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 (on the film in) mid-June, which would fit in with finishing college. From your daily schedule it was when you went back to Coniston with Virgina 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.’
This photograph of Richard and Neville sitting on the deck of Captain Flint’s houseboat in the pouring rain must epitomize the struggles they went through to work around the weather and bring ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in on budget.
It was Claude Whatham’s dream to end the movie with an aerial shot of Swallow and Amazon sailing away from Captain Flint’s houseboat. He had a helicopter pilot standing-by with a special cameraman, but it wasn’t to be. He needed bright sunshine for the shot to cut with our farewell sequence after the battle. We waited three days but the weather was too dull and wet to film anything useful. I’m so glad. Claude ended up freezing the simple shot that captures Arthur Ransome’s book completely. It was used on the front of one of the first VHS copies of the movie.
I’m afraid we hung about the very nice Water Head Hotel in Ambleside getting bored and precocious, or so the evidence suggests. Since John and Margaret, our location caterers, had returned to Pinewood Studios, we were taken to the hotel restaurant for lunch.
We loved that cinema in Ambleside. Was it the same then as Zeffirellis, the cinema in Compston Road operating today? The adults must have found it a good means of keeping us peacefully entertained, but then again they were all film-makers, who loved movies. Zanna didn’t come to the cinema that afternoon. She walked four miles up Wanstell Pike with Jane Grendon.
Albert Clarke, the stills photographer on the film crew, had given us contact sheets of the black and white photographs that he had taken during the filming. I spent my time at the Kirkstone Foot Hotel, where Claude and Richard were staying, with a tube of Copydex ~ or ‘rubber solution glue’, as they kept saying on Blue Peter, sticking the tiny photographs into the scrap books that I had been keeping.
Richard Pilbrow kindly let us choose large 10’x 8′ versions of the photographs, which we are able to take home to our families. I kept mine all these years, never using them for anything, but treasuring them as a memory of those happy, fulfilling days spent in Cumbria in 1973.
You can now read about making the movie in the ebook ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’ or the paperback entitled, ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ available at most online distributors or to order from your library or local bookshop.
Before Jean McGill arrived at the Oaklands Guesthouse in Ambleside, to transport us to the location, a letter arrived. It was from my Daddy who somehow must have found time to post a quick note while taking my sisters to school. We were, indeed, all looking forward to the wrap party to be held that evening. There was much to do before it started. Twelve scenes are listed on the Unit Call Sheet and it was pouring with rain.
Here we are – it was Ernie Russell who was in charge of the action and support boats. Does anyone know where he is now? The day proved difficult and wet, but everyone was in high spirits. It was the last day for most.
It was a great Wrap party, held at the unit hotel. Suzanna noted that it didn’t start until 10 O’clock. 10pm! Very grown up. It must have been the talk of Ambleside. Mum took off her Donny Osmond hat and wore a long high-collared dress in pink gingham. I wore the brown and black velvet pinafore dress Mummy and Daddy had bought me in Carnaby Street when we went up to London for my first interview with Claude Whatham. Everyone was kind and jolly. For a while the party revolved around us. We enjoyed the dancing so much didn’t want to leave, but it was evident that the adults wanted to start to play. As you can imagine, no one could persuade us to go to bed. Jean McGill saved the evening by organising a conga. Having led a sheltered life I had never danced the conga before and thought it the greatest fun. Luckily the Carnaby Street dress was well designed for the job. We conga-ed around the Kirkstone Foot Hotel with the entire crew. Somehow we ended up conga-ing into her mini-bus and were whisked back to Oaklands before midnight.
This clip shows Jean McGill (in red) with Sophie Neville (in blue tracksuit top) and Albert Clarke our stills photographer. Our Chaperone, Jane Grendon, is teasing Terry Needham, the second assistant director. Simon West, playing John Walker, stands by Derwentwater in costume. Neville C Thompson (in yellow shirt) smiles at our glamorous tutor Margaret Causey while Graham Ford and others get into a support boat. Actor Ronald Fraser walks towards the lake and waiting boat, followed by hairdresser Ronnie Cogan. You can see Swallow in the background whilst Jean McGill chats to my mother, Daphne Neville who is wearing her yellow, flowery Donny Osmond hat. She originally had a pink flowery version, which Claude admired (and wore himself) but it blew off and sunk to the bottom of the lake.
‘The rain poured down.’ Cumbria was covered in cloud, the Lake District dark and dismal. What a nightmare for Richard Pilbrow and his production team. We were behind schedule, Lesley Bennett who played Peggy was ill in bed and we had run out of ‘rain cover’.
There was one sequence left that could be recorded in dull weather. Today was the day Claude Whatham shot the haunting scenes of Octopus Lagoon. After finishing our school work Kit Seymour and I sat watching the filming from the sloping field above the beautiful but rather smelly lily pond.
I do not have the Call Sheet for 29th June 1973 but have an extract from this earlier one detailing the ‘Alternative Dull Weather Call’:
I can’t say whether the weather allowed for the scene set on the Amazon River to be shot. Lesley had ‘flu so they would have had to somehow manage without her. I think Claude devoted his time to capture the conundrum and challenges faced by Captain John in the lagoon. The location chosen for this was on private property near Skelwith Fold Caravan Park. Those who are interested in finding the film locations used might find this old hand-typed ‘Movement Order’ useful:
Roger Wardale sites Octopus Lagoon as being Allan Tarn a short distance up the River Crake at the Southern end of Coniston Water, near High Nibthwaite. This is the place Arthur Ransome had in mind. He spent time there with is brother and sisters as a child when they spent their summers on Swainson’s Farm at Nibthwaite nearby. His father went there to fish for pike. It you have a shallow bottomed boat you can get there but it is not exactly on a footpath. The lily pond we used was in a high sided dip, which made it appropriately dark and gloomy. It was also more accessible for the film crew.
Graham Ford, who signed the Movement Order was our Production Manager. I only have a photograph of him taken on a sunnier day.
Graham Ford would have been responsible for the film schedule, putting together the whole logistical jigsaw puzzle posed by factors such as the availability of leading actors and locations with the movement of vehicles and boats, including the massive camera pontoon. It was Graham who took the stress of problems caused by wet weather. I guess that he also took on the responsibilities of managing the locations, negotiating with owners and the Lake District National Park, something that authors such as Arthur Ransome would not have had to face.
Although young, Graham was pretty experienced. He had previously worked as an assistant director on such classic films as Steptoe and Son and had been the Unit Manager on The Devils, a film that starred Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed. After Swallows he went on to work as Production Manager on S.O.S Titanic, The Honorary Consul and Princess Daisy as well as Time Bandits and Brazil directed by Terry Gilliam starring Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist and Robert de Niro. Imagine being Terry Gilliam’s right hand man. He was a Location Manager for David Lynch on The Elephant Man and for Richard Attenborough on Ghandi in 1982. Graham’s career progressed. He produced The Nightmare Years and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in the late 1980s before working on Gettysburg, the massive four hour long movie about the American civil war, in 1993. A life in film. He died in Ontario in 1994 aged only 48.
If you would like to read more, the story of the filming can be read in a paperback entitled ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1976)’ available from libraries worldwide or from online stockist and good bookshops. The Nancy Blackett Trust have signed copies available here with proceeds going to the trust. These are illustrated so cost £15 but make good presents.
Suzanna Hamilton’s first impression of Ronald Fraser was that, ‘he was quite nice but v.fussy.’ It seems to me that he loved three things: acting, ladies and laughter. Whilst he had a small mouth his capacity for alcohol of almost any kind was legendary. Funnily Enough this was the day that we all had a drink on set. The clapperboard or slate had snapped shut on the 500th shot of the movie and in, line with tradition, a bottle of champagne was cracked open. Somehow I managed to end up with the dregs. I thought them utterly delicious.
I’m not sure exactly what was going through Ronnie Fraser’s mind at this point but Denis Lewiston has a call sheet in one hand, so must have still had his mind on work. I think we’d reached the end of a pretty good day.
The fishing rod was such an excitment. Simon West was very generous and let us all catch fish with it. Arthur Ransome would have been proud of him.
Suzanna added another story ~
Suzanna refers to the 500th take, but she was mistaken. We rarely took more that 3 takes of each shot. It was the 500th slate. It doesn’t seem much to me now. I went on to work on drama serials with so many episodes that they would have amounted to films four or five hours long.
I remember operating the clapper-board on this occasion because the entire camera crew were involved in pulling off a 360 degree shot, the cameraman Andrew Dunn up on a crane while a stiff wind was blowing, but that’s another story. I was just the girl saying, ‘Shot one thousand and forty-nine, take three.’ Quite fun.
