Ronald Fraser! veteran of World War II movies who had won an award for playing Basil Allenby-Johnson in The Misfits had arrived on the shore of Coniston Water. Curiously so had two Stand-ins. A short lady for me, with dark hair, and a lady with blonde hair for Suzanna. I have blonde hair and Suzanna is dark, but that is how it was. The other four actors didn’t have stand-ins, which seemed odd. Simon West and Stephen Grendon, the two boys were younger than us, so that seemed odder. And we were some way into the filming. However the ladies were very excited about coming over to Peel Island. They sat in our positions and read our lines back to Ronald Fraser whilst the scene at the camp site was lit, and returned to stand-in for us later when his close-ups were shot. Somehow they managed to do this in scanty summer clothing dispite the brewing storm.
Our stand-ins got a lot of help from the crew as they went from boat to shore. We didn’t really, but then we were used to it and had to wear life-jackets. Mummy didn’t wear a life jacket, but she has always been surprising good at getting in and out of boats too.
My mother’s present day comment on the whole matter of my stand-in is concise: ‘I don’t think she was invited. I think she just turned up. Most unsuitable for a children’s film.’
The poor production team. I think the recording of our scene with Captain Flint on Peel Island went well, and that Claude Whatham the Director was happy with the result, but my diary reports how a Force 8 gale came in. The Call Sheet for 20th June documents how truly unpredictable the weather was. We had a ‘Fine Weather Call’, an ‘Alternative Dull Weather Call’, ‘Rain Cover’ in the Houseboat cabin and a pencilled-in end-plan entitled ‘Peel Island’. Richard Pilbrow, the Producer, had a 1970s embroidered patch sewn to his jeans which read: THE DECISION IS MAYBE AND THAT’S FINAL.
In Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons there is a dramatic storm with lashing rain. We were rather disappointed that it was not included in David Wood’s screenplay. It could have been shot that afternoon, but this was not to be. I can remember Mum saying, ‘You can’t have everything.’
What had been good about the 20th June was that we, the Swallows and the Amazons, were all together, not sailing but on Peel Island, with the novelty of working with Ronald Fraser for the first time. Kit Seymour, who played Nancy Blacket and Lesley Bennett in the role of her sister Peggy, had been so patient, waiting day after day for their scenes with their Uncle Jim to come up. They were stuck having endless lessons with Mrs Causey in the red double-decker bus most of the time. But the fact that they were on Stand-by was hugely helpful to the Production Manager who had to wrestle with the film schedule and Call Sheets.
As it was the storm blew hard but cleared the dull-weather clouds and the next day was glorious, one to remember forever…
‘When you went to see the charcoal burners, did Susan really leave her basket behind?’
‘Yes, she did!’ I’d totally forgotten, but she left it behind by mistake.
Last weekend I was invited to speak after dinner at the 11th Arthur Ransome Society Literary Weekendheld at Willis Hall, Bristol University. It was a joy and delight to meet the organisers and delegates, of which there were about 150. All seemed interested in learning more about the making of Swallows and Amazons, the feature film of Arthur Ransome’s book produced in 1973 by Richard Pilbrow of Theatre Projects and distributed by EMI in 1974.
Director Claude Whatham with his cast of Swallows and their basket
‘How old were you all?’ I was asked.
‘Ahh, that is rather a secret,’ I had to admit. When the filming began I was twelve, yet playing the part of Titty who was meant to be only nine. I managed to pretend to be much younger but the reality was that, although skinny, I was a tall child with long legs, so tall that in some shots you can see that I am taller than my elder brother John. Claude Whatham, the director, seemed unconcerned but had either holes dug for me or a box produced for John to stand on when were side by side. At other times he simply had John in a higher position.
John was played by Simon West, who even aged eleven was a true leader and excellent sailor. I believe he had been a National Optimist champion. Suzanna Hamilton, who played my elder sister Susan, was twelve. Lesley Bennett, who played Peggy was actually the eldest aged thirteen, and Kit Seymour turned thirteen during the filming. But, unlike at school, it didn’t seemed to matter to us. We all felt the same age and got on well as a result. Sten Grendon, who played the seven-year-old Roger was actually aged nine. And he really couldn’t swim, but somehow he survived.
I do remember that Roger received more danger money than any of us. Claude would compensate us for getting scratched by brambles – as poor Roger was – by handing out extra pocket money. I think we earnt £2 each for enduring the icy waters of Coniston when the swimming scene was shot on a grey day in May. The water was so cold that it was agony and the money hard earnt. Titty, who was keen on imitating cormorants, had to divie unther water and I nearly passed out. I am not very good at being wet and cold or when it comes to heights either, so it was encouraging to be rewarded after climbing trees, ‘For fear of ravenous beats.’ When you watch the film you can see that Susan inadvertently burnt Roger with the large flat frying pan, which she’d just taken off the camp fire. He flinches and she muttered ‘Sorry’, before ploughing on with the scene. The moment was captured in the film.
One problem encountered when filming with children is that they can unexpectedly lose their milk teeth. I did. People still comment on this today. I lost an eye tooth. In some scenes it is there, then it will suddenly vanish only to re-appear again. Claude was not very pleased that his continuity was blown and there was definately no tooth fairy. He wasn’t very pleased when I grazed my leg falling off a swing at lunch time either. Suzanna cut her hand whittling wood. Bobby, the Props man seemed so happy and absorbed making bows and arrows for the Amazons, out of local hazel saplings, that we all wanted to try for ourselves and started carving. I bought a penknife with my danger money and made a bow, which I still have today. This occupation kept us all quite until of course Suzanna nearly chopped a finger off and ended up with such a big bandage that Claude howled with dismay. We were banned from whittling after that, but I did learn to shoot with the bow and arrow. This proved providential since I gained the part of an archery champion in the next feature film I appeared in. Years later I met the man who became my husband at an archery event. He was chairman of the society. I might never have met him if I hadn’t learnt to shoot for the feature films.
‘Here we are, intrepid explorers, making the first ever voyage into uncharted waters. What mysteries will they hold for us? What dark secrets shall be revealed?’ Titty uttered dramatically as she looked out towards Wildcat Island. In fact we weren’t that intrepid. Our dinghy was wired to a pontoon on which was a 35mm Panasonic camera, a few yards of track and an entire film crew: sound, camera, lighting, wardrobe g et al.
The little bit of extra money Claude gave us was indeed compensation for encountering grave danger on one occasion. I don’t remember there being anything about it in Arthur Ransome’s book, but in the film there is a sequence when the Swallows nearly collide with the Tern, an elegant steamer that has taken tourists up and down Windermere since 1891. There is rather a large difference between the shot of the dinghy with the Tern coming towards her when Susan calls, ‘Look John! Steamer ahead!’ which was shot when Swallow was attached to the floating pontoon, and the next shot, a top shot, which was taken from the steamer when we were sailing free . That is when things went wrong. The Tern turned, John lost his wind in the lee of the larger vessel and we four children came perilously close to ending up in a very Duffer-ish state. Swallow had no centre board, only a keel and a shallow rudder, so she was difficult to turn at the best of times. We were acutely aware that Roger couldn’t swim, we had no buoyancy and I was perched on a pile of heavy old camping equipment. My father, who is a good dinghy sailor with years of experience racing in the Solent, was watching from the deck of the steamer, helpless. He could foresee the problem and yet was able to do nothing. Although we just managed to avoid a true collision he was so shaken someone had to find him a glass of whisky.
At The Cannes Film Festival, Harbour Pictures, in association with BBC Films, announced that they plan to re-make Swallows and Amazons based on Arthur Ransome’s iconic book that was written in 1929. As a result a debate broke out, not about whether this is a good idea, but whether the characters should wear life jackets.
Ironically Sophie Neville, who played Titty in the 1974 feature film of Swallows and Amazons nearly drowned over Easter last year because she was wearing a buoyancy aid. ‘My sister insisted I wore a big old fashioned life-jacket as an example to her children. When I capsized it trapped me inside my canoe. I’d lost my paddle and hung upside down, in the cold water, unable to get out. I was literally plugged inside and couldn’t get free.’
(for alternative photo image see http://bit.ly/jZMn1O image from fotolink.pl of Steven Grendon & Sophie Neville rowing Swallow in the EMI 1974 feature film Swallows and Amazons)
The EMI film of Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons was made entirely on location in the Lake District 1973. ‘It can get quite gusty on Coniston Water but we never fell in,’ Sophie remembers. ‘We had a wonderful time.’
Ten years later the BBC made the drama series Swallows and Amazons Forever! an adaptation of Ransome’s later books Coot Club and The Big Six, which are set on the Norfolk Boards. Julian Fellows featured as a Hullabaloo, an enraged tourist driving a motor cruiser.
In both the film and television series the decision was made to be true the 1930s period in which the books are set and let characters – adults and children alike (plus pug dog), go out on the water without life vests. They carried knives, lit fires and sailed at night without lights in boats that had no buoyancy aids. Lanterns were hung in tents and arrows were fired at other children. The boys in Norfolk also rode bikes without helmets, but that is how life was led in the 1930s. No one had safety belts in cars. Not much safety gear had been invented. ‘You wouldn’t film Elizabeth the Golden Years with Cate Blanchett in a BHS riding hat, or Russell Crow playing Robin Hood in a jockey’s helmet. No one moans about that. When filming Swallows and Amazons we wore life jackets when setting up shots and had a lifeguard in a zoomy rubber boat on constant stand-by when filming, but you wear period costumes in a period film and that is it.’
Sophie worked for the BBC behind the camera on the crew of Coot Club and The Big Six. She said what concerned her in Norfolk was the thought of someone getting trapped between a moored boat and the staithe wall or getting bashed when boats passed under the famously low bridges. ‘This situation won’t exist in the Lake District when Swallows and Amazons is made into a film again. They will have a wonderful – inspirational – time.’
Meanwhile if you are planning on going canoeing – sign up for a safety course first and wear the proper gear. This is the year 2015 and buoyancy aids are available…
Sophie Neville with Swallow by Coniston Water, holding an original publicity still from the EMI feature film of Swallows and Amazons.