Since the experts on BBC Antiques Roadshow have been taking an interest in the original feature film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974), I thought I ought to add to a few facts. Although the movie was released forty-seven years ago, the cast list remains incomplete. A few credits are missing:
Jim Stelfox was in uniform, playing a guard or station master at the Haverthwaite Steam Railway station in the opening scenes, when the Swallows first arrive in the Lake District. He ended up appearing in some of the publicity stills that were used in magazines and newspapers. One features on a jigsaw puzzle that accompanied the release of the movie. The little boy leaning out of the train window is Robin Smith, who grew up in Ambleside. He came along with his mother Eileen and his brother, Alan Smith, who became a newsreader on BBC Radio 4.
Kit Seymour, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Lesley Bennett, Virginia McKenna, Simon West Suzanna Hamilton with Jim Stelfox, the station master.
David Watkin Price, also from Cumbria, played the native on the jetty in Rio. His speaking part was cut from the television version of the film broadcast on ITV but remains in the remastered 2014 cinema Bluray and DVD available online.
Mr Price played an important part in our lives when the film was being made as he owned and ran the Oaklands Guest House in Ambleside where we stayed. His daughter Jane, told me, ‘They wanted you to stay in a place that had a family atmosphere with other children.’ I expect that she did a lot to help.
Jane appeared with her two brothers as film extras in the Rio scenes, remembering that it gave her a day off school. Sadly, her little brother’s knickerbockers kept falling down. You can see Jane in a grey dress with long pigtails, hoiking them up in this behind-the-scenes shot. To see other photos of the Price family in costume, please click here.
The people of the Lake District have written in with other stories. Philippa Poulson knew the real charcoal burner, Norman Allonby – ‘I lived around the corner from him in 1973. He lived in a tiny one up, one down traditional cottage, walked everywhere, and made a lovely cup of tea. He was very interested in my English Literature A’ level course, being a keen reader. I wonder how many people know he knew Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, by heart, and in their entirety and could recite any part, at any time, on request. He would happily talk for hours on the subject, with a twinkle in his eye and his pickle catching front tooth. Lovely, gentle man, living life at the right pace.’ You can read more about the real charcoal burners of Grizedale Forest here.
Susie Trezise said, “I remember them filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – it was right in the middle of my O’Level exams and their walkie-talkies kept coming through my stereo speakers! It was fascinating listening. I lived at Stock Ghyll Mill, so about five miles away from the filming. The strangest thing was it still came through the speakers when they were turned off but still plugged in!”
~Comic strips based on the 1974 film found by Arthur Herbertson~
Joss Bundy wrote to say: “My Father, between being the technical director of the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre, worked with Richard Pilbrow at Theatre Projects in the ’70s. He had been a friend of Richard’s for many years. Theatrical lighting design was still in its infancy and designers tended to stick together. Richard and my Dad were the founders of The Association of Lighting Designers, along with various others.
“My mother, Rosemary Lindsay, had been a ballerina at the ROH, which is where they met. My Mother had sailed since a small child and had devoured each new Ransome book as it was published and loved them more than any others. When Richard mooted the film, my father mentioned what an expert Rosemary was and when the project was getting up on its feet she was given an early script to vet. Various things had been added in for dramatic effect and she vetoed one: Roger getting stuck on top of a cliff, as she felt John and Susan would never have let him get in such a situation.”
“I was clearing yet another box of theatre-related photos and as well as a couple of publicity stills.” One shows filming the Amazon boat house. “I can only assume Richard or Molly sent them back to my Dad, who would have been running Theatre Projects while Richard was away.”
“After the film was finished, Richard offered Swallow to my Mum, but she didn’t want the responsibility of another wooden boat. We still own the one she sailed as a child, a smaller version of a Swallow type boat. She also felt that a boat only sailed in fresh water would not necessarily do well in salt water.”
Do add any memories you have to the Comments, below. It would be lovely to hear from you.
It would be great to have some more review on the film on the International Movie Database. You can easily add one here.
When the original feature film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ was made in 1973, Peggy Blackett was played by Lesley Bennett, who was aged thirteen at the time. She can be seen here on location at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water in the Lake District.
