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‘It must be Niagara’…Dixon’s Farm and walking up to the charcoal burners ~ while ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Sophie Neville at Elterwater

Sophie Neville by Elterwater in 1973 ~ photo: DJ Neville

My mother was very excited about meeting the actress Brenda Bruce who Claude had engaged to play Mrs Dixon. She had arrived on 10th June whilst we were filming the fishing scene at Elterwater where she found Claude keeping up our moral by wearing my mother’s Donny Osmond hat. I think he needed it for warmth. It was unexpectedly cold. I can remember being worried that Brenda Bruce would be chilly as she was only wearing a blouse and flip-flops. Now I understand that she ‘was of a certain age’ and didn’t feel the cold quite so much as skinny twelve-year-olds with opinions.

Brenda Bruce

 I shouldn’t have been worried about Mrs Dixon. She looked wonderful in the film – was wonderful – and very comfortable in her nice clean dairy. I had no idea that Brenda Bruce was so well-known, that BAFTA ~ the British Academy for Television Awards had named her Best Actress in 1963. “Yes, you do!” Mum said. “She was the White Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass.”  She’d actually worked for Claude quite a bit and he trusted her to play a small part well.  When I look back on Swallows and Amazons I can see that he made sure it didn’t become chocolate-boxy. You can tell by glancing at Mike Pratt’s costume. Mike Pratt who played Mr Dixon the provider of worms for our fishing bait, the lovely Lakeland colours of his garments contrasting with the harsh blues and reds of our 1970’s clothes.

What Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham did want to make the most of was the Westmorland scenery. In many ways they were making a landscape movie. I think what they most enjoyed was finding all the locations to put together Arthur Ransome’s imaginary lake as depicted in the end pages of Swallows and Amazons and I am often asked where the waterfall is. “It must be Niagara!”  No, Sophie. It’s somewhere near Elterwater.

Kevin Burn sent me some suggestions with photos which made me feel pretty sure the actual waterfall is Skelwith Force. But Roger Wardale, who is an expert on Arthur Ransome’s locations, thinks not. “I don’t think it’s Skelwith Force which is more a series of rocky rapids in fairly level ground. I watched the film again yesterday and was reminded of the waterfall at Glen Mary (otherwise known as Tom Gill) the outlet for Tarn Hows dropping down to the Coniston-Ambleside road 4 miles from Skelwith Bridge.” So – any ideas most welcome!

What I can’t remember where Dixon’s Farm was filmed. The scenes set at Jackson’s Farm, Arthur Ransome’s  ‘Holly Howe’ were shot at Bank Ground Farm by Coniston Water, but all I know about the location for Dixon’s Farm is that our tutor got terribly lost trying to find it…

Geraint Lewis of the Arthur Ransome Trust has written to confirm Kevin Burn’s theory about the location we used for Mrs Dixon’s dairy. ‘I had a long conversation once with Lucy Batty about her recollections of filming at Bank Ground in the house, barn, etc. She confirmed that they used the buildings shown as Tent Lodge Cottages on Google Maps – as Dixon’s Farm. That certainly seems to fit from the view of the lake and shoreline trees in the background.’

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, David Wood, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

‘Swallows and Amazons’ ~ haircuts and other preparations for the film back in 1973

Saturday 12th May 1973

Haircuts ~

In the early ’70s most people had long hair.  Ours had to be cut and bobbed to match the 1929 hair styles in Arthur Ransome’s well-known illustrations. I wrote in my diary that, ‘Sten went first and came out looking much older with all his locks cut off!  Simon was next. He looked much the same, except with his ears showing.’  We thought they looked so much better with short-back-and-sides. Mum said that Sten really did have long, flowing hair, which looked extraordianry on a nine year old boy.

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

I’ve just been reminded that the production company really struggled to find male Extras to be in Swallows and Amazons because no one wanted this cut. The actors were the same. Mike Pratt, who played Mr Dixon the diary farmer, couldn’t have his hair cut as he was in the middle of filming a television series, The Adventures of Black Beauty, set in the Victorian era – a good excuse to avoid being shorn.  His hair had to be pinned up under a flat cap, which looked weird on the big screen.  You could see the kirby grips.

My mother had huge reservations about my straggly blonde hair being chopped off and said she nearly refused to let them.  I am very glad she didn’t.  It was wonderful having short hair.  My haircut proved such a great success that I believe it set a fashion for having a graduated bob or ‘Titty Haircut’.

Swallows and Amazons preparations for filming

The dentist ~

I am sure that as well as having our teeth cleaned that they were checked over before they caused a problem.  As it was I lost a fairly conspicuous milk tooth during the filming at a time when it caused havoc with the continuity. The director was not pleased but there was nothing he could do.  Because the film could not always be shot in sequence you’ll see a full set of teeth in one shot and one missing in another. People still comment on it today.

The sailing director ~

Because Claude Whatham, the film director, was not a sailor himself he appointed a sailing instructor or ‘Sailing Director’,  David Blagden who took us sailing in both Swallow and Amazon before the filming, as my diary relates.

David Blagden and my mother, Daphne Neville ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow

We needed to get used to handling the dinghies, was great fun. David made it fun. He was a tall, dark, good looking actor who had been in Kidnapped and was given the part of the Sammy the Policeman, which he did very well. ‘Now then, Miss Nancy.’  Having his hair-cut was such a big thing that he took off his helmet during scene to make the most of it, displaying his very short hair to the the world. We all adored David, who was well known for having sailed across the Atlantic. He had come in tenth, out of fifty-nine competitors, in the 1972 Observer Single-handed Transatlantic Race. He made the crossing in Willing Griffin a Hunter 19, the smallest yacht ever to offically participate in a transatlantic race. I’m afraid that my father thought that he over estimated his abilities. He was of the opinion that crossing the ocean was not quite the experience needed for clinker built sailing dinghies, which could jibe viciously without warning when wind blustered down from the fells, and didn’t rate him highly for the job.  Dad was concerned about our safety.  After the film David attempted to cross the Atlantic once more.  He was never seen again.

Richard Pilbrow and the other boats ~

Richard Pilbrow, who was producing Swallows and Amazons loved boats and was often out on the water with us. It seemed that he came on on this day with us in a motor boat – it was one of those typical glass-fibre ones with a small cabin that were thought quite snazzy at the time.  Along with the gaff-rigged dinghies, Swallow and Amazon there were quite a number of other period boats used during the filming – not least Captain Flint’s Houseboat, one of the Windermere Steamers and the Holly Howe rowing boat, or native canoe, in which Virginia McKenna so gallantly rowed out to the island when as Mother she came to visit her children only to find Robinson Crusoe (me) in residence. Richard loved them all. So did we.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Dinghy sailing, e-publication, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story