After a career as a foreign correspondent, which took him to Russia, Egypt and China, Arthur Ransome wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the hills above Windermere in 1929.
He was inspired partly by his own childhood holidays in the Lake District and partly by the Altounyan children who brought him a pair of red slippers for his birthday to thank him for enabling them to learn to sail on Coniston Water where their grandparents lived.
The first edition came out on 21st July 1930, with no illustrations apart from Spurrier’s maps on the end papers. The illustrated hardback published by Jonathan Cape came out on 1st December 1930, in time for Christmas. It was followed by another eleven (and one unfinished) book in a series that was to be translated and published all over the world.
I paid homage to copies at the Windermere Jetty museum where you can find his desk and typewriter on display with a view looking out over the lake.
Boats, props and film stills from the 2016 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ are on display, along with a poster of the 1974 movie, depicting Titty in a pink blouse.
I was fascinated to find sketches of Titty in Arthur Ransome’s notebook.
A number of Ransome’s original illustrations were on display and I came across the first draft of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in a glass case.
Tickets to, ‘In conversation with Sophie Neville’, an event hosted by Lakeland Arts, cost £5 and can be purchased here.
If you live in France you can order a Kindle copy of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ – which is full of behind-the-scenes photos and links to home-movie footage taken on location, although the text is in English. The paperback makes a good present for students of Media Studies, Drama or Film:
Swallows & Amazons tours of the Lake District ~ including a trip on the steam train, led by Peter Walker of Mountain Goat in Windermere can be booked for groups by request. A must for overseas visitors. To read about this do go to: ‘In Search of our old Film Locations’. For booking details please click here.
Swallow, the dinghy used in the film, is currently in East Anglia. For opportunities to sail her yourself please click here
The premier of the feature film Swallows & Amazons was held on 4th April 1974 in Shaftesbury Avenue, in London’s West End. Those who watch it on television today, or have the DVD, are amazed to hear it was first released almost forty years ago. Please forgive me if you have seen this photos before but it seems quite a date to celebrate.
The Royal Gala Matinee was held in aid of the charity KIDS, which works with disabled children, young people and their families. The society is still going strong and has been celebrating its own 40th anniversary recently.
We arrived by taxi with my house mistress, Sister Allyne, and head mistress Sister Ann-Julian, who had travelled up from Wantage in Oxfordshire for the occassion.
Of all films, they found The Exorcist was showing at the same cinema. I gazed up at the billing outside the entrance, more interested in seeing the names of Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser with the romantic design of the graphics spelling out Swallows & Amazons.
The first thing that happened was that I was whisked off for lunch with the five other children in the cast by Claude Whatham, the director. He chose a bistro where I chose hamburgers and chips. I’m not sure what the rest of my family did, but can only presume they found something to eat.
We arrived at the ABC cinema to find they had already taken their seats in the audience. We met up with Ronald Fraser and Richard Pilbrow, the film producer, who introduced us to Princess Helena Moutafian, Patron of KIDS, who the Earl and Countess of Compton had brought to celebrate the film’s release and help raise funds for the charity. Mummy had instead I made a curtsey to each person I was introduced to. Did this include members of the Press?
We also met a number of Ladies: Lady Bridport, Lady Onslow, Lady Nelson of Stafford, Lady Harford and others listed below who must have arrived with their children. It was all quite something.
Please note that Simon West, (to the right in the top photo) was wearing a tie that matched exactly with the floral print of his shirt. This was the height of fashion in 1974, something I have yet to see revived or replicated. Suzanna and I both wore pinafore dresses. These have not experienced a revival either, although Suzanna’s Laura Ashley print would be considered a treasured vintage piece. My mother was horrified that Ronald Fraser had his collar button undone, but I think that was a nod to trendy-ness. He also wore a badge in support of the charity pinned to his lapel. Badges were all the rage at the time and collected by all.
As you can see, we met Bobby Moore, the Hollywood actress Patricia Neal, the Norwegian Bond Girl Julie Ege and Spike Milligans’ family. Will Travers, now the CEO of the charity Born Free, came to represent his mother, Virginia McKenna who sadly couldn’t be with us.
A commemorative programme was being sold with a sepia version of the film poster on the cover:
Inside there were several pages about those who appeared in the film. I still have a copy:
The opposite page:
It wasn’t until years later that I was shown copies of the stills used to advertise the film inside cinemas.
The original film posters, which once hung in the London Underground, have become collector’s items, valued at about £240 each on eBay. Studiocanal, who now own the film rights, have a selection of posters available as framed prints if you click here.
This was the version used as an advertisement in the Sunday Times forty years ago.
