Filming on location in Cumbria in 1973 ~ nearly forty years ago.
Our designer Simon Holland was rowing Swallow without his shirt. Producer Richard Pilbrow was hanging on the side of the houseboat clad in denim. Terry Smith, the wardrobe Master, was busy drying off Ronald Fraser’s wet costume on the aft deck. The white pith helmet was being touched up by the unit painter. Unions must have been strict back then.
Director Claude Whatham was making the most of the rare but glorious Lake District weather to complete the scene on the foredeck of the houseboat. The Swallows, the Amazons and their Uncle Jim, who had just been made to walk the plank and was now dripping wet, waited patiently while I delivered Titty’s immortal line: ‘Captain Flint – we’ve got a surprise for you.’ Not quite the same as in Arthur Ransome’s book but it worked well.
War cries from everyone…
Kit Seymour, who was playing Nancy, must have dropped on top of us all.
The cabin of the houseboat had been turned into a dressing room for Ronald Fraser.
A long day’s filming out on the lake.
My mother took a series of photographs showing how the crew managed in the limited space:
The 16mm camera in the grey punt.
I think the chap in the swimming trunks is a boatman from Keswick. Does anyone recognise him?
The 16mm camera was noisy. This would have been the shot taken when I said we just went through the movements.
And all the time Molly Pilbrow was keeping an eye on the script. I don’t think there was any room for Graham Ford. He was looking after the base camp:
It had been a productive day; a battle well fought, the treasure returned.
Ronald Fraser with Wardrobe Master Terry Smith being transported to the Houseboat played by The Lady Derwentwater
My diary entry for 24th June 1973 is not exactly revealing. As it was raining steadily in the Lake District, I was given a second day off. ‘We had a quirte morning,’ I wrote. I am sure I needed one. After a heavy week’s filming I’d spent the official ‘Unit Day Off’ writing five end-of-year exam papers, answering correspondence from school friends and going to Kit Seymour’s thirteenth Birthday party. I must have been exhausted. Legally I was meant to have two days off a week. This was the first time it had been possible.
Suzanna Hamilton’s diary adds little more, but my mother was on set, as was a journalist from The Guardian, so I can tell you what happened. I can even tell you what the location caterers from Pinewood cooked that day: Melon, followed by roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, boiled or roast potatoes, peas and carrots with apple crumble or tinned peaches served with custard or evaporated milk. It was a Sunday. Suzanna noted that we had ‘salad for super’, her favorite food.
“The houseboat has been converted from a pleasure steamer,” wrote Michael McNay in the Features section of The Guardian, “the whole of the superstructure fore faked up by props, the cabin aft converted into a retired colonist’s sittingroom – African rug, flowery curtains, assegais on the walls, an ebony elephant with silver howdah and trappings, a walnut wireless cabinet, tall brass oil lamps, a pile of 78rpm records, a silver mounted cricket ball (presented to G.Gumbleton, 1899, for the highest individual score of the season), a chest, a writing desk and an ancient upright Imperial.” I have typed this up exactly as it was published on 7th July 1973.
By props, I don’t think Michael McNay meant pit-props. He was talking about the work of the design team headed by Simon Holland. Ian Whittaker, who later won an Oscar for set dressing, helped Simon to create Captain Flint’s cabin with one of the Prop men who is photographed here. Does anyone know his name? I think it might be Terry Wells. I expect the cane chairs and side table were being temporally stored on the roof when this snap shot was taken so as to make space for camera and lights. The gaffer and camera crew would have been in the process of setting up inside the cabin. Sound would not have settled in yet. How do I know that after all these years? I can see the recordist’s arm at the left of the photograph. I still remember his coat.
“Ronald Fraser, alias Uncle Jim, is tapping away at a book.” Michael continues. “Last minute panic: who can type out quickly a folio of copy to leave nonchantly in the roller?” That would have been Sue Merry, the continuity girl. The first scene was probably the one in which Uncle Jim is typing with the green parrot on his shoulder when a firework goes off on his cabin roof. I wonder if Arthur Ransome had ever been disturbed by the Altounyan children in such a way. Did he use an Imperial typewriter?
