Tag Archives: Susan Walker

What’s it like to watch the film again?

Sten Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Sten Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville as the Walker children in 1973

In this morning’s despatches ~ via the Royal Mail ~ a letter arrived saying, ‘I’m sure we would all love to know how the recent screening of the film went and how you enjoyed the experience.’

Last Sunday, Suzanna Hamilton and Sten Grendon joined me at the Michael Croft Theatre for a special screening of Richard Pilbrow’s 1974 adaption of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ put on for an audience of excited children by Dulwich Film. We hadn’t watched the movie together since the premiere at the ABC in Shaftesbury Avenue in 1974. I hadn’t even seen Sten since that year. As we walked into the darkened auditorium, Sten’s girlfriend, who struck me as being rather special, insisted that we sat together to watch the film. 

Owl hoots trimmed

Blurred memories do come rushing back. I never managed to produce a real owl hoot.  Simon could – and I am sure Captain Nancy was adept, but it was all the trying to that brought us together.

Landing place

Director Claude Whatham at the Landing Place on Wild Cat Island with Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West, Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville

And as I watched the one thing that really struck me was, ‘How big Landing Place beach was then!’  I found myself leaning over and whispering to Sten that it has all but washed away. He didn’t know that the beach had been especially constructed for the film. It had been kept a secret.

Landing place with Claude

Rehearsing a scene on the Landing Place with Swallow

Our experience of making the film in 1973 was really quite technical. It was a wet summer and we had something of a battle against the elements to complete the scenes scheduled for each day. Back then, the aim was to capture enough footage to make the equivalent of 4 minutes of film in the final edit. You’d think this would be easy but each frame had to bear scrutiny on the big screen.  Since attention to detail was paramount, even making scrambled eggs in front of the camera was a demanding task.

sophie003

As the wind blew north up Coniston Water we joined in the concentration required for the task of film-making. We were in Cumbria to work back then, even if working in the Lake District was something of an adventure, something we did for fun.

sophie007

Sten Grendon on set with Claude Whatham and Suzanna Hamilton

So when we relax back and watch the film now we have a huge appreciation of what Claude Whatham put together. We laughed out loud, appreciating the humour. Much of this was generated by the serious expression on Roger’s face when he was picking up the why and wherefore of how something worked for the first time. It’s been a rare and ageless form of comedy that children loved forty years ago and evidently still love today. They always notice, ‘the bit when Roger doesn’t realise the cap is on the telescope.’ Adults love the fact that Roger always seems to be eating.

‘Oh yes!’ Sten remembered afterwards. ‘That pork pie I ate standing in the Amazon River. I was offered the choice of eating a meat pie or an apple. Well, I chose the pie, but it wasn’t so great when I had to eat another for the second take, and then another two for a different camera set-up.’

Isn’t it funny how well one can remember food?

Sten and Suzanna in camp

Sten Grendon as Roger Walker and Suzanna Hamilton as Susan Walker on Peel Island

‘Are you really old?’

‘Not so very old, by I was younger then,’ as Virginia McKenna said in the guise of Mrs Walker remembering her days camping in homemade tents. I bet someone asked Arthur Ransome the very same question.

I grew taller and had my teeth put straight. Same straggly hair. Sten still has all his thick dark hair and is quite tall himself. He works as a gardener now. Suzanna still has the biggest smile. She is the one who now needs to stand on a camera box but then she is the only one of us who does. What I mean to say is that she is the professional actress. We just turn up for fun.

‘And the others?’

I don’t know. Really, I don’t know. I’d love to see them again but am quietly waiting for them to contact me.  I hope they do. I have the first proof of a book to send them – it’s the diary I kept whilst making the film, forty years ago.

Swallows & Amazons reunion April 2013 006

Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Sten Grendon in 2013

22 Comments

Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Humor, Humour, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

The food of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ when filming in 1973

Suzanna Hamilton as The Mate Susan, cooking buttered eggs on the camp fire on Wild Cat Island. Director Claude Whatham, Sue Merry, Bobby Sitwell and DoP Denis Lewiston look on, clad in wet weather gear.

Suzanna Hamilton as The Mate Susan, cooking buttered eggs with tea on the camp fire on Wild Cat Island. Director Claude Whatham, Sue Merry, Bobby Sitwell and DoP Denis Lewiston look on, clad in wet weather gear.

One of the questions I was asked when we returned from filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 was about the food. This could only properly be answered by going into considerable detail.

The location caterers from Pinewood

Jane and Sten Grendon walk, in costume, towards John and Margaret’s location catering wagon parked at Bowness-on-Windermere ~ photo: Daphne Neville

When on location, our breakfast, coffee, lunch and tea were provided every day from the back of a location catering van staffed by a couple called John and Margaret who had come up from Pinewood. My mother always refered to their van as ‘The Chuck Wagon’. There wasn’t perhaps as wide a choice as there is with location catering today, but good hot meals were produced on time, whatever the weather and wherever we might be. If we ever filmed on a Sunday there would be a full roast meal. At other times they would enchant us with a choice that might include spaghetti, a dish that was new to England – or at least where we lived – in 1973. It was the kind of special meal that my mother would cook for a dinner party, served with a spoon and fork so you could swirl the pasta properly. As children we were allowed to go to the head of the queue so that we could avoid having to queue up in the rain. We’d take out plates to tables in one of the  red  double-decker buses. You could help yourself to knives and forks and paper napkins on the way in. We had to be careful not to get food on our costumes.

I remember when location caterers first started providing salad buffets in addition to hot lunches in the 1980s. It was such a relief not having to queue. Salads were not regarded as food for the working man back in the early 1970s  but Suzanna thought otherwise. Indeed she would eat little else.

Despite the fact that Suzanna often only ate tomato sandwiches for lunch, the catering budget must have been considerable. The call sheet always seemed to specify ‘LUNCH for approx 70 persons’. When friends came to visit us on location my parents were sensitive to this and bought a picnic, which was very much how we lived normally. This was always carried in a wicker basket and set out on a car rug, cold squash in one thermos flask, hot coffee in another. Triangles of processed cheese with ham and pickle sandwiches. No cool bags or bottles of wine. You couldn’t buy ready-made sandwiches from petrol stations or supermarkets then but if you went to a bakery they would make you a filled bap while you waited.

A family picnic on the banks of Coniston Water, Cumbria in 1973

Daphne and Martin Neville having a picnic with their friends on the banks of Coniston Water in 1973. Sophie Neville wears an anorak over her costume.

As anyone who has read Arthur Ransomes’ books will know, the Swallows were very organised when it came to provisions. Milk from the farm, buttered eggs, seed cake, apples, molasses (toffees) and grog – I loved it all. I wasn’t too sure about fried perch but the pemmican and potato cakes cooked by Man Friday with a great knob of butter were utterly delicious. And I loved the buns from Rio. We didn’t have peas to shell on the film. Apples must have seemed a realistic alternative.

Again we have to rely on The Mate Susan for details. Surely she was modeled on Ransome’s own efficient wife Evgenia? In this extract from her diary Suzanna mentions that Richard Pilbrow’s two children came to watch the filming. She knew Abigail from London.

Mum became worried quite early on that Suzanna wasn’t eating enough. The solution came when she was taken out to dinner at a restaurant where she was able to chose from a wide menu.

As a result Suzanna was often given steak for supper back at the Oakland’s Guest House while the rest of us had whatever was on offer, which was a bit of a swizz.

Eating apples

‘Sailors die from it like flies’ Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville and Simon West as The Swallows eating apples to fend off scurvy.

