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:
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:
More to follow…. If you would like to see photos of Daphne Neville appearing in movies herself, please click here
You read about how we made the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in any of these books that retail online and can be ordered from bookshops or libraries:
It could only happen to them. My parents decided to take a holiday looking at castles in Northumberland and came across this scene:
They ended up appearing in a Walt Disney movie called Unidentified Flying Oddball. Here is the evidence:
The film’s original title had been The Spaceship and King Arthur, billed as a family adventure. It was an adaptation of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and was shot at Alnwick Castle, the seat of the Duke of Northumberland where the Harry Potter films were later made.
It was released on an unsuspecting public in 1979, but was shot in the summer of 1978. I’m not sure how advanced Visual Effects were at the time but there were no Computer Generated Images. It looks to me as if this little airborne stunt was for real.
Life before the advent of CGI
Absolutely terrifying. While Kenneth Moore played King Arthur, Dad’s distant cousin John le Mesurier was Sir Gawain. Ron Moody played Merlin and Jim Dale starred as Sir Mordred with Dennis Dugan who played Tom Trimble. Rodney Bewes, who we knew as one of the Likely Lads had the role of Clarence. My father was hired for five days as a weapon bearer. This was simply so Mum had license to watch the filming.
Dennis Dugan on location in Northumberland
Pat Roach, 6’5″ tall British actor, later in all three Indiana Jones films, was Oaf. Mum hadn’t seen Jim Dale with permed hair before. She was used the lovable innocent he tended to play in Carry On films, but there he was looking fashionable on location in Northumberland, in the Duchess’s garden at that.
Jim Dale at Alnwick Castle
Jim Dale is known for the Harry Potter audiobooks in the USA, winning several high-profile awards for them, and for narrating the Harry Potter video games such as the Hogwart’s Challenge and Wizarding World. I wonder if they transported him back to Alnwick Castle?
‘Forty years after she enchanted film-goers as Titty in Swallows and Amazons, Sophie Neville has found a new audience… telling the behind-the-scenes secrets of the film of Arthur Ransome’s classic novel.’ The Daily Mail The Making of Swallows & Amazons ‘…is based on diaries, letters and old photographs which Sophie has turned into a heart-warming account of making the movie, which starred Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser.’
The Telegraph~ Culture: ‘Set in the Lake District in 1929, the film follows four young adventurers who sail a dinghy around Lake Coniston, cook for themselves over campfires and sleep in makeshift campsites.’
‘…The occasional chaos and terrible weather during filming contributed to the eventual popularity of the extraordinary and very much loved film.’ The Times
‘The film Swallows & Amazons is 40 years old, but thanks to its careful period evocation, its respect for Arthur Ransome’s original book and the performances of its child actors, it’s become a timeless classic. One of those children was Sophie Neville, who played Titty, and who kept a diary during the filming. That diary, with her adult recollections, is this book. It’s a fascinating insight into filming on location in the Lake District…’ Classic Boat
‘… The result is compulsive reading as she recalls that cold wet summer, while the camera crew wrapped up warm and she shivered in her skimpy dress as Able Seaman Titty Walker. Sophie brings to life all the many memorable characters who worked on the film and in particular the other children, the Director Claude Whatham who developed a great relationship with his young cast and the stars Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser. Nor are the other young actors forgotten for there are diary contributions from Suzanna Hamilton who played Susan, Stephen Grendon who played the Boy Roger and Kit Seymour who played Nancy Blackett. The text is supported by numerous illustrations showing life on and off the set.’ Roger Wardale, author of Arthur Ransome: Master Storytellerand other books
‘You don’t need to be a Swallows & Amazons fan to enjoy this book – it’s universal!’ Winifred Wilson, Librarian of The Arthur Ransome Society
‘This was a most unusual and interesting book. I picked it up expecting to browse through it, and found myself so drawn in to Sophie Neville’s detailed, amusing and insightful description of film making in the 1970’s that I was unable to put her book down. As Arthur Ransome fans, my family and I have always loved the film, and felt that Sophie Neville was ‘just right’ as Titty. What fun it has been to be introduced to the young twelve year old Sophie with her intelligent awareness of the challenges facing the production crew while she shivered in her cotton dresses. The many photographs and illustrations contribute richly to bringing the 1970s setting to life. Sophie recorded her experiences beautifully, and in so doing, added one more valuable book to the cultural heritage of all Arthur Ransome fans.’ Juliet Calcott, English teacher,South Africa
If you would like to know how the movie of Swallows & Amazons (1974) was made and know where the real locations can be found, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons(1974)’ is currently available as an ebook on Amazon and Smashwords for £2.99. The paperback was launched to mark the 40th anniversary of the film’s release and is available online here.
The paperback, which is suitable for any age group, is based on the diary that I kept when I played the part of Titty Walker in 1973. It is illustrated with behind-the-scenes photographs and memorabilia such as one of the tickets to the Royal Gala premier in Shaftesbury Avenue held on 4th April 1974. You will also find out what the actors who played the Walker family ~ the Swallows ~ are doing now.
The joy of the ebook is that it includes a number of home-movie clips that my parents took of life behind the scenes that you can play wherever you have internet access.
If you have any questions about making the film, please add them to the comments below, and I will get back to you.
There were rather over-excited headlines in the Times and Telegraph when the ebook was launched but they only spoke of the legendary drinking of Ronald Fraser. Please don’t worry – there is nothing X-rated about the book – it is just the price one pays for half a page in a daily newspaper, especially since it came out on a Saturday.
The ebook has been doing well in the Amazon charts and hit Number 1 in the category ‘Stage and Theatre’.
A preview of what the book holds in store can be watched here:
When Sten Grendon was given the part of Roger in Swallows & Amazons (1974), his mother Jane Grendon came up to the Lake District with him to work as a chaperone, looking after all the children appearing in the movie.
Jane said that before filming began,
‘…one of the very first things we were asked was, ‘can Sten swim?”
‘I know he could doggy paddle. Neville organised swimming lessons at Pitville Pool, Cheltenham which included jumping off the diving boards. At the time I didn’t know why and I don’t think Sten is a natural in the water and the swimming lessons didn’t prove very successful. Claude told me – at the end of filming I think, when he gave me a copy of he original script – these lessons were because in the original script Roger was to jump in the water after Uncle Jim walked the plank.’
Jane sent me a copy of the page in question. I had not seen it before:
‘There are some personal memories. An aunt gave me the book for my birthday and I tried reading it but I hated all the technical boating details and I thought the children rather priggish so I didn’t enjoy it one bit and so was rather downhearted for Sten to be part of a story I hadn’t liked.’
Jane and her husband lived deep in the Cotswold countryside, at the rural Whiteway community, near Stroud in Gloucestershire. As I recollect, they had both qualified as teachers.
‘At the time of casting and during all the arrangements we had no phone at home and had to rely on a neighbour and the production team used to hold on while Ros came and fetched me! They must have really been fed up as it must have taken 10 minutes or so sometimes for me to get to the phone!’
Jane hadn’t imagined that she would end up in costume herself, if only for a day. She looked wonderful.
‘…. so there I was – a naïve, country girl flung into this alien world of a film unit. I was like a fish out of water! But I think it came out in your account that I related to you children better than I did to the adults around.’
Jane’s husband Michael was able to bring Sten’s sister, their little daughter Jo, up to watch the filming over half-term.
That summer Jane appeared in costume once more when Claude Whatham asked if Sten Grendon could also appear in a commercial he was directing for Weetabix, back in Gloucestershire at harvest time. This time she found herself on location not far from her own home and was always smiling.
Jane still lives the same house. Her husband Michael has retired from teaching and they have just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
Thanks to the encouragement and help of my blog followers and Arthur Ransome enthusiasts around the world, I have managed to put my diaries, letters, old photographs and documents together into a 70,000-word memoir.
“Sometimes extraordinary things do happen to ordinary people. Little girls can find themselves becoming film stars. Long ago, and quite unexpectedly, I found myself appearing in the EMI feature film of Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons, made for a universal international audience. I played Able-seaman Titty, one of the four Swallows. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I became Titty for a while, wearing thin cotton dresses and elasticated navy blue gym knickers, which the camera crew soon referred to as passion killers. The book was written in 1929 and although the film adaptation was made in the early 1970s it had an ageless quality and has been repeated on television year after year, typically on a Bank Holiday between movies starring Rock Hudson or Doris Day.
I got the part of Titty because I could play the piano. Although I had no ambition to be an actress, at the age of ten I was cast in a BBC dramatisation of Cider with Rosie. They needed a little girl to accompany the eleven-year-old Laurie Lee when he played his violin at the village concert. I plodded through Oh, Danny Boy at an agonising pace.
‘Do you think you could play a little faster?’ the Director asked.
‘No,’ I said, flatly. ‘These are crotchets, they don’t go any faster.’
Claude Whatham must have remembered my crotchets, for two years later, in March 1973, my father received a letter. It arrived completely out of the blue, from a company called Theatre Projects.
We are at present casting for a film version of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS which Mr Whatham is going to direct. We were wondering if you would be interested in your daughter being considered for one of the parts in this film.
From ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ by Sophie Neville
Preview copies of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ at the Cruising Association dinner at the Water’s Edge Bar and Restaurant, Mermaid Marina on the River Hamble.
“This heart-warming memoir is illustrated with colour photographs, most of them taken at the time by Sophie’s family, and contains links to behind-the-scenes home movie footage for readers with browser-enabled tablets. It delivers a double helping of nostalgia for both fans of the era of Arthur Ransome, and the groovy times of the early 70’s.” ~ from the Amazon Kindle description
Also available for other reading devices on Smashwords
Thanks to those of you who contributed comments, questions, and aspects of local history on this blog. I would love to know what you think of the book!
If you would like a copy but don’t have a Kindle, you can download a free Kindle app.
I had dinner with Captain John last night. It was extraordinary meeting up after forty years; a lifetime had whizzed by.
Tall, with dark hair, Simon West is no longer recognisable as John Walker but he looks back fondly on our time making the film ofArthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons in 1973, when we spent seven weeks of the summer term on location in the Lake District. To my surprise he doesn’t remember being cold at all. I claim that he was given a few more clothes to wear than me and had more to concentrate on. He was at the helm whilst I was a mere able-seaman in Swallow. He said that he hated it when she was wired to the pontoon and he had to pretend he was sailing.
Simon thought that I probably remember more about the experience than he did because my mother was there, chatting about what was going on every evening and naturally re-enforcing the shared experience.
‘I must have kept a diary, as it was part of our schoolwork, but I haven’t seen it since. I’ll look in my parent’s attic.’ Simon thought that it was his mother who put together an album from the black and white photos that Richard Pilbrow gave us after the filming.
Simon said that he remembers more about filming the six-part BBC serial, ‘Sam and the River’, in which he had the title role in 1974. Much of it was shot on the Thames Tideway east of London. ‘Of course all those places have changed enormously since then, whilst the Lakes are very much the same. I have never been able to find a copy of that series, which is a shame. I’d love to see it.’ We can’t find a copy in English, but there is a version in German entitled ‘Tom und die Themse’ currently for sale on DVD here.
Simon’s own children grew up watching Swallows & Amazons, which is still broadcast once or twice a year on television. He said that when they went to see the Warner Bros. Studios in Hertfordshire where much of the Harry Potter movies were made he felt hugely appreciative of the fact that we had been out on location the whole time, rather than boxed up on a film stage, acting against a green back ground.
