“They’re pirates!” Sophie Neville as Titty
The Telegraph listed ‘Swallows & Amazons’ as Film of the Week when it was broadcast on ITV3 in the UK recently. It was also shown on GEM television in Australia last Friday. Sophie has been answering questions about making the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ at the Curious Arts Festival. If you have one, please use the comments box below.
On 26th July Sophie Neville, spoke to Dan Damon on the BBC Radio 4 Sunday morning programme ‘Broadcasting House’ about the enduring success of the film. To read more, please click here.
Sophie Neville at the Curious Arts Festival
This beautifully made documentary, presented by Griff Rhys Jones, examines Ransome’s life as a war correspondent in Russia from 1913 to 1919 when he was close to the action and in dialogue both with Lenin and Leon Trotsky. It raises the question as to whether he was a British spy.
Hugh Brogan, Ransome’s biographer explains that Ransome had originally ran off to Russia in 1913 to escape from his melodramatic wife, Ivy Walker. After using his time to record Russian fairy stories, that can be read today in his book, ‘Old Peter’s Russian Tales‘, he was employed by a national British newspaper to report on events leading up to the Russian Revolution. Black and white archive footage, along with photographs Ransome took himself, illustrate this well.
The BBC’s erstwhile political correspondent John Sergeant, explains the significance of certain survival strategies Ransome used, such as using ‘his practical skill to outwit people’, over extracts from the original feature film ‘Swallows & Amazons‘, produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1974.
The scenes from the movie also show how the story Ransome wrote when back in the Lake District, was in many ways an outworking of feelings accumulated while he was working in Russia. By concentrating on his writing, he neglected his own daughter just as Uncle Jim was not around for the Blackett girls.
In the dramatised documentary, the beautiful actress Alina Karmazina plays Evgenia, the girl Ransome fell in love with while he was filing reports from Petrograd. They later escaped over the border, trading her copper kettle for freedom of passage.
If the BBC had contacted Richard Pilbrow he would have been able to send them this letter. It was written to Neville Thompson, the online producer of the film, by Evgenia, who had become the second Mrs Ransome. It has never been published before. She gives the address as her retirement home near Banbury but it shows what kind of girl she was:
When Mrs Ransome saw the finished film in 1974, her only comment was that the kettle was of the wrong period.
The story of the Ransome’s escape from Russian has been told by Hugh Lupton, Arthur Ransome’s great nephew, who gave us a rendition at The Arthur Ransome Society meeting near Bungay. It can be listened to on CD, available on CD from Burning Shed.
The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome can be watched on BBC iPlayer by clicking on the photo here
When the EMI/Theatre Projects film of Swallows & Amazons was released forty-eight years ago, Puffin books brought out a paperback featuring the dinghies near Cormorant Island on the front cover. The photograph was taken on Derwentwater at the point in the story soon after Titty has been found to have captured the Amazon. Did you ever have one of these?
Nancy and Peggy Blackett are featured on the back cover, hiding in the reeds at the mouth of the Amazon River. We were invited to a Puffin Club party at the Commonwealth Institute to launch the book. It was re-printed twice in 1974, which might reflect the popularity of the film. 75,000 copies were brought out.
Unbeknownst to me, Heinemann Educational books brought out this cover in 1982.
The photograph would have been shot when we were rehearsing the scene when the Swallows first land at Peel Island on Coniston Water. It was mid-May and I got terribly cold in my thin cotton dress. Suzanna wasn’t feeling well and were all tired, as you can see.
Almost thirty years after Richard Pilbrow released the movie, a hardback was produced with a tinted black and white still from the film taken when we were fishing in Shark Bay. This was shot on Elterwater, a small reedy lake near Windermere. We have Arthur Ransome guardians to thank for this. The draft copy had a rather clonky cartoon that they were not happy with. It can be seen by clicking here.
This book cover was advertised every day for a week on the front cover to the Daily Mail and profiled in the magazine as one of their thirty books featured in their Children’s Golden Library collection.
