David Stott has written in to say, “When l got the job driving for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ l think I took over the production car when Jean McGill started driving you children around in the mini-bus.” This must have been in May 1973 when the original film of Arthur Ransome’s classic book was being made in Westmorland.
David explained that, although he lived in Ambleside at the time, he has not seen Jean since the filming, so enjoyed reading that I had been in touch with her.
“Jean’s Mum was called Girlie and she used to run a nursing home on Lake Road. Jean had a brother who was nicknamed Blondie. We would often have a cup of tea with Girlie in the nursing home kitchen.”
David has all sorts of memories of filming ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in the Lake District that I knew nothing about. “Jean mentioned that she took Ronnie Fraser for an early morning glass of champagne to get him going. I remember having to take him to the Lodore Swiss Hotel in Borrowdale while filming on Derwentwater. He would order what he called, ‘A Frazer’, which was some sort of vodka cocktail.”
David was only about seventeen at the time. Driving Ronald Fraser around must have been something of an eye-opener. “I remember bringing him back to film ‘walking the plank’ and he was very drunk at the time. Expect he needed it for the cold water. He could be a little difficult when he had had a few.”
“I was rather star struck when l was driving Virginia McKenna,” he admitted. “On one occasion I had to drive her from the farmhouse on Coniston to Grange railway station. She was telling me all about filming ‘Born Free’ with the lions and I drove a bit slowly as l was enjoying her company. We arrived rather late and l had to throw her and her luggage onto the train just as it was leaving.” I asked Virginia about this but she couldn’t remember ever being late for the train. I can only imagine that David must have coped well.
“On another occasion I think l had Richard Pilbrow in the car,” he was the producer of the film. “We were driving back from Derwentwater when a cow jumped off a bank and landed on the bonnet, causing quite a lot of damage. I was dreading going back to Browns Motors and telling Alan Faulkener the owner what had happened.” Richard is still alive and well.
David, who now owns Crossways Hotel near Glynebourne, comes from an old Cumbrian family. His grandmother lived at High Green Gate, the farm next door to Beatrice Potter Hilltop. “My great grandfather was Farmer Potatoes in the ‘Tale of Samuel Whiskers’. It was sketched from a photograph that my mother still has. There is shortly to be an article in Cumbria Magazine about Beatrice Potter’s relationship with the Postlethwaite family.”
One of our locations – Haverthwaite Station today
“My father was the local joiner in Ambleside. He also kept about 1000 hens and delivered eggs around the hotels at the weekends. My brother and l would often help him on a Saturday morning.” David obviously knew the roads of Cumbria well.
When I saw Simon West recently he told me that his father would love to see a copy of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’.
Nigel West soon wrote to say:
‘…it makes fascinating reading. Simon told me very little in the way of detail about his experiences when filming so your account is very welcome.Simon’s mother, Dorothy, and I only visited the Lake District once during that period and then we only saw Simon fairly briefly and saw nothing of the filming. Things that I can recall about the whole experience I will describe below.
‘Our family took up dinghy sailing when I built a Mirror dinghy in our dining room at home. It was built from a flat-pack and took nearly a year to construct, in my spare time, during which the family had to eat meals in the sitting room. I had been sailing on the Norfolk Broads with friends a few times in my college days, which had started my interest in boating. The family joined the Dorchester Sailing Club which was based on an old gravel pit not far from our home. Eventually we also acquired two children’s Optimist dinghies for Virginia and Simon, who spent many weekends racing their boats at open meetings around the country.’
‘One day at the club a notice appeared on the notice board asking children with sailing experience to audition for acting parts in a film to be made of Swallows and Amazons. Virginia immediately expressed interest and pressured Dorothy and me to take her to the auditions in London. We were reluctant to agree because we thought her chance of success would be so slim with thousands of other applicants, many with acting experience, queueing up for parts. Then, to my surprise, Simon said he was also interested, with his eye on the part of John, but surely, I thought, he would be too young and too short for that part and he had pooh-poohed the idea of trying for Roger.
‘As it happened we were due to visit Dorothy’s sister, who lived south of London, in Sussex, on the Saturday of the auditions, so we decided that a small detour would allow the children to attend without too much problem. Sadly Virginia fell at the first interview while Simon, to our utter amazement, won through that and all the other stages of selection to win the part of John. How pleased we were for him and proud – and sorry for Virginia who took her disappointment so well. You should ask Simon about the later stages of selection that included a long weekend living on an old motor torpedo boat at Burnham-on-Crouch having, among other things, his sailing proficiency assessed.
