When I look back on our lives as they were forty years ago I can’t help smiling. Whilst one is impacted by fashions that were too unfortunate to be revived – those collars we thought so groovy – other things haven’t changed at all. I don’t think sailing shoes or jean jackets have ever been out of circulation.
In July 1973 Claude Whatham, pictured above in his Levis, had my sisters and I in a series of three Weetabix commercials that depicted life in 1933, forty years before, when the Great British breakfast cereal was first launched on the market. There seemed to have been a wider difference between the thirties and children’s lives in the seventies than in the last forty years. But am I right?
Whilst we had never seen stocks of corn until we went on the set especially constructed for the advertisement, Percy Baxter had made them himself back in 1933 when he lived and worked on the Cotswold hills.
The Land Rover in this behind-the-scenes shot could the same vehicle used on a film set today.
Meanwhile, my mother was presenting her afternoon television programme for HTV West called ‘Women Only’ – dressed in her Donny Osmond hat. I would happily wear her suede coat today and can often be seen in the hat. The lace-up boots looked good recently with a Wonder Woman fancy dress outfit but were terribly uncomfortable. My sister still hasn’t forgiven me for giving them away.
As always, well made things of quality have endured, and those faithful goods from Land Rovers to Levi jeans, Puffin Books and Weetabix are, thankfully, still being produced.
‘I remember going to the Puffin Club exhibition in London around the time of the film release and some of the cast were there with one of the boats. There was a quiz about S & A and you could win a copy of the book – which I did! Sophie, were you there? And do you know if the boat was ‘Swallow’ or ‘Amazon’?’
I do remember going to the Puffin Club. They published a very good article about Arthur Ransome and the film using the black and white stills in a far better way than any other magazine. I still have the clipping.
We were very excited because the publishers had just brought out a copy of Swallows and Amazons with a photograph of the two little ships near Cormorant Island on the cover. You can’t see us clearly but it was from the scene after Titty had just captured Amazon and both dinghies were being victoriously sailed back to Wild Cat Island by John and Roger, Titty and Susan. On the back of the book was a photograph of the Amazons in their red knitted caps waiting in the reeds at the mouth of the Amazon River. Kaye Webb, famous for her successful book launches, had us up to London to promote it:
About ten years later Puffin also bought out a copy of Coot Club and The Big Six, the series I worked on behind the camera at the BBC. I can remember getting the cast together for the shot of them on the Death and Glory – an old black boat. It was a happy time.
I had forgotten that we had one of the dinghies at the Puffin Club event but remember going to the Commonwealth Institute. I found appearing on television could be rather more daunting than public appearances. We were once taken to the BBC television studios to appear, live, on Points West, the regional news programme that came under the Nationwide banner at the time. The designer had gone to a great effort and made a camp fire in the studio, but it felt weird sitting around it in our own clothes. I think the problem had been that the presenters had not actually read the book so were not in touch with the subject matter. Before we knew it, the item was over and we were whisked off again, home to bed no doubt. Being interviewed on the radio was less scary although I broke into French once when being interviewed on Woman’s Hour. That scarred the presenter.
By far the most enjoyable programme to be in was Animal Magic, which was presented in those days by Johnny Morris. The Assistant Producer Robin Hellier came with a small crew to film me at home with my own boat and my green parrot, Chico.
I was deeply impressed by Robin as a director and I thought him far more talented than Claude Whatham, who had directed the movie. More than twenty years later I met up with Robin when I was working on a BBC natural history programme in South Africa called Global Sunrise. He arrived at Johannesburg International Airport having flown from the Kruger Park in a small passenger plane. They had been delayed by a terrible storm and I had ten minutes to get him onto the Friday night scheduled flight to Cape Town. It was a good thing I knew him. I saw him at a distance and shouted, ‘Quick, Robin! Run.’ And we just made it through the gate in time, laughing about Animal Magic. He told me that the film he made at our house with me and my parrot was the very first he had ever directed. I never knew.
Forty years later, we made a little montage of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ to accompany the ebook, now in its 2nd edition and available here.