Did appearing in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ inspire me towards working on a film crew? No, at the time the hanging around aspect of filming bored and frustrated us children. Later, when I did work on productions, any time I was able to relax on set was treasured, absolutely relished. I was an assistant director with a Motorola on my hip and rarely had a chance to take the weight off my feet.
I have just watched the scene shot in the cabin of the houseboat and have noticed an odd thing. We have a travelling chest of drawers exactly like Captain Flint’s and I set a mirror on top of it just as Ian Whittaker the set-dresser had.
One secret of the scene is that, once we start to clap and sing, ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor?’ Claude Whatham, the director shouted, ‘Go round’, not once but twice. If you listen very carefully you can just hear him the second time. He wanted us to dance around the room. I knew this but couldn’t move much with the parrot, so went up and down. Kit Seymour was absolutely boiling in her red bobble hat and no on else could move much for fear of knocking the furniture. It was left to Suzanna to dance about – a tricky thing to do without seeming self conscious. All in all I think we needed a glass of champagne by the end of that day.
If you are enjoying this blog, please think of buying an updated version of the story, available as a paperback or ebook from all online retailers including Amazon here
Serendipity [ser-uh n-dip-i-tee] an aptitude or faculty for making desirable discoveries by accident
Serendipity indeed. The word has been quoted to me so many times that I’ve started to take note. The serendipit in question connects me to a rather large, bald man with massive moustaches called Arthur Ransome.
In March 1973 my father was sent a letter, completely out of the blue:
We are at present casting for a film version of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS which Mr Whatham is going to direct. We were wondering if you would be interested in your daughter being considered for one of the parts in this film. Amazing!
To gain a part I had to be able to swim well. I think this was to do with ensuring I was unlikely to drown. As it happened I could row, sail and swim. My parents had taught me but I can’t remember Claude Whatham asking me about this when he interviewed me. He wanted to know what my favourite Television programme was.
‘Because they show you how to do things.’
It was exactly what Mr Whatham wanted to hear. Why? Because that is what Arthur Ransome does in his books. He doesn’t tell. He shows his readers how to sail. And how to camp. By the age of twelve I had already read about seven books in the series and loved the stories. What I didn’t know then was the effect they would have on the rest of my life.
By May 1973 I was on my way up to the Lake District to play Titty Walker in the feature film being produced by Theatre Projects and distributed by EMI. I didn’t think I was right as Titty at all. In real life Titty had been Anglo-Armenian and grew up in Syria. The illustrations show her with dark hair, cut in a bob. And I thought of myself as far more like the practical Susan, Titty’s older sister. However I was assured that I could play Titty and I did. Able seaman Titty, crew of the Swallow. Thankfully they cut my straggly blonde hair and I sang out the dialogue that I already knew off by heart from reading the book, ‘I expect someone hid on the island hundreds and hundreds of years ago.’
How the real parrot arrived on my shoulder I can’t quite remember but within months of returning from Coniston Water I had a green and yellow parrot of my own. I think he had outlived his owner and was given to us to keep. He was good company and very chatty. I adored him and could take him anywhere. When I was asked to be in Animal Magic to talk about the film he sat on my shoulder while I was rowing a boat, and I think did most of the talking.What I didn’t realise was how themes from Arthur Ransome’s life would follow me through the rest of my life.
When the time came for me to matriculate I went to Collingwood College at the University of Durham. The name resonated later when I discovered that W.D. Collingwood’s grandchildren were the real Swallows. W.D. Collingwood was an archaeologist living above Coniston Water, where the books are set, and had excavated Peel Island– or Wild Cat Island– finding the remains of a Viking settlement there. Some one had hidden there hundred of years ago. WD Collingwood Titty’s grandfather studied at the Slade, as did my own grandfather, HW Neville. He may have been there at the same time as Titty’s mother Dora Collingwood.
Arthur Ransome won a Kitchener Scholarship. Years later these rare awards have been won by both my niece and my nephew. When Arthur Ransome first lived in London, he had digs in Hollywood Road. When I moved to London I shared flats with friends, first in Tregunter Road, then Harcourt Terrance, which ware merely extensions of Hollywood Road, which is off the Fulham Road in West Brompton. I had gained a graduate traineeship at the BBC. The first drama series that I worked on was Swallows and Amazons Forever! an adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s books set on the Norfolk Broads, Coot Club and The Big Six. It was not a chance thing, I contacted the Producer and asked if I could work on the series, but the fact that I’d heard about it was unusual, and amazing really that it was made that year when I was available to join the production team. I had first worked with Rosemary Leach, who played The Admiral – Mrs Barrable, when she starred, not as Missee Lee, but as Mrs Lee in Cider with Rosie. I later found myself working with William the Pug dog on Eastenders when he featured as Ethel’s ‘Little Willie’ . It was such fun to see him again. He was a playful little dog with a great sense of fun.