‘From the few things that Simon did tell us about the filming, I was extraordinarily impressed by the maturity he had so clearly gained in the whole experience. He explained how conscious he was of the crucial part he had to play in getting it right, in front of the camera, because the success of the whole project depended on that. With dozens of adults all working flat out as a team to a tight schedule meant that he had to concentrate on getting it right first time – a very maturing experience for an 11 year-old taking time out from his first year at secondary school.’
‘With Simon having no acting experience I was intrigued to know how Claude Watham had managed to get what he wanted from his young cast. Simon explained one technique that Claude had used to stop them looking wooden in front of the camera. He would make sure they knew their lines, send the children to run to some point and back again, then shoot the scene while they were still animated from the running.
‘One aspect of the production mentioned in your book is the studio post-sychronisation. I can remember taking Simon up to Elstree Studios in Borehamwood to re-record some of the dialogue, sometime after the filming had been completed. Maybe you did the same. Simon had to wear headphones to listen to the film dialogue, while watching a scene from the film, and to repeat to a microphone the dialogue in exact synchronism with what he heard in the headphones and saw on the film. He said it was an extremely difficult thing to do, to talk over one’s own voice, exactly, and then to give it the right expression. I imagine it needs a lot of practice to get it right. The object was, of course, to dub over recorded dialogue which had either been poorly recorded or which included extraneous noise.
‘Finally, I did manage to watch one scene filmed, but from a great distance, which you do mention in your book, and that was the Darien scene shot at Runnymede sometime much later in the year. In 1973 it was the fashion for all schoolboys to wear their hair indecently long. At Simon’s school the rule was that the hair was just allowed to touch the collar but not an inch longer. Simon’s hair was no exception but he had had it shorn for and throughout the filming and it had just started to grow back when he was summoned to the Runnymede shoot. On our arrival at Runnymede Simon was immediately sat on a chair and had his locks shorn once again. I think he should have been paid a special indignity fee for that day’s work.’
‘I remember watching the S&A float in the Lord Mayor’s Show pass by but the float passed too quickly to let you all spot our family in the crowd.
‘I also remember attending the film’s premier at the cinema in Shaftesbury Avenue, also attended by some minor member of royalty. It was a grand event and brought home to me that this was not some trivial little children’s entertainment but was a full length feature film of some standing. It must have been shown on British TV a dozen times over the years, particularly at Christmas, so it has stood the test of time by anybody’s standards.
‘That reminds me that at one point we made a half-hearted attempt to get Simon into Equity but without success. The result was that Simon only got paid a daily fee for his work on the film, with no residual payments for TV showings, overseas viewings or video and DVD earnings, to say nothing of his image appearing on a number of jigsaws!
‘You probably know that Simon also acted in a film made for children’s television in 1974, when he took the title role in Sam and the River. This was recorded on film and was shown on BBC TV in the form of six 30 minute episodes. It was before the days of video recorders so we have only ever seen the original transmission. Fifteen years ago I approached the production company to see if I could obtain a copy, but they had been reorganised since the film was shot and had kept no copy, nor record, of the production. I then approached the BBC and they did a search for me but they drew a blank. At one stage the BBC had a Philistine in charge who infamously threw out masses of, now priceless, BBC archives as being a waste of space. One day I hope to put a name to him. Simon has since found that the BFI have an archive copy of Sam and the River so I will approach them, but they do emphasise that they have no authority to make or issue copies of archive films. Might, however, get them to show it to us one day perhaps.’
There were four jigsaws issued with the film. There is full image of the jigsaw above on an earlier post.
David Stott, the Ambleside lad who worked as a unit driver on the film of Swallows & Amazons in 1973 after he left college at the age of 19, has written from America:
‘I really enjoyed reliving Swallows & Amazons through your book.’
‘Oh my, what a trip down memory lane it was for me – so much that l had forgotten was rekindled. I cannot believe that it was forty years ago.
‘I think that I started work mid-June, which would fit in with finishing college. From your daily schedule it was when you went back to Coniston with Virginia McKenna on her second visit.’