The film crew were on location on Derwentwater. “By now, the houseboat has been moved and moored to the western shore just off a promontory that is being faked up as one end of Wild Cat Island.” The houseboat, really one of the stars of the movie, was being played by a long-time resident of Cumbria, The Lady Derwentwater. A 56 foot motor launch, owned by the Keswick Launch Company since 1935, she returned to real life after the filming, rather like I did. She still carries up to 90 passengers. You can go out on her today.
My father, who is keen on steamboats, had been off to find the real houseboat that Arthur Ransome had in mind. Am I right in thinking this must have been the original Gondola? I expect she was too un-seaworthy for the production team to contemplate using in 1973. A reliable, water-tight boat that could be towed into the location used for Houseboat Bay was needed. Last year we went to see TSSY Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in Cumbria, which is another Victorian steam yacht invisaged by Ransome as a possible model for Captain Flint’s houseboat. It is a beauty but we did get a better view of the lake from of the cabin windows in the Lady Derwentwater.
“The rain has stopped, the mist is lifting from the 1,500 foot ridge of Cat Bells. Fraser climbs gingerly aboard, awkward in co-respondent’s brown and white shoes, rosy make-up and moves into the aft cabin.” McNay continues. He is describing the main scene to be shot that day. “John, alias Simon West, is in a rowing boat 15 feet away… The problem this time is that the rowing boat has to remain anchored but look as though Simon is pulling steadily in towards the houseboat and the anchor rope has to remain hidden.” This must have been so that Swallow could be lined up acurately and remain in focus for the camera. It is one of the secrets of making the film that I have been asked about directly.
“Simon shows Claude Whatham how he’ll manage it. Quick rehearsal inside the cabin. Ronald Fraser on his knees by the chest folding a white pullover, catches sight of approaching boat, mimes angry surprise. Told not to jerk head so far back. Instead jerks eyebrows up. The cabin is no more than eight foot by ten and contains besides Fraser and the props, four men on a camera, one on lights, and the continuity girl.” McNay had not included Claude the director, who I know would have squeezed in since these were the days before monitors from the camera feed. And he was small. The sound recordist was bigger but may have just planted a microphone on the desk.
“On the small aft deck Pilbrow is for the next few minutes going to be redundant.” This is Richard Pilbrow, who now lives in Conneticut and I am sure will read this post. “He is a mild, inoffensive looking man producing his first film. He is 40… looks like your friendly local antiques dealer. He and Whatham are a good team: Whatham is slight, energetic and calm. He has time, even as a sequence is being set up, to ask the Press if they can see enough of what’s going on from the crampt aft deck of the housebaot. It’s a cheerful crew, (Denis Lewiston the DOP) watching clouds overhead with benign suspicion, taking light meter readings inside and out-side the cabin every 30 seconds.
‘Action,’ said quietly into the cabin.
‘ACTION,’ across the lake to Simon. The clapperboard shows 461 take 1. Fraser folds the pullover, looks up, jerks eyebrows in angry surprise, camera swings round to follow Fraser’s gaze through the window, Simon pulls on left oar, keeps the rope hidden.
‘Once more please. Stand by. Action. ACTION (461 take 3) …. CUT.’
There’s a consensus that the third take was best. Ten minute break while the suceeding sequence is prepared: Fraser rushes out on deck and tells Simon to clear off. That too is filmed in triplicate. The time is 12.45. They started work at 6.30, began filming at 12.25 and they’ve got maybe 45 seconds in the can. Everybody seems pleased.”
A few years ago, on a wet but beautiful day in Cumbria we set off on a quest to find some of the locations used in Richard Pilbrow’s 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’.
To my delight our journey started with a drive down through the streets of Rio (Bowness) and along the east shore of Windermere to the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway Station at the southern end of the lake (or Antarctica as Titty labeled the region). It was here that we spent our very first day filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ back in 1973. I had not been there since.
