Swallow, the dinghy that starred in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Sten Grendon as Roger and Sophie Neville as Titty rowing Swallow
(c)StudioCanal

BBC Antiques Roadshow featured Swallow, the dinghy used in the original feature film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in their first episode at Windermere Jetty repeated recently on BBC One. You can read about how she was valued by Rupert Maas on an earlier post on this blog here.

I wrote a little more about her history in an article for Practical Boat Owner, Britain’s most popular sailing magazine, this October. The story opens in 2010, when I nearly bought her myself:

Swallow is coming up for auction,’ my father said, sending me the details of a clinker-built sailing dinghy stored in Mike Turk’s warehouse in Twickenham. It was the Spring of 2010. I took one look at the online photographs and wept.

Swallow stored in Twickenham

The letters WK were carved on her transom. It was the twelve-foot, all-purpose, run-around vessel built by William King of Burnham-on-Sea that had been purchased by Richard Pilbrow in 1973 to feature as Swallow in the original feature film of Arthur Ransome’s classic novel Swallows and Amazons.

Swallow built by William King of Burnham-on-Crouch

I knew the little ship intimately. She looked a bit dried out but my husband thought we ought to buy her. I had played the part of Able-seaman Titty, the nine year-old girl who Ransome so cleverly made into the heroine of the story when she grabbed a chance to capture the Amazon, which enabled the Swallows to win the war set to determine ‘who should be the flag-ship’. In mooring her prize overnight near Cormorant Island, Titty witnessed Captain Flint’s stolen treasure chest being buried and was eventually able to rescue it. She was rewarded by the gift of a green parrot.

‘Did you know how to sail before playing Titty in Swallows and Amazons?’ people often asked. The truth was that I had crewed for my father in a similar dinghy and felt confident in a boat. I had grown up living by a lake in the Cotswolds where we had a Thames skiff, which I was used to handling. This was important as Titty does quite a bit of rowing in the film. She and Roger become galley-slaves rowing back from the charcoal burners’, they row out to Cormorant Island and she takes the Amazon out of Secret Harbour. This I did alone, in one take, later rowing some distance from Peel Island with the lighting cameraman and his 35mm Panavision Camera onboard. No one had thought about the implications of this when we first tried out the two boats on Windermere but being aged twelve, rather than nine, I just about coped and grew adept at launching Swallow and moving about in her. As the book was written in 1929, we did not wear life-jackets.

Swallow with Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton (c) StudioCanal

Arthur Ransome described Swallow as being thirteen-foot long with a keel, rather than a centre board. In the illustrations she is painted white, a common way of protecting wood in the 1930s. I am pretty sure that Richard Pilbrow, the producer of the movie, bought the dinghy we used when we where in Burnham-on-Sea to audition for the parts in March 1973. She was varnished but had, or was given, the red-brown sail and balanced lug-sail as described in the books.

Simon West who played Captain John, aged only eleven, was a capable sailor with an understanding of the wind that enabled him to cope with gusty Lakeland conditions. Swallow had no buoyancy. In the scenes when we first sail to the island she was laden with camping gear, including heavy canvas tents, the lighthouse tree lantern and a shallow basket of kitchen utensils I shifted every time we went about.

My father on the shore of Coniston Water

My father was an experienced sailor, used to racing yachts having frequently crossed the Solent in his own clinker-built dinghy as a boy. He was looking after us children when he agreed to appear in costume as a ‘native’ aboard the MV Tern on Windermere, which bares down on the Swallows in the story. He watched, terrified, as we sailed towards it. The Victorian steamer only had a notch throttle and an inexperienced skipper. He realised that Claude Whatham, the film director had not anticipated the fact that we would lose our wind in the lee of the passenger ferry and gave Simon a cue over the radio that was far too late. We only just went about in time, being pushed away from the larger vessel by the bow wave. Watch the film and you can see how very close we got. I was about to reach out and feebly fend off.

Dad spoke sternly to the producer that afternoon, pointing out that we could have all gone down. Sten Grendon, who played the Boy Roger, was only aged eight and could hardly swim. I could have become entangled in the camping gear. My father tested the old BOAC life jackets we wore for rehearsals and to travel out to film locations. They failed to inflate. He nearly took me off the film.

Swallow and Amazon on the Puffin cover

Another tricky scene to film was when John, Susan and Roger set off from the Landing Place on Wild Cat Island leaving Titty to guard the camp and light the lanterns as they hoped to capture the Amazon and sail home after dark. I had push them off, grabbing the telescope at the last minute. Since Swallow’s mast was liable to catch in tree branches, I needed to wade out and give her a hard, one-handed shove. I slipped on a rock and fell up to my waste in water. Knowing it would be difficult to set up the shot a second time, I struggled to my feet and waved them off, dripping wet. By this time John had the mainsheet out as far as the knot and stood to grab the boom to avoid a Chinese gybe as Swallow was hit by a fresh gust of wind as he cleared the headland at the northern end of the island and sped northwards toward Coniston Old Man.

Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton at the helm of Swallow with Stephen Grendon in the bows, while Sophie Neville looks on from Peel Island.

Having spent nearly seven weeks filming in the Lake District, the film was post-synced at Elstree studios. We arrived to sing out our lines to find Swallow there. She had been set in a tank so that the sounds of sailing could be captured. It is something you tend to take for granted as a viewer while it draws you into the experience. I last saw Swallow looking dejected outside the studio and was worried about what had become of her. Although she was offered to someone who had advised on the film, she was kept safely at Mike Turk’s prop hire company. Richard Pilbrow was hoping to make another film in the series.

Swallow at
Swallow at Mike Turk’s store in London

When Mike retired, many boats that had featured in movies came up for auction. I knew Swallow would be costly and in need of renovation. After fans of the film and members of The Arthur Ransome Society contacted me, we clubbed together to make a bid. In the end about eighty members of a hastily formed group called SailRansome spent approximately £5,700 on the purchase.

I contacted Nick Barton of Harbour Pictures, the film producer who was gaining the rights to make a new movie, hoping we could be able to re-coup costs by renting her back to him. Nick came up to Coniston Water to watch me re-launch Swallow in April 2011, sloshing brandy wine on her bow in true Ransome style. I helped him to raise finance for the new film, which was made in the summer of 2015 and released in 2016, starring Kelly Macdonald as Mrs Walker, Rafe Spall as Captain Flint and Andrew Scott as a Russian spy. In the end, he decided to use fourteen-foot RNSAs dinghies for Swallow and Amazon as they satisfied the film insurance company who demanded that two identical dinghies were used for Swallow.

This article was first published in Practical Boat Owner magazine

Joining SailRansome was pivotal for me as I was asked by the Nancy Blackett Trust and The Arthur Ransome Society to give a series of talks on how the old film, and the BBC serialization of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ was made. I ended up speaking at a number of literary festivals, on BBC Radio and even ITV’s News at Ten, promoting the societies and urging people to help get young people out on the water. I ended up taking Swallow out on Ullswater, the Orwell and River Alde, remembering how difficult she is to turn, but enjoying her speed. She ended up being featured on BBC Antiques Roadshow when I brought movie memorabilia up to Windermere Jetty museum for two episodes first screened in 2021.

Sophie Neville with Swallow on Coniston Water
Sophie Neville after re-launching Swallow on Coniston Water in 2011

You can sail Swallow yourself, in the company of an experienced skipper, by contacting SailRansome.org who are looking for volunteers to help care for her. As you can see from this clip, she was in need of restoration when first acquired by Sailransome

You can read more about the adventures we had making the original film in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)‘ by Sophie Neville, published by the Lutterworth Press, available from libraries, online retailers and to order from all good bookshops including Waterstones.

An article by Sophie Neville first published in Practical Boat Owner. A subscription to this bestselling UK magazine makes a great Christmas present.

Swallow appeared on BBC Antiques Roadshow at Windermere Jetty with a movie poster from the original film of Swallows and Amazons (1974)

When Lakeland Arts declared that Antiques Roadshow was coming to Windermere Jetty, I sent the BBC a photograph of some of the props used in the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’.

Swallow’s burgee made in 1973 for the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)

I was hoping their expert on movie memorabilia might be interested in the film posters, but couldn’t think that a hand-whittled hazel bow and arrow could be worth much.

Diaries kept on location in 1974, which form the basis of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’

I was keen to talk about the scrapbooks and diaries that I kept on location and thought they might want to use photos my father took of George Pattinson whose collection of boats formed the basis of the original Windermere Steamboat Museum. He brought along his 1900 steam launch Lady Elizabeth to Bowness-on-Windermere when we shot the Rio scenes in the summer of 1973 . She was being restored at the museum.

George Pattinson in his steam launch Lady Elisabeth in 1973 ~ photo: Martin Neville

I also suggested they featured Swallow the dinghy we used in the film. A group of us clubbed together in 2010 to purchase her when she came up for auction.

She was valued by Rupert Maas who is a great fan of Arthur Ransome’s books and watched the film himself as a boy. He liked the fact she hadn’t been over-restored. I didn’t know her ribs were made of elm.

The best photograph of Swallow under sail was used on the cover or the first edition of my book about making the 1974 film:

This first edition is now selling for ridiculous amounts on Amazon, but please email me if you’d like a signed copy. I have a few left.

You can order a copy of the 2nd edition online here

If you enjoy ebooks, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’ has links to behind-the-scenes home movie footage. It is available for £2.99 here

The billing from the Radio Times lists the other interesting items on the show. You can watch the episode, mostly shot on a lovely sunny day, on BBC iPlayer. Further details are reported here.

If you would like to find out about sailing ‘Swallow’ yourself, please contact Sail Ransome.

I might appear in the second of the two episodes broadcast from Windemere Jetty – the one shot in rain.

When the BBC rang inviting me to come up, it was clear that I was the antique they wanted to see. The first thing they asked me was my date of birth. This turned out to be due to Covid-19 restrictions but the director did, later, ask if she could call me Titty.

BBC Antiques RoadShow at Windermere Jetty in Cumbria

Filming was already in progress when we arrived at the museum. It was a typical day in late September, pouring with rain.

There was a great deal of impressive camera and lighting equipment in evidence but a number of marquees had been erected to keep everyone dry.

We were introduced to the designer, who whisked off various items I’d brought with me to display, and Marc Allum, antiques expert, author and long-time contributor to the Roadshow. He’s tough. It wasn’t freezing but the weather was far from warm.

BBC Antiques Roadshow Expert Marc Allum

Once at the water’s edge I met Debbie, the director who was surprised by the length of my hair. I explained it had grown during lockdown having not been cut for a year.

My position was marked by small sticks in exactly the same manner as during the filming of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ when I was aged twelve. Camera tape would not stick to the slate shingle.

A measuring rod was used to ensure we remained two meters apart, even whilst on camera, before I was asked to take up the bow and arrow I had helped whittle on location long ago.

Expert Marc Allum setting on a display of movie memorabilia with Sophie Neville

The display included Swallow’s burgee. I did ask for the flags to be crossed, but the significance of this was lost on the design team. You will have to write in and explain the importance.

When it came to being given an estimate for the value of what my husband calls ‘my junk’, I was truly amazed, especially since I nearly chucked half of it away in a fit of de-cluttering.

I am sworn to secrecy, so you’ll need to watch the show to find out how much my collection of movie memorabilia is meant to be worth. It should be broadcast on Sunday 21st February 2021 – but will I be on? I know they will feature Swallow this week but my item could either be featured in a different episode or hit the cutting-room floor.

We talked about the film premiere and influence the Swallows and Amazons books have had in encouraging children to get out into the wild.  As I walked around the museum afterwards, I found the Lady Elizabeth being restored, which you can see in a previous post here.

There is already a movie poster at the Windermere Jetty museum. I dug out a large, sepia poster designed for cinemas that has not been seen since 1974 but the BBC were not able to feature these for copyright reasons. Since receiving a valuation, I am getting it framed. You can read more about the artist, Arnaldo Putzu on this website here.

Swallows & Amazons in Aldeburgh

The beach at Aldebrugh

Lovely Aldeburgh on the Suffolk Coast

StudioCanal’s special re-mastered version of the classic film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) 

Sophie Neville Q&A in Kendal

was shown at the Aldeburgh cinema with a Q&A afterwards with Sophie Neville who played Titty speaking to the actress Diana Quick.

'The Making of Swallows & Amazons' for sale after a cinema viewing

Sophie was signing the last first edition copies of ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’.

Aldebrugh Cinema seating 250

Opposite the cinema, books by Arthur Ransome, who once lived in Suffolk

Arthur Ransome's Books in Aldebrugh Bookshopadorn the shelves of the award-wining Aldeburgh Bookshop

Aldebrugh Bookshop in printThe sun shone and holiday makers enjoyed the beach

Aldebrugh fishing

where you can buy fresh seafood and chat to the fisherman.

Aldebrugh lobster pots

Swallow, the lugsail dingy that starred in the 1974 film

Swallow with the initials WK

was sailing with the Aldeburgh Junior Lapwings who had a Swallows and Amazons regatta that weekend. You can read about what they got up to here.

blue chain on the sea shore

Thanks go to The Aldeburgh Bookshop for their sponsorship

Aldebrugh Bookshop bag

The Dinghy Cruising Companion

The Dinghy Cruising Companion -10 001

If you are keen on dinghy sailing and looking for adventure, this is a book to accompany you through the summer months ahead.  It is full of sound advice from Roger Barnes who learnt to sail on Windermere in Cumbria and is now President of the Dinghy Cruising Association. He has written for Classic Boat, Watercraft, Dinghy Sailing Magazine and currently writes for Classic Sailor.

Roger emailed me to ask if I had a photograph of us sailing Swallow without life jackets. I supplied him with this shot my mother took in 1973 since I am standing in the dinghy. I am not sure how we managed to go about when we sailed off, as it also contained the parrot’s cage.

I will certainly take The Dinghy Cruising Companion with me if I manage to get Swallow to Brittany in the near future. As you can see from the cover Roger often takes his own boat to regattas in France.

The Dinghy Cruising Companion

I bought my copy of Roger’s paperback online but it’s available from all good bookshops. To find out about sailing Swallow, the dinghy used in the 1974 film of Swallows and Amazons, please click here for Sail Ransome.

Last weekend we had the IAGM of The Arthur Ransome Society in Dumfries. Why not join this literary society who organise great events and summer camps. If you are not able to get out and about there is a wonderful Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook

To read my own article for Classic Sailor please click here

peter truelove (3)

 

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