Tag Archives: Robinson Crusoe

Why is ‘Swallows and Amazons’ still a bestseller?

An orange flag has been labelling the Vintage paperback edition of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ as a #1 Best Seller in the Amazon UK sales.  Not bad for a book written 88 years ago.

I was asked to give a talk at the International Annual General Meeting of The Arthur Ransome Society recently, when I was able to ask learned members, ‘What has made it such an enduring success?’

Is it that ‘Swallows and Amazons’ set in the Lake District where so many of us long to spend our holidays?

Or that we can buy a set of wooden postcards depicting Ransome’s inspirational illustrations?

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Is it because the stories are driven by the characters of the children themselves, as Jill Goulder has observed, and that adults are relegated to native status, featured as little as is possible so that we enter a child’s world? Do children relish the idea of independence and being in control of all they do, as John and Nancy seem to be? Is it that dressing up as pirates is cool?

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Swallows and Amazons is about the importance of listening to children. It’s about integrity. Do we love the fact that Titty, the lowly able-seaman comes out as the unexpected hero? It was, after all, a brave thing to capture the Amazon at night and perhaps even braver still to return to Cormorant Island with Roger to look for the treasure no one believed was there.

Could it be because the story is about sailing, instructional on how to handle a simple dinghy? Claude Whatham, who directed the 1974 movie, recognised Ransome’s skill in describing how to make a camp was of huge appeal to children. Do we like to learn without the indignity of being taught?

Arthur Ransome’s style of writing is certainly vivid, drawing you into the world he created having been inspired by reading ‘Robinson Crusoe’ ‘Treasure Island’ and exotic tales himself. Martin Smith, whose comments on this strand have been endlessly interesting, has observed that there is something of ‘The Tempest’ by Shakespeare in the adventures set on Wild Cat Island.

Ransome was able to draw on years of experience as a writer before he launched the Swallows & Amazons series and this shines through. Since really only six children and two adults appear in his first book we get to know them well and are ready to welcome others such as Dick and Dorothea when they come along in Winter Holiday.

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Is it because, ‘nothing happens in the books that couldn’t really have happened’, as Caroline Lawrence wrote recently in The Outlaw, a magazine written for children who readily identify with the characters. You can certainly enjoy looking for Ransome’s locations yourself. Those who do so are almost certain to buy the books for their own offspring.

Adults read the books, saying they bring great solace, evoking nostalgic memories and taking them back to a carefree childhood when summer days were spent devising camps and imaginary sailing adventures. Perhaps the traditional values act as an anchor in our stormy lives.

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Despatches?

One thing is for certain. While many of the forty-two books Arthur Ransome wrote are now seen as obscure, his series of twelve ‘Swallows and Amazons’ novels line the shelves of almost every bookshop in Britain and are ever popular overseas. The Arthur Ransome Society has a thriving membership, enabling families to live the adventures for themselves. You can find out about joining yourself by clicking here.

The new feature film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ starring Ralp Spall, Andrew Scott and Kelly Macdonald and released in 2016 has hopefully brought the story to the nation’s consicousness. It has begun to win awards in the USA where it is being released in cinemas by Samuel Goldwyn.

The film adaptation of ‘Swallow & Amazons’ made in 1973 and repeated on television so many times, helped to keep the flags flying. It too has been labelled as ‘a timeless classic’ and ‘an enduring success’. StudioCanal released a 40th Anniversary DVD with footage so beautifully restored that if it wasn’t for the extras package you might think it had been shot last summer. I have just found its original, official trailer. The commentary is so dated it’s hilarious, but the film itself seems fresh. Why is this?

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Off to Elstree Studios ~ to dub ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Sophie Neville at Elstree Studios in 1973

The process of editing a film can be terrifying for a director. There is always the prospect of finding a sequence that will not cut together. But working with a good film editor is hugely creative and fulfilling. Problems do arise but great things can happen. Richard Pilbrow says in his new book, A Theatre Project  that he was completely captivated by the process. ‘Moving a few frames from here to there, could change the whole emphasis of a scene.’  On the whole editing is an exciting, yet more relaxing time for the director than having to lead a massive crew out on location. And the actors are never around.

Sadly I never met Michael Bradsell who edited Swallows and Amazons. Like many others on our film crew he’d worked with Claude Whatham before on the movie That’ll be the Day. He went to on edit many great movies; Local Hero for Bill Forsyth and  David Puttman,  Henry V for Kenneth Branagh and Wilde, which starred Stephen Fry. Oh, to think that he hauled my image over his Steenbeck.

I remember that when I saw Henry V at the Curzon Cinema in Mayfair, in 1989, there was something terribly wrong with the projection. The lip-sync was out. Kenneth Branagh’s voice was delivered after his lips started moving. It was most off-putting. I knew all about lip-sync because I had been involved in dubbing movies since I was twelve. For, it was back in 1973, when Claude Whatham was working on the sound track for Swallows and Amazons that, rather unusually, I was summons to the EMI Elstreee Studios.

Sophie Neville at the EMI Elstree Studios in 1973

Visiting Elstree Studios was exciting. I remember meeting the Dubbing Mixer and being there with the other Swallows, but I don’t think we saw anyone else in the cast. Suzanna came along with her nine-year-old cousin who was called Seymour – a very bright boy who was wearing stripey canvas trousers like a deck chair. Mummy had bought me a smart new dress that was the height of fashion. Looking at the photograph I rather wish she hadn’t bothered.

We were led into a huge dubbing theater hung with long black drapes around a high white screen. Claude explained that he needed to re-record our dialogue for various sequences. This was because the original soundtrack had been spoilt by the sound of motorboats, car horns or simply the wind. At first we were handed dubbing scripts, but it was difficult to look at them as well as the screen. As we could still remember our lines we didn’t need them. Instead, we stood in front of microphones on spindly stands and sung out the words we knew as sections of the film were projected. To help up a thick black cue-line would pass across the scene. When it hit one side it was time to start speaking. This was to ensure that our voices would be in sync with out lips. It could help, it could be off-putting. In the end we just went for it naturally. After each ‘take’ the film would be re-wound and we would go-again. There is a scene in at the Amazon Boathouse when John scrunches up the Amazon’s message and throws it in the water. It amused us to see this in reverse.

The post-syncing was a chance to improve on our performances and diction. Some time was spent in re-recording our sea shanty, Adieu and Farewell to you Fair Spanish Ladies. I made a mistake here that I have always regretted. Instead of singing sweetly and true I went for volume, which was not only unnecessary, but disastrous. It is acceptable on the film when you can see I am singing out on the water but sounds horrid on the LP. We had no idea at the time that EMI were going to bring out an album to accompany the movie, but they did.

Jack Woolgar as Old Billy confronting Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville and Stephen Grendon as the Swallows who were visiting the charcoal burners.

The one line that I simply could not replicate was the dialogue Titty delivered when saying goodbye to the charcoal burners: ‘Thank you so much for letting us see your lovely serpent.’  We went over it again and again, but Jack Woolgar wasn’t at the dubbing studio and I couldn’t do it without looking at him. The charm and sincerity of the moment was not something I could reproduce. In the end Claude said he just had to use the original despite the sound of the roaring wind.

After we had left sound effects would have been added. Richard Pilbrow said that, ‘Bill Rowe was our masterful sound mixer, working magic with birdsong, a rustle of leaves, a broken twig – all the tiniest details that went into making the story spring to life.’ When I watch the film of Swallows and Amazons now I so admire the technique of using sound to illustrate the soaring of Titty’s imagination. The storm bell on Robinson Crusoe’s ship heralds the roaring wind and lends reality to scene when I play the shipwrecked sailor, dragging my parched body towards the island campsite. You can hear parrots and monkeys in the palm trees. I am sure Arthur Ransome would have approved.

Bill Rowe, I read, was the director of Post Production and Sound at Elstree Studios until he died at the age of sixty in 1992.  He’d worked on an amazing number of movies winning an Oscar for The Last Emperor and BAFTAs for The Killing Fields, The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Alien with nominations for Chariots of Fire, A Clockwork Orange, The Mission and Batman. And to think, we had been playing Hide and Seek behind his sound drapes.

Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton at the helm of Swallow with Stephen Grendon in the bows, while Sophie Neville looks on from the shore of Peel Island, where she has been left alone with the telescope. Sound of Swallow’s moving parts was added later by the dubbing editor Bill Rowe at Elstree Studios.

One thing that really worried me was that I saw Swallow lying outside Elstree Studios. She looked forlorn, a ship out of water. Looking back on it they must have needed her to record sound effects.  I was concerned that we would not see her again, but we did. The next time we Swallows gathered was to publicize the film. We found ourselves climbing aboard Swallows again, albeit in a very different location from the Lake District. And this I will write about in my next post.

Later in life, when I worked in television production, I spent many months at Elstree Studios at Borehamwood. However these were the BBC Studios on the other side of the road where we recorded endless episodes of  Eastenders and the wartime romance Bluebell, programmes that were never post-synced. I’d drive past the old EMI/ATV Studios and never breathe a word that I’d worked there once as an actress.