David remembers the problem of being locked out of Bank Ground Farm by Mrs. Batty. ‘I really could not blame her as the whole place had been turned into a circus and her house ripped apart.’
‘The first morning I met Richard Pilbrow was in his bedroom for some strange reason and remember thinking, ‘What a total mess. How can anybody live like this?’
‘My main contacts were Neville Thompson (the On-line Producer) and Graham Ford (the Production Manager). They were all based at Kirkstone Foot Hotel that was owned by friends of my parents, Simon and Jane Bateman. Others stayed at the Waterhead Hotel down by the lake, where I would pick them up and take them to the location.
‘On arrival at the location I remember well the catering van and the breakfast that awaited us. Having just competed three years studying hotel management at college I was amazed how two people with very limited equipment could produce the number of meals they did. The washing up was done on a trestle table outside the van with bowls of water carried to location in large milk churns.
‘I did not have much contact with you and the other children, as you were under the watchful eye of your Mum and Jean McGill. Jean’s Mum was called Girly McGill and used to run a nursing home in Ambleside. As a child I used to deliver eggs to the home with my Dad. Jean had a brother who I think everybody called Blondie.
‘Sten was a bit of a handful at times and held up shooting on a number of occasions while he was calmed down. I rather envied Simon West; I wished I had the chance he did to act in a film. To this day I’m a frustrated actor.
‘Dennis Lewiston (the Director of Photography) always seemed to be holding a light meter in the air or perhaps he was warding off the clouds. I found him a little unapproachable.
‘My recollection of Sue Merry the continuity girl was setting up her folding table and tapping away on a portable typewriter.
‘Ronnie Cogan the hairdresser and I spent hours chatting. Once the shooting started, we had nothing else to do. He was such a nice man.
‘I was thrilled when I met Virginia McKenna and had to drive her around. One day I had to drive her to Grange railway station. I was so fascinated by her tales of working with lions in Born Free that I drove slowly to maximise her story-telling time. We almost missed the train and had to run from the car park.
‘One of the wettest days I remember is when the scene of Octopus Lagoon was filmed above Skelwith Fold Caravan Site. I don’t remember the support buses being around that day, but I do remember having to sit in the car for hours on end. Maybe the buses were somewhere else.
‘I know I was invited to the wrap party but cannot remember a thing about it.’
You can read more about the adventures had making Swallows and Amazons here
This Christmas has been marked by a number of amusing cards, emails and comments that have come in from people who remember making the film of Swallows & Amazons in 1973.
David Stott has already sent in his memories of working as Ronald Fraser’s driver at the age of 19 while Peter Walker remembers literally bumping into him in a pub in Ambleside. Various journalists added their recollections online below an article in the Telegraph. I hope to have gathered enough photographs to post a few more in the new year.
If you can remember anything about the filming of Swallows & Amazons, can recollect going to see it in the cinema when it was first released, or have memories about anyone connected to the movie, add a comment below or contact me on email@example.com.
I have a list of those who appeared as supporting artists in the film that I would love to add to. Can you help me with more details and full names? It would be awful if I had incorrect spellings.
Kerry Dartisnine ~ Nurse
Tiffany Smith ~ Baby Vicky
Moira Late ~ Mrs Jackson
Brian Robey Jones ~ Mr Jackson
Mr Turner ~ Shopkeeper
Mr Price ~ Native on the Rio jetty
Mrs Price ~ Visitor at Haverthwaite Railway Station
Martin Neville ~ Native on the steamer
George Pattinson ~ Steamboat owner
Stanley Wright ~ Motorboat mechanic
James Stelfox ~ Boat mechanic
Herbert Barton ~ Casual holiday-maker
L. Lucas Dews ~ Man just returned from abroad
Jane Price ~ Girl at Rio
Simon Price ~ Boy at Rio
Tamzin Neville ~ Girl at Rio
Perry Neville ~ Girl at Rio
Pandora Doyle ~ Girl at Rio
Alan Smith ~ Boy at Rio
Jane Grendon ~ Rio visitor
Janet Hadwin ~ Rio visitor
Peggy Drake ~ Rio visitor
William Drake ~ Rio visitor
Mrs Jill Jackson ~ Rio visitor
Lindsay Jackson ~ Rio visitor
Nicola Jackson ~ Rio visitor
Fiona Jackson ~ Rio visitor
Shane Jackson ~ Rio visitor
Zena Khan ~ Rio Visitor
Lorna Khan ~ Lady on the Tern
Sarah Boom ~ Cyclist at Rio
Jack Hadwin ~ Motorcyclist
Kendal Borough Band
Beauty Proctor ~ Polly, the green parrot
The following people worked on the crew of Swallows & Amazons but I am not sure of their exact job titles:
Gay Lawley-Wakelin, Richard Daniel, John Slater, Lee Apsey, Craig Hillier, Les Philips, Ron Baker, John Pullen, Harry Heeks, Graham Orange, Mike Henley, Joe Ballerino, Ted Elliot, Eddie Cook, John Engelman, John Mills, Ernie Russell, Clive Stewart, Toni Turner, Phyllis B, Pinewood Caterers John and Margaret ……, Robert Wakeling, David Stott. and other Drivers: Browns of Ambleside
The Times. What author would not be thrilled to have their ebook profiled in a Saturday feature article? But look at the headline. I shall never live it down. Far from being scandalous, my story is appropriate reading for any age group.
Richard Kay’s piece in the Daily Mail seems to have sparked off quite a bush fire. A News journalist from the Telegraph rang, as mentioned in my last post. Before I knew it, there was an over-excited headline on the internet
I was told-off by our Church Warden, who then handed me a clipping from the Saturday Telegraph, which read: ‘Swallows and Amazons a debauched adventure’. I didn’t dare look in the tabloids.
I was worried that I would be asked to step down as President of The Arthur Ransome Society but some of the members think it’s hilarious. The Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook have been busy thinking up Newspaper headlines for his novels, such as ‘Soviet agent indoctrinates all British children’.
Anecdotes about Ronald Fraser’s legendary drinking habits are mounting up. Spare me from being a prattler, but Ronnie would have loved this. Star of thirty post-war movies and numerous television programmes, he liked nothing more than to sit in a pub sharing scandalous stories with his friends from the press. A showman to the end, his coffin was carried by Sean Connery, Peter O’Tool, Simon Ward and Chris Evans.
Peter Walker e-mailed me from Cumbria:
In 1973 I worked for Post Office Telecommunications (now BT) as a local maintenance engineer. One summer’s day I had been given the job of repairing a fault on the payphone in the White Lion Hotel in the centre of Ambleside. As I pushed open the door to the bar it slipped out of my hand and the handle caught a customer in the back who happened to be taking delivery of a large drink.
I apologised, and he said “No damage done my boy… haven’t spilt a drop!”
I said I was referring to his back, “Don’t worry,” he said, “being stabbed in the back is normal in my line of business!”
A wonderful story that I have already added to the ebook:
…long after the filming, when Ronald Fraser was having a pint with his friends, he was fond of muttering ‘Natives!’ especially if someone ate the last of his crisps.(As you probably know, this was one of Titty’s lines in the film used when the Swallows were nearly run down by a Windermere steamer.)
His fans and old drinking pals added comments below the online feature in Friday’s Telegraph:
Ronald Fraser sounds like he was well cast for the part, the black sheep of the family who was also the favourite uncle and usually totally p-ss-ed.
Ronald Fraser – a joy and wonderfully in-character as the freeloading drunk on the trans-Atlantic liner in the original TV adaptation of Brideshead.
“Debauchery” implies REAL shennanigans. Ronnie was usually too plastered to do more than stand, let alone move, let alone “do” anything. I assume the word is used ironically.
I had the pleasure of meeting Ronnie Fraser several times in the Richard Steele on Haverstock Hill in 1969/70, and of conversing and drinking with him. He was a total lush, but charming, funny and scandalous. His fund of acting stories was endless. I’m surprised he made it safely through S&A! (Swallows and Amazons)
I also remember Ronnie Fraser from the Richard Steele. One evening he was serving behind the bar, in his cups he served me 4 drinks and instead of adding up the price he just said “that looks about 10 shillings worth to me!”
The Richard Steele was a proper boozer with a mixed clientele which included Anthony Booth, Rupert Davies and Eric Sykes. And a great selection of posters on the walls. I went back in there a couple of years ago and it has lost the buzz it had back in those days.
he also was in the star in st.johns wood too dont think i ever saw him sober either.that would be about 1975 -1979
Yep. I too drank with him in The Richard Steele in 1976/7. Total gentleman and a great character. He used to drink with Alan Browning. Glynn Owen was another regular and one or two others of note.
