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Alison Hull interviews Sophie Neville on her involvement with the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Signing copies of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ in Cumbria

1 – How did you get the part of Titty?

In March 1973, a letter arrived, out of the blue, inviting me to audition for a role in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I was twelve years old, an ordinary school girl at a convent in Berkshire. I’d read the Arthur Ransome books but had no idea I was up for the lead in a major EMI feature film intended for a universal international audience. The movie was directed by Claude Whatham. Back in 1970, he’d cast me as Eileen Brown, opposite a boy playing Laurie Lee, in the BBC’s first adaptation of ‘Cider With Rosie’. It was a role that demanded learning a piano piece so complicated it took twenty-one hours to master, but I did it. Claude must have respected my hard work. I was too tall to play Titty but, after a sailing audition at Burnham-on-Crouch, I was offered the part. He cast Sten Grendon, who’d played the young Laurie Lee, as Roger, Suzanna Hamilton was Susan and Virginia McKenna starred as our mother. She later admitted to finding her character rather dull but it was her name, in lights outside cinemas, that drew big audiences. We’ve kept in touch. She is still acting, aged 87, and has led the Born Free Foundation’s international campaign to redeem the lives of wild animals held in miserable conditions since 1998.

With Virginia McKenna on location at Bank Ground Farm near Coniston, in 1973 

2 – Why was it so suitable for you?

We loved visiting the Lake District as a family. My father helped the Maryport Button Factory with their publicity and once took us to stay on a farm near Castle Craig above the River Derwent. I spent my childhood camping and messing about in boats, adding a sail made from a dust-sheet to an old rowing skiff. The great thing about the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was that Simon West, who played Captain John, was an exceptional sailor. He went on to become a national champion. Kit Seymour, who played Captain Nancy, also had a natural command of the waves. It shows on screen. They were able to handle our small boats when squalls rolled down from the fells. I didn’t have their innate understanding of the wind but it was Titty’s job to row everywhere – back from the charcoal burners and off to One Tree Island on Derwentwater. “Pull harder, Roger!” I managed to row Amazon out of Secret Harbour in one take, with the cameraman and a massive 35mm Panavision Camera on board.

The Swallows voyage to Wild Cat IslandSimon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville in Swallow, 1973

Casting-off Swallow was more of a challenge. It doesn’t show on a small screen, but when ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is screened in cinemas, you can spot the sequence when I slip on a rock with the telescope in one hand. I was up to my waist in water but got back on my feet and battled on, waving as the others sailed up Coniston Water. I knew how difficult the shot was to achieve and was desperate to do my best for Claude Whatham.

Standing on Peel Island in a soaking wet dress while the Swallows sailed north

3 – Did it fire your wish to work in TV?

No! It was directing plays while reading Anthropology at Durham University that ignited a desire to work on television dramas. However, the experienced I’d gained acting in movies helped me win a place on the BBC TV Graduate Trainee scheme. After working on ‘The Russell Harty Show’, I grabbed the chance to cast children on the adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s books set on the Norfolk Broads: ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’. I found Henry Dimbleby, then aged thirteen, to play the lead and spent three months on location with Julian Fellowes and Rosemary Leach – who I’d met when she played Laurie Lee’s mother. I later worked on ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Eastenders’ and ‘My Family and Other Animals’, before producing an INSET series, directing one episode at a village school in Cumbria. I began casting children in the Lake District to appear in BBC adaptations of Arthur Ransome’s Lakeland books but they were axed, which was sad, as we were all set to make ‘Swallowdale’ and ‘Pigeon Post’ on the high moors.

Sophie Neville directing a drama-doc with BBC cameraman Lorraine Smith

4 – What does the Lake District in general, and Keswick in particular, mean to you?

We live on the south coast but take the train north at any opportunity. I’m now President of The Arthur Ransome Society and came up for a fabulous weekend in May when we sailed from the jetty at Bank Ground Farm – Holly Howe in Ransome’s books. I gave an illustrated talk on the secrets of making ‘Swallows and Amazons’ at the Bassenthwaite Institute, using behind-the-scenes photographs taken when we were filming on Derwentwater forty-five years ago. We shot all the scenes involving Captain Flint’s Houseboat in a bay on the western shore. She was played by the Lady Derwentwater, converted for the drama by Ian Whittaker, a talented young set dresser who went on to win an Oscar for set decoration on the feature film ‘Howards End’ starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. We shot the lighthouse tree scenes near Friar’s Craig and used Lingholme or One Tree Island for Cormorant Island, where Titty finds the treasure chest. We enjoyed making Ronald Fraser, the film actor playing Captain Flint, walk the plank and sailed up Derwentwater to the strains of ‘What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor’, played as the end credits roll. Forty years later, Suzanna Hamilton and I were asked to lunch with Richard Pilbrow the producer of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Buskers were singing this song outside the restaurant in Covent Garden. We couldn’t believe the coincidence.