For the last thirty-eight years, Lesley has been living in the Netherlands. I met up with her for lunch at Schiphol Airport on my way back from sailing Arthur Ransome’s cutter, the Nancy Blackett, through the inland waterways of Zeeland. (Please see the last two previous posts.) I nearly didn’t make the meeting. A man had been arrested for planting a bomb on a train just north of Middleberg, but the authorities must have acted quickly as I wasn’t delayed for long.
Lesley had brought along a blue file of documents and a number of black and white movie stills that she’d been given by Richard Pilbrow, the producer of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) on one of our last days in Ambleside after filming had finished. We could both remember them spread out on a table at the unit hotel so we could each chose the ones we appeared in. I had picked one where Lesley and I are sitting together, our hair bobbed in line with the 1930’s, I wearing a cream silk dress, Lesley in a dark top looking very pretty:
Lesley’s parents, who lived near Tonbridge in Kent, originally learnt that Theatre Projects were looking for children to take part in the film when the Associate Producer, Neville Thompson, wrote to their local sailing club. Lesley explained that her father, who was very well organised, kept a copy of the letter sent to the Secretary of the club in January 1973. Plans were made for Lesley to be interviewed for a part with her younger sister Lyn, who sadly fell ill and couldn’t make the audition. The letter contains a mistake that might explain why Lesley ended up playing Peggy when she was thirteen years old.
Lesley got on well with Kit Seymour who ended up playing her elder sister, Nancy Blackett – ‘terror of the seas’. Both girls would sail well and enjoyed being out on the lakes. Lesley told me that the reason why she held her hands between her legs in this photograph is that it was so cold when we were filming on Peel Island.
‘Kit would fold her arms and I’d try to keep my hands warm.’ Although I wore a cardigan in this scene, Swallows had been cold too. I remember thinking that at least the Amazons wore knitted hats. Otherwise their costumes were simple short-sleeved shirts and long shorts with black plymsols, worn without socks.
~Kit Seymour as Captain Nancy and Lesley Bennett as Mate Peggy in 1973~
Lesley told me their hats had been quite a problem – not quite a full-blown movie disaster but a they caused consternation in Consiton. The first scene the Amazons shot was set in the garden of Beckfoot, the Blacketts’ house. Although it does not lie on the ‘Amazon River’ at the northern end of the lake, Brown Howe on the western shore of Coniston Water was used as the location and the crew set up the 35mm Panavision camera, along with reflector boards and enough lighting to bring sunshine to Westmorland. When everyone on the production was ready, Gareth Tandy, the third assistant led the Amazons down to the set wearing red knitted stocking caps – with no bobbles. Beanies were not quite what either the director or producer had expected. Lesley has a photo showing the great discussion that ensued:
~Director Claude Whatham, Producer Richard Pilbrow, 3rd Assistant Director Gareth Tandy, Make-up Artist Peter Robb-King, Hairdresser Ronnie Cogan and Associate Producer Neville Thompson with Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett at Brown Howe on Coniston Water in May 1973 ~
In the end Claude Whatham shot the scene with the girls bare-headed, their hair blowing all over the place, even though it was meant to be ‘dead-calm’ in the story. This looked natural as they were at home but they needed to look like pirates in every other scene.
~Nancy and Peggy running down to Amazon at the Blackett’s house Beckfoot~
Wooly hats with ‘longer ends’ were knitted locally at some speed. Red is not a good colour on the screen. I remember a couple of bright pink ribbed bobble-hats arrived when we were filming on Peel Island but they were deemed a complete disaster and rejected in favour of scarlet ones originally described by Arthur Ransome even if the colour might look a bit jarring on screen.
Emma Porteous, the costume designer, was back in London. No one on the production knew anything about knitting or subtle shades of wool. When the third pair of hats arrived we were all a bit worried about the fatness of the bobble-end, as they didn’t quite match the illustrations in the books, but no one knew what else to do. Time ran out and the producer was forced to compromise. ‘They were warm but prone to flop about,’ Lesley said, ‘and sometimes flopped forward, which looked a bit silly.’ I’d never noticed this but it was captured in one photograph:
Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett as Nancy and Peggy Blackett in 1973
Mum was given the pink version of the hats. She kept them for years but no one ever wore them.
This question has recently been typed into the Google search engine. It has to be said the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is a pretty abstract title. What does it mean? Is it about South America?