Suzanna was of course completely right about insisting on eating salads and fresh fruit. She chivvied, encouraged and begged both the caterers and Mrs Price for more and more fresh raw food. She loved strawberries. Virginia McKenna won her heart by bringing her two boxes of fresh strawberries when she was ill with tonsilitis at the start of the filming. These would have been early English strawberries and a great treat in 1973.  John and Margaret managed to find enough for us all later in the summer. They were presented in a manner that would have pleased the men working on the film crew but Mate Susan wasn’t so happy about this.

I’ve included this photograph before but it provides proof that food was an important issue. Please note that Mate Susan is first in line, inspecting everything on offer.

Location catering

Suzanna Hamilton, in her red tracksuit top, seeing what the location caterers had for lunch on the set of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ by Coniston Water

2 Comments

Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film Catering, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

Suzanna’s diary ~ about filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Suzanna Hamilton as Susan with Sophie Neville as Titty busy writing the ship’s log

Something very exciting happened last week. Suzanna Hamilton came to see me, bringing the photographs that she was given during the filming of Swallows and Amazons along with a bundle of papers. I immediately recognised the blue bound diary that she had kept.  Her God-given sense of humour fills the pages.

Although Titty was the one who always kept the ship’s log in Arthur Ransome’s stories, we children all kept journals during the filming as part of our school work. It was quite a task.

Suzanna Hamilton's Diary prior to the fiming of 'Swallows and Amazons'

Suzanna’s diary gives the story of making the film of Swallows and Amazons from the perspective of an actress, the actress she was then and ever more will be. Even before we began filming she was  getting as excited as Susan about grog and molasses, calling us by our charcter names as Claude Whatham suggested.

Suzanna Hamilton's Diary on the filming of 'Swallows and Amazons' 1973

Anna Scher ran the most wonderful children’s theatre club in Islington, which Zanna went to after school, along with Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson. I visited Anna Scher’s Theatre Club ten years later when I was casting children for the BBC drama serial of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’. Although I didn’t find anyone there who could sail I held Anna Scher in huge admiration and respect, using her exercises when I was auditioning kids in Norfolk. She did so much for the young people of east London, giving children confidence with self-discipline aquired during their drama lessons and workshops.

David Wood, who wrote the screenplay of Swallows and Amazons, was already well known as an actor. Mum was rather in awe of him since he had played Johnny in Z Cars and had starred the feature film ‘If…’   alongside Malcolm McDowell. He had been a storyteller on the BBC Childrens Television programme we all adored called Jackanory.  Suzanna had been involved in the same series when E.Nesbit’s ‘The Treasure Seekers’ had been read.  She had also appeared in ‘The Edwardians’  form the book by E.Nesbit directed by James Cellan Jones in 1972. By coincidence Pauline Quirke played Eliza in ‘The Story of the Treasure Seekers’ in 1982 and I worked with her a few years later on Rockliffe’s Babies. My mother appeared in a pantomine David Wood wrote called The Gingerbread Man when it was produced at The Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham. She wore red with a pill-box hat as Miss Ginger.

Suzanna Hamilton's diary of filming 'Swallows and Amazons in 1973

Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan Walker with Stephen Grendon as Roger Walker camping on Peel Island, Coniston Water in Cumbria, the Lake District

27 Comments

Filed under 1973, Acting, adventure, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, David Wood, Diary, e-publication, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Humor, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

Setting sail from Wildcat Island during the filming of Swallows and Amazons in 1973

If it is tricky navigating in and out of the Secret Harbour on Peel Island, leaving from the Landing Place under sail in a clinker built dinghy can prove even more hazadous. You need a decent shove to get going so you can catch the wind, escape from snaring tree branches and avoid the danger of flat rocks lurking just under the surface of Coniston Water.  This was my job on a rainy, grey day in the Lake District in 1973. With a telescope in one hand.

On the filming of 'Swallows and Amazons' in 1973

In the finished film you don’t see the shot when I slipped in the water up to my waist, and kept on shoving.  The “Don’t forget about the lights, Titty ” scene had to be re-shot on a sunnier day.

