The stars were Virginia McKenna of “Born Free” fame and Ronald Fraser. I was reminded of this period of my life when l read the headline ‘X-RATED antics of Swallows and Amazons’ in The Times. The title related to the release of an e-book by Sophie Neville one of the child actors in the film. Sophie was 12 at the time and I was 19.
Sophie recalls how Ronnie (Ronald Fraser) was always drunk. Well this is not strictly true. In the morning Ronnie was reasonably sober and for this reason the director Claude Whatham would try and get most of the shooting with Ronnie in the can before the lunch hour came around when I would be summoned to take him to the nearest hostelry. Ronnie would then order his own concoction ‘The Fraser’. I cannot for the life of me remember what it consisted of, but believe you me these disappeared at a rapid rate of knots down Captain Flint’s (his character’s) throat. By the time the liquid lunch came to an end l would have to bundle him into the back of the car and deposit him back on set, much to the dismay of the producer Richard Pilbrow and the director Claude Whatham. Afternoon shooting was often a disaster when Ronnie was involved and I’m sure he frightened the children from time to time.
Well if the children were sometimes scared by Uncle Jim, as Captain Flint is known, then l was scared of the parrot that Uncle Jim had on his boat. The first day that I had to collect the parrot the old lady who owned him travelled with him to the location on Derwent Water. However she soon became bored with all the hanging around and after that she entrusted me with the parrot. Now birds are not really my thing and I really did not like handling him. He would travel to the location in an old shopping bag with a zipper, where l would hand him over and he would be placed in his cage. This was all well and good, then came the day that was so wet they did not use him, but instead he stayed in the production office at the Kirkstone Foot Hotel where the crew were hanging out. I was told he was in the bathroom, l expected him to be in his travel bag, but no he was sat on the edge of the bathtub looking at me. By this time he hated being put in the bag it took me all my time with a towel to catch him, finally after being scratched and bitten I got him home to his Mum.
The hardest thing to stomach was the fact that the parrot was paid more per day than l was.
Thank you so much for writing in, David. Your story about the green parrot had me roaring with laughter. I am told that he was a male parrot called Beauty, who belonged to Mrs Proctor of Kendal. Her grand-daughter rang in when I was interviewed on Radio Cumbria recently. She told me that her gran, old Mrs Proctor could do anything with him, and was well know for walking around Kendal with him sitting on her arm. I don’t think anyone else dared get close. Since I played the part of Titty, I had to have him sitting on my shoulder in the cabin of the houseboat, while delivering the most important lines in the film. We were then meant to leap about singing, What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor? This was a bit ironic since Ronnie was half-plastered by then. He was pretty permanently pickled. In the penultimate shot of the film, while pretending to play the accordion, he was still drunk from the Wrap Party 36 hours before. The parrot was not invited to the party but did receive a fee of £25 for appearing in the film. His owner used this to buy him a bigger cage.
I don’t know who thought up the ‘X-rated’ headline at the Times (which was absurd) but a reporter from the Daily Express provided the receipt for ‘The Fraser’ in 1973 – I have the clipping (above). Geoffrey Mather wrote: ‘A Fraser is a drink of his own invention. It consists of a large vodka with a kiss of lime and a ton of ice, topped up with soda in a large glass’. We all bought the copies of the newspaper in Ambleside. My mother was horrified as instead of being a story about making the film it was a half-page article about Ronnie’s antics in the bar of the Kirkstone Foot Hotel on Windermere.
More stories from the making of Swallows and Amazons can be found here: