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Adaptations of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ discussed in the Independent on Sunday by Jonathan Brown

Author Arthur Ransome loathed BBC’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’, his diaries reveal

A new adaptation of the classic is coming, but its author called the 1960s version ‘a ghastly mess’

Sunday 16 February 2014

When the BBC announced plans to recreate the classic outdoor children’s sailing adventure Swallows and Amazons it was hailed as a blockbusting antidote to the health and safety culture of the mollycoddled video-game generation. Filming of the new version of the 1930s Lake District adventure is due to begin later this summer with big stars including Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens already linked to the project.

However, previously unread diaries of its creator, Arthur Ransome, reveal that the author considered the corporation’s last attempt to bring his much-loved story to life to be a “ghastly mess” marred by “dreadful ham” acting. The diaries reveal how Ransome clashed repeatedly with BBC executives in the early 1960s when the BBC commissioned a six-part dramatisation for television, starring Susan George, then aged 12, as Kitty (changed from the original Titty) Walker.

Ransome, then in declining health, was living in virtual retirement in his remote Cumbrian cottage Hill Top overlooking the spectacular Rusland valley with his wife Evgenia – the former secretary to Leon Trotsky, whom he met while working as a foreign correspondent and spying for Britain in revolutionary Russia. It was a spartan existence, often with no electricity or running water.

In a series of brusque entries at odds with his generally affable demeanour, he describes how he repeatedly fought with BBC executives over attempts to introduce two new characters – Ernie and Sam – to the story. Both he and his wife attempted to rewrite the script after concluding that one episode was “bad beyond belief”.

At his home Hill Top with his wife, Evgenia

At his home Hill Top with his wife, Evgenia

“I have agreed to Genia’s proposal that we shall wash our hands of the film leaving it to Mr Walls [of the BBC] to play the farceur as much as he likes. They may be right in thinking that vulgar ham acting is what the T.V. gapers want,” he wrote in July 1962.

Ransome was particularly unimpressed with the performance of popular British actor John Paul as Captain Flint – the character linked this time to Dan Stevens, and said to be based on Ransome himself – describing it as “dreadful HAM”.

On attending a screening at the Hammer Theatre in Wardour Street, central London in October 1962, he concluded: “Saw the ghastly mess they have made of poor old Swallows and Amazons … MacCullogh [his friend Derek MacCullogh, former head of children’s broadcasting at the BBC who was also known as the presenter Uncle Mac] did not come possibly to avoid trouble with his employers.” It was eventually broadcast the following year.

Stephen Sykes now owns Hill Top and has restored the Ransomes’ former home. He is also helping transcribe the author’s sparsely detailed diaries from his years at Hill Top, which are kept at Leeds University’s Brotherton Library. Sykes said the writer received £3,500 for agreeing to the BBC broadcast – a considerable amount of money. “He was clearly making a very good living out of the rights to Swallows and Amazons. This was his baby and he had obviously pored over it. It is a very leanly written story and it was pretty clear it was written by a journalist because of its clarity, because there is nothing extraneous,” he said.

“He is extremely protective of his own work. He felt he didn’t want a word changing, and that he had honed the story down and it was what it was,” he added.

Susan George, who played Kitty

Susan George, who played Kitty

Swallows and Amazons was first published in 1930. It recounts the adventures of the children from two families who while away an idyllic summer getting into scrapes sailing their dinghies across Coniston Water and Lake Windermere. As well as the television series, many theatrical and musical adaptations have been staged, and the story was made into a film in 1974 staring Ronald Fraser and Sophie Neville.

When the latest project was announced in 2011, head of BBC Films Christine Langan said it would seek to encapsulate a forgotten era of childhood adventure “from the pre-health and safety generation”.

Producer Nick Barton of Harbour Pictures, which is collaborating on the film with the BBC, the Arthur Ransome Society and the author’s literary estate, said it had not been decided yet whether the children would be shown sailing without their life jackets.

But he said viewers could expect to experience the full majesty of the book’s setting. “The lakes and the mountains are very big and we are keen to recreate that grandeur of the scenery in the film,” he said. A spokeswoman for BBC Films said: “The film is still in development.”

To see a copy of the original article online, please click here

To contact Stephen Sykes at Hill Top, the Ransome’s last home, please click here

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Filed under Acting, Arthur Ransome, Biography, Cinema, Cumbria, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Movie, Movie stories, News, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized

Casting children for the BBC adaptations of Arthur Ransome’s books ‘Coot Club’ & ‘The Big Six’ in 1983 ~

Sophie Neville with Port and Starboard in 'Coot Club'

Sophie Neville with Port and Starboard in ‘Coot Club’

Looking back, it was a complete miracle that I able to work on the BBC adaptations of the Arthur Ransome books, but in 1983 I spent nine months working on Coot Club and The Big Six, released in 1984 as an eight-part drama serial under the generic title ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever’ . Awarded a BAFTA nomination, it is available on DVD today.

Swallows and Amazons Forever! Coot Club children cast by Sophie Neville

In 1982 I graduated from university and entered the BBC as a researcher on the General Traineee Scheme. I had so enjoyed working for Ronnie Barker on The Two Ronnies that my initial aim was to go into ‘Light Entertainment’.  I joined the Russell Harty team, which had a series of thirty-minute shows broadcast live from a studio at London Bridge. I actually invited Susan George on the show without realizing she had played Kitty Walker (Titty) in the black and white BBC drama serial of Swallows and Amazons in 1963.  Since The Russell Harty Show ended at the same time as my contract, I started looking around for a programme strand that was right for me.

The Unit Manager on our team heard that BBC Drama Series and Serials had acquired the rights to the Arthur Ransome books and suggested I went to see the  Producer, Joe Waters.  I knew we’d get on well as soon as I spoke to him on the phone.  Joe was always laughing. Although he’d made numerous episodes of The Enigma Files and Squadron, as well as Police series such as Z-Cars and Dixon of Dock Green, Joe had never filmed with boats and was interested to see the photographs of the camera pontoon devised for Claude Whatham in the Lake District. Joe explained that he had plans to film a number of the Arthur Ransome books but decided to start with the pair set in Norfolk and already had scripts adapted by Michael Robson.

The first miracle was that, although he had a full production team booked, Joe needed someone to help find children who could handle boats confidently on the Norfolk Broads. In the 1980’s drama directors at the BBC were expected to do their own casting, but Joe’s director, Andrew Morgan, was still editing another series and wasn’t going to have enough time to cast the children’s parts.  This had to be settled at least seven weeks before filming as Education Authorities request six weeks to process licenses required for children to work as actors. The second miracle was that Marcia Wheeler, the BBC Department Manager would not have given the job to me had I not been able to point out that the Graduate Trainee Scheme was paying my salary.  It was January and she had a choice of permanent staff available.

Coot Club - Death and Glories

Jake Coppard, Mark Page and Nicholas Walpole as the Death and Glory boys ~ photo: Sophie Neville 1983

I set to work, scouring the schools of Norfolk, as we needed boys with local accents to play Pete, Joe and Bill – the Death and Glory boys, as well Roger, little Malcomb and youths who could take on the roles of George Owden and his side-kick Ralph as well as Brian and Rob.

Coot Club Baddies

Boys virtually cast for me by the teachers of Norfolk ~ Dean Harkness who played Brian and Sy Rainsbury who played Rob (?)

I must have written to the Head teachers of every single secondary school in the country, and visited most of them. I managed to find really bright boy to play Dick Callum up in Norfolk, but although I auditioned a number of girls in Norwich, Caroline Downer, who played Dot Callum, and the Farland twins were actually represented by London agents.

Coot Club - Richard Walton

Richard Walton, who was cast as Dick Callum, in Norfolk in 1983

You wouldn’t expect it to be difficult, but I couldn’t find a boy to play Tom Dudgeon. He was the most important character. It was essential he was out-going and could sail well. I dredged school after school, meeting literally hundreds of children. Joe had found a very nice lad who went to a London stage school but he was fifteen and had never been in a boat. He rather wanted to give the part to Diana Dor’s son, but he too, admitted that he couldn’t sail either. We were getting very close to the deadline and I was almost in despair when I took my cousin to see a musical in the West End. During the interval I turned round and saw a boy, perfect for the part of Tom, sitting right behind me.

‘Do you by any chance sail?’ I asked.

‘Oh, yes,’ he replied, ‘We’ve got a cabin cruiser. I often take the helm.’

I went to meet his parents and found myself looking up at David Dimbleby, asking if his son would consider taking the lead in the Arthur Ransome series.