We had a chat to the train driver who explained that they now run six journeys a day. From Haverthwaite, the steam locomotives run alongside the River Leven to Lakeside Station. From here you can take a native steamer back up to Rio (the Bowness pier) or to the Far North (Ambleside, which is the town at the head of the lake where we lived whilst filming in that long distant summer when I was twelve years old.)
Whilst we used engine number 2073 in the movie, this steam locomotive 42085 was built in 1951. It uses about two tons of coal a day but it utterly magnificent. The driver probably uses rather a lot of steam oil too. It’s a smell I relish, familiar since childhood days spent on steamboats. I remember it from the SBA steamboat rally held on Windermere in 1991, which I describe in Funnily Enough.
Curiously, Haverthwaite Railway Station looked cleaner and shinier than when we used it as a film location in 1973. I can only suppose it was still in the process of being restored back then, when Simon Holland our set designer cluttered it up with push bikes and luggage trolleys. Much to our surprise, the yellow taxi we were transported in during the filming was actually driven along the platform.
We climbed aboard the train and I explored, as Titty would have done, discovering people seated inside from far distant lands.
David Wood’s screenplay for the film of Swallows and Amazons, directed by Claude Whatham, opens to find the Walker family cooped up in a railway carriage compartment as they travel north for their holidays.
We saw this distinctive carriage in a siding as we steamed down the valley. Funnily enough when I reached home, later the next day, I came across a photograph on the internet I had never seen before. It was of Virginia McKenna, playing Mrs Walker, reading a magazine inside the compartment. Strangely it turned up when I Googled my own name – Sophie Neville.
The train is not included in Arthur Ransome’s book of Swallows and Amazons, written in 1929, but he does feature locomotives in his later novels, notably Pigeon Post. I clearly remember filming the BBC adaptation of Coot Club at what must have been The Poppy Line, a steam railway in north Norfolk when Henry Dimbley, playing Tom Dudgeon, jumped aboard the moving train and met Dick and Dorothea.
I jumped off the train at the Lakeside Station to meet up with Peter Walker of Mountain Goat. Peter has carefully researched and put together a Swallows and Amazons tour, exploring ‘High Greenland’, the ‘Forest’ and ‘High Hills’ to discover the places where Arthur Ransome lived. We set off in search of the places where he fished, wrote, and drank beer. It was fascinating – and proved an excellent way to spend a day in the Lake District despite the rain.
You can read more about the locations used in the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) in the paperback ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ available from libraries, bookshops or online here.
There is also a similar ebook, entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons (1974)’ available from all ebook distributors including Amazon
We have the clip from Country Tracks presented by Ben Fogle, that includes interviews with Director Claude Whatham, Lucy Batty of Bank Ground Farm, Suzanna Hamilton and myself discussing the swimming scenes, with the unique behind-the-scenes footage my father shot on 16mm film, with his Bolex camera back in 1973. You might have seen a longer version of this on Countryfile and Big Screen Britain. I am yet to receive residuals.
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.
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…
Of all the wonderful days we spent filming Swallows and Amazons in 1973, the fishing scene, shot in a reedy bay on Elterwater was one I enjoyed most. It was a cold, rather wet morning but the Third Assistant, Gareth Tandy, taught us how to use our rods and we were soon absorbed in a way that Arthur Ransome would have understood well.
Our fragile bamboo rods, one with a wooden reel, were supplied by a keen fisherman called Leslie Borwick, who brought up his own daughter and grandchildren on Arthur Ransome’s books. He kept the rods, which still belong to the family.
The only problem we had that day was keeping the fish alive. Bob Hedges our Property Master, the Designer Simon Holland and Ian Whittaker, the Set Dresser, took it upon themselves to keep the perch as happy as they could, until they were – very carefully – attached to our hooks. Titty doesn’t catch one but John did. Despite everyone’s best efforts it wasn’t a very lively perch.
The big challenge was Roger’s great fish – a massive pike that meant to be snapping and ferocious. I’ve been told that it ended up being resuscitated in Keswick Hospital ICU – the Intensive Care Unit.
Sadly this is the only photograph we have of the set designers at work together. Later that afternoon we went to one of the few interiors of the film – the general store in Rio or Bowness-on-Windermere where we bought the rope for the lighthouse tree and four bottles of grog. I’m not sure, but think it was a shop at the time. It was later a barber shop and is now a showroom for wood-burnging stoves. Back then, Ian dressed the interior with boxes of wooden dolly pegs and other things you’d buy in brown paper bags. A wonderful 1920’s radio set and two purring cats really made the scene come alive, especially since, being in reticent explorer mode, we were a bit gruff in our communications with the native shop keeper.
Ian Whittaker struck me as being rather different from everyone else on the crew. He was a very nice looking man and a gentleman of the old school. I remember him telling me that he’d originally set out to be an actor but had found it so difficult to get work that he grabbed a chance to become a Set-Dresser or Designer’s Assistant. He found he rather enjoyed it, and stuck to the job despite his family thinking it was not much of a career. He proved them wrong. By 1971 he was working for Ken Russell on The Boy Friend – a musical about a Musical starring Twiggy with Christopher Gable and Max Adian that I’d seen at school. After Swallows and Amazons he worked on Ridley Scott’s film Alien with Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt and John Hurt and was nominated for an Oscar with the others on the design team. Eventually he won an Oscar for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration with the Designer Luciana Arrighi for Howards End – the movie of EM Forster’s book starring Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham-Carter. In 1994 he was nominated again, this time for Remains of the Day directed by James Ivory. After that he worked on Sense and Sensibility, Emma Thompson’s movie of the Jane Austen classic that launched Kate Winslet’s career, some of which was shot at Montacute in Somerset where my great-grandmother lived. Ian Whittaker received another Oscar nomination for Anna and the King in 2000 and a nomination for an Emmy Award for the TV movie Into the Storm in 2009.
So, it was rather a waste that Ian spent his time just building little stone walls in the lake to keep the perch alive on our set, but I think he enjoyed the fishing scene as much as I.
You can read more in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ available online, from Waterstones and your local library. It is suitable for all ages of readers.
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.
In Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons Titty is left keeping watch on an island, so small it is little more than a rock, whilst the Swallows sail into Rio Bay in search of the Amazons. Luckily for me, this is not so in the film. Susan declares, ‘They must be making for Rio’ and the scene cuts to a band playing in the municipal park at Bowness-on-Windermere. John rows into the bay pretty sure that the Amazons have given them the slip, Susan suggests that we could explore Rio and I happily declare, ‘We could buy rope for the lighthouse tree.’ And that is what we did – leaving the boy Roger in charge of Swallow. It was such a hot day I whipped off my grey cardigan before I leapt out of the boat, no doubt causing havoc for the Film Editor.
Simon Holland, the Set Designer on Swallows and Amazons had transformed the busy Bowness of 1973 into a Lakelandtown of 1929. To do this he must have had a huge amount of glassfibre boats moved. These were replaced by the beautiful wooden launches and skiffs of the period. You can see my father in white flannel trousers, his dark hair cut short, standing on the jetty in front of the lovely old green boathouses that then overlooked the bay. He is talking to the owner of the launch with the green and white striped awning.
Much of the first part of this sequence, including the close ups in Swallow, was filmed from the grey punt used as a camera boat. It seems that Simon West, who played John was towing this as he rowed up to the jetty. It was a hot day and for once we were all feeling the heat.
