Simon West and Sophie Neville as brother and sister on Peel Island in 1973
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 of Arthur 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 West and Suzanna Hamilton sailing Swallow from Peel Island where Sophie Neville stands shivering on the shore. Was this shot filmed from a camera pontoon?
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 West as Captain John sailing Swallow near Peel Island on Coniston Water. Sten Grendon plays the Boy Roger in the bows.
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.
Claude Whatham wearing his American Parker coat, as Dennis Lewiston and Eddie Collins line up a shot over Derwentwater at dawn
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 West as John Walker studying the chart at Holly Howe before the voyage.
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: