One of the questions I was asked when we returned from filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 was about the food. This could only properly be answered by going into considerable detail.
When on location, our breakfast, coffee, lunch and tea were provided every day from the back of a location catering van staffed by a couple called John and Margaret who had come up from Pinewood. My mother always referred to their van as ‘The Chuck Wagon’. There wasn’t perhaps as wide a choice as there is with location catering today, but good hot meals were produced on time, whatever the weather and wherever we might be.
If we ever filmed on a Sunday there would be a full roast meal. At other times they would enchant us with a choice that might include spaghetti, a dish that was new to England – or at least where we lived – in 1973. It was the kind of special meal that my mother would cook for a dinner party, served with a spoon and fork so you could swirl the pasta properly. As children we were allowed to go to the head of the queue so that we could avoid having to queue up in the rain. We’d take out plates to tables in one of the red double-decker buses. You could help yourself to knives and forks and paper napkins on the way in. We had to be careful not to get food on our costumes.
I remember when location caterers first started providing salad buffets in addition to hot lunches in the 1980s. It was such a relief not having to queue. Salads were not regarded as food for the working man back in the early 1970s but Suzanna thought otherwise. Indeed she would eat little else.
Despite the fact that Suzanna often only ate tomato sandwiches for lunch, the catering budget must have been considerable. The call sheet always seemed to specify ‘LUNCH for approx 70 persons’.
When friends came to visit us on location my parents were sensitive to this and bought a picnic, which was very much how we lived normally. This was always carried in a wicker basket and set out on a car rug, cold squash in one thermos flask, hot coffee in another. Triangles of processed cheese with ham and pickle sandwiches. No cool bags or bottles of wine. You couldn’t buy ready-made sandwiches from petrol stations or supermarkets then but if you went to a bakery they would make you a filled bap while you waited.
As anyone who has read Arthur Ransomes’ books will know, the Swallows were very organised when it came to provisions. Milk from the farm, buttered eggs, seed cake, apples, molasses (toffees) and grog – I loved it all. I wasn’t too sure about fried perch but the pemmican and potato cakes cooked by Man Friday with a great knob of butter were utterly delicious. And I loved the buns from Rio. We didn’t have peas to shell on the film. Apples must have seemed a realistic alternative.
Again we have to rely on The Mate Susan for details. Surely she was modeled on Ransome’s own efficient wife Evgenia? In this extract from her diary Suzanna mentions that Richard Pilbrow’s two children came to watch the filming. She knew Abigail from London.
Mum became worried quite early on that Suzanna wasn’t eating enough. The solution came when she was taken out to dinner at a restaurant where she was able to chose from a wide menu.
As a result Suzanna was often given steak for supper back at the Oakland’s Guest House while the rest of us had whatever was on offer, which was a bit of a swizz.
Suzanna was of course completely right about insisting on eating salads and fresh fruit. She chivvied, encouraged and begged both the caterers and Mrs Price for more and more fresh raw food. She loved strawberries. Virginia McKenna won her heart by bringing her two boxes of fresh strawberries when she was ill with tonsillitis at the start of the filming. These would have been early English strawberries and a great treat in 1973. John and Margaret managed to find enough for us all later in the summer. They were presented in a manner that would have pleased the men working on the film crew but Mate Susan wasn’t so happy about this.
I’ve included this photograph before but it provides proof that food was an important issue. Please note that Mate Susan is first in line, inspecting everything on offer.
If you would like to read more about what it felt like to appear in Swallows and Amazons, I have bought out a paperback: ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ for sale online or available from any library worldwide.