Henry Dimbleby in 1983

Henry Dimbleby in 1983 ~ photo: Sophie Neville

Casting parts for book adaptations is never easy.  I’d always envisaged Dot as having straw-coloured plaits and Port and Starboard as being robust Tom-boys, but in the end the right girls seemed to float to the surface. Andrew Morgan was thrilled, appreciative of the fact that finding identical twins of the right age who can swim, sail and act convincingly was not easy. Caroline was the only girl I had met with hair long enough and thick enough to make into the plaits Ransome had drawn in his illustrations of Dorothea. She was dark and had no experience of boats but convinced us she was right in so many other ways that we offered her the part and sent her off to learn how to sail.

Caroline Downer as Dot Callum

Caroline Downer as Dorothea Callum in ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’, 1983

Since we were scheduled to make nearly four hours of television, we had three months of filming ahead of us. The six children who had leading parts in both books, legally had to be over the age of thirteen to work for such a long period of time. My job had been to find thirteen-year-olds who looked younger. I also needed to show Andrew and Joe how well the children could act in the space of a few minutes. I had Anna Scher to thank for this.

Anna Scher had been Suzanna Hamilton’s drama teacher and agent. In 1968 she’d started a wonderful after-school theatre for children, based in Islington.  I knew Claude Whatham had respected her enormously and asked if I could sit in on some of her classes. Anna worked fast, getting her students to concentrate and giving them a number of improvisation exercises. I had directed plays at university, so was used to getting good performances out of young people, but she was an expert, explaining that conflict was the key, ‘Drama is conflict!’ she’d declare.

Coot Club Audition

Children who were short-listed for parts in ‘Coot Club’ having lunch at a final audition held in Norwich in 1983. The boys who played Joe and Pete are in the foreground.

When I auditioned children, I extended this by telling them they had to be able to list ten issues for the argument they were putting forward and that I wanted to see each point worked into the drama. For example,

‘You walk into your brother’s room and catch him smoking. I want you to try to persuade him it is stupid and give him ten reasons why he should quit.’

The boy playing the brother had to find ten reasons why he should be able to smoke if he wanted to. Joe Waters hadn’t seen this before but agreed that it worked much better than asking children to read scripts. It amused him. The kids who ended up playing Bill, Pete and Joe of the Death and Glory, responded well both to Joe’s laughter and exercises that required their own imput. Despite never having had drama lessons they were able to prove themselves capable of delivering convincing performances.

But, would they be able to get the lines of a script out, whilst handling a boat on open water?

Coot Club - Joe Waters with Henry DimbJleby

Producer Joe Waters with Henry Dimbleby who played Tom Dudgeon in ‘Coot Club’ & ‘the Big Six’ ~ photo: Sophie Neville

One secret was that I asked all the children from Norfolk who were short-listed if they would like to work as Extras on the series even if they didn’t land a part. These children were issued with licences and could have been called upon if any of the cast had to back down at the last-minute.  If you look carefully you can see them  in some of the busier scenes.

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Filed under Acting, Arthur Ransome, Biography, Claude Whatham, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

Publicity photographs used to promote ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the early 1970s – or how we hated having our photographs taken.

Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Virginia McKenna, Simon West and Kit Seymour gathered at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water for a publicity photograph. This one was taken by Daphne Neville.

When a television drama is ready to be transmitted there is a little publicity, but not much. Photographs might be taken for the cover of the Radio Times or a book to accompany the series, there might be a Preview at BAFTA to which journalists from the colour supplements and daily newspapers are invited, but, because the programme can be advertised on air, the actors are not intensively involved in the promotion. A feature film is very different.

Whilst we didn’t mind our photographs being taken while we were acting, and were fine about Mum clicking away with her little instamatic, we all hated having promotional photographs taken for ‘Swallows and Amazons’. They were usually so posed, set up by strangers who had no idea of the story. Virginia McKenna tried to make it fun for us but this is what we all felt about this photo-call:

Virginia McKena, Lesley Bennett, Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, Simon West, Kit Seymour for 'Swallows and Amazons'

~ How not to set up a publicity shot for a feature film ~

Why were the Amazons at Holly Howe? Why weren’t we with any of the boats? It was all terribly hot and difficult to squint into the sunshine. Only Mrs Batty’s dog seemed to be enjoying the attention.

The glare of the flash bulbs had started on day one. As Suzanna said in her diary, it made us feel ‘right twits.’

Claude Whatham was very good at explaining things to children. Looking back I wish that he had explained why the publicity was so important, but of course this was not his job and he would have been busy setting up the next shot. Certainly once the filming had finished we needed to know how important it was to promote the film. Richard Pilbrow really wanted to make a sequel, particularly an adaptation of Ransome’s twelfth book in the series – ‘Great Northern?’  He loves the Outer Hebrides and has a house on Col. I think we might have been a little keener about publicity shots if we had been told that the out-come could have been going up there for another summer. We would have been able to look forward to the possibility, but I don’t suppose he was at leave to even suggest it.

Journalists were introduced to us and looked after by our unit publicist Brian Doyle.  Brian had worked on Straw Dogs’ in 1971, the thriller that starred Dustin Hoffman, Susan George and Peter Vaughan. Susan George had of course played Titty, or ‘Kitty’ in the black and white BBC adaptation of Swallows and Amazons in the early 1960s. She was now regarded as glamorous sex symbol in British cinema – setting me rather a daunting example. Much easier for Brian to publicise her then me. She had a gorgeous figure with beautiful, thick, blonde, hair. I had what my sister still calls ‘tendrils’ and my mother calls ‘bits’. And was skinny with crooked teeth.

Brian was a lovely man. He had an amazing career, going on to work on films such as Ken Russell’s Valentino with Rudolf Nureyev and Leslie Caron, The Wild Geese, Alien, Educating Rita starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters and the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only – with Roger Moore in the lead role . He even has his name on the credits of one of George Lucas’ Star Wars films.

This was the profile he wrote for me:

Brian adored Children’s literature. His own children came up to stay on location over their half-term and spent hours playing with my sisters, indeed they all appeared together as extras in the scenes shot at Bowness, and can be seen playing on the beach. Sadly Brian died, very suddenly, in 2008. His daughter told me that he left a collection of 35,000 books.

I still have Brian’s announcement:

At this the journalists moved in. From all over the place!

There was a very trendy women’s magazine in the early 1970s called Over 21, which the senior girls at school used to read. My mother was thrilled to find that Celia Brayfield had written a double page feature. I was amazed. I didn’t mind the picture of us gutting fish, but started reading with trepidation.

(If you can read this, I’m afraid page one comes second.)

Over 21 ~ December 1973

I read it, looked up the word etiolated in the dictionary and burst into tears.

Far worse was to come.

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‘I thought he was a retired Pirate’ ~ filming the parley with the Amazons on Wildcat Island

Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton confronting the Amazon Pirates on Wildcat Island in Swallows and Amazons

Richard Pilbow says that the fantastic thing about filming Swallows and Amazons was that breakfast was served on location every morning, without fail, sending ‘a wonderful aroma across the set.’  Huge English breakfasts were dished up by two chaps working for a location catering company from Pinewood to greet the film crew every morning, with bacon and eggs, mushrooms, sausages and tomatoes. And the fried bread was well fried. So, it didn’t really matter that we missed breakfast at the Oaklands Guest House in Ambleside. A bacon butty would we placed into my hand as soon as we reached the base camp on Coniston Water. I only wish our guest house had been nearer Peel Island where we spent so much of our time filming. 

I do believe my mother is still eating in the picture above. We all ate hugely to stave off the cold. You can see in the movie how much we enjoyed eating the iced buns before the Amazons attacked. 

I remember the Parley Scene as being of importance to Mrs Ransome, who was still living at the time.  Arthur Ransome had died in 1967 but his formidable widow, Evgenia, owned the copyright to his books. And she did not want there to be any sexual frison between John and Nancy. Richard Pilbrow had had quite a job of persuading her to give him the rights to the film at all. He know that Tom Maschler, the head of Jonathan Cape, had already had to turn down many movie offers. The Ransomes feared ‘a Disney-ization of the story, a vulgarization.’  Neither Arthur Ransome nor his wife, Evgenia, had liked the black and white BBC version of Swallows and Amazons made in 1962 when Susan George played the part of Kitty, rather than Titty. I watched it with Joe Waters at the BBC library. I remember it as being terribly boring and rather badly made but am fascinated by the clips now. Susan George had such beautiful hair. In his recently published book A Theatre Project, Richard describes how, by vowing to be true to the book, he finally persuaded Mrs Ransome to let him have the film rights.  But life wasn’t easy. At the very last minute, just as we were about to start shooting, she put her oar in.  ‘She took a violent dislike to the casting of Roger…He was dark haired. “This is outrageous; he has to be fair,” she protested.’  It was too late for Claude Whatham to re-cast. Richard admits that with regret he had to over-ride her. This is a secret that has only just been revealed. I was amazed when I heard about it since all the Swallows in Arthur Ransome’s drawings had very dark hair – as did the real children – the Altounyans, whose father was of Armenian descent.  They lived in Aleppo, in Syria where Ernest Altounyan was working in his father’s hospital as a surgeon, and all looked quite tanned in the old photos. I though that, if anything, Mrs Ransome would have objected to me being too blonde but apparently, once the books became well known, the Altounyans didn’t want people identifying the Walkers too closely with their children. Roger Wardale said that Arthur Ransome’s intention was to keep the apperance of his characters vague so that any child could easily associate with them and imagine themselves in their place. He originally described the Amazons as having curly hair, but edited this out.

