It was time to say goodbye. We’d had the most wonderful seven weeks filming on the Lakes but the end had drawn in with the clouds. It was time to go home.
Since we lived in Gloucestershire it was a long drive south. I’m not sure how Jane and Sten Grendon got back as I don’t think Jane drove, but we must have dropped off some of their things on our way past their village.
I can remember seeing my real sisters again and walking around the garden in the afternoon sunshine, looking at all that had changed. We’d left in early May, now it was full summer and the school holidays.
‘Shall we go and put flowers on Luppy’s grave?’ Perry asked. I hadn’t heard that our dear old dog, the sheep dog I had known all my life, had died while we were away. I was inconsolable. Mum explained that they hadn’t wanted to tell me when it happened as we were filming, she thought that the sadness on my face would have come through on camera. I understood this but was still desolate. Having had to cope with the grief of losing Luppy, on top of the heartbreak of leaving everyone I had grown so close to in the Lake District, I was not in a good way.
One of the most treasured things that I had returned with – apart from the lump of Cumbrian slate Jean McGill had given me – was a hardbacked copy of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ signed by the entire cast and crew.
Here you can see inscriptions from Virginia McKenna who had played my mother, Ronald Fraser, Mike Pratt and Brenda Bruce who appeared as Mr and Mrs Dixon, Jack Wolgar and John Franklyn-Robbins who embodied the Charcoal Burners with Brian Robylas (sp?) and Moria Late who played Mr and Mrs Jackson.
It is interesting that all the children signed their character names with their real names in brackets. We must have grown to associate ourselves more with the characters names than with our own. Claude Whatham wrote, with thanks, and Richard Pilbrow enchanted me by drawing a picture of Wild Cat Island at night. The only other signature on this page is from Brian Doyle, Mum’s friend the publicity manager on the movie who encouraged us to collect the autographs.
At the back of the book David Blagden, who played Sammy the Policeman as well as overseeing the sailing, drew me a picture of what must be a vision of himself, sailing into the sunset in his little yacht Willing Griffin.
Phyllis B was my tapestry-making stand-in. Simon Holland our art director (set designer) drew me a wonderful set of crossed flags that were also paint brushes ~ a logo for my life.
I have a signature from Kerry Dartisnine who played Bridget’s Nurse, our Fair Spanish Lady, who like the actors who played the Jacksons was not credited on the movie. Jean McGill was our driver and unit nurse, Eddie Collins the camera operator. Ronnie Cogan was our hairdresser, Toni Turner was a blonde lady who worked on a few days as Suzanna’s stand-in. Terry Smith was the wardrobe master, Terry Needham the second assistant director. Albert Stills is Albert Clarke.
On the last page I have a very classy signature from Robert – who I think was one of the unit drivers, and Denis Lewiston the DoP. Peter Robb-King signed himself ‘Make-up for the Stars’ and Gareth Tandy as ‘The Whip-cracker’, which surprised me as I had never seen his whip. Graham Ford obviously didn’t want me to change and Margaret Causey, our Tutor, sent her love.
Interestingly, I also have an inscription from Ian Fuller the sound editor listed as if he was around on location. I am sure he was the chap I would have met next. Claude and Richard would have gone straight down to the cutting rooms to edit the film. It is not usual for actors to enter such territory but our adventure was to continue. We were soon to be summons to the Elstree Studios of EMI at Borehamwood.
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.”
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 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.
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.