Meeting fans of Swallows and Amazons at Keswick in July

I meet people from far and wide who tell me the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ inspired them to visit the Lake District. It has been broadcast on television every year for the last forty years and was last shown in Australia on Boxing Day. It has been dubbed into Czech twice and is often shown at festivals as only ‘U’ certificate movies can be screened outdoors. I just hope this has proved a blessing to the people of Keswick, which I so loved visiting as a child. I thought the 2016 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – that I appear in for approximately two seconds – would overshadow the classic version but it has simply raised awareness along with DVD sales. Fan mail continues to arrive. A beautiful card came today. Arthur Ransome would have been touched. It had fish on it.

Funnily Enough - the first extract in iBelieve Magazine

Editorial coverage and a literary award for ‘Funnily Enough’

5 – Do you want to mention mental health/physical health issues are always in the news?

I find that many of my readers are stuck in bed or battling with ill-health. I hope they are amused and uplifted in some way by stories in my books. ‘Funnily Enough’, a diary I kept after collapsing at the BBC, is about my own struggle with what I am pretty sure was a tick-bourne disease. I lost my job but recovered in Southern Africa, where I fulfilled Titty’s dream of seeing “forests full of parrots” and produced decorative maps for a living, inspired by Spurrier’s illustration on the original cover of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I used maps and details from my sketchbook to illustrate a paperback entitled, ‘Ride the Wings of Morning’, which is out in colour as an ebook.

On the crew of the Gloriana in the Boat Race Flotilla in March featured on BBC Television 

6 – What else?

People often ask how ‘Swallows and Amazons’ influenced my life, keen to know what I am doing now. I am still keen on rowing. I completed the Voga Longa, a 32 kilometre marathon through the Venetian lagoon with Olympic gold medallist Ed Code and was on the crew of The Queen’s row barge Gloriana for the Boat Race Flotilla this year. This summer, I grabbed the chance to row through the canals of Amsterdam, which was fascinating. However, it was the Amazons bows and arrows that impacted my life. After learning to shoot on the shores of Coniston Water, I was cast as an archery champion in another movie and have since won three Ladies Championships. I met my husband at an archery match. My stepson shot for England in July, winning a tri-annual match against the Royal Company of Archers (so proud!) I gave a talk recently demonstrating how the arrows in ‘Swallows and Amazons were’ fired over my head. The shot looks so dangerous that it was cut from the TV version of the film, but is included in the re-mastered 40th Anniversary cinema Blu-ray version, which we are now able to watch on the big screen.

Rowing in from De Hoop Rowing Club in Amsterdam, July 2018

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Swallows, Amazons and Archery

Much has been written of the legacy left by Arthur Ransome’s, who inspired so many go camping, fell walking or sail the seven seas. I hope he would be amused to learn it has been the arrow, fletched with green parrot feathers, that has flown through the pages of my life.

Sophie Neville the archer c 1969~Sophie Neville dressed as a medieval archer in 1969~

 Archery became a popular sport for ladies in Victorian England. The influence was not lost on Arthur Ransome who writes in his autobiography that his Great-aunt Susan was a keen toxophilite who attended bow meetings at Belle Isle, the long island on Windermere. Another great-aunt was shot in the bonnet by an arrow when the Boxer Rising reached Peking while she was serving as a missionary. I gather it was his sister Joyce who owned a green parrot whose feathers made good pipe cleaners. Did they ever get used for flighting arrows? Arthur doesn’t seem to have taken up a bow beyond, perhaps, playing Red Indians as a child with his friend Ric Eddison. Does anyone know otherwise?

Titty may not have known that the real Queen Bess was a proficient archer, but Roger certainly expected savages to be armed with poison-tipped arrows as he took dispatches across the Peak at Darien.

Did Nancy and Peggy ever don Red Indian head-dresses? Since they are described as wearing red caps when the Swallows first encounter them, I assume this idea was instigated by Helen Edmundson’s musical and reinforced by the 2016 film. Although far from nautical, this is akin to certain antics in Secret Water and certainly adds visual drama to the confrontation.

Practicing with bows and arrows

~Sophie Neville with Peter Robb-King, Ronnie Cogan, Lesley Bennett, Kit Seymour and Terry Smith~ 

I learnt how to shoot in 1973 when the Amazons were being taught how to pull a bow made of Lakeland hazel for the original movie of Swallows and Amazons. As children, we all wanted a go. I still have a practice bow and a couple of arrows whittled on location by Bob Hedges, our property master. I remember one hitting the campfire. ‘Don’t touch the point – it might be poisonous!’ Please note that the shot of the arrows zooming over our heads looks so dangerous on screen that it was cut from the television version of the feature film. This was no snazzy visual effect. The arrows were genuine, however they were strung on taut nylon fishing line rigged over our heads to ensure we would not get hit. They were fired by the prop men and not the Amazons.

neville002

~Daphne Neville who won many archery prizes teaching Lesley Bennett (Peggy Blackett)~

As female Amazon warriors were redoubtable archers it is easy to imagine Captain Nancy bent a sapling to her will and had Peggy making arrows. It is reasonable to assume they used longbows on Wild Cat Island, but in Swallowdale it is a crossbow that graces Ransome’s illustration. How Nancy got her hands on one is unknown but it must have been simpler to use in a boat with discretion and accuracy. Did Ransome ever try this out?

Sophie Neville shooting

~Sophie Neville shooting with a compound bow in the Emirates 2016~

What happened to the bows and arrows after Swallowdale? Archery is something you usually grow into, rather than out of. By the age of fifteen, I’d gained the part of an archery champion in an adventure movie called The Copter Kids. This necessitated target practice with a modern re-curve bow and ended with me shooting from a helicopter.

I now belong to a number of archery societies and, like Great-aunt Susan, set out with my tabs and tassel, quiver and longbow. Luckily the skill, much like an appreciation of Arthur Ransome’s writing, is something that tends to improve with age. I met my husband at one bow meeting, have held three Ladies’ Championship titles and managed to reach a distance of 145 yards when we celebrated the 600th Anniversary of Agincourt.

I have never fired a crossbow. Since they are potentially lethal weapons, Nancy could have been detained for firing hers even if the tip was not deemed poisonous.

Author Sophie Neville

 ~Sophie Neville at a West Berks bow meeting~

A version of this article was originally published in Mixed Moss, the journal of The Arthur Ransome Society.

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Exploring Arthur Ransome’s Lake District

Letter from Arthur Ransome

~An illustrated letter from Arthur Ransome, 1955~

I have been sent a copy of a letter written to a reader by Arthur Ransome in June 1955, revealing where some of his locations can be found. I was interested to read that, ‘the lake is mainly Windermere with some things stolen from Coniston.’

This summer, we spent a long weekend with The Arthur Ransome Society when we managed to find quite a few locations around Coniston Water that are featured in Ransome’s books.

~Low Yewdale Farm, near Coniston ~

The curator of the John Ruskin Museum took us on a walk around the village of Coniston and under the Yewdale Crags towards Tarn Howes. We passed Low Yewdale Farm where Arthur Ransome stayed as a young man. It is just as I imagined Swainson’s Farm in ‘Swallowdale’. The footpath takes you down to the beck where Ransome fished for brown trout. I could imagine Roger attempting to tickle trout there.

If you follow the path on south, then branch left up the East of Lake Road around Coniston Water, you will find another footpath leading to Bank Ground Farm.

A hand-painted sign guides you through fields, where Galloway cows maybe grazing. Look up and you will literally find yourself at Holly Howe, the long white farmhouse where Mr and Mrs Jackson live in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. You can imagine the Walker children running down the meadow to the Peak of Darien.

Ernest Altounyan sailing Mavis on Coniston

~ Dr Ernest Altounyan rigging Mavis on Coniston Water~

It was here that the Altounyan children, Taqui, Susie, Titty, Roger and Brigit spent one summer holiday in 1928, while visiting their grandparents who lived next door at Lane Head. They learned to sail on the lake in two dinghies: Swallow and Mavis, later re-named Amazons, who can be visited at the John Ruskin Museum in Coniston.

IMG_7096

~Bank Ground Farm in Cumbria where the movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) was made~

The barn, inside which we filmed some of the night sequences for the original movie of ‘Swallows & Amazons’, has been converted into self-catering holiday accommodation that can house a number of families quite easily. From here you can run down to the boat shed where John, Susan, Titty and Roger found Swallow and imagine them setting off  on their voyage to Wild Cat Island leaving the Fair Spanish Ladies on the stone quay.

~The boatsheds below Bank Ground Farm, on Coniston Water~

Wooden jetties have been added recently and it is possible to either launch your own boat or hire a kyak from Bank Ground Farm.

~The northern end of Coniston Water~

We had a bedroom in the barn that looked north towards the Langdales. If you walk up the farm drive, you can look back towards Coniston Old Man, Kanchenjunga, which the Walkers and Blacketts climb in ‘Swallowdale’.

~Bank Ground Farm with the village of Coniston beyond~

Arthur Ransome was taken up the Old Man of Coniston as a tiny baby. You can climb it today but wear more than sand shoes. Stout walking boots are called for. The task of reaching the summit should not be underestimated.

We were able to get out on the lake to find a few more locations. This red-sailed dinghy, named Peggy Blackett, is a copy of Arthur Ransome’s Cochybundhu, used as the model for Dick and Dorothea’s boat Scarab.

~Sailing on Coniston Water towards the village of Coniston~

It is a long way down Coniston Water to Peel Island but it is there that you will spot the Secret Harbour, instantly recognisable as belonging to Wild Cat Island. We went there in the SL Gondola, that now belongs to the National Trust. Ransome knew the steam launch as a boy when he made friends with the captain.

~ Secret Harbour on the southern end of Peel Island, Coniston Water ~

In the cemetery of Coniston village I found the grave of Titty Altounyan, the girl who inspired Arthur Ransome’s well-loved character. I never met her but was with her niece Barbara that long weekend in Coniston, when we both thoroughly enjoyed walking, sailing and steaming along in Ransome’s footsteps.

~ Sophie Neville visiting Titty Altounyan’s grave in Coniston ~

For details of more locations at the southern end of Coniston Water that are featured in the Swallows and Amazons series of books, please click here.

Think of joining The Arthur Ransome Society and come looking for locations described in his books. You will find the details here.

