The facts behind the concept of a ‘Swallows & Amazons’ childhood

What strikes me about Arthur Ransome’s whole series of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books is that they are set almost exclusively outside in the open – or afloat. When we made the film in 1973 it rained so much in the Lake District that the producer must have longed for the existence of a few more interior scenes. As it was, the longest one ended up on the cutting-room floor. Is this because the essence and appeal of the stories is that they occur beyond the confines of domestic realms?

Blu-ray reading telgram

‘If not duffers, won’t drown.’ Simon West, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton in ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

When I appeared on Channel 5 last year I learnt the most depressing facts about the decline in the amount of time children spend outdoors. Recent research shows that children tend to stay indoors, watching television, playing computer games or even spend time doing homework, rather than go out to play. Kids today play outside for less than five hours a day at weekends and only for an hour or so during the week, which is half the time their parents spent outdoors, whatever the weather. You’d have thought they must have had higher levels of vitamin D. Apparently only 21% children today play outside near their homes, as compared to 71% of their own parents when they were young.

Blu-ray Swallow's stern

However:

  • 44 % of parents wish their children played outdoors more often.
  • 54 % seriously worry their child doesn’t spend enough time playing outdoors.
  • But 43 % of parents admitted they rely on school to ensure their children are getting plenty of time outdoors through PE and play times, and spend very little outdoor time with their children themselves.
  • One study found that eight in ten parents said their favourite activities as children involved being outdoors. But only half their children lead the same active life.

Apparently parents have forgotten how to play with their kids. While nine of ten parents recognise that it is vital for children to use their imaginations, 16 per cent of parents say they have no idea how to make up stories or create imaginative play. What would Titty say?

Blu-ray X marks the spot

‘X marks the spot where they ate six missionaries!’ Simon West, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Sten Grendon on Peel Island in the English Lake District.

So what’s changed?

  • 32% of parents quote safety fears as the reason their children didn’t play out more often.
  • 19% said it was due to a lack of time.
  • 16% said their children would rather do other things.
  • 53% of parents were reluctance to letting children out of their sight on the danger posed by traffic
  • 40% feared their child would be snatched by a stranger.
  • Over 25% worry their neighbours would disapprove if their children played outdoors unsupervised.

 Blu-ray gutting fish

The Arthur Ransome Society have organised a number of activities for families this summer, including a camp at Cobnor Point on Chichester Harbour from Friday 14th August to Sunday 16th August. The idea is that you bring your own tent, food, drink and a boat if you have one but the cost is very low at £20 for adults and £10 for children. Activities include nature walks, archery, games, signalling and water divinging with sailing when the weather permits. The cost includes a barbeque on the Saturday evening. Please click here for details.

If you missed Dan Damon’s programme on BBC Radio 4, when I spoke on the appeal of a Swallows and Amazons childhood, you can listen to the full recording on BBC World Update by clicking here.

‘The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome’ along with a letter from Mrs Ransome herself

‘The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome’ is currently available for viewing on BBCiPlayer.

Griff Rhys Jones

This beautifully made documentary, presented by Griff Rhys Jones, examines Ransome’s life as a war correspondent in Russia from 1913 to 1919 when he was close to the action and in dialogue both with Lenin and Leon Trotsky. It raises the question as to whether he was a British spy.

Hugh Brogan, Ransome’s biographer explains that Ransome had originally ran off to Russia in 1913 to escape from his melodramatic wife, Ivy Walker. After using his time to record Russian fairy stories, that can be read today in his book, ‘Old Peter’s Russian Tales‘, he was employed by a national British newspaper to report on events leading up to the Russian Revolution. Black and white archive footage, along with photographs Ransome took himself, illustrate this well.

The BBC’s erstwhile political correspondent John Sergeant, explains the significance of certain survival strategies Ransome used, such as using ‘his practical skill to outwit people’, over extracts from the original feature filmSwallows & Amazons, produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1974.

Suzannah Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West above Derwentwater in 1973
Suzannah Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West, 1974

The scenes from the movie also show how the story Ransome wrote when back in the Lake District, was in many ways an outworking of feelings accumulated while he was working in Russia. By concentrating on his writing, he neglected his own daughter just as Uncle Jim was not around for the Blackett girls.

Captian Frlint with Nancy and Peggy

In the dramatised documentary, the beautiful actress Alina Karmazina plays Evgenia, the girl Ransome fell in love with while he was filing reports from Petrograd.  They later escaped over the border, trading her copper kettle for freedom of passage.

If the BBC had contacted Richard Pilbrow he would have been able to send them this letter. It was written to Neville Thompson, the online producer of the film, by Evgenia, who had become the second Mrs Ransome. It has never been published before. She gives the address as her retirement home near Banbury but it shows what kind of girl she was:

Mrs Ransome1

Page two:

Mrs Ransome page 2 trimmed

When Mrs Ransome saw the finished film in 1974, her only comment was that the kettle was of the wrong period.

Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan Walker with Stephen Grendon as Roger Walker camping on Peel Island, Conioston Water in Cumbria
Was Susan a portrayal of Evgenia? Here she is played by Suzanna Hamilton.

The story of the Ransome’s escape from Russian has been told by Hugh Lupton, Arthur Ransome’s great nephew, who gave us a rendition at The Arthur Ransome Society meeting near Bungay. It can be listened to on CD, available on CD from Burning Shed.

The Homing Stone by Hugh Lupton

The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome can be watched on BBC iPlayer by clicking on the photo here

Griff Rhys Jones - BBC

Announcing the publication of ‘The Making of SWALLOW & AMAZONS’

The Making of SWALLOWS & AMAZONS

The long-awaited paperback published by Classic TV Press

Sophie Neville at home with the S&A flags

Sophie Neville who played Titty Walker

Swallows & Amazons flags for book

‘Forty years after she enchanted film-goers as Titty in Swallows and Amazons, Sophie Neville has found a new audience… telling the behind-the-scenes secrets of the film of Arthur Ransome’s classic novel.’ The Daily Mail  The Making of  Swallows & Amazons ‘…is based on diaries, letters and old photographs which Sophie has turned into a heart-warming account of making the movie, which starred Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser.’

The Telegraph ~ Culture:  ‘Set in the Lake District in 1929, the film follows four young adventurers who sail a dinghy around Lake Coniston, cook for themselves over campfires and sleep in makeshift campsites.’

‘…The occasional chaos and terrible weather during filming contributed to the eventual popularity of the extraordinary and very much loved film.’ The Times

‘The film Swallows & Amazons is 40 years old, but thanks to its careful period evocation, its respect for Arthur Ransome’s original book and the performances of its child actors, it’s become a timeless classic. One of those children was Sophie Neville, who played Titty, and who kept a diary during the filming. That diary, with her adult recollections, is this book. It’s a fascinating insight into filming on location in the Lake District… Classic Boat

Sophie Suzanna and Sten

‘… The result is compulsive reading as she recalls that cold wet summer, while the camera crew wrapped up warm and she shivered in her skimpy dress as Able Seaman Titty Walker. Sophie brings to life all the many memorable characters who worked on the film and in particular the other children, the Director Claude Whatham who developed a great relationship with his young cast and the stars Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser. Nor are the other young actors forgotten for there are diary contributions from Suzanna Hamilton who played Susan, Stephen Grendon who played the Boy Roger and Kit Seymour who played Nancy Blackett. The text is supported by numerous illustrations showing life on and off the set.’ Roger Wardale, author of Arthur Ransome: Master Storyteller and other books

‘You don’t need to be a Swallows & Amazons fan to enjoy this book – it’s universal!’ Winifred Wilson, Librarian of The Arthur Ransome Society

‘This was a most unusual and interesting book. I picked it up expecting to browse through it, and found myself so drawn in to Sophie Neville’s detailed, amusing and insightful description of film making in the 1970’s that I was unable to put her book down. As Arthur Ransome fans, my family and I have always loved the film, and felt that Sophie Neville was ‘just right’ as Titty. What fun it has been to be introduced to the young twelve year old Sophie with her intelligent awareness of the challenges facing the production crew while she shivered in her cotton dresses. The many photographs and illustrations contribute richly to bringing the 1970s setting to life. Sophie recorded her experiences beautifully, and in so doing, added one more valuable book to the cultural heritage of all Arthur Ransome fans.’ Juliet Calcott, English teacher, South Africa

Lots of photos throughout the book bring the scenes to life – a delightful read.’ Celia Lewis author of An Illustrated Country Year

Mark Forrest Evening Show

Sophie Neville has been chatting to Mark Forrest on The Evening Show.

Please see her post on the Funnily Enough, the website  or click on his image above and slide the cursor to 02:14:20

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Swallows and Amazons mugs make great Birthday presents or Christmas gifts

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For some time now, I’ve had a Swallows and Amazons mug at home, which I use to keep my pens in. Featuring the design of the Jonathan Cape book jacket, it was given to me by Scruffie Buchanan who stocked the full set of Arthur Ransome mugs in her shop in Malta, aptly called The Museum of Childhood. I treasure it as a part of mine. It is really difficult to find these now. Thy have become collectors’ items.

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Not long ago I was presented with this handsome mug from Hill Top cottage at Ealinghearth, by Stephen and Janine Sykes when they showed me around the Ransome’s last home, which they have been restoring in the Lake District.

The Swallow is moored in Secret Harbour

I’ve just discovered that it is possible to buy mugs depicting scenes from the film of Swallows & Amazons (1974). This one (above) is quite fun as it resembles the cover of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’  There are others:

Captain Flint walks the plank

There are various scenes, but if you want to drink to Captain Flint walking the plank, you can.

Swallows & Amazons film poster on a mug

My favourite design shows the film poster of Swallows & Amazons, which comes in two ways.

Swallows & Amazons poster on a mugThere are a variety of other stills from the film to chose from. These mugs and other movie merchandise such as mouse-mats, jigsaw puzzles and framed prints can be purchased from StudioCanal, the film’s distributors, who have an online shop.

Meanwhile, Jago Silver has designed these Expresso mugs that are great for camping.

You can check the size on Jago’s website here.

Swallows and Amazons mug by Jago Silver

Just when I was wondering if there were any more ‘Swallows and Amazons’ inspired mugs, I was sent this beautiful depiction of Hill Top near Haverthwaite, showing the view Arthur and Genia would have enjoyed in their twilight years. Here are two views of the same mug:

I am not sure if they are for sale but you can rent the holiday cottage at the far end of the building. Please click here for details. Tell them I sent you! 

Photos of this historic mug were taken by Craig Wadhurst.

These bone china mugs depicting Ransome’s yachts Peter Duck and the Nancy Blackett cost £10, or lessor a pair, and are available from The Nancy Blackett Trust here. They also sell a selection of books, audio books and videos for Arthur Ransome enthusiasts.

I have had decorative maps of Arthur Ransome locations around Windermere and Coniston applied to mugs available from Redbubble. these come from Australia, so take a while to arrive but are good quality.

Swallows and Amazons mugs
Mugs printed with maps used to illustrate Sophie’s books

The most popular is the mug with the map of Coniston Water, which you can find here

 

If you like using thermal cups with lids, the decorative map of Coniston Water can be found here

The Swallows and Amazons map of Windermere on a thermal cup can be found in a different colour-way here

A full range of items in this range including t-shirts and bags can be seen on a previous post here.

Map showing ‘Swallows and Amazons’ film locations around Coniston Water

Nancy's Swallows and Amazons mugs

The most beautiful range of Swallows and Amazons china including these small coffee mugs featuring the map from the book (above) and this plate, were once available from The Nancy Blackett shop but you might find they have sold out.

swallows-and-amazons-china

They do stock larger, more practical mugs depicting ‘Swallow’, and the ‘Nancy Blackett’ for £8.50 each here.

Do let me know if you know of any other Swallows & Amazons mugs and where they can be found in the comments below.

 

VHS and DVD covers of the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’

The DVD of 'Swallows and Amazons' with a cover based on the 1974 film poster
DVD of Swallows & Amazons with a cover based on the 1974 film poster

When the movie Swallows & Amazons was released forty years ago the mere idea of Blu-ray or DVD recordings had not been dreampt of. When my father asked about acquiring a copy of the film he was quoted £450 for a set of 35mm reels designed to be projected on a cinema screen.  The sum was more than I received for working on location, even though I had a lead part. I was, however, sent a copy of the LP brought out to accompany the film. It was narrated by David Wood who wrote the screenplay and included Wilfred Joseph’s full score. You can still buy these online today.

Swallows and Amazons LP

Although we were never informed,  I now discover that at one time you could buy film clips on Supper 8, to project at home. You could probably still find this on eBay.

Super 8 version of Swallows film
Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville and Sten Grendon as the Swallows sailing on Coniston Water

When home video recorders first came out in the late Seventies I was working for Virginia McKenna. I remember her husband Bill Travers telling me that they had decided to go for Beta rather than VHS.  Almost inevitably Swallows & Amazons was released on VHS, in a big fat box, and came into its own as families snuggled down to watch it at home on rainy afternoons.  There were a number of cover designs:

Ronald Fraser on the cover of the VHS
With Ronald Fraser on the cover of the VHS

This one distributed by Warner Bros. is featured on the international movie data base. Click on the image more information and other cover designs.

Swallows and Amazons VHS 3

Readers have sent in an image of the reverse:

VHSreverse

There have been different versions marketed all over the world. The movie became so popular in the Baltic and Czech Republic that it has been dubbed a number of times:

The Norweigian version
The Norwegian version

For years the DVD has been sold as a double bill with The Railway Children, which was also financed by EMI Films.

Swallows and Amazons and Railway Children DVD   Swallows and Amazons and Railway Chidlren VHS

This is the double-bill released by StudioCanal:

DVD released by StudioCanal

 

In 2008 a DVD of very good quality was released by the Daily Mail, with a picture of me looking like a baby monkey on the wrapper. We were given absolutely no warning. The first I knew of it was a friend ringing up to ask me if I could spare a DVD for his kids, ‘Someone’s swiped the office copy.’

Swallows and Amazons Daily Mail DVD
Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville on the cover of the DVD published by the Daily Mail in March 2008

It was featured on the front cover for seven days, as well as in the magazine. I am often asked if we get residuals for distribution rights or when our images are used to promote newspapers but I have never received anything. This version did at least have end credits. There are reviews on Amazon about a DVD that lacked these. I was amazed that anyone even noticed but viewers assured me it was an outrage.

Sophie Neville on the cover of the Daily Mail DVD

I am glad the movie can be watched and enjoyed by successive generations of children. The most inspirational cover of all was on that very first boxed VHS, which featured us sailing up Derwentwater:

'Swallows and Amazons' on VHS
The original VHS version of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

In 2014 a remastered Blu-ray and DVD with an Extras package was launched by StudioCanal to celebrate the 40th Anniversay. If you are thinking of buying a copy, this is the one to get. It is available on Amazon by clicking here.

StudioCanal DVD cover

There was also an edition in French:

French version of the DVD

They later issued a DVD (without extras) adding striking new graphics to the old poster. A sticker advertising the 2016 film of Swallows and Amazons was added to promote the release:

DVD of re-mastered 'Swallows & Amazons' (1974)

Does anyone know of any other VHS or DVD covers?  Do add your comments in the box below.

StudioCanal, who own the rights to the film, have a set of stills you can see by clicking here. To see more stills from the film please click here

4th April marks the 40th Anniversary of the release of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

Premier ticket for the Gala of 'Swallows and Amazons'
Premier ticket for the Gala of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

The premier of the feature film Swallows & Amazons was held on 4th April 1974 in Shaftesbury Avenue, in London’s West End.  Those who watch it on television today, or have the DVD, are amazed to hear it was first released almost forty years ago. Please forgive me if you have seen this photos before but it seems quite a date to celebrate.

The ABC in Shaftesbury Avenue in 1974. It is now the Odeon Cinema.
The ABC in Shaftesbury Avenue in 1974. It is now the Odeon Cinema.

The Royal Gala Matinee was held in aid of the charity KIDS, which works with disabled children, young people and their families. The society is still going strong and has been celebrating its own 40th anniversary recently.

sister Allyne, Daphne Neville, Tamzin Neville and Sophie Neville
Arriving by taxi ~ Sister Allyne with Daphne Neville, Tamzin Neville and Sophie Neville

We arrived by taxi with my house mistress, Sister Allyne, and head mistress Sister Ann-Julian, who had travelled up from Wantage in Oxfordshire for the occassion.

Daphne and Sophie next to Exorcist poster
Sophie Neville with Daphne Neville outside the ABC Shaftesbury Avenue in 1974

Of all films, they found The Exorcist was showing at the same cinema. I gazed up at the billing outside the entrance, more interested in seeing the names of Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser with the romantic design of the graphics spelling out Swallows & Amazons.

The premier - in Shaftesbury Avenue

The first thing that happened was that I was whisked off for lunch with the five other children in the cast by Claude Whatham, the director. He chose a bistro where I chose hamburgers and chips. I’m not sure what the rest of my family did, but can only presume they found something to eat.

Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton in Laura Ashley and her mother
Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton in Laura Ashley and her mother

We arrived at the ABC cinema to find they had already taken their seats in the audience. We met up with Ronald Fraser and Richard Pilbrow, the film producer, who introduced us to Princess Helena Moutafian, Patron of KIDS, who the Earl and Countess of Compton had brought to celebrate the film’s release and help raise funds for the charity. Mummy had instead I made a curtsey to each person I was introduced to. Did this include members of the Press?

Jane Grendon braving the crowds outside the cinema
Jane Grendon braving the crowds outside the cinema

We also met a number of Ladies: Lady Bridport, Lady Onslow, Lady Nelson of Stafford, Lady Harford and others listed below who must have arrived with their children. It was all quite something.

Please note that Simon West, (to the right in the top photo) was wearing a tie that matched exactly with the floral print of his shirt. This was the height of fashion in 1974, something I have yet to see revived or replicated. Suzanna and I both wore pinafore dresses. These have not experienced a revival either, although Suzanna’s Laura Ashley print would be considered a treasured vintage piece. My mother was horrified that Ronald Fraser had his collar button undone, but I think that was a nod to trendy-ness. He also wore a badge in support of the charity pinned to his lapel. Badges were all the rage at the time and collected by all.

The premier - reported in Cinema TV Today
The premier of Arthur Ransome’s story ‘Swallows & Amazons’ – reported by Cinema TV Today in 1974

As you can see, we met Bobby Moore, the Hollywood actress Patricia Neal, the Norwegian Bond Girl Julie Ege and Spike Milligans’ family. Will Travers, now the CEO of the charity Born Free, came to represent his mother, Virginia McKenna who sadly couldn’t be with us.

A commemorative programme was being sold with a sepia version of the film poster on the cover:

Premier ticket application form

Inside there were several pages about those who appeared in the film. I still have a copy:

Virginia McKenna, Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, Stephen Grendon and Ronald Fraser appearing in the centre pages of the film premier programme
Virginia McKenna, Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, Stephen Grendon and Ronald Fraser appearing in the centre pages of the film premier programme

The opposite page:

Simon West, Kit Seymour, Ronald Fraser, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton with half of Stephen Grendon on the second page
Simon West, Kit Seymour, Ronald Fraser, with Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Lesley Bennett also appearing in the action photo onboard the houseboat.

It wasn’t until years later that I was shown copies of the stills used to advertise the film inside cinemas.

Sophie Neville with Swallow outside the Bluebird Cafe on Coniston Water
Sophie Neville holding the original publicity photograph found on eBay ~ photo: Kitty Faulkner

The original film posters, which once hung in the London Underground, have become collector’s items, valued at about £240 each on eBay. Studiocanal, who now own the film rights, have a selection of posters available as framed prints if you click here.

This was the version used as an advertisement in the Sunday Times forty years ago.

Kit Seymour, Lesley Bennett, Simon West, Sophie Neville, Stephen Grendon, Ronald Fraser and Virginia McKenna on the Newspaper advertisment for 'Swallows and Amazons' released in Apirl 1974
Kit Seymour, Lesley Bennett, Simon West, Sophie Neville, Stephen Grendon, Ronald Fraser and Virginia McKenna on the Newspaper advertisement for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ released in April 1974

You probably know that ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ is currently available as an ebook on Amazon Kindle and for other e-readers via Smashwords. It has been described by one reviewer on Amazon as the equivalent of DVD Extras, as it explains how we made the movie in the Lake District, back in the summer of 1973, as well as how the film was promoted and received in the UK. Hopefully the paperback and hardback versions will be out soon, but the ebook is unique in that it gives links to behind-the-scenes footage shot on location by my parents.

The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons

If you enjoyed watching ‘Swallows & Amazons’ on ITV3 last weekend

The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons

If you would like to know how the movie of Swallows & Amazons was made and know where the real locations can be found, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ is currently available as an ebook on Amazon and Smashwords for £2.56.  The paperback was launched to mark the 40th anniversary of the film’s release, by Classic TV Press.

Do you know where the Peak of Darien can be found? photo: Roger Wardale
Do you know where the Peak of Darien can be found?

The book, which is suitable for any age group, is based on the diary that I kept when I played the part of Titty Walker in 1973. It is illustrated with behind-the-scenes photographs and memorabilia such as one of the tickets to the Royal Gala premier in Shaftesbury Avenue held on 4th April 1974. You will also find out what the actors who played the Walker family ~ the Swallows ~ are doing now.

The joy of the ebook is that it includes a number of home-movie clips that my parents took of life behind the scenes that you can play wherever you have internet access.

Classi Boat magazine Books ~ Feb 2014
A review of the ebook in Classic Boat magazine ~ Feburary 2014

If you have any questions about making the film, please add them to the comments below, and I will get back to you.

Richard Kay's column in Daily Mail Friday Nov 22nd1
A review of ‘the Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ in Richard Kay’s column in the Daily Mail ~

There were rather over-excited headlines in the Times and Telegraph when the ebook was launched but they only spoke of the legendary drinking of Ronald Fraser. Please don’t worry – there is nothing X-rated about the book – it is just the price one pays for half a page in a daily newspaper, especially since it came out on a Saturday.

The Times Sat 23 Nov 20131

The ebook has been doing well in the Amazon charts and hit Number 1 in the category ‘Stage and Theatre’.

Lymington Times 4th Jan 2014

A preview of what the book holds in store can be watched here:

‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ – the book trailer

Very many thanks to all those who have left customer reviews on Amazon. It is always exciting to find out how the book has impacted others, especially those who love the Arthur Ransome books.

To read more reviews please click here

Captain Flint’s Houseboat revisited

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SY Gondola on Coniston Water today

When people see the Steam Yacht Gondola on Coniston today, in all her re-built glory, she seems rather plush to have been cast by Arthur Ransome as Captain Flint’s houseboat. The main reason for assuming that she was used as the model for the illustrations is because Arthur Ransome grabbed a post card of the Gondola and drew on it to give the first illustrators of Swallows and Amazons some idea of his vision. However Ransome’s biographer Roger Wardale tells me it was a former steamer on Windermere that he had in mind: the S.L Esperance. Ransome was known to have been spotted looking through her cabin windows and much admired her distinctive bow, designed to cut through cat ice as she went daily up the the Lakeside Railway station.  

Houseboat  bay in 1963
Esperance in Rayrigg Bay, Windemere ~ photographed by Martin Neville in about 1963

When I was first taken up to the Lake District in 1963 my father found what he thought was houseboat bay on Windermere and took this shot of a vessel that must be SL Esperance. She does look very like the first professional drawing submitted to illustrate Swallows and Amazons.

Stephen Spurrier's unused illustration of Swallow sailing past Captain Flint's houseboat
Stephen Spurrier’s unused illustration of Swallow sailing past Captain Flint’s houseboat

Arthur Ransome’s terse note reads: ‘The ass has forgotten the mast’. Today the Esperance is lying at the Steamboat Museum on Windermere, where we went to visit her in 2011. Built at Rutherglen in 1869 she is nearly 65 foot long with a 10 foot beam.

Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum
SL Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in 2011

She did not always have such a traditional appearance. Roger Wardale kindly sent me this photograph showing what she looked like in the 1930s.

'Esperance' in the 1930s when she was owned by Sir Oliver Scott.
‘Esperance’ in the 1930s when she was owned by Sir Oliver Scott.

The cabin has since been removed from her rear end.

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SY Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in 2011

SY Esperance now looks more like this illustration – or could do. Although she has a setting for a mast the reality is that she has seven windows, whereas Clifford Webb’s illustration shows her with only six.

Clifford Webb's illustration of Captain Flint's houseboat
Clifford Webb’s illustration of Captain Flint’s houseboat

I have no idea if anyone could film aboard her today when safety regulations are so strict.

Claude Whatham discussing plans with sailing director David Blagden (in the white hat) and Richard Pilbrow on the aft deck of the houseboat with Molly Pilbrow looking on ~ photo: Daphne Neville
Claude Whatham took advantage of the larger cabin windows in the Lady Derwentwater whilst filming ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Back in 1973 Richard Pilbrow was obliged to use the Lady Derwentwater, still owned by the Keswick Launch Co. She has quite a different stern from the illustrations but was licensed to carry 90 passengers, which must have allowed him to take a seventy-strong film crew on board. At least she was given a mast. You can envisage Ronald Fraser, as Captain Flint, angrily stamping out the firework on the roof.

One advantage of the Lady Derwentwater was that the windows of her cabin enabled the director to get a good view of the lake, which he made use of when Captain John rowed over from Peel Island to visit Captain Flint and pass on the charcoal burners’ warning.  She couldn’t be moved to another lake, but Derwentwater is surrounded by such dramatic fells that the director, Claude Whatham used this to his advantage. A postcard of Friar’s Crag near Keswick was used by Ransome to give his illustrator an idea of what the Peak of Darien was like, even though he had originally based this on the rocky promontory at Waterhead on Windermere. Roger Wardale tells me the Ransomes would sail there in Swallow and stop for tea before heading back south.

Sophie Neville at the Windermere Steamboat Museum
Sophie Neville at the Windermere Steamboat Museum

Was the Gondola so very different? Ransome had known her since spending his own childhood holidays on Coniston, when she was in service.  While staying at Nibthwaite he became a good friend of the Captain, or so the story goes. Back in 1973 the Gondola looked like this – her roof too curved to run along, her bow rising up a little too dramatically to accommodate the foredeck of a retired pirate busy writing up his devilish crimes while his a cannon lies glinting in the sunlight, ready to fire.

Was this the houseboat Arthur Ransome had in mind? ~ photograph taken by Martin Neville in 1973
Photograph of the Gondola on Coniston Water taken by Martin Neville in 1973

To read more about Esperance, please click here

For more about the Steamboat Museum with a photograph of Esperance, please click here

To read more, from another perspective please click here

Adaptations of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ discussed in the Independent on Sunday by Jonathan Brown

Author Arthur Ransome loathed BBC’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’, his diaries reveal

A new adaptation of the classic is coming, but its author called the 1960s version ‘a ghastly mess’

Sunday 16 February 2014

When the BBC announced plans to recreate the classic outdoor children’s sailing adventure Swallows and Amazons it was hailed as a blockbusting antidote to the health and safety culture of the mollycoddled video-game generation. Filming of the new version of the 1930s Lake District adventure is due to begin later this summer with big stars including Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens already linked to the project.

However, previously unread diaries of its creator, Arthur Ransome, reveal that the author considered the corporation’s last attempt to bring his much-loved story to life to be a “ghastly mess” marred by “dreadful ham” acting. The diaries reveal how Ransome clashed repeatedly with BBC executives in the early 1960s when the BBC commissioned a six-part dramatisation for television, starring Susan George, then aged 12, as Kitty (changed from the original Titty) Walker.

Ransome, then in declining health, was living in virtual retirement in his remote Cumbrian cottage Hill Top overlooking the spectacular Rusland valley with his wife Evgenia – the former secretary to Leon Trotsky, whom he met while working as a foreign correspondent and spying for Britain in revolutionary Russia. It was a spartan existence, often with no electricity or running water.

In a series of brusque entries at odds with his generally affable demeanour, he describes how he repeatedly fought with BBC executives over attempts to introduce two new characters – Ernie and Sam – to the story. Both he and his wife attempted to rewrite the script after concluding that one episode was “bad beyond belief”.

At his home Hill Top with his wife, Evgenia

At his home Hill Top with his wife, Evgenia

“I have agreed to Genia’s proposal that we shall wash our hands of the film leaving it to Mr Walls [of the BBC] to play the farceur as much as he likes. They may be right in thinking that vulgar ham acting is what the T.V. gapers want,” he wrote in July 1962.

Ransome was particularly unimpressed with the performance of popular British actor John Paul as Captain Flint – the character linked this time to Dan Stevens, and said to be based on Ransome himself – describing it as “dreadful HAM”.

On attending a screening at the Hammer Theatre in Wardour Street, central London in October 1962, he concluded: “Saw the ghastly mess they have made of poor old Swallows and Amazons … MacCullogh [his friend Derek MacCullogh, former head of children’s broadcasting at the BBC who was also known as the presenter Uncle Mac] did not come possibly to avoid trouble with his employers.” It was eventually broadcast the following year.

Stephen Sykes now owns Hill Top and has restored the Ransomes’ former home. He is also helping transcribe the author’s sparsely detailed diaries from his years at Hill Top, which are kept at Leeds University’s Brotherton Library. Sykes said the writer received £3,500 for agreeing to the BBC broadcast – a considerable amount of money. “He was clearly making a very good living out of the rights to Swallows and Amazons. This was his baby and he had obviously pored over it. It is a very leanly written story and it was pretty clear it was written by a journalist because of its clarity, because there is nothing extraneous,” he said.

“He is extremely protective of his own work. He felt he didn’t want a word changing, and that he had honed the story down and it was what it was,” he added.

Susan George, who played Kitty

Susan George, who played Kitty

Swallows and Amazons was first published in 1930. It recounts the adventures of the children from two families who while away an idyllic summer getting into scrapes sailing their dinghies across Coniston Water and Lake Windermere. As well as the television series, many theatrical and musical adaptations have been staged, and the story was made into a film in 1974 staring Ronald Fraser and Sophie Neville.

When the latest project was announced in 2011, head of BBC Films Christine Langan said it would seek to encapsulate a forgotten era of childhood adventure “from the pre-health and safety generation”.

Producer Nick Barton of Harbour Pictures, which is collaborating on the film with the BBC, the Arthur Ransome Society and the author’s literary estate, said it had not been decided yet whether the children would be shown sailing without their life jackets.

But he said viewers could expect to experience the full majesty of the book’s setting. “The lakes and the mountains are very big and we are keen to recreate that grandeur of the scenery in the film,” he said. A spokeswoman for BBC Films said: “The film is still in development.”

To see a copy of the original article online, please click here

To contact Stephen Sykes at Hill Top, the Ransome’s last home, please click here

From ‘Swallows & Amazons’ to ‘The Invisible Woman’

Daphne Neville in about 1973
Daphne Neville in about 1973

My mother, Daphne, started working as a television presenter for Harlech Television in Cardiff.  By 1973 Mum was working at the HTV studios in Bristol two days a week, presenting an afternoon programme called Women Only with Jan Leeming, and doing a bit of radio work for the BBC. Occasionally she appeared on other shows.

Mum appearing as a member of the Salvation Army on 'The Dick Emery Show'
Mum appearing as a member of the Salvation Army on ‘The Dick Emery Show’

While my father’s life was influenced by Arthur Ransome, my mother drew inspiration from the author Noel Streatfield and her novel Ballet Shoes, the story of three little girls who went on the stage. Before her own three daughters were old enough to read she was dreaming dreams. Since she worked at the HTV studios in Bristol, it was natural enough for us to take part in their drama productions that were being made locally.

Daphne Neville in 'Arthur of the Britons' HTV
Daphne Neville appearing with Tamzin Neville and Shaun Dromgoole in the HTV drama ‘Arthur of the Britons’ in 1972. I am not sure who the bearded man is.

When I was offered the part of Titty in Swallows & Amazons, Mum somehow managed to take enough leave to come up to the Lake District and work on the film as a chaperone, although she had to return to Bristol for two HTV commitments. She missed some of the best scenes, and some of our worst moments.

‘You owed your life to Simon West, of course.’

‘Did I?’

‘Oh, yes. Simon was such a good sailor. He was totally reliable.’ She was thinking of the scene when Swallow was meant to narrowly avoid colliding with the Windermere steamer, the Tern, when we only just avoided a terrible accident.

‘You would have gone under the Tern if Simon hadn’t been so calm and controlled. He would never have got into the situation himself, he would have gone about much sooner but was waiting for Claude to give him the cue over the Motorola radio. Claude was too late. He had no idea about boats.’

My mother returned from working in Bristol to find my father, Martin, was not happy about how things were being handled when we were on the water. They stayed up, talking all night, making what must have been one of the first ever risk assessments.

‘Quite a few things changed after that.’ You can tell from studying old call sheets.

‘The ridiculous thing was having to strap the kids into life jackets to go to Peel Island, which was not risky at all. Martin and I then discovered they were BOAC rejects.’

newspaper cutting of cast in life jackets
Lesley Bennett, Simon West, Kit Seymour, Sophie Neville, Sten Grendon and Suzanna Hamilton on Coniston Water 1973

Simon told me that he really couldn’t remember much about being in Swallows & Amazons. Looking back on it all, he reckoned that if I had talked through each day with Mum it would have reinforced memories. My diaries, which were certainly more detailed than those kept by the other Swallows, were supplemented by Mum’s photos, taken on a daily basis and looked at repeatedly. You have seen them all. They have that early Seventies tint to them.

Daphne Neville in 'Diagnosis Murder'
Daphne Neville in the 1975 film ‘Diagnosis Murder’ with Christopher Lee

Meanwhile my mother’s own memories are coloured by how things have changed over the last forty years, the other films she has been in the actors she has met.

‘Ronnie Fraser was perfectly nice. He was treated like a star and kept very much apart from us. He behaved like a star. Now stars have PAs, but he didn’t!’

Mum went on to appear in all sorts of movies. If you don’t blink, you can see her as a Victorian Lady in The Invisible Woman  – Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of Charles Dickens, soon to be released in cinemas.

For more photos of Daphne Neville in character roles, please click here

Daphne Neville in 'The Invisible Woman'
Daphne Neville in costume for ‘The Invisible Woman’ 2013