The offer was featured nationally in a television commercial. I saw the advert myself a couple of times and wondered what effect the promotion would have. Simon and I weren’t given any warning and received no remuneration for having our faces spun around in the advertisement, although a box of books arrived unexpectedly at my house. I gave one to the lady who was translating Swallows and Amazons into Chinese.
This hardback is often available on eBay, where I found this 1992 edition published by Cresset Press. I hadn’t seen it before. Suzanna Hamilton thought the choice of photograph rather bizarre.
I preferred the still from the movie used on the cover of the first VHS tape.
This is probably because it reminded me of the 1970 Puffin book cover that I read as a child and took with me to the Lake District when we started filming in May 1973. I underlined all Titty’s dialogue in pencil.
The cover of this audio cassette tape ‘talking book’ is quite interesting. Which scene does it depict?
Mike Dennis wrote in to say:
‘It’s an abridged version read by Bernard Cribbins, originally released as two cassettes. He does a good job but I seem to remember the adaptation is a bit rushed towards the end to get the whole story in to the time limit of the cassettes (2 hours), it was released by EMI’s ‘Listen For Pleasure’ division.
The publishers, Red Fox, commissioned an illustration for their cover along the same lines, depicting the characters in the 1974 movie.
The current designs for Arthur Ransome’s paperbacks were on display at the V&A after winning the Book Cover Illustration Award. Association with the movie can hardly be claimed, but hopefully the film will have helped to keep Ransome’s stories on the shelves of bookshops worldwide.
Possibly as a result of this, or perhaps because they just liked the colours of the design and the book, Apple iPad featured the cover on their illuminated advertisements seen around London:
I walked up the steps of Tower Bridge underground station to see Swallow’s flag flying: fabulous!
Robert Thompson has made an online survey including covers of all the children’s books by Arthur Ransome, which you can access by clicking here.
Does anyone know of any other book or audio tape covers that used photographs from the film? Do add your comments in the box below.
Arthur Ransome was born in on 18th January 1884. This Saturday will be his 130th anniversary.
Around the world, those who loved his books will be celebrating his birthday. Around the UK, from the South Coast to Giggleswick in North Yorkshire and up in Scotland, various branches of The Arthur Ransome Society are holding events in High Wycombe, Glasgow, Exeter and on the Orwell where Arthur Ransome spent so much time sailing.
As you can see in the Comments below, Pamela Copley has just written from Australia to say:
‘There is a celebration of AR’s birthday in a suburb of Melbourne on Saturday – straight after the AGM. There will be a member from the UK group too.
Cheryl Paget tells me that, ‘In New Zealand members have met in Auckland for a weekend of Ransome inspired activities. We have sailed under the Auckland Harbour Bridge in a 57ft ketch rigged deck scow, toured the historic naval town of Devonport and walked to the top of the dormant volcano of Rangitoto.’
‘We would like to have a small exhibition in this year.’ In 2014, publication of new Japanese translation of Ransome saga was complete.’
So, this week, I ask the question: How has Arthur Ransome influenced your life?
What impact have his classic books, or the adaptations of Swallows and Amazons for film, television or the theatre, had on your family?
Do add a line or two to the Comments below.
I am guilty of denial. When people asked, ‘How has Swallows & Amazons influenced your life?’ I’m afraid I used not to be that forth-coming, because I had moved on from acting in films. If you had asked me in 2010 I would have shrugged and said, ‘Not much.’
But then I stopped and thought again.
How much time I have spent exploring wilderness areas? I’d forgotten that it was the maps in Ransome’s books that attracted me to reading Cartography at university. I went to draw numerous maps all over the world.
I love living outdoors. I love fell walking, mud-flats, and being out on the high seas. I would drop everything to sail to China or the Caribbean tomorrow. I put this down to the fact that my father took us sailing and camping even before I read Ransome’s books. But who influenced Dad? Born in 1929, he was an avid reader of Arthur Ransome and would eagerly wait for the next book about the Swallows and the Amazons to be published. It would be a longed-for Christmas present.
It then occurred to me that John’s careful planning, Susan’s packing, Titty’s log and Roger’s humour still steer my life. The food, the phrases, the urge to travel, became part of my life long ago. I’ve lived under Swallow’s flag.