Stephen Grendon playing Roger

Although we loved filming on Peel Island, our real families, who had come up to the Lake District to be with us over half-term, couldn’t watch. Our friends the Selbys, with whom I had learnt to sail, had driven up to Cumbria from Chelmsford and yet probably saw nothing except for the bedraggled crew and me at lunch time.

Jane, Michael, Clare and Lucy Selby on the shore of Conniston Water talking to my sisters, Perry and Tamzin who is holding their dog, Minnie ~ photo: Martin Neville

Other members of the crew had been joined by their children. Brian Doyle noted in his diary that took his daughter Pandora off to Beatrix Potter’s farmhouse Hill Top, travelling in Dad’s car with my sisters Perry and Tamzin. Although it was good to be on Coniston Water hanging around at the base camp all day would have been terribly dull for them. This, however was about to change.  That evening Mum went to help Terry Smith, the Wardrobe Master, sort out costumes to fit the Supporting Artistes. My sisters were about to earn their own breakfasts . They were to become Film Extras.

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“It was really horrible” ~ filming the swimming scenes for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

“…it was really horrible,” I told Tim Devlin, of The Times. “We had to run into the water and enjoy it. It was icy. I had to try to be a cormorant with my feet  in the air. Then I had to step water as Susan taught Roger to swim.  We were in for about three minutes and they had to do two takes of the scene. It was horrible.”   This was the day when we shot the swimming scenes ~

The first scene of the day was actually was the one when Titty emerged from her tent in her pyjamas, wiped the dew off the top of a large biscuit tin and started writing her diary. I always regret writing Titania Walker on the cover but I had been contracted to play the part of TITANIA WALKER. My mother, Daphne Neville, who is quite theatrical, loved Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and encouraged me to write out the full name, but I do wish I had simply labelled by notebook ‘Ship’s Log’.

I am told that the real little girl who inspired my character, Titty Altounyan, was given the nickname after reading a horrible story of mousey death entitled Titty mouse and Tatty mouse’  from English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs.  Her family called her Titty mouse, then Titty for short. People were concerned that I would be teased for being associated with a name like Titty, but I never was. It’s a sweet name. However, it seems Arthur Ransome did not object when the BBC altered it to Kitty in 1962, when Susan George played the part.

Our knitted swimming costumes, with their little legs were a real novelty to us. I do wish mine hadn’t been red. It was such a cold, grey day I went blue. I remember the entire crew were clad in overcoats – even parkers with fur lined hoods. Looking back it was silly to have gone ahead with the scene in May. Child cruelty.

35m Panasonic, Eddie Collins the Camera Operator in (wet suit), Dennis Lewiston the DOP (in cap) Claude Whatham the Director (in waders) on Peel Island, Coniston Water ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow

The director, Claude Whatham shot the scene using two cameras. The continuity would have been impossible otherwise. Eddie Collins the Camera Operator had a 16mm camera in the water with us. He was being steadied by another chap in a full wet-suit. Fitted neoprene was quite an unusual sight then when divers were known as frogmen.

Filming the swimming scene

Eddie Collins opperating the 16mm camera to capture the pearl diving scene ~photo: Richard Pilbrow

Suzanna Hamilton, who played Susan, did well but it simply wasn’t possible to pretend we were enjoying ourselves.  My rictus smile was not convincing. Later on in the summer the Lake District became so hot that we begged to be taken swimming in rivers on our day off. I wish we had re-shot the scene in July with an underwater camera capturing my pearl diving antics. I was a good swimmer. I still love snorkelling – but only in warm seas. As it was, I had to be extracted from Coniston Water by Eddie’s frogman. I’d almost passed out.

Sophie Neville in 1973 attempting to strangle Terry Smith the Wardrobe Master on ‘Swallows and Amazons’

Quite a few people almost learnt how cold we had been for themselves later that day in May. The boats used to ferry us back and forward to the island were blue Dorys with outboard motors. You don’t want to have too much weight in the bows of those boats. Water can come in very quickly.

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