David Stott, the Ambleside lad who worked as a unit driver on the film of Swallows & Amazons in 1973 after he left college at the age of 19, has written from America:
‘I really enjoyed reliving Swallows & Amazons through your book.’
‘Oh my, what a trip down memory lane it was for me – so much that l had forgotten was rekindled. I cannot believe that it was forty years ago.
‘I think that I started work (on the film in) mid-June, which would fit in with finishing college. From your daily schedule it was when you went back to Coniston with Virgina McKenna on her second visit.’
David remembers the problem of being locked out of Bank Ground Farm by Mrs. Batty. ‘I really could not blame her as the whole place had been turned into a circus and her house ripped apart.’
‘The first morning I met Richard Pilbrow was in his bedroom for some strange reason and remember thinking, ‘What a total mess. How can anybody live like this?’
‘My main contacts were Neville Thompson (the On-line Producer) and Graham Ford (the Production Manager). They were all based at Kirkstone Foot Hotel that was owned by friends of my parents, Simon and Jane Bateman. Others stayed at the Waterhead Hotel down by the lake, where I would pick them up and take them to the location.
‘On arrival at the location I remember well the catering van and the breakfast that awaited us. Having just competed three years studying hotel management at college I was amazed how two people with very limited equipment could produce the number of meals they did. The washing up was done on a trestle table outside the van with bowls of water carried to location in large milk churns.
‘I did not have much contact with you and the other children, as you were under the watchful eye of your Mum and Jean McGill. Jean’s Mum was called Girly McGill and used to run a nursing home in Ambleside. As a child I used to deliver eggs to the home with my Dad. Jean had a brother who I think everybody called Blondie.
‘Sten was a bit of a handful at times and held up shooting on a number of occasions while he was calmed down. I rather envied Simon West; I wished I had the chance he did to act in a film. To this day I’m a frustrated actor.
‘Dennis Lewiston (the Director of Photography) always seemed to be holding a light meter in the air or perhaps he was warding off the clouds. I found him a little unapproachable.
‘My recollection of Sue Merry the continuity girl was setting up her folding table and tapping away on a portable typewriter.
‘Ronnie Cogan the hairdresser and I spent hours chatting. Once the shooting started, we had nothing else to do. He was such a nice man.
‘I was thrilled when I met Virginia McKenna and had to drive her around. One day I had to drive her to Grange railway station. I was so fascinated by her tales of working with lions in Born Free that I drove slowly to maximise her story-telling time. We almost missed the train and had to run from the car park.
‘One of the wettest days I remember is when the scene of Octopus Lagoon was filmed above Skelwith Fold Caravan Site. I don’t remember the support buses being around that day, but I do remember having to sit in the car for hours on end. Maybe the buses were somewhere else.
‘I know I was invited to the wrap party but cannot remember a thing about it.’
Ronald Fraser with Wardrobe Master Terry Smith being transported to the Houseboat played by The Lady Derwentwater
My diary entry for 24th June 1973 is not exactly revealing. As it was raining steadily in the Lake District, I was given a second day off. ‘We had a quirte morning,’ I wrote. I am sure I needed one. After a heavy week’s filming I’d spent the official ‘Unit Day Off’ writing five end-of-year exam papers, answering correspondence from school friends and going to Kit Seymour’s thirteenth Birthday party. I must have been exhausted. Legally I was meant to have two days off a week. This was the first time it had been possible.
Suzanna Hamilton’s diary adds little more, but my mother was on set, as was a journalist from The Guardian, so I can tell you what happened. I can even tell you what the location caterers from Pinewood cooked that day: Melon, followed by roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, boiled or roast potatoes, peas and carrots with apple crumble or tinned peaches served with custard or evaporated milk. It was a Sunday. Suzanna noted that we had ‘salad for super’, her favorite food.
