Roger still couldn’t swim, but he was trying to. Very hard. The production manager had kindly scheduled the second of our swimming scenes as late in the summer as possible. The weather was warmer – we’d elected to go bathing in a river up near Rydal Water on our day off – but it was still pretty chilly out on Coniston.
Whilst we tried to acclimatise by running around in our swimming costumes the crew were all in their thick coats as you can see from this home movie footage shot by my mother. We had bought her 8mm camera by saving up Green Shield stamps. (Can you remember collecting Green Shield stamps from petrol stations? They were an icon of the early 1970s all by themselves.) I remember someone on the crew calling out ‘Second unit!’ as Mum lifted what looked like a grey and white toy to her face. It was a bit noisy so she was not able to record during a take. You only see us before and after the sequences in the film, but her footage shows quite a few of the members of the crew – all smoking away, even when they were trying to warm us up after each sequence. You can watch Jean McGill, from Cumbria, our unit nurse who was dressed in red popping Dextrose into our mouths and giving us hot drinks to warm us up. Jean made Gareth Tandy, the third assistant, who was aged about 18, wear a sun hat because he had previously suffered from sun stroke. David Blagden can be glimpsed as one of the only other men with short hair.
The camera pontoon must have been left up on Derwentwater. Claude was obliged to shoot these scenes from what we called the camera punt, which was smaller but quite useful. Richard Pilbrow sent me a picture. He has included others in a new book that he has written about his career, including a section on the making of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ called ‘A Theatre Project’
Do please let me know if you can tell me the names of the three Cumbrian boatmen featured in this photograph who helped us. Others are featured in the home-movie footage. They all look like pirates. Real ones.
Goodness knows that Health and Safety would say about that punt today. The DoP managed to get two sizeable electric lights, on stands, into a boat already overloaded with personel and expensive equipment. You can see for yourself. Were these ‘Filler’ lights powered by portable batteries? The Lee Electric generator was on the shore. I was in the water. Busy being a cormorant.
We had an interesting afternoon filming with both dinghies. At one point we had the camera with us in Swallow. I found these photographs of us on the internet.
I was given the honour of clapping the clapper-board and calling out, ‘Shot 600, Take one!’ for a close-up of Suzanna Hamilton.
‘The worse possible kinds of natives’… Tourists were beginning to arrive for their summer holidays in the Lake District and we still had quite a bit more to film.
When I see press photographs like this one I sigh with resignation. Why were our lives presented to the world thus? It was of course just because they asked us to pose and the pony and trap added interest, but the ice-creams? It must have been taken the day we went exploring Rio. Our real time off from filming was spent quite differently.
Why did they make me take school exams, when I had the responsibility for a feature film on my shoulders? My friends later wrote to asure me that the exams were quite easy, but they were an added stress and a bore.
The letters, these little notes scrawled by friends at school, were a great support. It’s funny that Catherine wrote to me as Titty – none of the others did, but nicknames were a great thing, as was the fact that they were thinking of me that long summer term.
Suzanna had a blast of a day. Her diary is, as ever, quite different from mine.
One of the secrets of the film is Lesley Bennett, who played Peggy, was actually older than Kit Seymour, who played her elder sister Nancy Blackett. I don’t think it mattered in the least. Claude Whatham, Ronnie Cogan and Gareth Tandy came to Kit’s Birthday tea with the actor Ronald Fraser, who as Suzanna noted, was a little bit drunk. This can only mean he’d been drinking all day. It was a foreshadow of things to come.
Meanwhile I had more letters to reply to. My friends were wonderful, but it was up to me to keep my relationships in the best possible order. Returning to school after the filming was slightly daunting – but I had so much to catch up with that I was soon busy and fully integrated. I made a point of not talking about the film at all unless I was specifically asked. This wasn’t easy, as I was bubbling over with stories, but I knew that it wasn’t on. Almost anything that I said about ‘Swallows and Amazons’ or even the Lake District, could have been construed as braggish. I did not care to imagine the consequences of this. As it happened I didn’t have to.
Forty years ago today we were filming with Virginia McKenna at the location used for Arthur Ransome’s Holly Howe above Coniston Water. It was a day of days – the sunshiny day that we had all be waiting for.
The buttercups and daisies were still out in the field that flows from Holly Howe to the lake. Roger was able to tack up the meadow to receive the despatches from Mrs Walker, described in the opening pages of Arthur Ransome’s book.
‘…Each crossing of the field brought him nearer to the farm. The wind was against him, and he was tacking up against it to the farm, where at the gate his patient mother was awaiting him.’
I don’t think you can tell that this section of the scene was recorded seven whole days later than the sequence that runs directly on from this when the Boy Roger delivers the very same ‘If not duffers’ telegram to Captain John. The hole that had been dug for the camera alongside our picnic had been filled in. You can see this from Mother’s perspective when I was milling about near the lake looking towards the island I couldn’t actually see.
Poor Sten, he had to run up the field on what proved to be our hottest day. I remember Jean McGill, the Unit Nurse ministering cool drinks and a flannel soaked in cool eau de Cologne to make sure he did not get dehydrated. We all wanted a go with the cool cloth on the back of our necks at lunch time.
It was good to escape the heat by getting out on the water. We shot the scene set on the old stone jetty at the boat houses below the farm when Titty leads ‘Good Queen Bess’ down to the harbour to inspect her ship. I didn’t realise she had a large box of matches in her hand. Virginia kept it a surprise from us in real life. I was excited to find out that Simon Holland, the Designer had painted the branded cover by hand.
As the Call Sheet specifies, our dinghy Swallow had been loaded with all the tents and camping equipment that had been on Peel Island the day before. I didn’t realise at the time quite how often the design team had struck camp and made it up again. I just sat on top of the equipment singing Adieu and Farewell, not very well, as we sailed out onto Coniston Water, waving goodbye to our Fair Spanish Ladies.
I am sure that we had already recorded the scene in David Wood’s screenplay when the Walker family arrive at Holly Howe, but Claude decided to take advantage of the golden light and shoot it again. I am sure this was a good decision. It had been a long day and we were tired but the excitement of our arrival is tangible.
My mother thought that Mrs and Mrs Jackson, Mrs Walker’s nurse and Vicky the ship’s baby, who are listed as Extras on the Call Sheet, were particularly well cast. It must have been a long day for them. It was a long hot day for all of us, but a happy day.
The girls who had been taken on as our Stand-in’s the day before did not seem to be around to help limit the hours we spent on set, but perhaps I am muddled. They may have only materialized on Peel Island at a later date.
What I really did not know, until I watched the documentary broadcast last Sunday, was that Mrs Batty, who held the lease on Bank Ground Farm, had locked out the crew. She explained that when she was originally asked if we could film on her property she did not quite realise the scale of operations and only asked for – or accepted – a location fee of £75. The arrival of the two red double-decker buses, the Lee Electric van, the generator and other lorries, not to mention the Make-up caravan rather daunted her, as did the furniture moving activities involved at the start of the filming when we shot the interior scenes. She said that she decided that £75 was not enough, padlocked her front gate and wouldn’t let them back in until they agreed to pay her £1,000. It was a lot of money, more than double the fee I received.
You may have seen the BBC documentary about the making of Swallows and Amazons, when Ben Fogle interviewed Suzanna Hamiltonand myself at Bank Ground Farm for ‘Big Screen Britain’. This was re-packaged last year on a programme called Country Tracks. My father’s 16mm footage had been skilfully inter-cut with an interview with our Director, Claude Whatham.I did not know that it was being broadcast but was able to watch on-line.
My mother was very excited about meeting the actress Brenda Bruce who Claude had engaged to play Mrs Dixon. She had arrived on 10th June whilst we were filming the fishing scene at Elterwater where she found Claude keeping up our moral by wearing my mother’s Donny Osmond hat. I think he needed it for warmth. It was unexpectedly cold. I can remember being worried that Brenda Bruce would be chilly as she was only wearing a blouse and flip-flops. Now I understand that she ‘was of a certain age’ and didn’t feel the cold quite so much as skinny twelve-year-olds with opinions.
I shouldn’t have been worried about Mrs Dixon. She looked wonderful in the film – was wonderful – and very comfortable in her nice clean dairy. I had no idea that Brenda Bruce was so well-known, that BAFTA ~ the British Academy for Television Awards had named her Best Actress in 1963. “Yes, you do!” Mum said. “She was the White Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass.” She’d actually worked for Claude quite a bit and he trusted her to play a small part well. When I look back on Swallows and Amazons I can see that he made sure it didn’t become chocolate-boxy. You can tell by glancing at Mike Pratt’s costume. Mike Pratt who played Mr Dixon the provider of worms for our fishing bait, the lovely Lakeland colours of his garments contrasting with the harsh blues and reds of our 1970’s clothes.
What Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham did want to make the most of was the Westmorland scenery. In many ways they were making a landscape movie. I think what they most enjoyed was finding all the locations to put together Arthur Ransome’s imaginary lake as depicted in the end pages of Swallows and Amazons and I am often asked where the waterfall is. “It must be Niagara!” No, Sophie. It’s somewhere near Elterwater.
Kevin Burn sent me some suggestions with photos which made me feel pretty sure the actual waterfall is Skelwith Force. But Roger Wardale, who is an expert on Arthur Ransome’s locations, thinks not. “I don’t think it’s Skelwith Force which is more a series of rocky rapids in fairly level ground. I watched the film again yesterday and was reminded of the waterfall at Glen Mary (otherwise known as Tom Gill) the outlet for Tarn Hows dropping down to the Coniston-Ambleside road 4 miles from Skelwith Bridge.” So – any ideas most welcome!
What I can’t remember where Dixon’s Farm was filmed. The scenes set at Jackson’s Farm, Arthur Ransome’s ‘Holly Howe’ were shot at Bank Ground Farm by Coniston Water, but all I know about the location for Dixon’s Farm is that our tutor got terribly lost trying to find it…
Geraint Lewis of the Arthur Ransome Trust has written to confirm Kevin Burn’s theory about the location we used for Mrs Dixon’s dairy. ‘I had a long conversation once with Lucy Batty about her recollections of filming at Bank Ground in the house, barn, etc. She confirmed that they used the buildings shown as Tent Lodge Cottages on Google Maps – as Dixon’s Farm. That certainly seems to fit from the view of the lake and shoreline trees in the background.’
It was a glorious day to film on Windermere. Conditions were perfect. My father had been asked to appear as a Extra in the scene in the film of Swallows and Amazons when the the crew of Swallow narrowly miss colliding with a steamer, that transports tourists up and down the lake, on their voyage to Wildcat Island. He was the tall dark native in a blazer and white flannels aboard the very elegant Lakeland steamer, The Tern. A lovely way to spend a sunny morning in the Lake District.
Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Stephen Grendon and I were in the Swallow, which at the start of the day was attached to the camera pontoon so that Claude Whatham, our Director could capture the dialogue on film. In the script Roger is down to say, ‘Steamship on the port bow’. I think what came out was, ‘Look John! Over there – Steamer ahead!’
My mother had been obligued to go to Bristol as she presented a weekly programme for HTV with Jan Leeming in those days, so Dad must have been in the dual role of chaperone. A sailor with years of experience racing on the Solent he took a keen interest in all our sailing scenes.
And the next day…
…‘Carry on Matron’. I wonder what near disasters they had on that film.
When David Wood constructed the screenplay of Swallows and Amazons he introduced dual action soon after the Swallows arrived at the island. By this I mean that he split us up a bit – John went to fetch the milk from Dixon’s farm whilst Susan and I were teaching Roger to swim. This isn’t quite as Arthur Ransome wrote but it added vitality to the script, moving it along. I reckon the Director, Claude Whatham needed to avoid a gang scenario of Five go to Treasure Island at all costs. It also enabled us to get on with our school work since no one actor was in every scene. I was in all the scenes shot on this day 5th June (I wrote 5th May by mistake) but went back to my lessons whilst Claude was out on the pontoon filming John and Susan jibing Swallow – a pick-up shot set into the long shot, when I waved them goodbye from Wildcat Island, recorded on 2nd June.
At this stage in the story Arthur Ransome actually split the action into three. John, Susan and Roger sail off to find the Amazon river, Titty is left alone on the island with her telescope, while the Amazons are busy plotting and planning at Beckfoot. Up until this time most films followed linear stories – this happened, then that happened – a bit like my diary. My favourite wartime drama A Town like Alice, which stars Virginia McKenna, is an example of this.It’s a road movie. Lovely – but I need to watch it whilst doing my tapestry.
As it happened the method of running three storylines at once became all the rage in television dramas of the 1980s and 1990s, so when Swallows and Amazons was first broadcast on television it felt fresh even though it had been made six or seven years previously. The playwright John Mortimer said that when he first started writing three strands of action for Rumpole of the Bailey it terrified him. Would the audience be able to follow what was going on? Now every detective story breaks into three as soon as possible, while soap operas keep a number of storylines boiling furiously. The technique helps to pace the action, up the suspense and gives the director much more flexibility in the cutting room. Apart from anything else it makes it easier to bring episodes in at the exact length required by the television schedulers. One reason why credits roll after a programme is because the Presentation Department can alter the speed they run at. Did you know this? It means that every story can be made to last exactly 37 mins 30 seconds.
Nowadays linear stroy-telling in movies, such a The Kings Speech seems to be received as more cinemagraphic. I think that multiple action just went too far. ‘Flashbacks’ seem dated and running two storylines in different time periods can be confusing. I couldn’t do my embroidery whilst watching A Social Network.
Meanwhile two or three things were happening behind the scenes in the Lake District. Terry Needham, the Second Assistant Director, found that most of the men who had come forward to be Supporting Artists for the scene soon to be shot at Bowness were refusing to have their hair cut. My mother was astonished. They couldn’t portray the Lake District unpopulated by men. Only a few, very elderly gentlemen, who didn’t have much hair anyway, agreed to a short-back-and-sides. And my father. He was more than happy to receive a free hair cut. Ronnie Cogan brought out his scissors and snipped away there and then on the shore of Coniston Water. Someone grabbed Dad’s Bolex and took a few shots for posterity:
Dad missed seeing me capture the Amazon. Although it seems I was all alone in my story line, this was not the reality. I rowed away from Peel Island with the DoP Denis Lewiston, his 16mm camera and a reflector board held by Claude Whatham who was also tucked into Amazon’s stern. No wonder I was tired by the end of the day.
It was quite funny when Mrs Batty’s sheep walked into Swallow’s boat shed, lifting our spirits on that rather gloomy wet day on Coniston, but I have no idea if it was caught on film. Can anyone remember seeing a television programme made up of amusing out-takes from movies prior to the 1980s? I don’t suppose our out-takes were ever kept. It doesn’t matter – seeing them spoils the magic of the story in a way.
I wrote in my diary about playing Consequences in Bank Ground farmhouse. This is the game that Virginia McKenna had introduced us all to and we loved it. This time we seem to have roped in Costume, Hair and Make-up. It seems Emma Porteous, the Costume Designer, was on set with us that wet day in May. I would think that this was when they recorded the scenes inside Holly Howe with Susan and Roger and the wonderful lady who played Mrs Jackson. Someone recently asked why Susan never thanked her for lending her the frying pan, as it seemed out of character. Did she in Arthur Ransome’s book?
Ronnie Cogan was the quiet, gentle man usually clad in a grey tweed jacket, responsible for our hair on Swallows and Amazons. Foregoing the use of wigs, so very much in use on costume dramas at the time, he simply did up Virginia McKenna’s lovely thick hair, and cut ours, giving the whole movie a classic feel.
Years later my mother worked with Ronnie on Diana: Her True Story, the bio-epic of epics based on Andrew Morton’s outrageous book. Serena Scott Thomas played Diana Princess of Wales, David Threlfall was Prince Charles, Anthony Calf had the glorious opportunity to play James Hewitt and my mother was given the role of Diana’s nanny, who hit her on the head with a wooden spoon. Mum said that she later bumped into Ronnie in Oxford Street but heard soon afterwards that he had sadly died. He had a wonderful career and must be hugely missed. He’d worked on classics such as The Boys from Brazil with Sir Laurence Olivier and A Bridge too Far directed by Richard Attenborough – the Lord Attenborough. That must have been quite something. It starred Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Ryan O’Neal who I am sure would have been pretty concerned about having the standard WWII military haircut. Ronnie also worked for Roland Joffe on The Killing Fields and Kenneth Branagh when he had quite a haircut, the pudding basin, for his monumental film of Shakespeare’s Henry V. It is funny how things inter-connect. Kenneth Branagh played my great uncle AO Neville in the Rabbit-Proof Fence.
Peter Robb-King had been the Chief Make-up Artist on Diana: her True Story. Having worked on movies such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Stars Wars – Return of the Jedi, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, he is still involved with the most amazing feature films. He has just completed The Cabin in the Woods where he was Sigourney Weaver’s personal make-up artist – and to think! He was once mine.
“But, Sophie – you disappoint me! You didn’t wear any make-up to play Titty.” No, but as we filmed out on the water more and more sun cream became extremely important. If even a tiny bit of us had turned red or peeled the filming would have put in jeopardy. Predicting that we would turn vaguely brown, Peter decided to give us a bit of a tan when scenes where shot out of sequence, as a couple had been that first week. Peter and Ronnie were also responsible for the continuity of how we looked so that the shots would cut together. My fly-away hair was well monitored. Mum had to wash it every other day. Sten seemed to be forever having his hair trimmed. There are quite a few photographs of this particular activity inprogress.