‘Where are they now – the cast of ‘Swallows and Amazons’?’
I can see from my admin page that this question is often typed into search engines – three times before 8am this morning. An awful lot of people seem to want to know what the children who played the Swallows and the Amazons back in 1974 are doing now they are all grown up. For this little Swallow it really has been ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever’. I’m still wading out to the island.
‘Titty the Isrealite’ photo of Sophie Neville taken by Hilary Weston
Now a writer, I am officially President of The Arthur Ransome Society, one of the largest literary societies in the United Kingdom with six branches and quite a number of overseas members. They even have association with the Arthur Ransome Club in Japan.
This year we held our International AGM weekend in Dumfries in the lowlands of Scotland, when we much enjoyed walking along the Solway and across the wade to Rough Island, just as Titty walked out across the mud in Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Secret Water’. There seems little difference except that I have a dog called Flint rather than a kitten called Simbad.
The great excitement at our IAGM this year was that Nick Barton, the CEO of Harbour Pictures came up to Dumfries with his screenwriter Angela Gibb to tell us about their new adaption of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ due to be released in cinemas on 19th August. I helped him to carry a huge plasma screen up to the hotel where the conference was taking place so that members could watch the thrilling new promo. We were sworn to secrecy, but you can read of all Nick told us in a feature article in the Saturday Telegraph by clicking here. This online version has more photos than the print version and mentions The Arthur Ransome Society. There is additional comment in the Sunday Telegraph.
Sophie Neville who in 1973 played Titty Walker in the EMI movie of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ dressed up to face the Scottish weather
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 to escape from his melodramatic wife, Ivy Walker, in 1913. 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.
To mark the 30th anniversary of its original broadcast on BBC One, Revelation Films have just re-released the DVD of Swallows And Amazons Forever! It has been one of their Top Ten bestselling DVDs.
Swallows and Amazons Forever! is the television adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s classic books Coot Club and The Big Six, an eight part drama serial that I worked on, behind-the-scenes, over a period of nine months back in 1983 when it was filmed on location on the Norfolk Broads.
As Revelation films say, ‘Set on the Norfolk Broads in the 1930s, the BAFTA-nominated BBC production is packed full of lively characters, beautifully authentic scenery and plenty of adventure.’
Jake, Mark and Nic with Sam Kelly playing Captain of the Catchalot
The new version of the DVD includes subtitles for the first time. The packaging and menus have been completely redesigned, and if you take a look at the DVD extras package you can see photographs that I took at the time that give an insight into the production.
The big thing is that the picture quality has been digitally restored, with amazing results. This short Youtube clip shows the amazing difference in the quality.
Release Date: 19 May 2014 | RRP: £15.99 | Certificate: U | Discs: 1 | Run Time: 202 Minutes
Whilst travelling to Norfolk to stay on a boat with family friend Mrs Barrable, Dick and Dot Callum meet Tom Dudgeon and the members of Coot Club. After being told that they won’t be learning to sail, their disappointment quickly turns to excitement as an adventure begins to unfold. Will they be able to protect a precious coot’s nest whilst hiding Tom from the awful Hullabaloos, who are hell bent on ruining everyone’s holiday? Creator of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, stars as Jerry the Hullabaloo in this delightful film.
The Big Six
When Dick and Dot return to Norfolk to stay with Tom, they find themselves caught up in a brand new adventure. The Death And Glories are being accused of setting moored boats adrift but the three boys maintain their innocence. With the whole town against them, it’s up to Coot Club to gather evidence and prove that someone else is responsible for these crimes. The Big Six is born. Dr Who’s Colin Baker and Patrick Troughton star in this fitting adaptation of the classic story.
The yacht Lullaby playing the Teasel in ‘Coot Club’, seen here being delivered to location on South Walsham Broad
Revelation Films have just contacted me, saying that they are thinking of producing new packaging for a 30th Anniversary release of ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’ This is the BBC Drama adaptation of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ that starred Rosemary Leach, Julian Fellowes, Colin Baker, John Woodvine and Henry Dimbelby not to mention William the pug dog, who became a national treasure when he took on the role of Ethel’s Little Willie in Eastenders. I worked on the television series that was shot on 16mm film entirely on location in East Anglia. We spent an idyllic summer, mainly afloat on the Norfolk Broads.
They tell me that this DVD is one of their top ten bestsellers along with LA Law, Highway to Heaven and Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman starring Jane Seymour.
What wording would you use on the new cover? I want to suggest they have the book titles in larger letters: ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ by Arthur Ransome. Neither the Swallows or the Amazons appear in it after all. However, interesting actors such as Patrick Troughton and Sam Kelly do. I thought that including photos of them might appeal to those who appreciate Classic TV.
It was thought that my shot of Julian Fellowes playing Jerry the Hullabaloo showed him looking too young to be recognised these days. I am sure he’d agree with me that it is just the mustache that is somewhat distracting. I don’t remember it being a real one.
The production manager at Revelation Films told me she liked the photograph used on the cover of the Puffin Book, which I explained depicted The Big Six. The publishers are currently searching their archives for the original shot, which I remember setting up at Gay Staithe. Sadly this abridged version of the books lacks Ransome’s own illustrations.
What would you like to see inside the packaging?
Would you like an illustrated book talking about how the series was made?
I suggested they edit the episodes together into two films. I understand some parents like being able to show each 28 minute episode at a time. We loved the opening titles graphic and music at the time but they seem rather dated now.
DVDs now offer Extras, of course. We could put together a slide-show using my behind the scenes photos voiced with a commentary explaining how the serial was made. Would this spoil the magic?
I’d love to go searching for the locations we used. I wonder if Countryfile would be interested in this?
Do add any other ideas or requests to the Comments below.
Sadly Revelation Films only own the UK rights but I’ve noticed you can buy it on Amazon.com . There are other outlets but you want to be able to guarantee the quality.
I am currently reading Roger Wardale’s new book Arthur Ransome on the Broads, which is also available from Amazon It is illustrated with photographs of some of the boats that we used when we were filming. This was the Teasel’s costume:
I loved seeing Roger’s photographs of the Fairway yachts in full sail. Perhaps one of Lullaby should be on the new cover of the DVD.
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.
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 the Department of Light Entertainment. I joined the Russell Hartyteam, 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 realising 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.
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.
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 represented by a London agent.
You wouldn’t expect it to be difficult, but I couldn’t find a boy to taking the leading role of Tom Dudgeon. 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 Jason Lake, Diana Dor’s son, but he too, admitted that he couldn’t sail. 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.
Casting parts for book adaptations is never easy. Arthur Ransome described Dot as having ‘straw-coloured plaits’ and portrayed Port and Starboard as being robust Tom-boys. Every detail may not have fulfilled but in the end the right girls for the parts floated to the surface. Andrew Morgan was thrilled, appreciative of the fact that finding identical twins of the right age who could 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. She sailed across the Solent, single-handed and alone on her first lesson, gaining enough confidence to easily cope on the Norfolk Broads.
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. During the audition period, Andrew and Joe needed to see how well the children could act in the space of a few minutes. I had Anna Scher to thank for teaching me how to demonstrate 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, north London. 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.
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 input. 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?
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.