Tag Archives: Retired Pirate

‘They’re Pirates!’ ~ secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons on 3rd July 1973

Captian Flint on the houseboat with Swallow

Roanld Fraser playing Captin Flint on his houseboat with Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West in Swallow on Derwentwater, 1973

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 facsinated. 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.

Sophie Neville as Titty Walker in Swallows and Amazons

Sophie Neville as Titty Walker in the ITV trailer for the movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ when it was first shown on television in 1977

This was the second location for ‘Lookout Point on Wild Cat Island’.  It was on a promentary 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 anotated 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 invisaged the camp fire as being there. Richard told us it had become a real camp site by 1973 with caravans on the nearest shore.

The Swallows at the Lighthouse tree Lookout point

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville and Stephen Grendon as the Swallows at the Lookout Point on Wild Cat Island

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 appreicated. 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 knickerbokers 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 discribes this and where it all happened beautifully.

Stephen Grendon as Roger having a button sewn back on by Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan Walker in the previous scene.

Here is the diary entry I kept for that day in the Lake District ~

Suzanna’s diary is more susinct ~

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.

Sophie Neville with Swallow outside the Bluebird Cafe on Coniston Water

Sophie Neville in 2011 holding the original photograph in front of the newly restored dinghy at the Bluebird Cafe on Coniston Water. If you look carefully you can see that Swallow is being inspected by a modern day pirate ~ photo: Kitty Faulkner

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Dinghy sailing, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Landscape Photographs, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

‘Here we are intrepid explorers…’ filming in Swallow on Derwentwater in 1973

The Swallows voyage to Wild Cat Island

Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West as the Walker children sailing to Wild Cat Island in Swallow

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.

The Swallows on their voyage to Wildcat Island

Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West sail Swallow on the voyage to Wild Cat Island, scenes shot on Derwentwater in 1973

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.

28th June ~ my diary

28th June ~ my diary page two

28th June ~ my diary page three

28th June ~ my diary page four

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.

This shows the pontoon being used as a safety craft rather than a camera platform. Swallow is moored to it with Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville and Stephen Grendon onboard. Their chaperone Daphne Neville is standing-by with a track suit top as I was cold. First assistant David Bracknell is approaching in the Dory.

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.

This shows the camera crew climbing aboard the pontoon in order to film Swallow sailing. Daphne Neville sits in the Dory safety boat in the foreground.
A reflector board, wrapped camera mount and microphone are already on board.

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.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, David Wood, Diary, Dinghy sailing, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story