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.’
‘When you went to see the charcoal burners, did Susan really leave her basket behind?’
‘Yes, she did!’ I’d totally forgotten, but she left it behind by mistake.
Last weekend I was invited to speak after dinner at the 11th Arthur Ransome Society Literary Weekendheld at Willis Hall, Bristol University. It was a joy and delight to meet the organisers and delegates, of which there were about 150. All seemed interested in learning more about the making of Swallows and Amazons, the feature film of Arthur Ransome’s book produced in 1973 by Richard Pilbrow of Theatre Projects and distributed by EMI in 1974.
Director Claude Whatham with his cast of Swallows and their basket
‘How old were you all?’ I was asked.
‘Ahh, that is rather a secret,’ I had to admit. When the filming began I was twelve, yet playing the part of Titty who was meant to be only nine. I managed to pretend to be much younger but the reality was that, although skinny, I was a tall child with long legs, so tall that in some shots you can see that I am taller than my elder brother John. Claude Whatham, the director, seemed unconcerned but had either holes dug for me or a box produced for John to stand on when were side by side. At other times he simply had John in a higher position.
John was played by Simon West, who even aged eleven was a true leader and excellent sailor. I believe he had been a National Optimist champion. Suzanna Hamilton, who played my elder sister Susan, was twelve. Lesley Bennett, who played Peggy was actually the eldest aged thirteen, and Kit Seymour turned thirteen during the filming. But, unlike at school, it didn’t seemed to matter to us. We all felt the same age and got on well as a result. Sten Grendon, who played the seven-year-old Roger was actually aged nine. And he really couldn’t swim, but somehow he survived.
I do remember that Roger received more danger money than any of us. Claude would compensate us for getting scratched by brambles – as poor Roger was – by handing out extra pocket money. I think we earnt £2 each for enduring the icy waters of Coniston when the swimming scene was shot on a grey day in May. The water was so cold that it was agony and the money hard earnt. Titty, who was keen on imitating cormorants, had to divie unther water and I nearly passed out. I am not very good at being wet and cold or when it comes to heights either, so it was encouraging to be rewarded after climbing trees, ‘For fear of ravenous beats.’ When you watch the film you can see that Susan inadvertently burnt Roger with the large flat frying pan, which she’d just taken off the camp fire. He flinches and she muttered ‘Sorry’, before ploughing on with the scene. The moment was captured in the film.
One problem encountered when filming with children is that they can unexpectedly lose their milk teeth. I did. People still comment on this today. I lost an eye tooth. In some scenes it is there, then it will suddenly vanish only to re-appear again. Claude was not very pleased that his continuity was blown and there was definately no tooth fairy. He wasn’t very pleased when I grazed my leg falling off a swing at lunch time either. Suzanna cut her hand whittling wood. Bobby, the Props man seemed so happy and absorbed making bows and arrows for the Amazons, out of local hazel saplings, that we all wanted to try for ourselves and started carving. I bought a penknife with my danger money and made a bow, which I still have today. This occupation kept us all quite until of course Suzanna nearly chopped a finger off and ended up with such a big bandage that Claude howled with dismay. We were banned from whittling after that, but I did learn to shoot with the bow and arrow. This proved providential since I gained the part of an archery champion in the next feature film I appeared in. Years later I met the man who became my husband at an archery event. He was chairman of the society. I might never have met him if I hadn’t learnt to shoot for the feature films.
‘Here we are, intrepid explorers, making the first ever voyage into uncharted waters. What mysteries will they hold for us? What dark secrets shall be revealed?’ Titty uttered dramatically as she looked out towards Wildcat Island. In fact we weren’t that intrepid. Our dinghy was wired to a pontoon on which was a 35mm Panasonic camera, a few yards of track and an entire film crew: sound, camera, lighting, wardrobe g et al.
The little bit of extra money Claude gave us was indeed compensation for encountering grave danger on one occasion. I don’t remember there being anything about it in Arthur Ransome’s book, but in the film there is a sequence when the Swallows nearly collide with the Tern, an elegant steamer that has taken tourists up and down Windermere since 1891. There is rather a large difference between the shot of the dinghy with the Tern coming towards her when Susan calls, ‘Look John! Steamer ahead!’ which was shot when Swallow was attached to the floating pontoon, and the next shot, a top shot, which was taken from the steamer when we were sailing free . That is when things went wrong. The Tern turned, John lost his wind in the lee of the larger vessel and we four children came perilously close to ending up in a very Duffer-ish state. Swallow had no centre board, only a keel and a shallow rudder, so she was difficult to turn at the best of times. We were acutely aware that Roger couldn’t swim, we had no buoyancy and I was perched on a pile of heavy old camping equipment. My father, who is a good dinghy sailor with years of experience racing in the Solent, was watching from the deck of the steamer, helpless. He could foresee the problem and yet was able to do nothing. Although we just managed to avoid a true collision he was so shaken someone had to find him a glass of whisky.