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Boats used for making the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

I went on BBC Radio Cumbria recently, to ask if I could meet anyone involved in filming the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the summer of 1973, since it was made on location in the Lake District with a young crew.

~Nick Newby of Nicole End Marine~

Nick Newby of Nichol End Marine in Portinscale came to find me when I was helping at the Keswick Convention. As a young man in the 1970s, he provided boats for a number of films and was contacted by Graham Ford, the production manager of Swallows and Amazons in the Spring of 1973. Graham had began working with Mike Turk who had started building boats for TV and films at his family firm, Turk’s Launches, but this was based on the Thames in London. They needed help from someone in the Lake District who knew about traditional boats.

Ronald Fraser being transported to the Houseboat

~Ronald Fraser being trransported by Dory to The Lady Derwentwater in 1973~

Arthur Ransome had clearly based Captain Flint’s houseboat on the Esperance, originally a steam launch cruising on Windermere. You can read more about her and see photos here. ‘Since she was sitting on the bottom of Whitecross Bay at the time,’ Nick told me, ‘the film crew decided to use the Lady Derwentwater.’ This was a launch licensed to carry 90 passengers that Nick had worked on and knew well. ‘She is about 58 foot long and quite a rigid boat, having four full length steel RSJs set inside her. She was built the Lakes in 1928. We moored her at Brandelhowe in Great Bay for the filming. You need to be careful getting in, as there is a rock shelf.’ The advantage of using her was that you could see the view over the lake from her large cabin windows, which enhanced interior scenes. The Lady Derwentwater, whose nick-name is Dishy, has since been re-built with a different stern, but you can book a passage and go out on the lake in her yourself.

Lady Derwentwater 2018

~The Lady Derwentwater today~

Nick told me that Captain Flint’s eight foot Wright’s dinghy, the houseboat’s tender, had been made by Wright’s Brothers of Ipswich. The Jackson’s ‘native canoe’, rowed out to Peel Island by Virginia McKenna was ‘a family fourteen’ Wright’s sailing dinghy with a centre case. He knew many of the traditional boats in the Lakes. ‘I served me time as a yacht and boat builder at Shepherd’s in Bowness Bay.’ This company was based the green double-story boat sheds featured in the ‘Rio’ scenes. ‘During the winter we used to have to break the ice on the buckets of water when we were rubbing down boats. The sail lofts had a square panel in the apex so we could poke the 8 to 10 metre masts inside. A boom could go up the stairs but a mast certainly couldn’t. ‘

Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville on Wild Cat Island - contact sheet

~Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville and DoP Denis Lewiston~

‘Amazon belonged to a chap called Vosey who was rather reluctant to let her be used for the filming,’ Nick said. ‘We did her up a bit after the filming.’ I gather she had been used in the black and white BBC serial of Swallows and Amazons made in 1962 when  Susan George played the party of Kitty.

~Swallow sailing towards the filming pontoon in 1973~

I believe Swallow had been found at Burnham-on-Crouch as she was built by Williams King and Sons. Mike Turk, who had built a shallop for the 1966 movie ‘A Man For All Seasons’, purchased her for the film and brought her up to the Lakes. She had no added buoyancy. Nick claims that being a wooden boat she would never sink but I reminded him that we came close to hitting the MV Tern on Windermere when loaded with camping gear, which was a bit scary.

MV Tern of 1891 on Windermere

~MV Tern on Windermere today~

Swallow was later used at Elstree Studios when the sound was dubbed onto the finished film. Mike kept her out of the water in his store at Chatham until SailRansome bought her at auction in 2010. She was sensitively restored by Pattersons, has a new sail, added buoyancy bags and is now available for anyone to sail in Cumbria.

Swallow and the pontoon

~Mike Turk’s filming pontoon with Swallow attached in 1973~

‘Mike already had the flat-bottomed filming pontoon. It had originally been used for carrying a vehicle. We added twin outboard engines and rigged scaffold under the water so that either Swallow or Amazon could be attached to it but still keel over naturally as they sailed. When the dinghy went about, I would turn one outboard and thrust the other into reverse so that the pontoon went about with them.’ I remembered that the first time they tried this Swallow’s mast footing broke. Amazon’s mast-gate broke on another occasion. Nick had to persuade a friend to let him borrow his welding workshop and managed to mend it over night, so that she could be ready on set first thing the next day.

Behind the scenes while filming Swallow fromthe pontoon

~The camera pontoon, Capri and one of the Dorys used behind-the-scenes~

Nick went on to say the pontoon leaked a bit. ‘We would have to pump out hull every morning.’ The Capri used behind the scenes was Nick’s equivalent of a marine Land Rover. ‘It had a reinforced glass fibre hull for increased capability and a 55-horse power engine that had been used for the Olympics. We used it for Ken Russell’s film ‘Tommy‘, the rock opera with Roger Daltry and The Who. Once, when we were using it for Swallows and Amazons, Clive Stuart shoved it into gear with rather too much gusto. Someone only just managed to grab the director, Claude Whatham, before he was flung over the back. ‘Claude was spitting feathers after that.’

