Filming on location in Cumbria in 1973 ~ nearly forty years ago.
Our designer Simon Holland was rowing Swallow without his shirt. Producer Richard Pilbrow was hanging on the side of the houseboat clad in denim. Terry Smith, the wardrobe Master, was busy drying off Ronald Fraser’s wet costume on the aft deck. The white pith helmet was being touched up by the unit painter. Unions must have been strict back then.
Director Claude Whatham was making the most of the rare but glorious Lake District weather to complete the scene on the foredeck of the houseboat. The Swallows, the Amazons and their Uncle Jim, who had just been made to walk the plank and was now dripping wet, waited patiently while I delivered Titty’s immortal line: ‘Captain Flint – we’ve got a surprise for you.’ Not quite the same as in Arthur Ransome’s book but it worked well.
War cries from everyone…
Kit Seymour, who was playing Nancy, must have dropped on top of us all.
The cabin of the houseboat had been turned into a dressing room for Ronald Fraser.
A long day’s filming out on the lake.
My mother took a series of photographs showing how the crew managed in the limited space:
The 16mm camera in the grey punt.
I think the chap in the swimming trunks is a boatman from Keswick. Does anyone recognise him?
The 16mm camera was noisy. This would have been the shot taken when I said we just went through the movements.
And all the time Molly Pilbrow was keeping an eye on the script. I don’t think there was any room for Graham Ford. He was looking after the base camp:
It had been a productive day; a battle well fought, the treasure returned.
Sunlight on the water tells the story of my life. At last the skies cleared and fine weather we had hoped and prayed for settled over the Lake District. It enabled us to film the climax of Arthur Ransome’s adventure set on the high seas of Cumbria. It was the day we went to war. The day the Swallows and the Amazons took on Captain Flint at the Battle of Houseboat Bay.
‘There won’t be a leeside to him, ‘ said Captain John. ‘The houseboat’ll be lying head to wind. Our plan will be to reach into the bay, and then come head to wind one on each side of him.’ Arthur Ransome wrote. ‘If you’ll lay yourself aboard his starboard side, I’ll bring Swallow up on his port.’
To my everlasting regret, while some of the others managed to yell, ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’ my battle cry was, ‘Kill, kill!’ The script was pretty sketchy. I have the original and the re-writes, not that I saw either on the day.
This is the revised version of David Wood’s screenplay typed up on 16th June ~
And suddenly I was up on the roof of the houseboat with the Siamese flag~
We loved capturing Ronald Fraser and of course making him walk the plank. He was very good about it. Here is the shot used for the cover of the 1977 VHS issue of the movie made available in the USA ~
Actually filming this was tricky. The entire film crew with all their equipment including two cameras, two huge reflector boards and a second costume for Ronald Fraser, had to be accommodated either on the house boat or other craft on the bay in Derwentwater. It was a squash. And there were no loos.
The good thing was that by now we were all pretty experienced with the procedure of getting out to what amounted to an inaccessible location with no lavatories – and certainly no room for tea urns.
My mother recorded quite a bit of 8mm cine footage that day, showing life behind the scenes ~
The scraggy looking man alone in a glass fibre boat with a paddle was the chap who drove the mobile lavatories from one location to another and yet managed to persuade the girls of Ambleside that he was producing the film.
It was found on e-bay, a hand-coloured print that must have been used to publicise the movie in cinema foyers. It has to be one of my favorite stills, bought by someone who kindly brought it to Coniston Water on the day in April 2011 when we re-launched Swallow beside the pier at the Bluebird Cafe. Everyone was fascinated. I’d never seen it before but it has memories of a good day, spent not on Coniston but further north on Derwentwater.
When Richard Pilbrow’s movie of Swallows and Amazons was first shown on British television in 1977 a trailer was made by ITV to advertise it. This started with the shot of me saying, ‘They’re pirates!’ People loved that trailer. Everyone was going around saying, ‘They’re pirates!’ If it was my best performance the reason was that I had been lying on a red ant’s nest – and they were biting. The other secret is that that lighthouse tree is not a tree. Not one that was growing. It was a big log that Bobby Props had stuck in the ground making the ants very angry indeed.
This was the second location for ‘Lookout Point on Wild Cat Island’. It was on a promontory that overlooks the bay where the houseboat was moored on Derwentwater. There were bushes but no sadly big pine trees. The log was planted so that our director Claude Whatham could get what is called a two-shot of the Swallows watching Nancy sail past Captain Flint’s houseboat, while Peggy raises the skull and crossbones. As we were keeping low the height of the lighthouse tree was not an issue. So, the secret of Wild Cat Island is that it was filmed in three different places as well as being depicted in the opening titles as Rampsholme, an island on Derwentwater. I think this is faithful in that Arthur Ransome indicated by using annotated postcards that wanted the fells that one would see from Castle Hill as a backdrop for his story. In her book, In the footsteps of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ Claire Kendall-Price provides a wonderful map and guide showing how you could walk from Keswick to find some of the locations. We didn’t use Blake Holme on Windermere at all even though Arthur Ransome had envisaged the camp fire as being there. Richard told us it had become a real camp site by 1973 with caravans on the nearest shore.
Just prior to this scene when we spot the Amazons for the first time, I was working on the chart while Susan was sewing a button onto Roger’s shirt. The needle stuck into him as he flung himself down on the grass beneath the lighthouse tree. Since needles are small you can hardly see what is happening but I think it is a detail that Arthur Ransome would have appreciated. I wonder if the same sort of thing had happened to him as a child? He used his memories of Annie Swainson throwing him across her lap to darn his knickerbockers whilst they on him, just as Mary Swainson frequently has to darn Roger’s shorts after sliding down the Knickerbockerbreaker rockface in Swallowdale. Claire Kendall-Price describes this and where it all happened beautifully.
Here is the diary entry I kept for that day in the Lake District ~
Suzanna’s diary is more succinct ~
I don’t know why she felt depressed. Perhaps it was the ants. She was on more of them than me and they were not waving. They were very angry.
If you ever see a cormorant you must sing out, ‘They’ve got India-rubber necks!’
And then, if you are on a long journey you can add, ‘ Cormorants. We must be near the coast of China. The Chinese have cormorants. They train them to catch fish for them. Daddy sent me a picture.’
If you ever get lost – or the journey really is a long one, you can say,
‘Here we are intrepid explorers making the first ever voyage into unchartered waters. What mysteries will they hold for us? What dark secrets will be revealed?’
They were most complicated speeches to deliver afloat, ones I had to learn. In the end the second part was heard OOV – out of vision. I could have read the lines. But then they wouldn’t have stayed in my head forever, as they have.
If, on your journey, you happen to see a man sitting in a chair writing notes you score high and can say, ‘What’s that man doing? He’s probably a retired pirate working on his devilish crimes.’
(I’m a bit hestitant about that one because my Aunt Hermione really was approached by pirates when she was sailing round the world. The Daily Mail published her dairy chronicling the adventure; a full page double- spread with photographs no less. Rather sadly they ran headline ‘Intrepid Pensioners…’ What a swizz. She should have lied about her age and said she was 27 instead of 60. Well perhaps 57, what with the photos.)
The scene behind the camera that day on Derwentwater was rather different from from the scene in front of it.
I’m pretty sure that the photographs below were taken this same day. Please let me know if the far bank is indeed Derwentwater or if I am mistaken and this was shot on Coniston.
I got cold sailing but it was a glorious sunny day with a fair wind. We achieved a huge amount even if Cedric fell in. As you can see, some of the boatmen and crew were wearing life jackets, others were not – including my mother. We wore BOAC life jackets for rehearsals but Swallow is a safe little boat – her keel ensuring we didn’t capsize if we happened to jibe and we never fell in. The pontoon was really rather more dangerous being a raft with no gunwale. Any one could have misjudged their step and plopped overboard. Luckily we were not stiffled by Health and Safety in those days – only the rigorous demands of movie insurance companies.
I’m sure we had already shot the first two scenes of the day when I was in Amazon, setting the anchor and later hearing the robbers. I expect Claude needed to re-shoot for technical reasons. Day-for-Night filming requires clear, sunny days and he would have needed still water.
I have some of my father’s 16mm footage showing us at around this stage in the filming. It was shot on a different day but shows us on the shores of Derwentwater, waiting around before rushing off across the lake in motor boats to finish filming before Claude lost the light. You see the pontoon and a safety boat towing Swallow, me snapping bossily at Roger to get a move-on, (unforgiveable but I was 3 years older than him and irritated to distraction), the third assistant Gareth Tandy in blue with glasses, our sound recordist Robin Gregory throwing his arms wide open, Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett by the lake shore, David Blagden with his short hair-cut splicing rope, me in my Harry Potter-ish blue nylon track-suit top with Albert Clarke the stills photographer, Swallow and some mallard duckings.
If you are enjoying this blog, please find an expanded version of the story in the ebook, available from all online retailers such as Amazon Kindle for £2.99 and on Goodreads here It has also been published in two illustrated paperback versions, which make good presents.