Simon did remember the great Parker coats that Richard and Claude found to cope with the Cumbrian weather. So do I. My father bought one too. They were blue-grey and enormous, lined with fake sheepskin, their hoods edged with Eskimo-like fake fur.
‘They had recently come over from America,’ he explained, ‘And were a real innovation. Before that we just had tweed coats.’
‘And Mackintoshes. Dennis Lewsiton wore a blue Mac.’
‘Those dreadful nylon anoraks,’
‘That are back in fashion.’
‘The American Parkers are fashionable now too – all that fake fur around the hood. Uggh.’
Suddenly the cogs of close association clicked in. Simon tossed his head in a certain way that I recognised as his own expression of humour. He said that he was really pleased that Bobby Moore chatted to him at the film Premier at Shaftesbury Avenue.
‘Sir Booby Moore? Was he there? Did we meet him?’
I’d totally forgotten.
Simon said that he had become very attached to his Parker fountain pen from Aspreys, engraved with the words ‘Swallows & Amazons- 1973’, that Claude Whatham gave to each of us as a gift after the filming. ‘Stupidly I left in the boot of my car when I was in Paris, aged about twenty-seven. It was stolen with a load of other things.’ I had lost mine too. I dropped it on a footpath somewhere in Durham.
‘What did you spend your fee on?’
‘Oh, sailing dinghies. It was good to know I had £500 in the bank around the time I was heading towards the British Championships. You know, at first we had ply board hulls but the time came when I needed to buy a fibreglass boat.’ It was with this that he became the National Optimist Champion. We agreed it was money put to good use.
After the age of about sixteen, Simon’s family became interested in orienteering. Maps seems to have had a strong influence on both our lives.
Simon and his wife now have four grown children. ‘We are split down the middle: three of us sail, three of us do not.’ But every year he takes the family up to the Lake District to go fell walking, something they all enjoy very much.
If anyone sees a brushed steel Parker pen on eBay engraved with the words ‘Swallows & Amazons 1973’ please let me know. I’d love to be able to return it to Captain John.
Here you can see Simon appearing in ‘Sam and the River’(1975). This is the German version entitled Tom und die Themse:
You can read more about our adventures making Swallows and Amazons in these books, available online:
I recently found a family photograph album with pages illustrating holidays spent under sail in the 1930’s.
Not all the black and white photographs are as horizontal or as sharply in focus as one might wish but they show the glorious boats available for hire.
They also reflect what fun was had out on the water.
We were rather shocked by the cigarettes held in the mouths of the young men but Joan, who is pictured with them, was still agile at the age of ninety-nine.
Having sailed up to Horsey Mere with friends, my father hired a Hullabaloo boat to take us out on the Boards when we were little.
We went out of season, when boat hire was cheaper. As there was no one on the water my father let me take the helm mile after mile, despite the fact that I was only about seven years old.
We loved living aboard and were often surrounded by wild geese.
It seems Arthur Ransome, who had fished on the Broads with Titty’s father, Ernest Altounyan, in 1923, also enjoyed cruising in the spring. His biographer, Roger Wardale, said that ‘Both the Ransomes liked to visit the Broads just after Easter, before most of the motor cruisers had started the season and it was the best time of year for birdlife.’ He went on to describe how Arthur Ransome kept a log of his three weeks spent in a Fairway yacht, the essence of which he used to write Coot Club in 1933/34. ‘As well as visiting Roy’s of Wroxham, tying up at Horning Hall Farm and watching the racing boats go by, towing through bridges, mooring beside a Thames barge at Beccles and watching a fisherman catching eels with a bab, there are numerous details that combine to make Coot Club a valuable account of the social and natural history of the Broads as they were more than 70 years ago.’
Roger Wardale illustrated his book Arthur Ransome Master Stroyteller, using wonderful photographs and sketches by Arthur Ransome, including a very jolly one of the Hullabaloos that had not been published before. Do get hold of a copy of the book, to read the chapter on Coot Club for yourself.