I for one, sail into the year ahead with Titty’s words still singing in my ears,
‘Here we are, intrepid explorers, making the first ever voyage into uncharted waters? What mysteries will it hold for us, what dark secrets shall me revealed?’
‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ by Sophie Neville is available from The Nancy Blackett Trust shop:
The classic movie of Swallows & Amazons is often broadcast on BBC TV. If you would like to know more about how the film was made you can find the details on this site or leave any questions in the comments box below.
To read about our first day’s filming at Haverthwaite Railway Station click here and keep reading.
Do you know what lake we were on in the photograph below? We were busy loading urns of tea into a run-around boat to take out to the film crew who might have been on Cormorant Island. If you click on the photo you will get to the page of my diary, kept in June 1973, which describes this day.
There are still many questions about the making of the movie that remain unanswered.
This shot was taken while setting up the scene at Peel Island when Captain Flint brings Sammy the Policeman to question the Swallows. If you click on the photo you will find the photograph that the journalist ended up with. Titty’s hand is still on Captain Flint’s arm.
Making a movie is very different from watching one. Here is a record of Titty rehearsing the shot when she moves the camping equipment for fear of a tidal wave. It was a cold day on Coniston Water. The jersey came off when they went for a take.
Here you can see Lesley Bennett, playing Peggy Blackett, careening Amazon at Beckfoot. The same 35mm Panavision camera was focused on Kit Seymour, playing Captain Nancy.
The location used for Beckfoot and the Amazon boathouse can be found at Brown Howe on the western bank of Coniston Water. If you click on the photograph of Peggy you can read more about what happened that day.
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You can read the full story about the making of Swallows and Amazons here:
If you have ever wondered what Nancy Blackett is doing now – here she is. Built by Hillyards of Littlehampton in 1931 she was bought by Arthur Ransome with royalties from Swallows and Amazons and became both the inspiration and model for his book about the Swallows’ unplanned voyage to Holland ~ We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea, in which she was known as the Goblin. She also appears in Secret Water.
I was at the Royal Harwich Yacht Club to give a talk on making the BBC adaptations of two other Arthur Ransome books set in East Anglia, Coot Club and The Big Six.
I was sure that people would rather be out in the sunshine but it was well attended.
After watching a clip of Ginger and Rosa, the BFI/BBC feature film directed by Sally Potter that starred Nancy Blackett, we wandered down to the jetty in front of the new club house, and grabbed a chance to go out on the Orwell.
Soon sails were being hoisted and we were underway, sailing down river in the evening light.
Conditions were perfect for Nancy, a 28 foot Bermurdan cutter.
I took the helm, whilst the others did the hard work.
We were soon sailing past Pin Mill, which also features in the book.
Some members of the crew were experienced sailors,
others had previously managed to avoid spending much time on the water, but we all had a wonderful experience and were sad when the sails were stowed for the night.
We saw a couple of Thames barges also coming in, as Nancy settled down after a successful day. Think of joining The Nancy Blackett Trust and sailing her yourself.
For more photos please click here
14th May 2023 will mark the 50th Anniversary of filming Richard Pilbrow’s classic movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on location in the Lake District that was premiered the year after on 4th April 1974.
The 40th Anniversary of the release of the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) was marked by a number of events around the UK:
Dulwich Film screened ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974), produced by Richard Pilbrow and directed by Claude Whatham. The programme was introduced by Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Sten Grendon who played the Swallows. They answered questions about how it was made after the screening at the Michael Croft Theatre.
Michael Croft founded the National Youth Theatre. One of his students was Simon Ward, who went on to star as James Herriot in the film version of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’, which Claude Whatham directed in 1974 after finishing ‘Swallows & Amazons’. Sophie Neville had been invited to watch the filming in Yorkshire, meeting Anthony Hopkins and members of the cast and crew who had worked on Swallows & Amazons in 1973. Brenda Bruce played Mrs Harbottle and Wilfred Josephs composed the music, Terry Needham was the Location Manager and Ronnie Cogan the Hairdresser.
‘I didn’t meet James Herriot until I worked in production at the BBC on Russell Harty in 1982. He was charming – an incredibly confident man. I don’t remember his wife being interviewed but she came with him to the studio and struck me as being terribly nice. She wore a proper dress, which is more than could be said for anyone else in the Green Room.’
