Memories to add to the third edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ – part three

“One pandemic discovery for my family was 1974’s ‘Swallows and Amazons,’ a charming British film about kids just playing on a lake. On their own, they’re plenty capable of making their own tents and adventures”, the US film critic Jake Coyle wrote in a review for the Associated Press of a new movie released on Netflix called ‘Yes Day’.

Many people have fond memories of watching the original movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ when it first came out in cinemas nearly forty-seven years ago and list it in their Top Ten feature films of all time.

David Kerr wrote: “I first saw the film while I was a junior projectionist. I was 17 at the time. My cinema was called the Astor in Bromley, part of south east London. While an independent cinema, we took the ABC circuit films. Somewhere, I have the LP record and a poster of the film. I went on to a career spanning 40 years in international film distribution.”

“It remains one of my top ten films even to this day. I worked for 20th Century Fox…Polygram…and United International Pictures which distributed Universal, Paramount and Dreamworks films. I had a good career and witnessed the good the bad and the ugly during my travels.”

Simon West and the camera crew at Bank Ground Farm

“From memory, I can recall that the film was released over the Easter school holidays in 1974. It’s just been helped as I have found a press ad online and it lists South London unusually running the film first on April 14th.”

Finding Swallow
Simon West, Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville with the director Claude Whatham

“I believe the film was supported by ‘The Lion at Worlds End’ …the documentary that Virginia and Bill Travers made with George Adamson about returning an African lion to the wild. I know I ran the film again either in 1975 or ’76 as an afternoon matinee only with a Kung Fu adult programme in the evenings.”

Brenda Bruce and Simon West on location above Coniston Water

“The film means a lot to me and has done so since 1974. It made me revisit the books…which I still read (currently dipping in and out of an old hardback edition of ‘Pigeon Post’) but I believe I had only read one during my childhood, which I think was ‘Swallowdale’. I also embarked on a number of holidays in the lakes because of the film. That first year I camped on a farm at Torver on the west side of Coniston.”

Simon West as John Walker studying the chart at Holly Howe before the voyage.

“The reason I include it in my top ten is simple. It is pure storytelling that takes the viewer on an adventure. You do not notice the individual aspects of film making you just become engrossed in the story. And that is what a good film should do. I watched it again just last week on a streaming service… It makes me smile ….what more can I say.”

Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville on location at Bank Ground Farm

John Rose wrote: “I can remember watching the film in 1974 with my mum and grandma when I was a nine or ten year-old, at the then called Mecca Cinema in Horsham, Sussex (sadly now demolished). I remember loving the natural setting and the adventure in the film and remember it being thrilling and suspenseful! Still my favourite film, so cheerful and up-lifting. The lovely music! All still brings a tear to my eye.  Back then in the ’70s we didn’t have the lakes but at every opportunity our little band of local children would run off over the fields playing, building camps and climbing trees in the woods – such happy, carefree days.”

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville and Sten Grendon in Swallow

Last time the film was broadcast on BBC Two, David Stott, who worked as a unit driver on ‘Swallows and Amazons’ when he was fresh out of college, wrote in to say: “I remember how cold you all were whilst filming the swimming scene.  The lily pond scene brought back memories of a very wet day on Pull Wyke caravan park.  Most of the day was spent in the two double decker buses that were your school room and the canteen waiting for the rain to clear. Everyone was so grateful to pack up and go home.”

Sten Grendon as Roger with Suzanna Hamilton as Susan

 

“I had many incidents with the parrot that I had to collect in the morning and return at night.  I hated the bird, often it was let free in a bathroom at Kirskstone Foot and l would have to catch it and put it in its travel bag. I notice in the film that it is chained down whilst it is sitting on your shoulder.”

Kit Seymour as Nancy, Sophie Neville as Titty and Beauty playing Polly the green parrot.

 

“I would spend a lot chatting to Ronnie Logan the hairdresser while the shooting was taking place, such a nice man.”

“The day they filmed the walking the plank scene I remember very well.  I took Ronnie Fraser to the Lodore Swiss hotel at  lunchtime and he was really very well plastered by the time I got him back for the afternoon filming.  I suppose it was the only way they managed to get him in the water.  He was not a happy chappy that afternoon when I eventually took him back to Ambleside.”

“I had to put the rushes on the train to London in the evening and collect developed film (how times have changed).  One of my treats was that I was allowed to watch the rushes with the production team in the evening. Watching it again this afternoon was a real trip down memory lane.  I cannot believe that I was a student starting out in life at the time and now l am a pensioner.  Where has all that time gone?”

Simon West and Sophie Neville on Peel Island in 1973
 
You can read more in the paperback on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’
.
 
 

You can see some of the illustrations here:

Memories to add to the third edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’ – part two:

Since the experts on BBC Antiques Roadshow have been taking an interest in the original feature film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974), I thought I ought to add to a few facts. Although the movie was released forty-seven years ago, the cast list remains incomplete. A few credits are missing:

Jim Stelfox was in uniform, playing a guard or station master at the Haverthwaite Steam Railway station in the opening scenes, when the Swallows first arrive in the Lake District. He ended up appearing in some of the publicity stills that were used in magazines and newspapers. One features on a jigsaw puzzle that accompanied the release of the movie. The little boy leaning out of the train window is Robin Smith, who grew up in Ambleside. He came along with his mother Eileen and his brother, Alan Smith, who became a newsreader on BBC Radio 4.


Kit Seymour, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Lesley Bennett, Virginia McKenna, Simon West Suzanna Hamilton with Jim Stelfox, the station master.

David Watkin Price, also from Cumbria, played the native on the jetty in Rio. His speaking part was cut from the television version of the film broadcast on ITV but remains in the remastered 2014 cinema Bluray and DVD available online.

Mr Price played an important part in our lives when the film was being made as he owned and ran the Oaklands Guest House in Ambleside where we stayed. His daughter Jane, told me, ‘They wanted you to stay in a place that had a family atmosphere with other children.’ I expect that she did a lot to help.

David Price who played the part of the Native in Rio with his family in Ambleside. They ran the Oakland’s Guesthouse ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Jane appeared with her two brothers as film extras in the Rio scenes, remembering that it gave her a day off school. Sadly, her little brother’s knickerbockers kept falling down. You can see Jane in a grey dress with long pigtails,  hoiking them up in this behind-the-scenes shot. To see other photos of the Price family in costume, please click here.

The Price children in their 1929 costumes on the shore of Windermere, 1973

The people of the Lake District have written in with other stories. Philippa Poulson knew the real charcoal burner, Norman Allonby – ‘I lived around the corner from him in 1973. He lived in a tiny one up, one down traditional cottage, walked everywhere, and made a lovely cup of tea. He was very interested in my English Literature A’ level course, being a keen reader. I wonder how many people know he knew Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, by heart, and in their entirety and could recite any part, at any time, on request. He would happily talk for hours on the subject, with a twinkle in his eye and his pickle catching front tooth. Lovely, gentle man, living life at the right pace.’ You can read more about the real charcoal burners of Grizedale Forest here.

The real charcoal burner
The real charcoal burner outside the hut. Behind him the 35mm Panasonic camera is being mounted on a short section of track ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Susie Trezise said, “I remember them filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – it was right in the middle of my O’Level exams and their walkie-talkies kept coming through my stereo speakers! It was fascinating listening. I lived at Stock Ghyll Mill, so about five miles away from the filming. The strangest thing was it still came through the speakers when they were turned off but still plugged in!”

~Comic strips based on the 1974 film found by Arthur Herbertson~

Joss Bundy wrote to say: “My Father, between being the technical director of the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre, worked with Richard Pilbrow at Theatre Projects in the ’70s. He had been a friend of Richard’s for many years. Theatrical lighting design was still in its infancy and designers tended to stick together. Richard and my Dad were the founders of The Association of Lighting Designers, along with various others.

Richard Pilbrow and Neville Thompson ~ photo:Daphne Neville

“My mother, Rosemary Lindsay, had been a ballerina at the ROH, which is where they met. My Mother had sailed since a small child and had devoured each new Ransome book as it was published and loved them more than any others. When Richard mooted the film, my father mentioned what an expert Rosemary was and when the project was getting up on its feet she was given an early script to vet. Various things had been added in for dramatic effect and she vetoed one: Roger getting stuck on top of a cliff, as she felt John and Susan would never have let him get in such a situation.”

