In Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons Titty is left keeping watch on an island, so small it is little more than a rock, whilst the Swallows sail into Rio Bay in search of the Amazons. Luckily for me, this is not so in the film. Susan declares, ‘They must be making for Rio’ and the scene cuts to a band playing in the municipal park at Bowness-on-Windermere. John rows into the bay pretty sure that the Amazons have given them the slip, Susan suggests that we could explore Rio and I happily declare, ‘We could buy rope for the lighthouse tree.’ And that is what we did – leaving the boy Roger in charge of Swallow. It was such a hot day I whipped off my grey cardigan before I leapt out of the boat, no doubt causing havoc for the Film Editor.
Simon Holland, the Set Designer on Swallows and Amazons had transformed the busy Bowness of 1973 into a Lakelandtown of 1929. To do this he must have had a huge amount of glassfibre boats moved. These were replaced by the beautiful wooden launches and skiffs of the period. You can see my father in white flannel trousers, his dark hair cut short, standing on the jetty in front of the lovely old green boathouses that then overlooked the bay. He is talking to the owner of the launch with the green and white striped awning.
Much of the first part of this sequence, including the close ups in Swallow, was filmed from the grey punt used as a camera boat. It seems that Simon West, who played John was towing this as he rowed up to the jetty. It was a hot day and for once we were all feeling the heat.
Although the Swallows spurned the conventional attractions of tripperdom, we spotted the Stop-me-and-by-one ice cream cart like lightening. I was entranced by the old cars, the pony and trap and the number of people dressed to populate Rio. They were organised and directed by Terry Needham, the Second Assistant Director. To our delight we found Gareth Tandy, the Third Assistant, was dressed in period costume too, his Motorola hidden under a stripy blazer so he could cue the Supporting Artists and keep back the general public without having to worry about appearing in vision himself. To his dismay he had had to have his hair cut. We all thought this a distinct improvement. He looked so handsome! I’m not sure if you can see him in the distance when we are climbing out of Swallow. You can just see my sisters walking towards the town at this point with Pandora Doyle, Brain Doyle’s daughter.
Jane Grendon, our chaperone looked fabulous in her 1929 costume. It was the one and only time I saw her in a dress. She was wonderful. Being in costume enabled her to keep an eye on all the children playing on the beach. I know she would have kept them going and maintained safety as they flung pebbles into the water or rushed about with the donkeys that were giving rides along the shore – no one wearing helmets of course.
Another excitement of the day was that Claude Whatham had given Mr Price, the owner of the Oaklands Guest House where we were staying, the part of the native. The native who says, ‘That’s a nice little ship you’ve got there.’ Mum said that Kit Seymour, Suzanna Hamilton and Lesley Bennett had spied him, pacing the garden at Oaklands trying out every possible way of saying this line. ‘That’s a nice little ship you’ve got there.’ Then, ‘That’s a nice little ship you’ve got there,’ leaving the girls in fits of giggles.
After we leave the general stores, me clutching bottles of grog, you can see Tamzin in a pink dress and straight back riding a chocolate coloured donkey along the beach while Dad is pushing out a rowing skiff with a log oar. Roger looks on from the Jetty to see Perry riding another donkey in a yellow dress while Tamzin walks by in the opposite direction with none other than Mr Price, in his striped blazer, who is walking along towards the boathouses holding a little boy’s hand. I am sure it was one of his own children but it looks a bit dodgy because while Roger watches my sisters and Pandora throwing stones into the lake from the beach were the skiffs are pulled up, David Price comes walking along the jetty and delivers his line: ‘That’s a nice little ship you’ve got there.’ It’s shot in rather a creepy way. John did warn Roger to ‘Beware of natives.’
A moment later Pandora and my sisters are surrounding the ice cream man while John, Susan and Titty return, striding along the jetty like the three wise men, carrying rope, buns and bottles of grog. My father’s all time passion in the form of a very graceful steam launch passes, almost silently, in the foreground. A happy, happy day. They only sad thing was that we didn’t have time to film inside the bun shop, which was such a pity as it looked glorious. Claude had been obliged to re-take a scene when some ladies – real life ladies in 1970’s garments and bouffant hairdos – had come scootling out of the Public Conveniences in the middle of a take.
What none of us knew was that is was nearly our last day on earth. The same Supporting Artists, including my father, had been booked for the next morning…
My father writes to say:
‘The Bowness skiffs were not like the Thames version. The outriggers caught the oars and allowed a fisherman to let go of the grip if and when he caught an Artic char, the Winderenmere fish, the oars were retained. A heavy boat.
I remember the rope was huge, fat and unsuitable! Daphne was not around as she had to go south to present Women Only for HTV. She was devestated to leave the donkey scene.’
You can read more about our antics in the paperback or ebook of ‘The making of Swallows and Amazons’ available from online retailers, good bookshops, and libraries worldwide. You can read more on Amazon here.