‘I bought a signed copy of The Making of Swallows & Amazons and have just finished reading it. It’s a lovely, flowing read and I loved all the interesting details, especially chapters 12 to 18 in the later half of the book… I shall treasure it.’ Nigel
‘I am thoroughly enjoying reading your diary entries and hearing how life was on set etc… All the things I have always wanted to know about the film are in the book! I do hope you have lovely memories of all the locations you filmed at, especially Bank Ground Farm. Jonathan, who now owns the place and does all the farming has made my family and I very welcome indeed! (only) we can not tack up the field as they are growing it for Silage!!!! Thank you for inspiring my family and I so much! Yours sincerely, Benjamin’ (aged 10) ‘P.S. We’re off to Wild Cat Island tomorrow!’
Simon West as Captain John by the lighthouse tree
‘All of your recollections are insightful and tinged with humour (as always). In particular the story about Mrs Batty locking out the film crew and all the Cumbrian characters that were involved in the film. I didn’t know George Pattinson appeared in the Rio scene either, and I can just imagine the giggles you must have had when watching the double-deckers playing footsie with one another!’ David.
Lesley Bennett and Kit Seymour as the Amazons stranded on Wild Cat Island
‘Good little book full of information and funny tales.’ Jennifer
‘This book has rekindled my interest and memories from the 70’s when I first saw the film and read all the books, so well written and very entertaining, in some ways it ll seems a long time ago but this book makes it seem like yesterday! Thoroughly recommended.’ Richard on Amazon.co.uk
‘Loved your book about filming Swallows & Amazons – my favourite childhood film, very nostalgic.’ Nicola
‘Just wanted to say how much I am enjoying The Making of Swallows & Amazons. What a wonderful time you all had… I have all the books & love the film & TV series Coot Club and The Big Six, so it’s fab to read about them.’
Sten Grendon, Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton in Swallow
The Telegraph listed ‘Swallows & Amazons’ as Film of the Week when it was broadcast on ITV3 in the UK recently. It was also shown on GEM television in Australia last Friday. Sophie has been answering questions about making the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ at the Curious Arts Festival. If you have one, please use the comments box below.
On 26th July Sophie Neville, spoke to Dan Damon on the BBC Radio 4 Sunday morning programme ‘Broadcasting House’ about the enduring success of the film. To read more, please click here.
This beautifully made documentary, presented by Griff Rhys Jones, examines Ransome’s life as a war correspondent in Russia from 1913 to 1919 when he was close to the action and in dialogue both with Lenin and Leon Trotsky. It raises the question as to whether he was a British spy.
Hugh Brogan, Ransome’s biographer explains that Ransome had originally ran off to Russia in 1913 to escape from his melodramatic wife, Ivy Walker. After using his time to record Russian fairy stories, that can be read today in his book, ‘Old Peter’s Russian Tales‘, he was employed by a national British newspaper to report on events leading up to the Russian Revolution. Black and white archive footage, along with photographs Ransome took himself, illustrate this well.
The BBC’s erstwhile political correspondent John Sergeant, explains the significance of certain survival strategies Ransome used, such as using ‘his practical skill to outwit people’, over extracts from the original feature film ‘Swallows & Amazons‘, produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1974.
The scenes from the movie also show how the story Ransome wrote when back in the Lake District, was in many ways an outworking of feelings accumulated while he was working in Russia. By concentrating on his writing, he neglected his own daughter just as Uncle Jim was not around for the Blackett girls.
In the dramatised documentary, the beautiful actress Alina Karmazina plays Evgenia, the girl Ransome fell in love with while he was filing reports from Petrograd. They later escaped over the border, trading her copper kettle for freedom of passage.
If the BBC had contacted Richard Pilbrow he would have been able to send them this letter. It was written to Neville Thompson, the online producer of the film, by Evgenia, who had become the second Mrs Ransome. It has never been published before. She gives the address as her retirement home near Banbury but it shows what kind of girl she was:
When Mrs Ransome saw the finished film in 1974, her only comment was that the kettle was of the wrong period.