“I was clearing yet another box of theatre-related photos and as well as a couple of publicity stills.” One shows filming the Amazon boat house. “I can only assume Richard or Molly sent them back to my Dad, who would have been running Theatre Projects while Richard was away.”

“After the film was finished, Richard offered Swallow to my Mum, but she didn’t want the responsibility of another wooden boat. We still own the one she sailed as a child, a smaller version of a Swallow type boat. She also felt that a boat only sailed in fresh water would not necessarily do well in salt water.”

 
 
Do add any memories you have to the Comments, below. It would be lovely to hear from you.
 
It would be great to have some more review on the film on the International Movie Database. You can easily add one here.
 

You can read more in the ebook about ‘The secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’

and  ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’ in paperback.

You can see some of the illustrations here:

Diary of a litter-picker: finding elderly rubbish by the sea

Every day we collect aging plastic pollution, cans and glass bottles from Solent shores.

This old glass bottle seems representative of our time of Corona. How long has it been floating around the Solent? Fifty years? The Litter Pickers of the New Forest found me this 1960s advert for the original bottles with the same cream metal cap.

The Deposit Return Scheme running at the time ensured that most were returned to the manufacturers but I’ve found a couple on the shore. One that held ‘Limeade’ with a 3d deposit return label is selling for £23 on Ebay where it is described as ‘a lovely piece of nostalgia.’

How old would this re-useable Unigate milk bottle be? 1980s? Forty years? They have also become collectors’ items. One like this is valued at £15 on eBay. It was found in these willow trees just above the high tide mark. It might have come over from the Isle of Wight where ‘Milk and More’ ran deliveries.

You can just see a brand new mask in this photo (above) but the bottles and plastic containers were hauled out of bramble bushes a few feet from the sea where they have languished for years.

Here is a photo of the same footpath with more plastic bottles that have blown in, together with old glass bottles the earth seems to be spitting out. The message inside them is clear: this has to stop.

I found a Wellington boot, washed up or discarded, which must have been around for some time. It had a field-mouse living inside so, I left it for now, but there is plenty more like it.

This Walker’s Crips packet, found recently, is 24 years old. I have quite a collection.

Plastic is amazing stuff. My father manufactured products made from PVC. He said that back in the 1970s, his company never considered what would happen when the items they made reached the end of their useful lives.

Found on the Solent

What date did the squarish plastic milk bottles come in? How many are disposed of daily in the UK alone? How many are recycled? How long does it take for them to decompose? They tend to flake.

How long does it take for a Tescos ‘bag for life’ to deteriorate? I often find them in the Solent.

Fishing line undoubtedly lasts a long time. It can be difficult to spot.

I often find individual plastic pegs. Why is this? Do they fall off boats?

Collecting the old rubbish is satisfying. You can see more beach cleaning photos here

The Wombles of Hambleton have made up a list of how to age vintage litter:

* cans with an old style ring pull – the new style was used from 1989

* cans that pre-date the bar code (approx 1970s) are measured in fl oz

* older style names, disused names or products eg: Marathon

* pre-decimal prices – dated before 1971

* glass bottles before the switch to plastic eg: older Lucozade glass bottles

* look for competitions advertised on the packaging, which are dated

* products advertising sporting events eg: Mexico World Cup Coca Cola

What is this flotsam doing to the planet? Could you help clear it up? Would you join The Great British Spring Clean with the charity Keep Britain Tidy in May?

For a full list of things I found on beach-cleans, please click here

A fourteen year old can of Coke – found unopened – on the Solent, along with many shotgun cartridges.

At Windermere Jetty museum – to see the amazing boats

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) 

In the summer of 1973, I was transported to the shores of Windermere, ‘The Great Lake in the North’ to appear as ‘Titty Walker’ in the classic movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, starring Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser.

The Swallows approach the jetty in Rio. Which launch is moored outside the boatsheds?

We were fortunate enough to film the scenes set in Rio at Bowness-on-Windermere before the original green boat sheds were demolished in favor of an amusement arcade.

Rio – or Bowness-on-Windermere in 1973 – with SL Elizabeth ~ photo: Martin Neville

George Pattinson brought along his steamboat the Lady Elizabeth, which you can see here beyond the Windermere skiffs pulled up on the shore.

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

George’s personal collection made up the basis of the Steamboat Museum now rebuilt and known as Windermere Jetty, where we found the Lady Elizabeth under restoration.

Eighteen foot long, she was built in New York State in about 1900 and brought to England, so was likely on Windermere in 1929 when Arthur Ransome wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’. She sank off Cockshott Point beyond Bowness, but Mr Pattinson salvaged and renovated her in 1955. You can read more here.

The Lady Elizabeth under restoration at Windermere Jetty
The Lady Elizabeth under restoration at Windermere Jetty

Other exhibits included the exquisite steam launch Osprey, in fine fettle with her copper steam kettle kept brightly polished. I knew her from taking part in a Steam Boat Association rally on Windermere in 1991. 

The RNSA dinghies used to play Swallow and Amazon in the 2016 movie can also be seen in the wet dock at Windermere Jetty.

Look up, and you can spy a green beetle on an old burgee. 

Arthur Ransome’s dinghy Conch-y-bonddhu, known as Scarab in his books, is on display with Beatrix Potter’s rough, flat-bottomed rowing boat (the pointed bows of which can be seen here hanging on the wall to the right).

It was good to be able to examine Conchy’s rigging. You can read about her here.

The museum has many other treasures including the hull of the oldest yacht in existence in the Lake District.

Every one of the forty boats exhibited has a story to tell.  You can find out more about visiting Windermere Jetty on their website here.

The Windermere skiffs can still be seen up the road in Bowness where you can begin to look for locations used in the original film.

If you don’t already have a copy you can read about ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ here. This includes maps and chapters on how to find the film locations.

To learn more about the film locations, please click here.

The ebook on ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, which is similar, is available on all ebook platforms, including Kindle here.

A weekend spent steam boating on Windermere in 1991, is featured in ‘Funnily Enough’, a diary of a year when everything changed, can be found here.

Looking towards the jetty featured in ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) at Bowness-on-Windermere

I look forward to returning to Windermere Jetty when the Lady Elizabeth is on back the water! The museum will be opening soon.

You can read about the 1901 steam launch Daffodil that I helped to renovate here.

Sophie Neville visiting Windermere Jetty – photo: Caroline Robinson

90th Anniversary of the publication of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ celebrated at Windermere Jetty museum

On Tuesday 1st December, Lakeland Arts are celebrating the 90th anniversary of the publication of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ with an online event accessible for anyone in the world.

After a career as a foreign correspondent, which took him to Russia, Egypt and China, Arthur Ransome wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the hills above Windermere in 1929.

Arthur Ransome portrayed by Dora Collingwood, wife of Dr Ernest Altounyan, on display at the museum

He was inspired partly by his own childhood holidays in the Lake District and partly by the Altounyan children who brought him a pair of red slippers for his birthday to thank him for enabling them to learn to sail on Coniston Water where their grandparents lived.

The first edition came out on 21st July 1930, with no illustrations apart from Spurrier’s maps on the end papers. The illustrated hardback published by Jonathan Cape came out on 1st December 1930, in time for Christmas. It was followed by another eleven (and one unfinished) book in a series that was to be translated and published all over the world.

Sophie Neville with a collection of Arthur Ransome books on display

I paid homage to copies at the Windermere Jetty museum where you can find his desk and typewriter on display with a view looking out over the lake.

Arthur Ransome’s desk and typewriter set under a view of Windermere

Boats, props and film stills from the 2016 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ are on display, along with a poster of the 1974 movie, depicting Titty in a pink blouse.

Sophie Neville spotting the ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) movie poster at Windermere Jetty museum

I was fascinated to find sketches of Titty in Arthur Ransome’s notebook.

Arthur Ransome’s original sketches of Titty

A number of Ransome’s original illustrations were on display and I came across the first draft of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in a glass case.

Tickets to, ‘In conversation with Sophie Neville’, an event hosted by Lakeland Arts, cost £5 and can be purchased here.


Sophie Neville with Arthur Ransome’s typewriter and the original draft of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

In the finals of the Eyelands International Book Awards 2020

Sophie Neville’s lastest work in progress reached the finals for this year’s Eyelands Book Awards under the category ‘Unpublished Historical Novel’

Please scroll down here for a full list of authors and their biographies

‘The Girl Who Got out of Zanzibar’ originally won a place on Eyelands’ Three Rock Writer’s Residency in Crete in September 2019, where Sophie worked on the first 20,000 words. It went on to win third prize in the Association of Christian Writers’ novel competition 2020, when the judge, Tony Collins, described it as: ‘a treat: full of atmosphere, detail, vivid characters, and a love for the island and its culture. I liked the fact that the narrator is a young black girl, which I find refreshing, and the relish with which the food was described is delightful. The underlying theme of FGM (and its place in a patriarchal society, the practice perpetuated by grandmothers) is a dark thread, well sustained, which both horrifies and compels.’

The sequel ‘The Man Who Got Out of Japan’ won the Eyelands Book Award for an unpublished historical novel in 2019. An awards ceremony in Athens is planned for April 2021.

 

Diary of a litter picker – on the Great British September Clean

I was told the beach was free of litter. It took me ten minutes to fill my builder’s bucket with flotsam. Do people simply zone out sea plastic and litter?

Some was old, but how long have PPE masks like this been floating around the Solent? I found two, along with the usual plastic bottles.

It is interesting to count and categorise what you find. The Marine Conservation Society list: litter, sewage and fishing gear but the reality can be hundreds of small pieces known collectively as micro-plastics.

Picnic litter is inexcusable.  With well-designed bins near the gate to the beach there is no excuse for this. Although some plastics, such as the straws and bottle-tops, have floated in on the tide, I found a neatly folded crisp packet tucked into the sea wall. Why?

Cotton bud stalks and plastic tampon applicators classify as ‘sewage’ since they are flushed down the loo – with things too revolting to photograph – and yet this is where our children play.

Fishing line makes up the majority of plastic pollution in the seas. We found an angler’s hook and line as well as commercial netting and floats. The fishhook, lying on the float, caught on my own finger.

We tried digging out one section of PVC rope but failed and had to bury it.

The reward for our work was finding a killer whale, a toy orca.

Since ‘Baby Shark’ has been popular in our family, this made our spirits soar, coming almost as a thank you from the sea.

We returned two days later to find half a bucketful of assorted detritus had either come in on the tide or been missed in earlier searches. Spotting a toy soldier amused me this time. I’ve found a couple of others further along the Solent coastline within the New Forest National Park.

For a list of really weird things found on previous beach cleans, click here

One thing is certain. I can no longer walk along the shore without collecting as much plastic pollution as I can carry. It always proves fun and gives us a sense of purpose higher than ourselves.

Diary of a litter-picker – on the Great British Beach Clean this September

The Great British Beach Clean – on from 11th-27th September – is being organized by Keep Britain Tidy – but what does this entail?

Little collected from Solent shores August 2020 - photo S.Neville

For me, the reality means extracting litter posted into prickly blackthorn bushes by those too lazy to take their party rubbish home. It’s usually made up of beer bottles and nitrous oxide canisters, which will never decompose.

I pull on a pair of gloves, grab bucket and barbecue tongs and just get on with picking up the litter. It is, however good to analyse what is found and report findings on social media.

There is so little wave action on Solent shores that broken glass remains a problem for years, endangering paddling children, beloved dogs and wildlife.

On top of this we now have PPE, endless cans and paper cups that have been in people’s mouths, along with clothing and stolen items.

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I use a heavy duty bucket, rather than a black plastic bag, so I can cope with broken glass. It can end up containing 260 pieces and weighing more than 6kgs when full. Needing an extra bag is rarely a problem – I find so many.

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I go out with friends and family making it fun. Teenagers always have a lot to say about the hazards of #plasticpollution especially when it has travelled a fair distance. Plymouth is 150 miles from the Solent.

The aim is to remove rubbish from sensitive coastal or riverine areas before it can damage the environment.

There are often old lighters, always micro plastics and bottle tops. It is the tiny pieces that take time to collect but small children are good at this.

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I go out daily, finding helium ballons, more PPE and endless plastic bottles.