Although the Swallows spurned the conventional attractions of tripperdom, we spotted the Stop-me-and-by-one ice cream cart like lightening. I was entranced by the old cars, the pony and trap and the number of people dressed to populate Rio. They were organised and directed by Terry Needham, the Second Assistant Director. To our delight we found Gareth Tandy, the Third Assistant, was dressed in period costume too, his Motorola hidden under a stripy blazer so he could cue the Supporting Artists and keep back the general public without having to worry about appearing in vision himself. To his dismay he had had to have his hair cut. We all thought this a distinct improvement. He looked so handsome! I’m not sure if you can see him in the distance when we are climbing out of Swallow. You can just see my sisters walking towards the town at this point with Pandora Doyle, Brain Doyle’s daughter.
Jane Grendon, our chaperone looked fabulous in her 1929 costume. It was the one and only time I saw her in a dress. She was wonderful. Being in costume enabled her to keep an eye on all the children playing on the beach. I know she would have kept them going and maintained safety as they flung pebbles into the water or rushed about with the donkeys that were giving rides along the shore – no one wearing helmets of course.
Another excitement of the day was that Claude Whatham had given Mr Price, the owner of the Oaklands Guest House where we were staying, the part of the native. The native who says, ‘That’s a nice little ship you’ve got there.’ Mum said that Kit Seymour, Suzanna Hamilton and Lesley Bennett had spied him, pacing the garden at Oaklands trying out every possible way of saying this line. ‘That’s a nice little ship you’ve got there.’ Then, ‘That’s a nice little ship you’ve got there,’ leaving the girls in fits of giggles.
After we leave the general stores, me clutching bottles of grog, you can see Tamzin in a pink dress and straight back riding a chocolate coloured donkey along the beach while Dad is pushing out a rowing skiff with a log oar. Roger looks on from the Jetty to see Perry riding another donkey in a yellow dress while Tamzin walks by in the opposite direction with none other than Mr Price, in his striped blazer, who is walking along towards the boathouses holding a little boy’s hand. I am sure it was one of his own children but it looks a bit dodgy because while Roger watches my sisters and Pandora throwing stones into the lake from the beach were the skiffs are pulled up, David Price comes walking along the jetty and delivers his line: ‘That’s a nice little ship you’ve got there.’ It’s shot in rather a creepy way. John did warn Roger to ‘Beware of natives.’
A moment later Pandora and my sisters are surrounding the ice cream man while John, Susan and Titty return, striding along the jetty like the three wise men, carrying rope, buns and bottles of grog. My father’s all time passion in the form of a very graceful steam launch passes, almost silently, in the foreground. A happy, happy day. They only sad thing was that we didn’t have time to film inside the bun shop, which was such a pity as it looked glorious. Claude had been obliged to re-take a scene when some ladies – real life ladies in 1970’s garments and bouffant hairdos – had come scootling out of the Public Conveniences in the middle of a take.
What none of us knew was that is was nearly our last day on earth. The same Supporting Artists, including my father, had been booked for the next morning…
‘The Bowness skiffs were not like the Thames version. The outriggers caught the oars and allowed a fisherman to let go of the grip if and when he caught an Artic char, the Winderenmere fish, the oars were retained. A heavy boat.
I remember the rope was huge, fat and unsuitable! Daphne was not around as she had to go south to present Women Only for HTV. She was devestated to leave the donkey scene.’
A hot sunny day in the Lake District, at last. This was 1973 and Mum had a blue sunhat firmly wedged onto my head. I suppose this was so that I wouldn’t go pink. It was lovely to be able to eat lunch outside under the rhododendrons with my sisters but I started to roast in my stripy acrylic polo-neck jersey and begged to be able to wear something cooler. Terry Smith the Wardrobe Master was not pleased when he found me wearing one of Suzanna Hamilton’s costumes, especially since I was eating a choc-ice in it.
Mrs Causey, our long suffering Tutor, was helping me to swot for the summer exams we knew being sent north from my school. These were taken very seriously. My father was still paying my fees. They amounted to as much as I was earning for appearing in the film. I don’t think my little sisters had any formal education at all that week. I can only suppose that they learnt a little more about being in films even though this was the one day that I didn’t appear in Swallows and Amazons.