What you see is a long-shot on a grey day with Titty waving furiously from the shore, as Swallow leaves Wildcat Island. You can not see that her dress is soaking wet but the trees on the island indicate just how windy it is. While Susan is waving back, Roger is looking out for rocks for all he is worth. John is sailing hard, running with the wind, with the boom right out and white water on his bow. He hung on, as he had to, until Swallow passed the big rock, before coping with a massive, dramatic jibe. You see him rise to handle this, while Susan ducks. She needed to. It was so violent the mast nearly broke, but John ‘scandalised’, spilling excess wind and sailed on. The film cuts to two closer shots of the jibe taken on the sunny day, then cuts back to the long shot when Susan bobs up and Swallow sails at speed, north up Coniston towards grey clouds and rain over Langdale.

My father watched all this from the shore, knowing the risks, knowing Stephen Grendon aged nine, who played Roger couldn’t swim. But Simon West was proving himself yet again as a very good sailor. He was totally confident. You can tell – even from a distance – how calm he was, how instinctively he read the wind. He knew it would hit him with force as he left the lee of the island.

These wet windy days in the Lake District were a worry to the Producer and a challenge for the crew. They had already lost a number of days to rain. Whilst Claude Whatham, the Director was always trying to find a way of making the best use of his time, David Bracknell, his First Assistant Director had to make things happen. The practicalities of each day rested on his shoulders.

David Bracknell, First Assistant Director on ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on the shore of Coniston Water near Peel Island ~ photo: Martin Neville

Just co-ordinating our transport out to Peel Island, so that we while the camera crew were never waiting for us we were not missing time at our lessons – would have been difficult. Getting the tea urns out there twice a day, must have been a struggle. I’m not sure what we did about anyone wanting the loo. There wasn’t even a bucket on the island. Working in purple trousers, with a Motor-roller on his hip, David kept things safe and kept things going whatever the weather. He would call for ‘Quiet’, before each take, calling, ‘Camera? Sound? then: Mark it!’  The clapper board would be named and snapped shut before Claude the Director shouted ‘Action!’  Then off we’d go.  And the rule was to keep going – whatever happened – come the hell of slippery rocks or high water – until the Director shouted ‘Cut!’ David would then take over command and set up either for a re-take or a subsequent shot. Once a scene was completed he’d move the crew on for a new sequence.

The cast of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ setting off in the Capri for Peel Island, my mother in her bobble hat, a journalist taking photographs and Brian Doyle, the film Publicist, wrapped up warm ~ photo: Martin Neville

David Bracknell was very experienced. He’d worked on a number of hugely popular Carry-on movies, which according to Maureen Lipman, were made at terrific speed. Prior to Swallows and Amazons his credits included Carry on Abroad, Carry on at your Convenience, (I’d seen this at school; it’s all about lavortaries) Carry on Henry and Carry on Loving with Kenneth Williams, Sid James and Charles Hawtrey.  He’d worked on Far from the Madding Crowd  with Julie Christie, Alan Bates and Trevor Stamp, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg with Janet Suzman and Peter Bowles, Bless this House with Sid James, Diana Coupland and Sally Geeson and Battle of Britain, which starred Michael Caine, Trevor Howard and Harry Andrews, Ian McShane, Susannah York and Laurance Olivier. By 1984 he was working on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in 1986 on Shaka Zulu with Edward Fox, Robert Powell and Trevor Howard again.  We were in capable hands.

My father recognised this, watching patiently from the base camp with Perry and Tamzin, my younger sisters. I fear it must have been terribly dull for them, especially on the cold grey days, but we were all together and did have a chance to explore Westmorland, as you will see when I reach tomorrow.

My sister Tamzin Neville on the shore of Coniston Water in Cumbria with Stephen Grendon and Peel Island beyond~ photo: Martin Neville

Leave a comment

Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Dinghy sailing, e-publication, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized

“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.

2 Comments

Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, e-publication, Film, Film Cast, Film Catering, Film crew, Film History, Lake District, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story