The national press brewed a great storm last summer when they discovered that BBC Films and the BFI had changed the lead character’s name to Tatty. When the Daily Telegraph phoned me for comment, I asked if someone had made a spelling mistake. Titty was mistakenly referred to as Tilly in The Times a year before, along with rather an over excited headline:
I’ve received letters addressed to Titty for so long that I couldn’t understand the problem until I typed the name Titty into Twitter. You do not see my face – or anybody else’s. I am not sure if it has been defined by the Oxford Dictionary yet but it seems a titty-tatty is now the term used for a certain kind of tattoo.
Last week I found an interesting document. It is the original contract that my father was sent in April 1973 when I was offered a part in the film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’. It doesn’t refer to Titty at all:
This was the reason why my mother suggested I wrote the name Titania Walker on the front of the ship’s log which you can see if you watch the movie closely. Why Theatre Projects used the classical name I do not know. It could be argued that ‘Swallows and Amazons’ contains traces of Shakespearean influence but Arthur Ransome insisted the name Titty wasn’t short for anything.
People often ask how much I was paid for appearing in the feature film. The contact states, ‘We…
This period refereed to the seven weeks spent filming on location. I paid another £10 a day for dubbing the film and for a pick-up day when we filmed a scene in Surrey. Although publicizing the movie was more demanding than being on location we were neither licensed or paid. I did receive a book token for promoting EMI Films at the Lord Mayor’s Show.
Dubbed it was – into a number of languages including French, Czech and Norwegian:
People imagine that we receive residuals when the film is sold abroad or broadcast on television but we actors are only due a fee if our image is used to advertise a product. This is a few years old but does it count?
Or could this? I saw the image used in a TV commercial with my own eyes, so I’d love to know.
When interviewed aboard the yacht Ransome bought with his royalties, Taqui Altounyan said that on receiving a new copy of ‘The Swallows and The Amazons’, as the first edition was titled, her family were also thrown by the abstract title, wondering if it was about South America. It could be about migrating birds.
You can see Anita Singh’s article that sparked up international debate last summer by clicking here The juxtaposition of the photos is so naughty, but brilliant of course. I’m the one with the telescope.
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, 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 quiet 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.
This shot of Virginia McKenna valiantly playing Man Friday, was taken as she rowed away from what I had decided was a desert island. It was 1973 and we were filming on Coniston Water in the Lake District. She was playing my mother, concerned about leaving a small girl alone as the evening drew in. I’ve been set a copy of Lancashire Life, published in 1974, which describes the filming at length. Quite fun. You can see a still of Man Friday and I cooking Pemmican cakes for supper on the camp fire, top right.
Being awarded an OBE in 2004 for services to wildlife and the arts, Virginia has since become a national treasure. She will quickly deny this but you will find photographs of her at the National Gallery, along with Suzanna Hamilton, who played her daughter – and my sister, Susan in Swallows & Amazons (1974).
Having just celebrated her 84th birthday Virginia has also been heralded as one who inspires others. I concur. ‘Do one thing at a time,’ was her advice to me, ‘Otherwise you can’t do anything well.’
If you interview her now, Virginia is more likely to talk about wildlife than acting. She uses her name to promote kindness. And to stop the slaughter of elephants. One of her latest missions is to urge schools to teach children about conservation. She has recently become patron of Shropshire Cat Rescue’s Purr project. Arthur Ransome helped finance a similar project himself.
2015 marks the thirty-first anniversary of the Born Free Foundation, which Virginia established with her son Will Travers to help big cats and other large mammals held in captivity. She still travels the world to raise awareness and alleviate suffering, drawing on all she learned from George Adamson whilst filming Born Free in Kenya back in 1966, and An Elephant Called Slowly in 1970. You can read more about her work by clicking here.
On 21st March and 28th March, the new CBBC TV show ‘Cinemaniacs’ included guest appearances from Sophie Neville and from David Wood, who wrote the screenplay for ‘Swallows & Amazons’ back in 1973.
Oli White, the vlogger and presenter of ‘Cinemaniacs’, asks a number of people involved in movies about making their first film. Others featured include Michael Sheen, Sir Ian McKellen and Matthew Lewis famous for playing Neville Longbottom in all eight Harry Potter movies.
To find out more about how the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) was made, along with how the children’s parts were cast, please see earlier posts or read the book! It includes more than 120 photographs taken on location in the Lake District.