I loved that film and thought it very faithful to the source book. My sister has met Ronald Fraser and as well as being a boozer he was also apparently something of a swordsman.
I thought that Ronald Fraser was miscast – he was too much the buffoon and his speech impediment wasn’t appropriate to the role.
General comments about the film were also added to the Telegraph site:
I had a slightly surreal experience 10 or 12 years after it came out. It was on TV and I sat happily through it, then I put in the video of the John Hurt movie 1984. In it, the girl I’d just been watching playing Susan as a 12 year old instantly aged 10 years.
It was raining in the Lake District- that’s a major surprise. One place there has recorded 200 inches of rain in a year!
It’s good to find someone else who shared those lovely £sd days!! I remember the posters vividly.
It was indeed largely a time of great adventure for a child at that time. As kid’s, at weekends & holidays, we often wouldn’t be seen from morning ’till evening, off exploring our surroundings. Totally unlike the generally mollycoddled, world wrapped in cotton wool that you usually see with today’s parents and their children.
Great book and an excellent, very English film! Pity that Arthur Ransome was a traitorous Communistic Guardian hack! I imagine that Soviet Commissars, used to Black Sea dachas, would have found The South Lakes far too drizzly for a summer holiday. No doubt Mr Ransome would have been keen to host them.
Well, you have to admit it was excellent cover for his job of reporting everything the Bolsheviks did to MI6.
Your comments are invited below.
For those who have not already seen it, here is some behind the scenes footage of filming on that houseboat in 1973.
I have been writing about life in England nearly fifty years ago, reflecting on how our lives have changed. Can you help me?
I’d love to receive comments (below) on how you remember aspects of growing up in the early 1970s. What did you eat then? Where did you go on holiday? What was it about 1973 that impacted you?
My husband remembers long hair, flared trousers and shirts with massive curved collars. I always longed for an embroidered t-shirt with wide sleeves or a cheese-cloth shirt but loathed the feel of acrylic jumpers and ribbed polo-necks. Stripy ones.
The food was pretty applauding. My friend Suzanna has just reminded me about the innovation of Italian cooking. Spaghetti was the highlight of our lives; a treat that we might have on Saturdays or for a party when red candles would be pushed into wine bottles and checked paper table cloths could enhance a Bistro image. However prawn cocktail was the pinnacle of popular aspiration, although us children preferred picking of the shells off prawns ourselves.
At parties you’d be offered chunks of cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks stuck into a half a melon that had been covered in tin foil. I always rather longed for the melon. Homemade beer was regrettably all the rage, along with freezing your own runner beans. The process was quite fun (we enjoyed sucking air out of the freezer bags with a straw) but the beans were stringy and disgusting.
My family thought having to bring-a-bottle to parties was a great idea but we loathed the fact that cigarettes were smoked everywhere you went.
Colour televisions were only just beginning to arrive in people’s homes. They were terribly expensive. We had to make do with our crackly black and white screen, watching Blue Peter,Animal Magic and Tony Hart presenting Vision On with cartoons such as Marine Boy until Childrens’ Television ended with The Magic Roundabout just before Daddy came home from the Works in time for the 6 O’Clock News.
We were allowed to stay up to watch Dick Emery , Benny Hill, and ‘Titter ye not’, Frankie Howerd along with dramas such as The Onedin Line. There was one sit com starring Wendy Craig entitled Not in front of the Children, which of course we all wanted to watch. What influence did this have on our young minds?
Mummy worked for HTV West presenting an afternoon programme called Women Only with Jan Jeeming. She also read the letters on Any Answers?, which was produced by BBC Radio Bristol by Carole Stone. I was so impressed – amazed – to meet a female radio producer.
Our holidays were spent camping in Wales when we used an orange dome tent and yet slept on fold-up sun-loungers. Sailing was all about Mirror dinghies, which you could buy in kit form and make out of plywood. We couldn’t afford one. but in the late 1970’s Dad bought a fibre-glass Topper, which was the height of cool. He called it Earwig.
My family were very keen on taking home movies. Dad usually took slides when we went on holiday, which were viewed along with the supper-8 footage at Christmas time when he pushed the furniture back, took down a painting and projected our memories onto the wall.
What have I forgotten? Do post your own recollections, especially of sailing and camping in the early seventies, in the comments below.