‘It’s a shark! It’s a shark!’ One of the most enjoyable days filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Sophie Neville and Simon West on the cover of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ pub by the Daily Mail

Of all the wonderful days we spent filming Swallows and Amazons in 1973, the fishing scene, shot in a reedy bay on Elterwater was one I enjoyed most. It was a cold, rather wet morning but the Third Assistant, Gareth Tandy, taught us how to use our rods and we were soon absorbed in a way that Arthur  Ransome would have understood well.

Our fragile bamboo rods, one with a wooden reel, were supplied by a keen fisherman called Leslie Borwick, who brought up his own daughter and grandchildren on Arthur Ransome’s books. He kept the rods, which still belong to the family. 

Filming the fishing scene
Filming the fishing scene from the camera punt on Elterwater

The only problem we had that day was keeping the fish alive.  Bob Hedges our Property Master, the Designer Simon Holland and Ian Whittaker, the Set Dresser, took it upon themselves to keep the perch as happy as they could, until they were – very carefully – attached to our hooks.  Titty doesn’t catch one but John did. Despite everyone’s best efforts it wasn’t a very lively perch.

Property Master Bob Hedges keeping the perch alive  ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The big challenge was Roger’s great fish – a massive pike that meant to be snapping and ferocious. I’ve been told that it ended up being resuscitated in Keswick Hospital ICU – the Intensive Care Unit.

The local fisherman, Ian Whittaker, Simon Holland and Gareth Tandy with the fish  photo: Daphne Neville

Sadly this is the only photograph we have of the set designers at work together. Later that afternoon we went to one of the few interiors of the film – the general store in Rio or Bowness-on-Windermere where we bought the rope for the lighthouse tree and four bottles of grog. I’m not sure, but think it was a shop at the time. It was later a barber shop and is now a showroom for wood-burnging stoves. Back then, Ian dressed the interior with boxes of wooden dolly pegs and other things you’d buy in brown paper bags. A wonderful 1920’s radio set and two purring cats really made the scene come alive, especially since, being in reticent explorer mode, we were a bit gruff in our communications with the native shop keeper.

The general Store in Rio
Sophie Neville in Rio with four bottles of grog ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Ian Whittaker struck me as being rather different from everyone else on the crew. He was a very nice looking man and a gentleman of the old school. I remember him telling me that he’d originally set out to be an actor but had found it so difficult to get work that he grabbed a chance to become a Set-Dresser or Designer’s Assistant. He found he rather enjoyed it, and stuck to the job despite his family thinking it was not much of a career. He proved them wrong. By 1971 he was working for Ken Russell on The Boy Friend – a musical about a Musical starring Twiggy with Christopher Gable and Max Adian that I’d seen at school. After Swallows and Amazons he worked on Ridley Scott’s film Alien with Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt and John Hurt and was nominated for an Oscar with the others on the design team. Eventually he won an Oscar for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration with the Designer Luciana Arrighi for Howards End –  the movie of EM Forster’s book starring Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham-Carter.  In 1994 he was nominated again, this time for Remains of the Day directed by James Ivory. After that he worked on Sense and Sensibility, Emma Thompson’s movie of the Jane Austen classic that launched Kate Winslet’s career, some of which was shot at Montacute in Somerset where my great-grandmother lived.  Ian Whittaker received another Oscar nomination for Anna and the King in 2000 and a nomination for an Emmy Award for the TV movie Into the Storm in 2009.

So, it was rather a waste that Ian spent his time just building little stone walls in the lake to keep the perch alive on our set, but I think he enjoyed the fishing scene as much as I.

You can read more in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ available online, from Waterstones and your local library. It is suitable for all ages of readers.

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)'