“The houseboat has been converted from a pleasure steamer,” wrote Michael McNay in the Features section of The Guardian, “the whole of the superstructure fore faked up by props, the cabin aft converted into a retired colonist’s sittingroom – African rug, flowery curtains, assegais on the walls, an ebony elephant with silver howdah and trappings, a walnut wireless cabinet, tall brass oil lamps, a pile of 78rpm records, a silver mounted cricket ball (presented to G.Gumbleton, 1899, for the highest individual score of the season), a chest, a writing desk and an ancient upright Imperial.” I have typed this up exactly as it was published on 7th July 1973.
By props, I don’t think Michael McNay meant pit-props. He was talking about the work of the design team headed by Simon Holland. Ian Whittaker, who later won an Oscar for set dressing, helped Simon to create Captain Flint’s cabin with one of the Prop men who is photographed here. Does anyone know his name? I think it might be Terry Wells. I expect the cane chairs and side table were being temporally stored on the roof when this snap shot was taken so as to make space for camera and lights. The gaffer and camera crew would have been in the process of setting up inside the cabin. Sound would not have settled in yet. How do I know that after all these years? I can see the recordist’s arm at the left of the photograph. I still remember his coat.
“Ronald Fraser, alias Uncle Jim, is tapping away at a book.” Michael continues. “Last minute panic: who can type out quickly a folio of copy to leave nonchantly in the roller?” That would have been Sue Merry, the continuity girl. The first scene was probably the one in which Uncle Jim is typing with the green parrot on his shoulder when a firework goes off on his cabin roof. I wonder if Arthur Ransome had ever been disturbed by the Altounyan children in such a way. Did he use an Imperial typewriter?
The film crew were on location on Derwentwater. “By now, the houseboat has been moved and moored to the western shore just off a promontory that is being faked up as one end of Wild Cat Island.” The houseboat, really one of the stars of the movie, was being played by a long-time resident of Cumbria, The Lady Derwentwater. A 56 foot motor launch, owned by the Keswick Launch Company since 1935, she returned to real life after the filming, rather like I did. She still carries up to 90 passengers. You can go out on her today.
My father, who is keen on steamboats, had been off to find the real houseboat that Arthur Ransome had in mind. Am I right in thinking this must have been the original Gondola? I expect she was too un-seaworthy for the production team to contemplate using in 1973. A reliable, water-tight boat that could be towed into the location used for Houseboat Bay was needed. Last year we went to see TSSY Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in Cumbria, which is another Victorian steam yacht invisaged by Ransome as a possible model for Captain Flint’s houseboat. It is a beauty but we did get a better view of the lake from of the cabin windows in the Lady Derwentwater.
“The rain has stopped, the mist is lifting from the 1,500 foot ridge of Cat Bells. Fraser climbs gingerly aboard, awkward in co-respondent’s brown and white shoes, rosy make-up and moves into the aft cabin.” McNay continues. He is describing the main scene to be shot that day. “John, alias Simon West, is in a rowing boat 15 feet away… The problem this time is that the rowing boat has to remain anchored but look as though Simon is pulling steadily in towards the houseboat and the anchor rope has to remain hidden.” This must have been so that Swallow could be lined up acurately and remain in focus for the camera. It is one of the secrets of making the film that I have been asked about directly.
“Simon shows Claude Whatham how he’ll manage it. Quick rehearsal inside the cabin. Ronald Fraser on his knees by the chest folding a white pullover, catches sight of approaching boat, mimes angry surprise. Told not to jerk head so far back. Instead jerks eyebrows up. The cabin is no more than eight foot by ten and contains besides Fraser and the props, four men on a camera, one on lights, and the continuity girl.” McNay had not included Claude the director, who I know would have squeezed in since these were the days before monitors from the camera feed. And he was small. The sound recordist was bigger but may have just planted a microphone on the desk.
“On the small aft deck Pilbrow is for the next few minutes going to be redundant.” This is Richard Pilbrow, who now lives in Conneticut and I am sure will read this post. “He is a mild, inoffensive looking man producing his first film. He is 40… looks like your friendly local antiques dealer. He and Whatham are a good team: Whatham is slight, energetic and calm. He has time, even as a sequence is being set up, to ask the Press if they can see enough of what’s going on from the crampt aft deck of the housebaot. It’s a cheerful crew, (Denis Lewiston the DOP) watching clouds overhead with benign suspicion, taking light meter readings inside and out-side the cabin every 30 seconds.
‘Action,’ said quietly into the cabin.
‘ACTION,’ across the lake to Simon. The clapperboard shows 461 take 1. Fraser folds the pullover, looks up, jerks eyebrows in angry surprise, camera swings round to follow Fraser’s gaze through the window, Simon pulls on left oar, keeps the rope hidden.
‘Once more please. Stand by. Action. ACTION (461 take 3) …. CUT.’
There’s a consensus that the third take was best. Ten minute break while the suceeding sequence is prepared: Fraser rushes out on deck and tells Simon to clear off. That too is filmed in triplicate. The time is 12.45. They started work at 6.30, began filming at 12.25 and they’ve got maybe 45 seconds in the can. Everybody seems pleased.”
A bright sunny day on Derwentwater. I wore what was my favourite costume, not least because I had the option of wearing a vest beneath the blouse and I didn’t have to worry about the divided skirt. I went to such an old fashioned school that I had a pair of grey flannel culottes myself, to wear on the games field, and thought them very much the sort of thing Titty would have worn. Roger, meanwhile was in long shorts or knickerbockers as the real Altounyan children would have called them, kept up with a snake belt. His even longer underwear was an item requested by Claude Whatham the director who, being born in the 1920s himself, had worn exactly the same sort of underpants as a child. As the day warmed up Claude stripped down to a pair of navy blue tailored shorts and sailing shoes. We were on a desert island after all. Even if it was a desert island in the Lake District.
In Arthur Ransome’s book of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ the hunt for the treasure is slightly different and Captain Flint’s trunk lies buried under rocks. I wasn’t expecting the set-up with the tree trunk, although I think it works well and looks good, giving movement to the sequence. The only hesitation was that Claude didn’t want me to get hit by the rocks as they slid off. This was a pity as I would have jumped aside.
I am not sure why the Amazon had not been bailed out. I can remember having to lie in the bilge water, which proved cold and uncomfortable. Perhaps it gave my performance an edge. Titty would have been cold and stiff after a night wrapped in the sail. Great grey clouds were gathering by then and we were all getting tired.
Being together in a confined space becomes difficult to endure after while, not least when the space is a pontoon on a lake with not much to sit on. Small boys tend to muck about and become annoying when they are bored. The time had come when someone was going to crack – and they did. The result was silence. A sobering moment. And one very wet pair of knickerbockers.
In the end three of us went home in wet underwear. Gareth Tandy, the third assistant director – who I think was only about 18 – was pushed in to the lake, this time to great hilarity.
The big question, of course, it what is the name of the island on Derwentwater that we used as the location for Cormorant Island? Duncan Hall has written in to suggest it is called Lingholm Island (or possibly One Tree Island)What is the name of the larger island, seen in the background of shots, that represents Wildcat Island? Is it Rampsholme Island?
I have one behind-the-scenes clip of the crew on the pontoon – shot on a sunny day, I think at the southern end of Coniston Water. It looks most bizarre. It was. You can see how cramped and overloaded we were and guess at the patience demanded of us all. Imagine how long it took to set up shots, while totally exposed to the elements. It was quite a stable raft but when we went for a take it was vital that everyone kept completely still or there would have been camera wobble. We used a conventional boat with a cabin when we filmed ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ on the Norfolk Broads ten years later in 1983. It proved much easier – but had more wobble.
You can read more about ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974) in an ebook available on Amazon Kindle and other platforms.
Claude Whatham had no Peak of Darien at Bank Ground Farm, Arthur Ransome’s location for Holly Howe. But he did have buttercups and daisies, the flowers so evocative of childhood summers spent in the English countryside. The field that runs down to Coniston Water looked glorious that sunny day in June 1973. It was glowing.
Claude had used wild flowers to good effect when he made Laurie Lee’s memoir Cider with Rosie for the BBC in May 1971. It had been one of those months of endless sunny days in Gloucestershire but we were in Westmorland now, where buttercups bloomed later in the year and sunny days were cherished. This was Claude’s afternoon for low angle shots.
We arrived to find that a huge hole had been dug in the meadow for the camera, with a picnic for us spread out the other side of it. We thought this was very exciting. I’m not sure whether Mrs Batty throught quite the same way about the excavations in her field. I was sad that we didn’t have a fire with a kettle, as they do in the book of Swallows and Amazons, but that was kept as a feature of island life and camping yet to come.
Roger came sailing down clutching the telegram from our father, reaching out to deliver it over the hole. I understand that this was based on the cryptic telegrams that Ernest Altounyan sent his children Taqui, Susie, Titty and Roger, the real Swallows. It has become the iconic response to Health and Safety ever since.
What we ended up saying altered slightly from David Wood’s original screenplay. ‘Dispatches?’ – Ransome spells the word ‘Despatches’ but apparently both spellings are correct. John referred to Daddy as Father. I’m not sure why. He did so in his letter. It is daddy in the book but perhaps Claude considered ‘Father’ as having a more period feel. I stuck more to Ransome’s dialogue, as you can see if you compare the film script with my diary entry above. This was only because I knew his book so well, and never saw the script. The acting credit must go to Simon West who sat holding the telegram, graciously absorbing my bossiness, whilst I grappled with the words.
Back in 1973 it was the job of the ‘Continuity Girl’ to take notes on any changes made to the script. Sue Merry, ever present in her dark coat, took on this role. Today she would probably be known as a Script Supervisor but her Aviator sunglasses and black polo-necked jersey would be the height of fashion. Sue also took notes technical notes for the film editor and director, indicating which Takes were favoured and which had been spoilt, giving the reason. In those days we had no monitors. The camera lens would be unscrewed after each take and checked carefully. If any fluff was found, Bobby Sitwell the Camera Assistant would call out, ‘Hair in the gate!’ Sue would quietly note this down and David Bracknell, the First Assistant, would call out, ‘Set up to go again’. And we’d go again.
Sue was also responsible for the continuity, and would take numerous Polaroid photographs as an aide-memoir. This scene followed the one of Mother giving Roger the telegram, which had not yet been shot. Virginia McKenna hadn’t arrived back inCumbria. Looking back, this seems a huge gamble. Would they ever get another sunny day while the buttercups were still blooming, a day to match – exactly – the weather of 14th June?
Sue would sit and type up her notes on location, using a portable typewriter that sometimes was set up for her on a spindly picnic table. This method of working was different from the BBC, when the ‘Production Assistants’ would type up their notes at the end of each day. Would it have been so that one copy of her notes, typed on triplicate paper, could be sent to the laboratory with the exposed film. It meant that her evenings were free.
Sue Merry had worked for Neville C. Thompson before on The Boyfriend, Ken Russell’s movie that starred Twiggy with Tommy Tune, Barbara Windsor and Glenda Jackson. She later worked on The Wicker Man, Anthony Shaffer’s harrowing film directed by Robin Hardy that featured Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee and Diane Cliento, Britt Ekland and Ingrid Pitt. She went on to work with Dennis Lewiston and other members of our crew on The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the movie that starred Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon and such unexpected artists such as Meatloaf, Christopher Biggins and Prince Andrew’s old flame Koo Stark, who played a bridesmaid. Sue also did the continuity for Nicolas Roeg on The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring David Bowie, before moving into television to work on The Professionals and The Comic Strip Presents… All quite fun!
But on that day in June 1973, she was the girl with the daisies in her hair, wearing a coat thick enough to indicate that although sunny it was still quite chilly in the Lake District.
You can read more in ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’