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I use tongs and avoid touching the rubbish, even with gloves. It’s cleaner on the shore, since almost everything has been soaking in seawater. Most of this (above) was flotsam. Collecting up litter that others should have taken home (below) is more aggravating but it is makes a huge difference and is a job that has to be done before the wildlife suffers.

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Do think of registering with Keep Britain Tidy who offer advice and your local litter-picking group who will have equipment and dates for group activities. Please click here is you can pledge to clean up an area near you this September?

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Hoping to see you on the sea shore sometime. If you’d like to see a full list of the things I found in the past, please click here.

For photos of some of the weirdest things I’ve found, click here

 

The original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ featured in the Radio Times as Film of the Day on Sunday 30th August 2020

‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974) starring Virginia McKenna was broadcast on BBC 2 on Sunday 30th August 2020, recalling the adventures of the Walker and Blackett families on a ‘Lake in the North’ in August 1929 before the school term began. Hailed as ‘The feel-good film of Lockdown’, it transports us back to a time of freedom, celebrating the beauty of the English Lake District. It is available on BBC iPlayer here.

You can watch a short re-mix here:

It was wonderful to see the feature film heralded as Film of the Day but Hilary Weston of The Arthur Ransome Society pointed out that there are a few errors in the write up.

Arthur Ransome wrote the novel ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1929, published on 1st December 1930. There are 12 books in the series, however only five are set in the Lake District. ‘Missee Lee’ sees the Swallows and Amazons exploring the South China sea with Captain Flint, while Dick and Dororthea join them all on the Sea Bear to cruise the Otter Hebrides in ‘Great Northern’. The 13th story in the series, an unfinished manuscript entitled ‘Coots in the North’, is set in Cumbria.

Props used in the original film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

Arthur Ransome died in 1967, aged 83, so was not around to see this feature film made. He had been grumpy about the 1963 BBC serial made in black and white, which starred Susan George as ‘Kitty’ (rather than Titty). His wife Evgenia was determined to avoid what they called a ‘Disneyfication’ of the books and kept a tight hold on the script, character names, locations and casting of Richard Pilbrow’s 1974 adaptation. As a result, David Wood’s screenplay adheres to the story and was approved by Mrs Ransome who gave the go ahead. On watching the finished film, her only adverse comment was that one of the kettles used was of the wrong period.

Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan Walker with Sten Grendon as Roger

Arthur Ransome’s father died when he was thirteen and the theme of fatherlessness flows though his books granting the young characters independence. In ‘Swallows and Amazons’ it is Nancy and Peggy, the Amazon pirates, who have no father.

Kit Seymour as Nancy & Lesley Bennett as Peggy Blackett sailing Amazon

The story opens when the four elder Walker children are given permission to sail off to camp on an island by their father who is absent, in Malta with the Navy, and sends the famous telegram: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN (with no apostrophe)

Swallows and Amazons
Simon West, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton receiving the telegram from Father.

Vicky, the fifth sibling and baby of the Walker family, keeps the Swallows’ mother at Holly Howe farm on the mainland. Tension is created after the Amazons let off a firework on their uncle’s houseboat while he is absorbed in his writing and ignoring them. He shook his fist at the crew of the Swallow assuming they were responsible for the damage and was labelled ‘Captain Flint’.

A Theatre Project by Richard Pilbrow

Richard Pilbrow describes in his memoir, ‘A Theatre Project’, how the idea of adapting ‘Swallows and Amazons’ came to him as he watched the sun set over Windermere one night when visiting the Lake District. He put the idea to Nat Cohen of EMI who was looking for a classic book adaptation similar to ‘The Railway Children’, which had been a box office success. Nat Cohen hadn’t heard of Arthur Ransome but his assistant loved his books and raved about the idea. EMI Films provided the initial budget of £250,000 although more was spent. It was directed by Claude Whatham who may well have been influenced by the Children’s Film Foundation but he was regarded as avant guard at the time and, like Richard, motivated by the beauty of the Lakes.

Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham at The Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water
Producer Richard Pilbrow with Director Claude Whatham in Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water

The original poster for the film used an ampersand in the title graphics but this was lost as it was translated, sold worldwide and remastered. Someone who must love the old film said the error in the write up was that it was only given three stars. The DVD now has a 4.5 star rating on Amazon but it only gets 6.5 out of 10 on IMDb – the International Movie Data base, which is equivalent to three stars. You can add a review on this site here.