Who were the boys? The lad in the film clip with a Motorola and cigarette, who seems to have taken off his shirt for the first time that summer, is Gareth Tandy, the Third Assistant. The boys mentioned in my diary were slightly older. Why did we call them Prop-boys? Is it something left over from the theatre? I know Bobby-Props ~ Bob Hedges ~ must have been over 40 and was regarded as the father figure of the unit. He worked out of a lorry with a sunshiny roof with John Leuenberger, Terry Wells and Bill Hearn the carpenter. Dad caught them on film when they were having lunch. I think they must have later gone off to Bowness to help set up for our big scene the next day and kindly returned with ice-creams and Coco-cola, which would have been a great treat. They were generous to a fault.
The Prop-men on Swallows and Amazons have movie credits to their names which would delight any actor. They never seemed to stop working. Claude Whatham may well have asked for them to join us as they’d all been on the crew of his first film That’ll be the Day. Bobby Hedges later worked with some of the others on The Rocky Horror Picture Show,Julia,The Shout and Midnight Express. John Leuenberger went on to work on Stardust, Bugsy Malone,Chariots of Fire and Superman III. Terry Wells is listed as having been the Property Master on amazing movies such as The Mission, Braveheart, Quadrophenia, Cry Freedom, Full Metal Jacket, Troy, 101 Dalmatians and the most recent Robin Hood starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, as well as big TV series such as Holby City and The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret.
If you look at our Call Sheet for the day you can see at a glance how important the Property Master’s job was. Swallows and Amazons was a technically unsual film as the dinghies were action props. Swallow had to be kitted out with exactly the same rigging – plus the same ‘continuity props’ – the torch, compass, whistle, charts, blankets and provisions, originally listed by Arthur Ransome, that were in the little ship when she left Wildcat Island in the scene when John gave me the telescope.
In Scene: 135 the envelope containing the Amazon’s message is key to the action, thus an Action Prop. If we’d seen it before it would have been known as a ‘Continuity Action Prop’. You can see it pinned to the post in the short film clip. Simon Holland, our Set Designer, to whom the Prop-men were working, had a number of identical envelopes made. Lesley Bennett, who played Peggy Blackett, wrote the message in her clear, italic writing quite a few times so that there would be replacements for re-takes after John scrunched up the first one and flung it in the water. There are times when a continuity action prop such as our telescope, which was irreplaceable, becomes very precious indeed. Had it been forgotten or lost it would have caused major disruption to the day’s filming.
There was very little ‘set dressing’ for theses scenes but you can understand that it was crucial that the guys mounted Captain Nancy’s scull and crossbones on the Amazon boathouse. They would have taken this off at the end of the day and stored it in case re-takes were needed, which is why the carpenter returned from Bowness with a long ladder in the lorry and ice creams for us all.
We loved the props as children. I treasured the few items that Bobby made on the set and gave me at the end of the filming, such as his proto-type flags. When I became an Assistant Floor Manager, the BBC’s equivalent to a Second Assistant Director, I found myself responsible for the Action Props with one or two prop men working with me. The few times that continuity props were forgotten or mislaid are painfully etched on my memory. That awful feeling, when a lost item effects so many people, like losing a wallet or your car keys, is magnified hugly when filming is so costly and involves so many. Despite always being terribly careful I had a continuity prop stolen from the Eastenders’ studio (see my About page and scroll down until you find the section with William the pug dog). Someone once stole the soap from the set of Bluebell. I can’t think why. It was a miserable little piece for a scene set in Bescancon Internment Camp. Prisioner of war soap. The Prop-buyer got very angry. I quickly made up something that looked like the original but I couldn’t do the same when our Prop-man lost Gerald Durrell’s pre-war binoculars on the island of Corfu. I remember him turning out his van in despair before finding them carefully stored in bubble-wrap behind his seat. I don’t think any of the props were mislaid on Swallows and Amazons, despite all the rushing around in boats, but Mum says that we shot a scene wearing the wrong costumes. We are not sure which this was but no doubt it will be recoded in the later pages of my diary…