A year later Sophie Neville appeared with Simon Ward’s daughter Sophie Ward in the adventure movie ‘The Copter Kids’ when they played sisters. Simon brought his family to watch the filming on location near Gerrards Cross. In September there will be a special tribute to Simon Ward at the Michael Croft Theatre when they will be screening ‘Young Winston’.
Sophie Neville gave a 40th anniversary talk on ‘Filming Swallows & Amazons in 1973′ for members of The Arthur Ransome Society gathering for their AGM at Brockenhurst College in the New Forest. ‘Swallow’ , the dinghy from the 1974 film, was moored at Buckler’s Hard on the Beaulieu River for members to sail.
Arthur Ransome’s boat The Nancy Blackett ~ The Goblin in Arthur Ransome’s book ‘We didn’t Mean to Go to Sea’ was also the Solent for this event and for the Old Gaffers Yogaff regatta at Yarmouth, Isle of Wight
Meanwhile in the Lake District there was an outdoor screening of the movie Swallows & Amazons at Holly Howe (Bank Ground Farm) on the shores of Coniston Water, with Captain Flint’s Houseboat, SY Gondola, in attendance.
To read the filmography posts about the 1974 film please go to ~ https://sophieneville.net/category/autobiography/
A hot sunny day in the Lake District, at last. This was 1973 and Mum had a blue sunhat firmly wedged onto my head. I suppose this was so that I wouldn’t go pink. It was lovely to be able to eat lunch outside under the rhododendrons with my sisters but I started to roast in my stripy acrylic polo-neck jersey and begged to be able to wear something cooler. Terry Smith the Wardrobe Master was not pleased when he found me wearing one of Suzanna Hamilton’s costumes, especially since I was eating a choc-ice in it.
Mrs Causey, our long suffering Tutor, was helping me to swot for the summer exams we knew being sent north from my school. These were taken very seriously. My father was still paying my fees. They amounted to as much as I was earning for appearing in the film. I don’t think my little sisters had any formal education at all that week. I can only suppose that they learnt a little more about being in films even though this was the one day that I didn’t appear in Swallows and Amazons.
Who were the boys? The lad in the film clip with a Motorola and cigarette, who seems to have taken off his shirt for the first time that summer, is Gareth Tandy, the Third Assistant. The boys mentioned in my diary were slightly older. Why did we call them Prop-boys? Is it something left over from the theatre? I know Bobby-Props ~ Bob Hedges ~ must have been over 40 and was regarded as the father figure of the unit. He worked out of a lorry with a sunshiny roof with John Leuenberger, Terry Wells and Bill Hearn the carpenter. Dad caught them on film when they were having lunch. I think they must have later gone off to Bowness to help set up for our big scene the next day and kindly returned with ice-creams and Coco-cola, which would have been a great treat. They were generous to a fault.
The Prop-men on Swallows and Amazons have movie credits to their names which would delight any actor. They never seemed to stop working. Claude Whatham may well have asked for them to join us as they’d all been on the crew of his first film That’ll be the Day. Bobby Hedges later worked with some of the others on The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Julia, The Shout and Midnight Express. John Leuenberger went on to work on Stardust, Bugsy Malone, Chariots of Fire and Superman III. Terry Wells is listed as having been the Property Master on amazing movies such as The Mission, Braveheart, Quadrophenia, Cry Freedom, Full Metal Jacket, Troy, 101 Dalmatians and the most recent Robin Hood starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, as well as big TV series such as Holby City and The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret.
If you look at our Call Sheet for the day you can see at a glance how important the Property Master’s job was. Swallows and Amazons was a technically unusual film as the dinghies were action props. Swallow had to be kitted out with exactly the same rigging – plus the same ‘continuity props’ – the torch, compass, whistle, charts, blankets and provisions, originally listed by Arthur Ransome, that were in the little ship when she left Wildcat Island in the scene when John gave me the telescope.