As you can see from these paintings, Fadi Mikhail, the artist famous in the UK for painting one of our Christmas stamps and being commissioned by the Prince of Wales, as well as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, was certainly inspired by the film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ made in 1973. He has kindly let me publish this remarkable series of paintings.
Since my last post, comments have flooded in as to why the simple story is so popular:
‘…the Swallows don’t own ‘Swallow’ – they’re having a farmhouse holiday and the boat belongs to the farm, and that could just have happened to any of us. Norman Willis… used to rise up against critics who considered that children from poorer backgrounds should read books full of gritty reality related to their daily lives: he pointed out that they wanted to escape from their daily lives for a few precious hours, not always into a zone of dragons and princesses but into an alternative realistic world.’ Jill Goulder of The Arthur Ransome Society.
‘What I liked most about these stories was that the Swallows and Amazons and their friends behaved like real children, but lived in a completely different world from the one I inhabited. I’d camped with the Girl Guides, but the Swallows and Amazons had astounding freedom – camping alone on an island, going out at night and sailing wherever they liked without needing to ask permission.’ Emily Lock ‘…the books gripped my imagination forever’. Please click here to read Emily Lock’s full review.
Christopher Tuft thought the enduring success is, ‘Because it’s a wonderful adventure story, with well rounded characters, played out in a beautiful setting, reminding us of a time now gone.’
‘The combination of practical realism – everything that happens could happen – and the child’s viewpoint makes the story and it’s sister volumes almost unique even now,’ Andrew Craig-Bennett of The Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook.
The whole series of books clearly have a worldwide following popular from one generation to another. ‘I don’t find this surprising. I got my first Arthur Ransome book (Swallowdale) as a present, in 1948. At the time it was a copper-bottomed dead cert as a present for any child, couldn’t be criticised, known to be virtuous, and incidentally known to be good. All that is still true and has been for decades. I don’t think it could fail to be up there. Children may now prefer Star Wars, Lego books or Minecraft (my grandsons certainly do), but books are still *bought* by adults.’ Peter Ceresole ‘The book has lasting appeal, particularly for children, because there is nothing in the adventures of the Swallows and Amazons that readers feel they could not do themselves. They felt they could sail a dinghy like the Swallows. I know, because when adults came aboard Ransome’s restored boat Nancy Blackett in recent years, many had tears in their eyes and said: ‘I learned to sail from the books; and Arthur Ransome was the biggest influence on my life.’ The story is not like so many others an unachievable fantasy. This must stem in part from the fact that the characters are based on real children and on Ransome’s observation of those real children. The quality of the plotting is superb. Ransome was utterly clear about the stories he wrote, sometime writing chapters in the middle of the book before writing earlier ones. His prose is spare and simple and very easy to read, and bears comparison with the writing of Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels — another writer with appeal to both children and adults.’ Michael Rines Do add your own thoughts in the Comments below.
Hugh Shelley wrote, in his Bodely Head Monograph of Arthur Ransome, that it is the joy with which the story is written that makes Swallows and Amazons a great book. In many ways it is a reflection of Arthur Ransome’s own childhood holidays with his brother and sisters on Coniston Water. And even today, children can discover the places mentioned for themselves. Holly, aged six, wrote to me recently saying, ‘My Mummy and Daddy took me to Wild Cat Island. It was my favorite day… When I am bigger I want to be like Titty.’
While ‘nearly all enduring books do so because of the writing,’ as another reader commented, children enjoy the camaraderie and the action that have been captured in these semi-abstract oils.
‘The 1974 Swallows and Amazons film is a classic, and this is a really enjoyable look behind the scenes, written by the actress who (for me, at least) gave the stand-out performance as Titty Walker. If the film recaptured the lost world of 1929, then the book recaptures the lost world of 1973, when rules on child actors were strict (chaperones and schoolwork absolute requirements) but regulations on health and safety a bit more lax, even when on water. We even learn the truth behind that strange scene on the jetty in Rio where Roger is left minding Swallow. Highly recommended.’ P. Stevens, Bath, UK
‘Every now and again in cinematic history a classic is born. It doesn’t have to be a multi-billion pound blockbuster featuring legendary names, sometimes something timeless and endlessly endearing is born and this is most definitely the case with ‘Swallows and Amazons’.
‘This film has become an old friend to me; I must have watched it a thousand times and I never tire of it! It brings back memories of a summer childhood spent in wonder-filled Cumbria, in particular Windermere, Ambleside, Derwent and Coniston Water; places we’d visit as a family before the fates would, sadly intervene.
‘Sophie Neville’s excellent book recaptures again the halcyon days of youth in a summer-land of mountains, fells and shimmering lakes. She writes beautifully and with an easy style that’s a joy to read. The love for her subject is very evident, as is her passion for the work of Arthur Ransome. She takes you behind the scenes of the making of the film and the realities of filming on the water; how the director and crew worked tirelessly to bring out the best in the young actors and the splendours of the landscape. So glad I made this purchase. Pride of place on the old bookshelf.’ Allen Fairhurst
‘Sophie has lost none of her infectious enthusiasm and this shines through on every page.’ Julian Lovelock in Mixed Moss, the journal of The Arthur Ransome Society. ‘As well as using her own diary Sophie has mined the recollections and scrapbooks of a number of cast and crew.’
‘The book itself is indeed a delight. I have long been a fan of Swallows and Amazons. I am delighted with the film which was made and Sophie’s account of the making of it adds a very charming and interesting dimension. I loved the account and I fully recommend any fan of Swallows and Amazons to get a copy for themselves.’
You can read about how the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was made and find the complete collection of behind-the-scenes photos in this ebook available from Kobo, Smashwords, iTunes and on Kindle for £2.99
I have been deliberating upon points where fiction touches reality. The most significant in my own life is the story behind my fictional brother, Roger Walker, one of the lead characters in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. The real Boy Roger was responsible for saving me from acute misery. Whilst I was asthmatic as a child, Dr Roger Altounyan was behind the invention of the Intal spin inhaler, which bought me instant relief.
About ten years ago I met Dr Bill Frankland, a former POW to the Japanese who became a Harley Street allergist and president of the British Allergy Association, now the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Bill told me that Roger Altounyan had been a good friend ever since they worked together on the Intal project. Roger introduced him to his sister Titty who, as a child had been in the inspiration for the character I played in the film ofSwallows & Amazons.
I’d had known that Roger Altounyan had been in the RAF during World War II, but not that he had qualified as a doctor and become an allergist. Bill told me that he used his knowledge of propellers to develop the Intal spin-inhaler and effectively treat asthma.
Dr Bill Frankland celebrating his 100th Birthday in 2012 with Sophie Neville
Dr Frankland gave me a set of photos taken at Roger Altounyan’s going-away party in Cumbria when he took his family and friends up Coniston Water on the Gondola. He said that Roger insisted on smoking a pipe even though he was reliant on oxygen and explained that the experimentation was partly responsible for his early death in 1987.
I will explain the connection in further depth.
The well-loved book Swallows and Amazons was written by Arthur Ransome for the children of friends of his after they brought him a pair of red slippers for his forty-fifth birthday in January 1929. He based his main characters, the crew of the Swallow, on these five real Altounyan children who had been staying at Bank Ground Farm in the Lake District,
The character Roger Walker, known when he first started sailing as the Boy Roger, was inspired by Roger Altounyan then about six years old. As a consequence he was obliged to live out his school days under Swallow’s flag, as it where. This may have become tedious, although it was much the same for Sten Grendon who played the part of Roger in the 1974 film.
Roger is seen here with three of his four sisters, and below as a boy along with Arthur Ransome obviously playing tennis (copyright: Brotherton Library, Leeds). The story of his family is told by Jeremy Collingwood in his recent book, A Lakeland Saga.
Did we depict Roger Walker accurately in the film? May be not! Richard Pilbrow, the producer of Swallows & Amazons told me that Mrs Ransome was furious that Claude Whatham had cast a boy with dark hair, but she never explained why. She did not like the photograph she had been sent but it was taken before Sten’s received a short back-and-sides.
Sten Grendon as Roger Walker with Virginia McKenna playing his mother
Luckily, when Evgenia Ransome visited the location and actually saw Sten running around at Bank Ground Farm she seemed happy enough and said nothing more. Perhaps Virginia McKenna somehow managed to make everything alright.
What I didn’t know until recently was that Roger Altounyan was an asthmatic himself.
Roger was specifically allergic to guinea pigs and would routinely experiment on himself. He would not have been allowed to do this by today’s regulations, which some say would have held back the testing indefinitely. I gather from reading Rodney Dingle’s biography that the model inhaler that he made with a piece of hose pipe worked well, whilst the prototype made professionally did not. If you use an inhaler you will hear that the propeller has to be able wiggle in order for the medication to be successfully diffused into the patient’s mouth and lungs. The discovery was portrayed by David Suchet in a documentary entitled Hair Soup.
I was allergic to feathers, not parrot’s feathers, but old pillows and eider-downs. I may owe my life to Roger and his spin-inhaler. The medication certainly helped me enormously and has always given me the peace of mind that it will give me relief if I do get wheezy.
Further reading: Roger: The Life and Distinguished Achievements of Dr Roger Altounyan, by Rodney Dingle. It is difficult to get hold of but Kirkland Books in Kendal have a copy.
I am always interested by the questions I am asked on the making the feature film of the 1974 film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’, in which I played the part of Titty when I was twelve years old.
Did you have to wear make-up?
What did you do about school?
Did you still live in a tent?
These are some of the questions I’ve been asked recently by a journalist:
How different do you think your life would have been if you had not been in Swallows & Amazons? I am not an actress but working on Swallows & Amazons, as well as a subsequent adventure movie called The Copter Kids, gave me enough experience to gain a graduate placement at the BBC and work behind the scenes on interesting television dramas including the adaptations of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’, written of course by Arthur Ransome. Funnily enough, it was only when I was producing a documentary in Cumbria that anyone recognised me as Titty.
How different do you think your life would have been without the publicity that the film has brought you? While publicity generated by the film did not count one jot amongst my peers in television production, it does help me as an author since fans of the film appreciate the books I’ve written and often invite me to give talks.
Do people expect you to be an expert on Arthur Ransome? Are you? I’ve just been elected President of The Arthur Ransome Society, which is a great honour. Although I have read many biographies about Arthur Ransome and grew up reading his series of twelve Swallows and Amazons books, I only claim unique knowledge of the 1974 film and the BBC series ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’, which I worked on as an adult over nine months in 1983.
There is huge interest in how these adaptations of the well-loved stories were made, especially since both are being restored and re-leased on DVD this summer. Being a landscape movie, Richard Pilbrow’s movie of Swallows & Amazons looks amazing on the big screen will be shown in cinemas from July in celebration of its 40th Anniversary.
Are you surprised that there’s still such an interest in the film? The film of Swallows & Amazons has gained in popularity over the years. This seems unusual but parents, and now grandparents, want their children to see the same film they loved growing up. They trust it as a baby-sitting DVD.
I hope its popularity has kept Arthur Ransome on the shelves of bookshops as they are truly inspirational. Together, the film and books seem to have figure-headed a ‘Swallows and Amazons lifestyle’ advocated in magazines, along with camping and picnic food, themes for weddings, knit-wear and even cat-walk fashion. ‘Very Swallows and Amazons…’ is the often used phrase, alongside a black and white photograph of me as a little girl, heaving on an oar.
Are you surprised that you are still so involved in it? I wasn’t much involved until we clubbed together to buy Swallow, the original dinghy used in the film. After displaying her glorious new coat of varnish at the London Boat Show in 2011 there has been an endless stream of requests to know more about how the film was made. Looking back through my diaries there were a surprising number of film-making secrets. I’ve only just remembered the funniest one.
What’s it like to be famous? This is the most difficult question as I always dreaded becoming celebrity. We all loathed publicity as children and found projecting ourselves excruciating. I now wish that it had been explained to us that it was part of our work to sell the film as I could have understood the need for that. Instead I felt desperately self-conscious about appearing on television or radio, especially as I wasn’t a glamorous actress and didn’t want to be one. It’s my character that is well-known. Titty is loved worldwide. Forty years on, I am still receiving fan mail, more so than ever since the advent of social media. I have just received a sweet tweet saying: hello titty :o) the family are enjoying the book, thank you. We have watched the film, conservative estimate, 20 times.
If you have any questions, please ask them in the comments blog below.
For some time now, I’ve had a Swallows and Amazons mug at home, which I use to keep my pens in. Featuring the design of the Jonathan Cape book jacket, it was given to me by Scruffie Buchanan who stocked the full set of Arthur Ransome mugs in her shop aptly called The Museum of Childhood. I treasure it as a part of mine. It is difficult to find these now. They have become collectors’ items.
Not long ago I was presented with this handsome mug from Hill Top Cottage at Ealinghearth, by Stephen and Janine Sykes when they showed me around the Ransome’s last home, which they have restored in the Lake District.
I’ve just discovered that it is possible to buy mugs depicting scenes from the film of Swallows & Amazons (1974). This one (above) is quite fun as it resembles the cover of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ There are others:
There are various scenes, but if you want to drink to Captain Flint walking the plank, you can.
My favourite design shows the film poster of Swallows & Amazons, which comes in two ways.
There are a variety of other stills from the film to chose from. These mugs and other movie merchandise such as mouse-mats, jigsaw puzzles and framed prints can be purchased from StudioCanal, the film’s distributors, who have an online shop.
Meanwhile, Jago Silver has designed these Expresso mugs that are great for camping.
Just when I was wondering if there were any more ‘Swallows and Amazons’ inspired mugs, I was sent this beautiful depiction of Hill Top near Haverthwaite, showing the view Arthur and Genia would have enjoyed in their twilight years. Here are two views of the same mug:
A full range of items in this range including t-shirts and bags can be seen on a previous post here.
The most beautiful range of Swallows and Amazons china including these small coffee mugs featuring the map from the book (above) and this plate, were once available from The Nancy Blackett shop but you might find they have sold out.
They do stock larger, more practical mugs depicting ‘Swallow’, and the ‘Nancy Blackett’ for £8.50 each here.
Do let me know if you know of any other Swallows & Amazons mugs and where they can be found in the comments below.
An editor at the Sunday Telegraph magazine asked me recently,
‘Don’t all child actors get into drink and drugs?’
Not I, said the fly. I’m afraid I was far too Swallows and Amazons-ish and sensible. And I lived deep in the countryside, out of the reach of dealers looking for kids with a little bit of money.
Simon West told me that spent the money he earned from appearing in films and television on sailing dinghies. It was a good investment. At the age of about fifteen he won the British Championships in what must have been the new fibreglass model of Optimist. Until that time they had been constructed of plywood.
I remember that Suzanna Hamilton spent the extra cash she was given from being brave about swimming in Coniston Water on a Swiss Army penknife. I had never seen one before. She cut her finger so badly making arrows from hazel saplings with the Property Master that the director banned her from using it. I was rather envious of her scar.
Suzanna wrote to tell me:
‘I wasn’t allowed to spend much of my money until I bought an extremely good oboe. A few pounds (were spent) on some budgies (one lovely male named Ransome and one named Rio – a flighty female). She was a bad influence and they both flew out the window in the end. Ransome used to sit on my head very happily when I only had him.’