Mark Walker of the Arthur Ransome Group added: And they got the title of the article completely wrong. “Film of the *Day*”, indeed..!! Film of the Year, Decade, Century, Millenium….any of the above could have been more appropriate..!!

If you would like to learn more about the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ there is now a paperback entitled ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’  It can be ordered direct from the publishers and is available from Waterstones

A second edition of the ebook entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons(1974), the first section of which you can read for free here.

Points to add to the third edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) – part one

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville in Swallow about to leave the Houseboat. Amazon’s white sail can be seen the other side ~ photo: Daphe Neville

Viewers of the original film Swallows and Amazons'(1974) have written to point out that when the Amazons sailed up to Captain Flint’s houseboat there was a terrible crash. I found the quote from ‘The Picts and The Martrys’, which made me realise why this horrified anyone who knows the characters well:

“…when you come sailing along and fetch up with a bump against Jim’s new paint.”

“We never do,” said Nancy. “Remember when we came and made you and Uncle Jim walk the plank last summer? We were aboard and rushing the cabin before you knew we were anywhere near.” ‘Picts and Martyrs’ by Arthur Ransome p.14

Simon West and Sophie Neville on Captian Flint's Houseboat
Simon West as Captain John and Sophie Neville as Titty taking Captain Flint’s Houseboat : photo~ Daphne Neville

Jane Sullivan noticed Captain Flint yelled, “Death or Glory!” as the Swallows and Amazons laid siege to his houseboat. ‘Is that a pre-echo of the East Anglian stories?’ she asked.

Jane also noted: In the closing credits, I notice they spell For Ever as two words, which it is as it should be, rather than the modern way which confuses the adjective “forever” with the adverbial phrase “for ever”.’

Peel Island whilst we were filming in 1973 ~ photo: Martin Neville

Most people are familiar with the fact that Peel Island was used as the location for Wild Cat Island in the 1974 film.

Peter Dowden of the Arthur Ransome Group, pointed out that Peel Island is a classic example of a rocher moutonnee or sheepback, shaped by glacial erosion. Larger examples in Sweden are known as flyggbergs. Others comment that it’s easy to imagine the island as Captain Flint’s schooner the Wild Cat, which sails to the Caribees in ‘Peter Duck’ and is set on fire by Gibber the monkey in ‘Missee Lee’.

Peter also wrote about burgees. He noted, ‘Traditionally, creatures shown on flags face towards the “hoist” – the bit of the flag that is attached to the mast. So head near the mast and tail near the flappy part of the flag (called the ‘fly’). He went on to say, “someone did the research and Arthur Ransome drew the Swallow flag both beak to hoist and beak to fly!”

Our art director, Simon Holland, made what I considered the mistake of having the swallow on Swallow’s burgee flying away from the mast. 

My publisher asked me to draw our crossed flags, a sketch which was later stolen and used all over the place from the call sheet of the 2016 movie to badges for sale on eBay.

Paul Thomas, of the Arthur Ransome Group, explained that Swallow and Amazon are standing lugsail dinghies, rather the balanced lugsails as I had been told. “Swallow’s keel was designed for sailing in shallow estuaries and grounding on shifting shoals with sails tanned to protect them from rot and sunshine.”

“What is particularly impressive, to me,” Roger Barnes, president of the Dinghy Crusing Association, commented, “is how well done the sailing scenes are, and sometimes in pretty strong winds. Most sailing in films is really unconvincing.” Roger added: “The boom jaws off the mast as they first approach Wild Cat Island is the only major flaw with that aspect of the film.” I had never noticed! We were bitterly cold on that day when we first sailed Swallow in front of the camera.

Roger Barnes’ illustrated book, The Dinghy Cruising Companion, published by Bloomsbury, included my behind-the-scenes photo of Swallow, where you can see the jaw back in place.

You can also see the jaws in this film still (c) Studiocanal:

The Swallows on their voyage to Wildcat Island
Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West as the Swallows sailing on Coniston Water in 1973 (c)StudioCanal

Please do add a comment below or write in with any points you notice that I can add to a third edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, an ebook available from a variety online stockists. You can look at the first pages here.