Sophie Neville, in striped top, on the BBC Studio Director’s Course at the BBC Elstree Studios, Borehamwood in 1990

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Being Robinson Crusoe on Wildcat Island ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Sophie Neville, playing Titty Walker in Swallows and Amazons

Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker, who envisaged herself as Robbinson Crusoe alone on Wildcat Island

I did not invisage it beforehand, but at this point in my life I became one of the actors who played Robinson Crusoe in film, with Virginia McKenna taking the part of Man Friday. It would come across rather well on a chat show.  The audience would be taken unawares and we could meet the other actors who took the same parts after us. I am sure they were stranded on warmer desert islands.

Losing a milk tooth when you are twelve-and-a-half years old is really rather embarrassing. When you are in the middle of appearing in a feature film it’s disastrous. Not only was the gap sore but since it was an upper tooth at the front of my mouth the continuity of the whole movie was blown.  I think today they may have tried to fit a bridge but Claude Whatham, the Director decided he would just have to live with the problem. I spent the next few days trying not to let my teeth show, but even today, all these years later, those who know the film well comment on the fact that I lost an eye tooth.

Virginia McKenna playing Man Friday in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

As it was, I had to concentrate on pushing the hideously heavy Holly Howe rowing boat away from our desert island in the scene when I bid farewell to Virginia McKenna who was galantly playing Man Friday. This was more tricky than it would be in real life as the massive 35mm camera, the Cameraman and Sound Recordist where in the boat with Virginia. The water was cold, the rocks rather slippy.

And I had the telescope in my hand. This was in order to deliver Arthur Ransome’s line, ‘Duffer. That’s with looking too hard. Try the other eye,’ whilst lowering the telescope to wipe away a tear. I’m afraid that what came out was ‘That’s for looking too hard.’  I busy thinking of terribly sad things, all geared up to produce the tears, when glycerine was produced and carefully blown into my eyes. The most enormous tears, far more difficult to contain than real ones, gushed forth. And I think that the Wardrobe Master must have forgotten about a hanky. You can tell that the square of white cotton I had tucked in my knickers is just a frayed piece of cloth.

Daniel Defoe’s hero Robinson Crusoe has been portrayed on the big screen by Douglas Fairbanks, Dan O’Herlihy – who earned an Oscar nomination for playing the part in 1952, Aidan Quinn, Pierce Brosnan and me. Or rather me playing Titty being Robinson Crusoe. Oh, dear, Oh dear.

The scene opens with Titty sitting on a biscuit tin, reading from her log. ‘Twenty-five years ago this day, I Robinson Crusoe, was wreck-ed on this desolate place.’ The fact that I had missed the -ed from wrecked was real. I hadn’t written the word down properly.  As you can see in my actual diary there was then a dash ______ . At this point I flung myself  to the ground and dragged my exhausted body into the camp grasping my throat so as to portray the fact that Robinson Crusoe was virtually dying of thirst.

I hauled myself to my feet by grabbing the forked stick by the fire. What I didn’t realise was that Graham Ford, the Sound Recordist had hidden his microphone there. You can still hear the sound crunch as I grasp the crossbar that held the kettle. He was a perfectionist and, despite my apologies, was really rather annoyed about it.

‘Make a good place for a camp,’ Titty declares heartily, whilst looking around. ‘I’ll build my hut here out of  branches and moss.’ And so continued my solo performance. ‘Can’t have two tents for one ship-wrecked mariner.’

As I have mentioned before my mother is very theatrical. In her eyes this was my great soliloquy. The most embarrassing thing I have to admit is that for ages after the film, during my sensitive teenage years, Mum would insist that I used this scene as my audition piece.  Can you imagine? It was dotty. Instead of something appropriate for a young girl, like a scene from I Capture the Castle, which Virginia McKenna had been in, or even something from Shakespeare such as Romeo and Juliet, I would fling myself to the floor of the audition space and enact Titty playing a bearded man. Even now I blush as I remember doing all this in front of five amazed executives, who had never seen Swallows and Amazons. They were looking for nothing more than a normal girl – to be in an advertisement for Parker Knoll armchairs.

Have you ever read the book?  I don’t think many nine-year-olds would manage it. Despite the impression given by the poster above there are no girls in it. It’s about slavery. And cannibals. And rearing goats.

Douglas Fairbanks’ film was released in 1932, too late for Titty. The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was released as a movie in 1922 and in 1929. I wonder if Arthur Ransome ever saw either version? I have to say that if there is every a Hollywood line-up of actors who have played the part I want to be included in it. I might make up for the ignomity I suffered.

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‘Man Friday!’ ~ filming with Virginia McKenna in 1973

Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island

Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island in Cumbria, during the filming of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

I didn’t know that Virginia McKenna was in the Lake District.

Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville

‘They were very savage savages’ ~ Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville ~ photo: Daphne Neville

I didn’t know that we would spend that Sunday cooking on the camp fire.

Bill Travers watching Virginia McKenna

Bill Travers watching the scene featuring his wife Virginia McKenna who is talking to Director Claude Whatham ~ photo: Daphne Neville

I didn’t know that Virginia had come up with her husband Bill Travers.

Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers as Joy and George Adamson in ‘Born Free’, Kenya 1964. Virginia later devoted her life to The Born Free Foundation.

I still don’t know how Lee Electric managed to get so many lights working out on Peel Island. I can’t remember having them for any other scene. They must have had the generator on the bank and run cables under the water. It looks as if it was a pretty dark day. It was wonderful having the flood lights – they kept us warm.

There was a hushed reverence when Virginia McKenna was on set. Gone were the saucepan jokes. Funny really, as it was frying pan scene. ‘I waited til no-one was looking and jumped out of the pot and escaped!’ The pemmican potato cakes she made me were delicious. And very hot.

Working with Virginia and Arthur Ransome’s dialogue was altogether an exercise in charm, or managing charm. I hope I didn’t over-cook it. I was rather pre-occupied by my tooth but loved being involved in a proper scene around the camp fire.

Then Virginia was gone and I was a saucepan once more. A saucepan now with a very wiggly tooth indeed. Saucepan-lid, kid. No more lights. I was sitting up a tree above Coniston Water in my navy blue knickers, and descended feeling a bit like Pooh Bear.

me up a tree

‘Up a tree for fear of ravenous beasts’ with David Bracknell the First Assistant Director ~ photo: Daphne Neville

It is still there, the mossy tree. You can climb it.

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Holly Howe on the 5th day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ near Coniston in 1973 ~

Holly Howe again  or back to Bank Ground Farm ~

My diary

My diary

When you next go to Bank Ground Farm you must stand outside and imagine the sight of two red London Route Master buses making their way down the drive.  They swayed from side to side.  We thought it comic. I still can’t work out how they managed to avoid how bringing down the dry stone walls. While sheep grazed around us outside in the rain, we made ourselves comfortable at the Formica tables in our school bus and got down to our lessons. I am sure it was good for us to be kept busy.

Bank Ground Farm

Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water in Cumbria

Meanwhile Ian Whittaker, the Set Dresser, and Simon Holland, the Art Director, transformed two of Mrs Batty’s upstairs rooms into the Walker children’s  bedrooms of 1929. I changed in the cold and was rushed through the rain with a coat over my nightie to the magical atmosphere of the set, warmed by the lights with everyone’s focus on what was just in front of the camera; me reading a beautiful edition of Daniel Defoe’s classic. Claude needed to establish that Robinson Crusoe was Titty’s hero. I can remember having to hold the book in special way so the cover could be seen clearly. I described this as ‘a bed scene’, which might amuse some actors, especially those who are not at all keen on doing bed-scenes (every actor I know). The beds themselves are probably still at the farm.

The LP

Sophie Neville, Virginia McKenna and Simon West on the cover of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ LP, which is still available on Amazon.co.uk

I expect they shot the scene where John is learning Morse Code in bed before my scene. Simon West had to be made very brown indeed, the Make-up Designer dabbing away with a tiny sponge, for the uneasy sequence, much later in the story, when he came to explain himself to his mother. This was shot with Virginia McKenna sitting at a writing desk in the square bay window, with the view of Coniston Water beyond. I sat there myself when I was making Swallow’s flag.

Virginia McKenna and Lucy Batty at Bank Ground Farm on 15th May 1973

Mrs Batty later explained to me that the bay window leaked terribly and she was glad to get rid of it. She now has a lounge area there, which is dedicated as a Swallows and Amazons room.  I was chatting to her back in 2002 when we were waiting for Ben Fogle and the BBC crew of Countryfile to return from looking for other locations used in the film before interviewing Suzanna Hamilton and myself at the farm. The problem was that Suzanna’s train was terribly delayed. We waited and waited and waited. It got later and later. When her taxi finally arrived I was so excited to see her I grabbed her and made her run down to the lake to see Amazon, the dinghy we had sailed together, which was there at the time. The poor director must have been at her wit’s end. Ben Fogle had to come down to fetch us. My excuse was that Suzanna must have needed a stretch after such a long journey. The Westmorland Gazette captured the three of us plodding back up the field before we sat on the grass for our interview.

Countryfile

Ben Fogle, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and the BBC crew recording Countryfile at Bank Ground Farm in October 2002

I did the whole interview holding a bottle of grog, which the Arthur Ransome fans who were staying at the farm gave me. You can see it in the photographs if you look closely.  I don’t think Ben knew what it was.

It was into this interview that my father’s 16mm footage of the making of Swallows and Amazons was cut, with such success that the documentary was re-shown as Big Screen Britain. What I didn’t know was that Ben Fogle was born in 1973 after we had made the movie. It was only once the crew had disappeared that Suzanna and I really began to talk.

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‘Swallows and Amazons’ ~ haircuts and other preparations for the film back in 1973

Saturday 12th May 1973

Haircuts ~

In the early ’70s most people had long hair.  Ours had to be cut and bobbed to match the 1929 hair styles in Arthur Ransome’s well-known illustrations. I wrote in my diary that, ‘Sten went first and came out looking much older with all his locks cut off!  Simon was next. He looked much the same, except with his ears showing.’  We thought they looked so much better with short-back-and-sides. Mum said that Sten really did have long, flowing hair, which looked extraordianry on a nine year old boy.

Suzanna Hamilton, Lesley Bennett, Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour and Simon West before their hair was cut for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973. photo~ Daphne Neville

I’ve just been reminded that the production company really struggled to find male Extras to be in Swallows and Amazons because no one wanted this cut. The actors were the same. Mike Pratt, who played Mr Dixon the diary farmer, couldn’t have his hair cut as he was in the middle of filming a television series, The Adventures of Black Beauty, set in the Victorian era – a good excuse to avoid being shorn.  His hair had to be pinned up under a flat cap, which looked weird on the big screen.  You could see the kirby grips.

My mother had huge reservations about my straggly blonde hair being chopped off and said she nearly refused to let them.  I am very glad she didn’t.  It was wonderful having short hair.  My haircut proved such a great success that I believe it set a fashion for having a graduated bob or ‘Titty Haircut’.

Swallows and Amazons preparations for filming

The dentist ~

I am sure that as well as having our teeth cleaned that they were checked over before they caused a problem.  As it was I lost a fairly conspicuous milk tooth during the filming at a time when it caused havoc with the continuity. The director was not pleased but there was nothing he could do.  Because the film could not always be shot in sequence you’ll see a full set of teeth in one shot and one missing in another. People still comment on it today.

The sailing director ~

Because Claude Whatham, the film director, was not a sailor himself he appointed a sailing instructor or ‘Sailing Director’,  David Blagden who took us sailing in both Swallow and Amazon before the filming, as my diary relates.

David Blagden and my mother, Daphne Neville ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow

We needed to get used to handling the dinghies, was great fun. David made it fun. He was a tall, dark, good looking actor who had been in Kidnapped and was given the part of the Sammy the Policeman, which he did very well. ‘Now then, Miss Nancy.’  Having his hair-cut was such a big thing that he took off his helmet during scene to make the most of it, displaying his very short hair to the the world. We all adored David, who was well known for having sailed across the Atlantic. He had come in tenth, out of fifty-nine competitors, in the 1972 Observer Single-handed Transatlantic Race. He made the crossing in Willing Griffin a Hunter 19, the smallest yacht ever to offically participate in a transatlantic race. I’m afraid that my father thought that he over estimated his abilities. He was of the opinion that crossing the ocean was not quite the experience needed for clinker built sailing dinghies, which could jibe viciously without warning when wind blustered down from the fells, and didn’t rate him highly for the job.  Dad was concerned about our safety.  After the film David attempted to cross the Atlantic once more.  He was never seen again.

Richard Pilbrow and the other boats ~

Richard Pilbrow, who was producing Swallows and Amazons loved boats and was often out on the water with us. It seemed that he came on on this day with us in a motor boat – it was one of those typical glass-fibre ones with a small cabin that were thought quite snazzy at the time.  Along with the gaff-rigged dinghies, Swallow and Amazon there were quite a number of other period boats used during the filming – not least Captain Flint’s Houseboat, one of the Windermere Steamers and the Holly Howe rowing boat, or native canoe, in which Virginia McKenna so gallantly rowed out to the island when as Mother she came to visit her children only to find Robinson Crusoe (me) in residence. Richard loved them all. So did we.

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