We really didn’t earn that much back in 1973, but all children dream of what they could do if they had a little bit of cash. Sten Grendon told me that he spent some of his first BBC fee on a bike. All he wanted to do with his earning from appearing in Swallows & Amazons was to buy the biggest Lego set in the world. His father found one for £20 and put the rest into a savings account.
Any money I made from being in films was immediately locked up in Barclay’s Unicorn Unit Trusts. My riding teacher tried to persuade Mum to let me buy a decent horse I could use to compete with. A very beautiful Palamino was offered. This wasn’t a bad idea, as I would have gained skills and confidence, although I couldn’t see myself as a British Champion.
Instead I eventually spent my savings on a ticket to Australia where I took a boat up Sydney Harbour and I learnt to dive on the Great Barrier Reef.
I had just finished directing a drama-documentary that featured children at a west London school. Whilst we were busy filming in the art room a teacher rushed in to tell us not to let anyone go outside. Drug addicts had been mugging kids crossing the playing fields for their dinner money. I was obliged to pay the eleven-year-olds who took the lead roles by sending their parents a decent set of professional photographs. Paying them in cash was too risky.
You can read more about what it was like to find ourselves in such extraordinary circumstances in The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons, available as an ebook from all the online retailers or in the paperback entitled, ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’.
I have been writing about life in England nearly fifty years ago, reflecting on how our lives have changed. Can you help me?
I’d love to receive comments (below) on how you remember aspects of growing up in the early 1970s. What did you eat then? Where did you go on holiday? What was it about 1973 that impacted you?
My husband remembers long hair, flared trousers and shirts with massive curved collars. I always longed for an embroidered t-shirt with wide sleeves or a cheese-cloth shirt but loathed the feel of acrylic jumpers and ribbed polo-necks. Stripy ones.
The food was pretty applauding. My friend Suzanna has just reminded me about the innovation of Italian cooking. Spaghetti was the highlight of our lives; a treat that we might have on Saturdays or for a party when red candles would be pushed into wine bottles and checked paper table cloths could enhance a Bistro image. However prawn cocktail was the pinnacle of popular aspiration, although us children preferred picking of the shells off prawns ourselves.
At parties you’d be offered chunks of cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks stuck into a half a melon that had been covered in tin foil. I always rather longed for the melon. Homemade beer was regrettably all the rage, along with freezing your own runner beans. The process was quite fun (we enjoyed sucking air out of the freezer bags with a straw) but the beans were stringy and disgusting.
My family thought having to bring-a-bottle to parties was a great idea but we loathed the fact that cigarettes were smoked everywhere you went.
Colour televisions were only just beginning to arrive in people’s homes. They were terribly expensive. We had to make do with our crackly black and white screen, watching Blue Peter,Animal Magic and Tony Hart presenting Vision On with cartoons such as Marine Boy until Childrens’ Television ended with The Magic Roundabout just before Daddy came home from the Works in time for the 6 O’Clock News.
We were allowed to stay up to watch Dick Emery , Benny Hill, and ‘Titter ye not’, Frankie Howerd along with dramas such as The Onedin Line. There was one sit com starring Wendy Craig entitled Not in front of the Children, which of course we all wanted to watch. What influence did this have on our young minds?
Mummy worked for HTV West presenting an afternoon programme called Women Only with Jan Jeeming. She also read the letters on Any Answers?, which was produced by BBC Radio Bristol by Carole Stone. I was so impressed – amazed – to meet a female radio producer.
Our holidays were spent camping in Wales when we used an orange dome tent and yet slept on fold-up sun-loungers. Sailing was all about Mirror dinghies, which you could buy in kit form and make out of plywood. We couldn’t afford one. but in the late 1970’s Dad bought a fibre-glass Topper, which was the height of cool. He called it Earwig.
My family were very keen on taking home movies. Dad usually took slides when we went on holiday, which were viewed along with the supper-8 footage at Christmas time when he pushed the furniture back, took down a painting and projected our memories onto the wall.
What have I forgotten? Do post your own recollections, especially of sailing and camping in the early seventies, in the comments below.