The first documentary I directed for the BBC involved an adder. I was filming in at a Nature Reserve in Dorset with a group of children who came across one immediately. It was huge, a black adder. The Billies would have declared this a great sign of luck. I’m not sure I thought much about Swallows and Amazons, over the next few years but I did film at a school in Cumbria and loved being back in the Lakes.
After working at the BBC for eight years I fell ill and, much like Arthur Ransome, had to abandon my full time job to work from home. Like him I had a yearning to spend as much time as possible in the great outdoors and chose to live in the wilderness. I spent my time exploring southern Africa, camping and cooking on fires. Of the subjects I’d studied at university the ones I most enjoyed were cartography and water-colours. I started to earn my living by drawing birds, animals and decorative maps. The maps usually depicted game reserves and involved giving names to landmarks as places of interest, just like Titty’s maps. I must have drawn forty maps in the style of those on the original cover of Swallows and Amazons, using the same borders and style of lettering. And I kept diaries, writing just as Titty would have done. I also worked freelance for the BBC, mainly setting up wildlife programmes. A rye smile did pass my lips when I was asked to find South African items for Blue Peter. I was thinking back to my first interview at Theatre Projects with Claude. They came to South Africa for their summer expedition one year, and it was I who sent them off to film the Outspan harvest and wild dog puppies in the Kruger National Park. After a while I fell into the pattern of flying back to England at Easter time and returning to Africa in the autumn. This was partly through choice, partly to comply with visa regulations and work commitments. I’d migrate every year with the swallows.
When we were making the feature film of Swallows and Amazons my mother looked after all six children. The girls playing the Amazons, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, needed to learn how to shoot with a bow and arrow. My mother taught them. She had learnt how to draw a long bow when she was first married, and was encouraged by an ex-Olympian called Bertie. I became interested too, which stood me in good stead as the next part I had in a feature film was playing Liz Peters, a fictional archery champion.
Thirty years after the premier of Swallows and Amazons I had flown back from Africa and was staying at my parents’ house, when a lady arrived from Korea. She timidly knocked on the door, explaining that she was translating Swallows and Amazons into Chinese and would love to talk to me about the book. She came bearing gifts: a hand-quilted wedding bedspread and a pile of silk garments amounting to a bride’s trousseaux. It was a week after I had met my husband-to-be. At that stage he had not even asked me out and I had no idea we would marry. I’d met him at the archery – shooting with my bow and arrow. He was Bertie’s grandson. My three sisters have never been a bit interested in archery. If I hadn’t been enthused by Swallows and Amazons, and consequently taken it up to play Liz Peters, I would never have met my husband. I still have the wedding quilt.
And then I met Dr Frankland, a Harley Street Consultant who was to become an historical adviser on a script I was developing. I soon learnt that Bill Frankland had been a good friend of Roger Altounyan and knew his sister Titty. As young men they both worked for Alexander Flemming.
Roger, Titty and their elder sisters Susie and Taqui were W.D.Collingwood’s grandchildren, the real characters on which Arthur Ransome based the Swallows. What I didn’t know was that Roger Altounyan became an allergist. He developed the spin-inhaler, experimenting on himself. Dr Frankland explained that he eventually died as a result. I was allergic to feathers as a child and prone to horrific asthma attacks. Not from parrot’s feathers but old pillows and eiderdowns. The Ventolin inhaler is something to which I probably owe my life. Dr Frankland, who is to celebrate his 100th birthday this March, still works as a Harley Street allergist and is often called upon to make broadcasts on Radio 4. He instigated the pollen count, numbered Saddam Hussein as one of his most grateful patients and has been the expert witness at a number of murder trials.
Bertie’s Olympic bow now hangs on my stairs. I am still sailing dinghies, still drawing maps but thankfully no longer suffer from asthma. Harbour Pictures with BBC Films are now planning a new film adaptation of Swallows and Amazons. A whole new generation of children will be shown how to sail and camp and cook on open fires. I couldn’t be more thrilled.