In Scene: 135 the envelope containing the Amazon’s message is key to the action, thus an Action Prop. If we’d seen it before it would have been known as a ‘Continuity Action Prop’. You can see it pinned to the post in the short film clip. Simon Holland, our Set Designer, to whom the Prop-men were working, had a number of identical envelopes made. Lesley Bennett, who played Peggy Blackett, wrote the message in her clear, italic writing quite a few times so that there would be replacements for re-takes after John scrunched up the first one and flung it in the water. There are times when a continuity action prop such as our telescope, which was irreplaceable, becomes very precious indeed. Had it been forgotten or lost it would have caused major disruption to the day’s filming.
There was very little ‘set dressing’ for theses scenes but you can understand that it was crucial that the guys mounted Captain Nancy’s scull and crossbones on the Amazon boathouse. They would have taken this off at the end of the day and stored it in case re-takes were needed, which is why the carpenter returned from Bowness with a long ladder in the lorry and ice creams for us all.
We loved the props as children. I treasured the few items that Bobby made on the set and gave me at the end of the filming, such as his prototype flags. When I became an Assistant Floor Manager, the BBC’s equivalent to a Second Assistant Director, I found myself responsible for the Action Props with one or two prop men working with me. The few times that continuity props were forgotten or mislaid are painfully etched on my memory. That awful feeling, when a lost item effects so many people, like losing a wallet or your car keys, is magnified hugely when filming is so costly and involves so many. Despite always being terribly careful I had a continuity prop stolen from the Eastenders’ studio (see my ‘Career’ page and scroll down until you find the section with William the pug dog).
Someone once stole the soap from the set of Bluebell. I can’t think why. It was a miserable little piece for a scene set in Bescancon Internment Camp. Prisoner of war soap. The Prop-buyer got very angry. I quickly made up something that looked like the original but I couldn’t do the same when our Prop-man lost Gerald Durrell’s pre-war binoculars on the island of Corfu. I remember him turning out his van in despair before finding them carefully stored in bubble-wrap behind his seat. I don’t think any of the props were mislaid on Swallows and Amazons, despite all the rushing around in boats, but Mum says that we shot a scene wearing the wrong costumes. We are not sure which this was but no doubt it will be recoded in the later pages of my diary, which you can read here…
‘Natives again. Or cannibals. This marks the spot where they ate six missionaries’ has to be the best line that anyone in the history of film making has ever had to utter. It is not in the book, just that ‘…they might have been killed and eaten by other natives,’ as Titty, having digested huge helpings of Daniel Defoe, declares herself the most ardent imperialist of all time. And she has such fun doing so. I have always liked the talk of ‘the powerful native’ (Mr Jackson the Lakeland farmer) and the savages living around Rio. I always hope it shocks lots of people.
What I have found really does shock people – shocks them so much that they admit to being shocked – is that I was once a missionary. In Africa. And in Australia. I think they think I try to convert the natives but of course it is not like that. You go not knowing what will happen and find yourselves making life a bit more fun for people who belong to God but are battling a bit.
It is like this: The Amazons, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, who are energetic tomboys living in the Lake District, had lost their father. It goes unsaid, but Peggy very touchingly lets it out in Swallowdale when they find a hidden tin on the peak of Kanchenjunga. Their mother’s brother, Jim Turner, took them sailing and did things with them with them the first summer but then decided to concentrate on writing his book. Nancy and Peggy feel so rejected they light a firework on the roof of his boat, which enrages him. The Swallows, who know what it was like to live without a father around as theirs is in the Navy, travel from afar but somehow manage to come alongside the Amazons and give them a reason to keep going and live life to the full. Nancy and Peggy excel – they find life-long friends and do all the things they are meant to do. All sorts of things happen as a result. And the Swallows are challenged and have more fun than if they had ever travelled in a structured way, intent solely on their own enjoyment. They have great adventures and do more things than they ever imagined possible .
I still go on short term missions. We went to China with the Bible Society in March. It was amazing – hysterical. A mission of encouragement that Titty would have loved. We met people who had not had European visitors for forty years. They were really excited to know that people in the wider world were interested in their welfare and had come to bring them the word of God. The only Europeans – only white people – they had seen before us were there to make money. It’s shocking, isn’t it?
You can read more here: