to keep up with your fellow pupils at “regular” school?
If children under the age of 16 are involved in filming they only have to keep up with their schoolwork during term time. The film company will normally comply with this by employing a tutor at the film studio or on location.
When filming Swallows & Amazons in 1973 we were often in such remote areas that a double-decker bus was hired for us to use as a mobile classroom. It could be seen wobbling along the narrow lanes of the Lake District from Bank Ground Farm at one end of Coniston Water down to Peel Island or over to Brown Howe the other side of the lake depending on instructions given the night before.
We were legally obliged to complete three hours of school work a day but my mother thought it would be OK if we managed fifteen hours a week. I am pretty sure we kept working through half term to achieve this, although I did record that we had Witsun Bank Holiday Monday as a formal Day Off. When I look back at my school work I only notice that I would have benefited from higher quality waterclours, brushes and paper.
Our tutor, a local education supply teacher called Mrs Causey, believed in dictation; masses of it:
We were also taught about the history, geography and topography of the Lake District. This was worked into our own records of filming:
I certainly kept up with my friends at school. One wrote recently to say, ‘I do remember the lovely illustrated diary you wrote at the time, as you brought it back to school for us to look at.’
I only missed seven weeks of the summer term to make Swallows & Amazons. What was amazing was that I was obliged to sit the end of year exams in Ambleside. The results would not have been as good as normal, particularly in Maths and Science but I eventually caught up.
There was quite a bit of discussion about whether or not I should miss more schooling. I was only ever offered further film work during school holidays but as I went to a boarding school making arrangements to go to London for auditions could be a nuisance.
I’d get messages to phone home and letters detailing complicated plans.
This ‘picture’ turned out to be an adventure movie called ‘The Copter Kids’. Mum was obviously going off to lunch with Virginia McKenna and reading the letters on the Radio 4 programme Any Answers whilst I was busy sitting summer exams.
My sister Tamzin did a great deal more acting that I did as a child. She didn’t mind missing school altogether or having a tutor. What she hated was being sent to a large comprehensive school in London for a term so that she could rehearse in North Acton. That didn’t do her any good at all.
When I was about thirteen, we were given a green parrot from South America called Chico. A shot of me, rowing down a lake with the parrot on my shoulder, was used to replace the test card image of Carol Hersey playing tic tac toe with a hideous clown.
Chico was wonderfully tame and came everywhere, chatting away in Spanish. He was much more affectionate – and less of a treat – than Beauty, the parrot with a Lancastrian accent who played Polly in Captain Flint’s cabin. One minute he’d be sitting on Tamzin’s shoulder, the next, he’d be on mine.
We didn’t always have tea with a parrot, but once the film of Swallows and Amazons was on general release I was often invited to appear on radio or television. This usually entailed going to a studio to appear on a magazine programme such as Points West or Nationwide. However, Robin Hellier, who had just begun working for the BBC on Animal Magic, was thrilled to hear that I really did have a green parrot and brought a film crew from Bristol to our house. We didn’t know at the time that some of the footage taken would end up filling endless small gaps in the schedules.
Although the focus of the item was a profile of my role in Swallows and Amazons, the aim must have been to get as many animals on the programme as possible since they also featured our donkeys having their feet trimmed. The faithful parrot was still on my shoulder. I don’t know what the blacksmith thought.
I thought Robin Hellier was a brilliant director, far better than Claude Whatham at letting us know what he wanted to achieve. I was able to tell Robin this when I found myself working with him in South Africa twenty-two years later. He laughed, admitting that it was the very first film he ever directed. Being conscientious, he took the trouble to write to let me know when it was to be broadcast, although I can’t remember ever seeing it go out.
Children’s television was watched by everyone I knew in the 1970s. Letters poured in. My mother loved getting them. The volume was such that I think she had to answer some of them for me.
And over the years the letters have kept coming.
These came from a girl I corresponded with for years. My friends at university were amazed to find letters arriving addressed to Titty, but they were always charming. I appreciated them more and more as the years went by.
My mother only wrote me one proper letter while I was away at boarding school. It was to tell me that Chico had died. He spent so much time flying free that he caught a virus off wild birds and could not be saved. I was utterly inconsolable.
Animal Magic continued to featured through our childhood until 1982, when I started working at BBC Television myself. Johnny Morris, who presented the series, became a legend in his own time and is remembered with great affection.
A WildFilm History interview of Robin Hellier can be viewed on this link:
It is aways wonderful to hear how the film of Swallows and Amazons has effected people’s lives. I have just had such an interesting e-mail from Australia that I asked if I could post hit here. I only wish that Claude Whatham was alive to read it.
Did anyone else know about the the clock on the mantelpiece at Bank Ground Farm?
then and now
I can not tell you how much I am enjoying your website. I’ve searched for scraps of material regarding the making of Swallows and Amazons for decades, but you post more information in one day than I gleaned in a lifetime. It’s a fabulous insight, and one I really appreciate.
I became a film-maker largely because of Swallows and Amazons. I’ve written a small piece about this, which is going to be published in a promo for one of my film-making books. As a nine year old, I stumbled across Wild Cat Island just days after seeing the film. I was so thrilled to be standing where the film had been made, and so excited to see how clever use of the camera could exaggerate the feeling of a location and capture the magic of performance, that I set out to discover everything I could about film. It was a life-changing moment.
My daughters (5 and 7) adore Titty, and we are all impressed by your acting. I’ve directed my girls in a couple of things, and I know they gained confidence from having seen you perform. When Tabitha, my eldest daughter, saw the film for the first time, she burst into tears at the end. It was a release of pure joy, and is testament to the quality of the film.
I live in Australia now, but returned to the island in 2010 with Tabitha and Harriet (rowing all the way from the other end of the lake). We stayed at Bank Ground Farm. This months we went back and were lucky enough to sail Swallow into the Secret Harbour. It was a windy October day, and quite a frantic sail, but I can honestly say it was one of the highlights of my life.
When reading your recent post about set dressing at Bank Ground Farm, I wondered if you’d noticed that the clock on the mantlepiece is still there. It’s on the other mantlepiece, I believe, but it is still there. I have no idea whether it is a prop that was left behind, or whether the film-makers used the clock that belonged to the farm.
Our set designer or ‘Art Director’ on Swallows and Amazons was Simon Holland. He worked tirelessly with his assistant Ian Whittaker and team of Prop men, making every effort to use absolutely authentic props and set dressing. It must have involved quite a bit of research. Holly Howe, for instnace would not have had mains electricity or back in 1929, so he made sure oil lamps were on set. These would have been modified by the Sparks so that it looked as if they lit the room in those evening scenes when we were busy packing.
The people of the Lake District still remember Simon asking if he could buy old tins of food. It seemed such an unusual request. When it came to making labels for the cans of ‘Pemmican’ he painted them himself ~
Simon had worked as the set dresser on the thriller Callan starring Edward Woodward, that we all saw in 1974. He had earlier been the Art Director on Bartleby, which featured Paul Scholfield with John McEnery in the title role. Swallows and Amazons must have been one of his first features. He was only thirty-two that summer of 1973.
Simon Holland went to to work on well known movies such as Equus, Greystoke, Quadrophenia, The Sleeping Dictionary set in Sarawakand Tales of the Riverbank which starred Stephen Fry as the Owl and Miranda Hart as Miss March. He sadly died in 2010 at the age of 70 but will be remembered fondly by us all.
I have found the entry that Suzanna wrote in her diary at this time when we were filming at Bank Ground Farm. She drew a picture of the blue and white checked dress she wore and drescribed an interview with a reporter.
This is the newspaper clipping that Suzanna stuck in her dairy that featured Virginia McKenna and the six of us children in one of the old motors that Simon Holland found to dress the Railway Platform set at Haverthwaite Station on the first day of filming.