BW Wearing Life Jackets in the Safety Boat - trimmed

~Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West, Sophie Neville & Sten Grendon with David Stanger at the helm of the Dory in 1973~

Mike Turk provided two Dorys, built at his yard, to use as run-around boats. One was driven by David Stanger who is now skipper of a launch on Ullswater. It was a stable boat but you needed to watch how it was not overloaded. Water came over the bows one day giving my mother rather a shock.

Nick Newby with Sophie Neville in Keswick

~Nick Newby at the Alhambra cinema in 2018: photo Marc Grimston~

‘The boating world is a small world,’ Nick assured me. This July, forty-five years after making the film, he brought his grand-daughter to watch ‘Swallows and Amazons’ at the Alhambra Cinema in Keswick and gamely came up on stage for a Q&A to explain how some of the sailing scenes were achieved.

In his time, Nick Newby has worked a number of films made in the Lake District including Mahler – a Ken Russell film starring Robert Powell, a movie called Gothic (1986) starring Julian Sands and Natasha Richardson, Julia (1977) starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, Brazil (1985), Planet of the Apes, a couple of episodes of Sherloch Holmes with Ben Kingsley, and a number of adverts.

Mike Turk, Swan Upper and Queen’s Waterman, who provided boats for numerous films from Moonraker to Hornblower, sadly passed away aged 78. You can read his obituary here. He went on to work on a number of James Bond movie. You can see his film credits here.

Swallow on the Alde

A group of Arthur Ransome enthusiasts clubbed together to buy Swallow from Mike’s collection in 2010. She is currently kept on a trailer at Kendal in the Lake District. If you would like to sail her, please visit SailRansome.com

For Nicol End Marine, about two miles outside Keswick on Derwentwater please click here

 

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‘Swallows and Amazons’ in Keswick

This summer marked the 45th Anniversary of filming the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Derwentwater when Ronald Fraser was obliged to walk the plank in a solar topi in July 1973.

Ronald Fraser walking the plank

To celebrate the anniversary, Sophie Neville, who played Titty, introduced a screening of the 1974 film at the Alhambra Cinema in Keswick on Saturday 28th July.

Captain Flint having walked the plank

She demonstrated how one of the visual effects was achieved and signed copies of her book ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ after a Q&A.

‘I brought one of the original arrows that the Amazon pirates fired over my head. It looks so dangerous on film that the shot was cut from the television version but is included in the re-mastered cinemascope edition that we are now able to watch on the big screen. You might be able to spot a few other things that went wrong while we were filming, such as the time I inadvertently slipped up to my waist in water.’
‘The elegant Lakeland steamer, the Lady Derwentwater, had the starring role as Captain Flint’s houseboat. She was adapted for the part by the award-winning set designer Ian Whittaker, who went on to receive an Oscar for Best Art Direction on ‘Howards End’ starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. His astonishing list of nominations can been seen here
Swallow, the 1930s sailing dinghy used in the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was at the lakeside for Arthur Ransome enthusiasts to admire. She is looked after by Rob Boden, from Kendal, who is happy to take people for a sail by prior arrangement via the SailRansome website here.

Secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons

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Speaking about filming ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ on the Norfolk Broads

 

Sophie Neville with Titmouse

~Sophie Neville with the star of ‘Coot Club’~

I was invited to talk about making the BBC TV classic serial ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ at the Norfolk Broads Yacht Club to help celebrate their 80th Anniversary. Titmouse, then 1930s dinghy owned by Hunter’s Yard had been brought down from Ludham for the occasion.

The bonus was that I was able to go sailing in one of the classic boats gathered at the club for their Open Day.

Geoff and Rose Angell kindly took me out on Pippa, their beautiful yacht with brown sails that appeared in ‘The Big Six’. I am sure Arthur Ransome would have loved her.

I’d spent nine months working with the BBC production back in 1983 when it had been my job to cast the children and teenagers who appear in the drama, many of whom needed genuine Norfolk accents.

Coot Club - book cover

~Henry Dimbleby, Nicholas Walpole, Jake Coppard, Mark Page, Caroline Downer and Richard Walton as they appeared in ‘The Big Six’ (1984)~

We had been looking for young actors who could swim well and were able handle boats. We then spent three months filming in East Anglia when I looked after the children and helped rehearse their lines. I set up this shot for the cover of the Puffin paperback that accompanied the series.

~Author Sophie Neville giving a talk at the Norfolk Broads Yacht Club~

At a forum organised after my talk, Pat Simpson from Stalham Yacht Services explained how he found one of the stars of the series – an old lifeboat suitable to play the Death and Glory. She had been brought from where she is kept at Belaugh for the evening. You can see more photographs of her in the previous blog post here.

'The Death and Glory'

Pat provided a number of other vessels for the series including Buttercup and support boats such as the safely boat, a large modern cruiser used as a school room along with another for the costume and make up personnel. He explained that this came as a god-send as boat rentals had not been good that summer. Working on the series was harder than he imagined, ‘We once had to take a boat from Regan to Horning Hall overnight’ but he was pleased that ‘after three months of concentrated work, we got it all done.’

~Robin Richardson~

Robin Richardson, who co-owned Pippa back in 1983, explained how the shot of her being cast adrift was achieved. This wasn’t as easy as first thought as even when Simon Hawes, who was playing George Owdon, flung her stem line on the deck, a gentle breeze was blowing her back against the staithe. ‘Pippa didn’t want to go anywhere’. Robin had to stage the action by throwing out a mud anchor, climbing under her awning and pulling on the line to create the effect of a boat drifting out of control into potential danger. Pippa’s white canvas cover is pulled back here, but you can imagine the scene.

He was on location when Henry Dimbleby, who played Tom Dudgeon, was attempting to tow the Teasel under Potter Heigham bridge. He was rowing Titmouse, pulling hard on the aors but nothing was happening. ‘Stop for lunch,’ Robin advised the director, ‘and the tide will turn.’ This they did, and Henry we able to row under the bridge, towing the Teasel quite easily. Hunter’s Yard, who own Lullaby, who played the Teasle, could not bring her down for the weekend as she had been leased out with other boats, but they sent her transom, painted with her stage name.

'TEASEL'

Robin Richardson owns the ‘Slipstream’ class dinghy called Spindrift who played Shooting Star in the serial. She was built by her father but couldn’t be with us as they were not able to complete her winter maintenance in time but Richard Hattersley said she came tenth in this year’s Three Rivers race when only 15 of the 98 entries actually finished. It’s a 24 hour endurance challenge, which they completed despite light winds. He sent me this shot, ‘of her battling it out with much larger Thames A Raters.’

Spindrift a Slipstream class dinghy

I was shown a wonderful black and white photograph of the vessel used to play the Cachalot. She was skippered in the series by the film actor Sam Kelly in the role of the unnamed pike fishermen who the Death and Glory boys simply called ‘Sir’. She is seen here with John Boswell, her real owner who has sadly passed away. His son, the artist Patrick Boswell, brought along an album of behind-the-scenes photos.

The theme of the weekend was ‘Boats of the 1930s’. I explained how Swallow, the dinghy used in the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ originally came from Burnham-on-Sea where she was made by W. King and Sons to be used as a run-a-round boat. She was stabilised by a keel that ran the length of the hull, as Ransome described. It makes her rather difficult to turn. You can sail her today and is in the Lake District right now. Please see Sailransome for details.

There was quite a bit of interest in memorabilia from the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I bought along the white elephant flag captured from Captain Flint’s houseboat in the 1974 film, which was approved by a young Amazon pirate.

After a celebratory dinner, David and Nicky Talbot invited me to spend the night in the comfortable for’ard cabin of Kingfisher, a 1970’s motor yacht moored at the club.

I woke early on the Sunday morning to find mist hanging above the water as the sun was rising on what proved to be another sunny day with a fair wind for sailing.

After breakfast aboard, I was invited out in the 1930s river cruiser ‘Water Rail’, who had also appeared in the serial. We took her down the River Bure to her mooring in Horning where she is still part of the scene.

It was wonderful to be out on the waterways of Norfolk, passing traditional buildings. This was a stretch of river never featured in the television drama as Rosemary Leach, who played Mrs Barrable, took Dick and Dorothea from Wroxham to Horning in a trap pulled by Rufus the pony. One reason for this was that in 1983 we had to use the North Norfolk Steam Railway, since Wroxham Station had been modernised but Joe Waters, the producer, said he wanted to add variety by featuring a pony rather than a motorboat.

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We encountered a number of period cruisers, although Janca, who we used to play the Hullabaloos’ Margoletta, sadly could not be with us, as she is still under repair.

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However, by motoring into Horning ourselves, we passed The Swan Inn and Horning Staithe where a number of scenes had been shot, including some that featured Julian Fellowes and Sarah Crowden, playing the hated Hullabaloos. You can see photographs of them in an earlier post here.

~Horning in Norfolk showing The Swan Inn and Horning Staithe where boats are moored~

Another vessel that interested me was a river launch that reminded me of the 1901 steamboat Daffodil, which I renovated with my father in 1978. I have photographs of her here.

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You can read more about the traditional boats used in the series by clicking here.

Gerry Spiller, has written from Woodbridge in Suffolk, to say that she has found an oar labelled TITMOUSE, bought at a boat jumble. Could this date from the early 1930? Does anyone have the pair?

Blade labelled TITMOUSE

 

The DVD of the serial is now available on a re-mastered DVD, available from Amazon here

(Do not be tempted by the old version with a more colourful cover as the image quality is very poor)

New DVD of 'Coot Club and The Big Six'

Additional photographs by Richard Hattersly

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Filed under 1983, Arthur Ransome, boating, Dinghy sailing, sailing film, Sophie Neville, Swallows & Amazons, Swallows and Amazons, Uncategorized

Sophie Neville with camera

~Sophie Neville with the yacht ‘Goldfish’ sailing on Wroxham Broad~

Last weekend, I travelled up to Wroxham with my camera and memory stick for the Norfolk Broads Yacht Club’s Open Day. They were celebrating life on the Broads in the 1930s, along with the books by Arthur Ransome’s that are set in East Anglia.

We were blessed by such glorious weather that almost everybody seemed to be sailing when I arrived.

A number of vessels that appeared in the BBC TV adaptations of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ entitled ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’ were on display at the club, including Titmouse, the dinghy belonging to Tom Dudgeon in the story, that normally resides at Hunter’s Yard in Norfolk. She is no longer seaworthy.

Tom’s punt, the Dreadnaught was pulled up alongside an elegant Edwardian skiff called Joan B that was once set adrift at Horning by George Owden. She had been brought along by Pat Simpson, a member of the Norfolk Broads Yacht Club.

Pippa, a classic broads river-cruiser with dark sails belonging to Geoff and Rose Angell, was cast adrift at Horning in the dark of night. She came to no harm and was now out on the water, racing against a 1904 yacht with white sails, number 4, called Swallow.

‘White Boats’ or ‘Yare and Bure one-designs’ originally brought out in 1908, were also  racing as they have been since the Farland twins, Port and Starboard, crewed for their father in ‘Coot Club’. Ransome refereed to a white boat called Grizzled Skipper who belonged to Chris Shallcross, but no one could remember which of the 140-odd White Boats registered was used in the series. Many members of this class of 20 foot half-deckers are named after moths or butterflies. You can see a fleet of White Boats here racing at Horning, the Swan Inn in the background:

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I spotted ‘Brown Boats’, a Broads’ one-design with a distinctive counter stern and spoon bow, which would also have been seen racing in the 1930s. They were first built in 1907 and although a few were lost during the war there are still 88 in existence, although some now have fibre glass hulls. Number 61, called Hanser, is owned by Danny Tyrrell.

Lullaby, who played the Teasel in the series, was up at Horsey Mere with other from her fleet but we had her costume on display. It is a varnished transom painted with the name Teasel. Janca, the motorboat who played the infamous Margoletta, hired by the Hullabaloos, was unable to come as she is currently being renovated, but Water Rail, a Herbert Woods Delight Class B 1930s cruiser belonging to Liz Goodyear was safely moored alongside other classic boats. She appeared in the back ground of several scenes in the television drama.

I then spotted a distinctive burgee that took me back thirty-five years:

Bird Preservation Society – it was the flag belonging to the Death and Glory, flying next to ‘the little old chimney’ made from a galvanised bucket.

Originally a German lifeboat washed up on the beach at Southwold, she had been bought for the series by Pat Simpson of Stalham Yacht Services, who found her moored at Snape in Suffolk.

Pat kept her for his sons to take out on the Norfolk Broads and it has been operated by children as Death and Glory, ever since.

It must have taken a bit of work to make her sea-worthy but tarred and fitted-out correctly, she closely resembles Arthur Ransome’s illustrations, the homemade cabin mysteriously larger inside than out.

I was asked to sign a copy of ‘The Big Six’ bought along by Professor John Farrington from Aberdean, who acquired the Death and Glory for his own children in 1989.

‘I took them to the boatyard and suggested they climbed aboard. “Get on!” ‘They were aged ten and eleven.’

‘”But what about the owners?” they asked.’

“You are the owners,” I told them.’ He had just bought it for them as an unexpected present. ‘Before long they rowed it from Stalham to Sutton and back.’

This year is the 80th Anniversary of The Norfolk Broads Yacht Club, which is why they have a 1930’s theme running through their calendar. The day proved a true celebration of traditional boats that would have been seen back then.

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I had been asked to give a talk about filming the series, which I will relate in my next blog post. The re-mastered DVD, for which I wrote the DVD extras, is available on Amazon here:

New DVD of 'Coot Club and The Big Six'

 

You can read more about how these boats were used in the series here

and on

Norfolk Broads Yacht Club website

Do add any information about these boats or ask questions about making the book adaptions in the comments below.


~Photograph of Water Rail moored on Wroxham Broad by Richard Hattersley~

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May 10, 2018 · 11:23 am

Very Happy New Year!

happy new year

‘I’d like to go to Africa and see forests full of parrots!’

I’m not sure about the parrots but I’m off on an African adventure soon – details to follow in my next post.

Very Happy New Year to one and all. May 2018 prove fulfilling.

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Filed under adventure, Africa, Autobiography, Humour, Sophie Neville, Travel, Uncategorized

Sailing the Nancy Blackett in Dutch waters – part two

Nancy Blackett, the 28 foot cutter that Arthur Ransome bought with Spanish gold, as he called his royalties from ‘Swallows and Amazons’, is an old lady now. Built by Hillyards of Littlehampton in 1931, she turns eighty-five this year and yet looks pristine. If you ever wanted to sail the Goblin in ‘We Did Mean To Go To Sea’ you must know that it was Nancy who took this starring role in Ransome’s novel, first published eighty years ago.
Nancy Balckett in Middleburg photo Sophie Neville

Nancy Blackett

I arrived in the Netherlands this summer to find Nancy receiving visitors at a nautical festival in Midddleburg, while a jazz band played on the quay.  She was moored by a lifting bridge in the centre of town, neatly rigged and ready for anything. After taking a look at a number of old gaffers, her crew enjoyed a cold beer and walked down the canal to vittel-up at a supermarket before having dinner in what was once a packing house for silks and spices imported from the East Indies.
Nancy seen through the bridge in Middleburg

Nancy seen through the swing bridge in Middleburg

As the swing bridge rose the next morning, we made way and motored down the wide canal to Veere, mooring up by the grassy port bank. 
Hollyhocks of Veere

Hollyhocks of Veere

After being granted permission to go ashore, I passed the historic town well and walked down lanes bordered by hollyhocks to visit the museums of this ancient port. They house a number of charts and medieval maps that would have delighted the Swallows, along with old photographs of Dutch natives in traditional dress. I was tempted to buy a pair of clogs to take home for Bridget.
The waterways of Zeeland

The waterways of Zeeland

We left Veere to explore the islands and creeks of the Veersemeer before sailing down-channel and through a modern lock into the Oosterschelde estuary formed by the River Scheldt. It was once an important shipping route that bought wealth to the Netherlands but is quieter now. I spotted a seal and watched a cormorant swallow a large eel, that wriggled and jiggled inside its gullet.
Windmill of Zeeland

A windmill of Zierikzee

After negotiating the impressive Zeelandbrug that spans the delta, we sailed down to Zierikzee where you can climb the church tower, if you dare, and look out across the once fortified town. The windmills, ornate spires and ancient buildings help one to imagine what life must have been like in the 1500s when it became famous as a trading centre for salt and madder. I found scold’s stones and a whaler’s kayak from Greenland at the Stadhuis Museum in Zierikzee where Veronica Frenks was once the curator.
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The lock gates of Zierikzee

Our skipper, Ian McGlynn, wondered if we could sail back under an arch of the Zeelandbrug instead of waiting for one section of the road to lift. Built between 1963 and 1965 the Zeeland Bridge is more than five kilometres long and hardly comparable to the arch of Potter Heigham but Mate Judy Taylor didn’t want to take any risks. We had Nancy’s new mast to consider.
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Crewing the Nancy Blackett

It was only on our last evening-but-one that rain hit us. We’d had blue skies and sunshine all week. As the salt water was washed away from Nancy’s portholes I opened the pages of ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ to find Ransome’s illustrations and read the final passages of the Swallows’ unplanned voyage to Holland. The book is eighty years old this year and yet moves me still. There is Nancy, portrayed as the Goblin moored up in a foreign port, which is where we left her to be enjoyed by other members of the Nancy Blackett Trust.
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Nancy Blackett in Zeeland

 A marathon reading of ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ is planned, to celebrate the 80 year anniversary of its publication, at Pin Mill Sailing Club on the Orwell in Suffolk on Saturday 21st October 2017.
Pin Mill from the Water
To read more about Nancy or join the Nancy Blackett Trust please click here
Nancy has been featured by Country Life in a July issue you can read here
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We Did Mean To Go To Sea by Octavia Pollock

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Filed under adventure, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, boating, Sophie Neville, Travel, truelife story, Uncategorized

Sailing the Nancy Blackett in the Netherlands – part one

This summer, I grabbed the chance to sail Arthur Ransome’s favourite little ship, the Nancy Blackett. If you recognise her it might be because she was his model for the Goblin in ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea‘, possibly the most exciting and touching of the Swallows and Amazons series of books. I re-read it while we were in Dutch waters aboard the main character herself.

   ~ Nancy Blackett under sail on the Veersemeer in Zeeland this June ~

~ Beach End Buoy at the mouth of the River Orwell in Suffolk ~

In the story, the Swallows – John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker – promise their mother that they will not go to sea, but disaster strikes when the Goblin slips her anchor in thick fog, while her owner is ashore, and gets swept out past the Beach End Buoy at Harwich. The wind rises and the children find themselves sailing across the North Sea in a terrific storm before a friendly Dutch pilot guides them into Flushing.

~ Nancy in the old lock at near the medieval port of Veere ~

This year we joined Nancy when she had already made the crossing to the Netherlands but we did take her through an old lock built in the same style as the one the Swallows encountered, all be it at the other end of the canal. It was as if we had sailed into the pages of the book and lived out the adventure ourselves, learning about ropes and reefing each nautical mile.

Mooring up could be tricky, especially since Nancy is an old lady with a bow-sprit, but unlike Susan and Titty, I never felt sea-sick for a moment.

~ Learning how to hoist the mainsail ~

~ The Nancy Balckett undersail on the Veersemeer in the Netherlands ~

~ Sophie sailing in salt water ~

~ Looking out for Dutch barges ~

Local author Veronica Frenks came out with us one morning, taking us up a creek to see the traditional Dutch barges and historic ships that she often writes about. She soon made plans to write about Arthur Ransome for Spiegel der Zeilvaart, a Dutch periodical. Here she is at the helm:

To read about sailing Nancy on the River Orwell in Suffolk, where she is based. please click here.

To read about sailing Nancy on the Beaulieu River and the Solent, please click here

If you would like to grab a chance to sail Nancy or find out more about the Nancy Blackett Trust, please click here

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photographs by Veronica Frenks of Ma Plume, Judy Taylor and Sophie Neville

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Filed under adventure, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, boating, Sophie Neville, Titty in Swallows and Amazons, Travel, truelife story, Uncategorized