You probably know that ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ is currently available as an ebook on Amazon Kindle and for other e-readers via Smashwords. It has been described by one reviewer on Amazon as the equivalent of DVD Extras, as it explains how we made the movie in the Lake District, back in the summer of 1973, as well as how the film was promoted and received in the UK. Hopefully the paperback and hardback versions will be out soon, but the ebook is unique in that it gives links to behind-the-scenes footage shot on location by my parents.
Roger still couldn’t swim, but he was trying to. Very hard. The production manager had kindly scheduled the second of our swimming scenes as late in the summer as possible. The weather was warmer – we’d elected to go bathing in a river up near Rydal Water on our day off – but it was still pretty chilly out on Coniston.
Whilst we tried to acclimatise by running around in our swimming costumes the crew were all in their thick coats as you can see from this home movie footage shot by my mother. We had bought her 8mm camera by saving up Green Shield stamps. (Can you remember collecting Green Shield stamps from petrol stations? They were an icon of the early 1970s all by themselves.) I remember someone on the crew calling out ‘Second unit!’ as Mum lifted what looked like a grey and white toy to her face. It was a bit noisy so she was not able to record during a take. You only see us before and after the sequences in the film, but her footage shows quite a few of the members of the crew – all smoking away, even when they were trying to warm us up after each sequence. You can watch Jean McGill, from Cumbria, our unit nurse who was dressed in red popping Dextrose into our mouths and giving us hot drinks to warm us up. Jean made Gareth Tandy, the third assistant, who was aged about 18, wear a sun hat because he had previously suffered from sun stroke. David Blagden can be glimpsed as one of the only other men with short hair.
The camera pontoon must have been left up on Derwentwater. Claude was obliged to shoot these scenes from what we called the camera punt, which was smaller but quite useful. Richard Pilbrow sent me a picture. He has included others in a new book that he has written about his career, including a section on the making of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ called ‘A Theatre Project’
Do please let me know if you can tell me the names of the three Cumbrian boatmen featured in this photograph who helped us. Others are featured in the home-movie footage. They all look like pirates. Real ones.
Goodness knows that Health and Safety would say about that punt today. The DoP managed to get two sizeable electric lights, on stands, into a boat already overloaded with personel and expensive equipment. You can see for yourself. Were these ‘Filler’ lights powered by portable batteries? The Lee Electric generator was on the shore. I was in the water. Busy being a cormorant.
We had an interesting afternoon filming with both dinghies. At one point we had the camera with us in Swallow. I found these photographs of us on the internet.
I was given the honour of clapping the clapper-board and calling out, ‘Shot 600, Take one!’ for a close-up of Suzanna Hamilton.
‘The worse possible kinds of natives’… Tourists were beginning to arrive for their summer holidays in the Lake District and we still had quite a bit more to film.
It was found on e-bay, a hand-coloured print that must have been used to publicise the movie in cinema foyers. It has to be one of my favorite stills, bought by someone who kindly brought it to Coniston Water on the day in April 2011 when we re-launched Swallow beside the pier at the Bluebird Cafe. Everyone was facsinated. I’d never seen it before but it has memories of a good day, spent not on Coniston but further north on Derwentwater.
When Richard Pilbrow’s movie of Swallows and Amazons was first shown on British television in 1977 a trailer was made by ITV to advertise it. This started with the shot of me saying, ‘They’re pirates!’ People loved that trailer. Everyone was going around saying, ‘They’re pirates!’ If it was my best performance the reason was that I had been lying on a red ant’s nest – and they were biting. The other secret is that that lighthouse tree is not a tree. Not one that was growing. It was a big log that Bobby Props had stuck in the ground making the ants very angry indeed.
This was the second location for ‘Lookout Point on Wild Cat Island’. It was on a promentary that overlooks the bay where the houseboat was moored on Derwentwater. There were bushes but no sadly big pine trees. The log was planted so that our director Claude Whatham could get what is called a two-shot of the Swallows watching Nancy sail past Captain Flint’s houseboat, while Peggy raises the skull and crossbones. As we were keeping low the height of the lighthouse tree was not an issue. So, the secret of Wild Cat Island is that it was filmed in three different places as well as being depicted in the opening titles as Rampsholme, an island on Derwentwater. I think this is faithful in that Arthur Ransome indicated by using anotated postcards that wanted the fells that one would see from Castle Hill as a backdrop for his story. In her book, In the footsteps of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ Claire Kendall-Price provides a wonderful map and guide showing how you could walk from Keswick to find some of the locations. We didn’t use Blake Holme on Windermere at all even though Arthur Ransome had invisaged the camp fire as being there. Richard told us it had become a real camp site by 1973 with caravans on the nearest shore.
Just prior to this scene when we spot the Amazons for the first time, I was working on the chart while Susan was sewing a button onto Roger’s shirt. The needle stuck into him as he flung himself down on the grass beneath the lighthouse tree. Since needles are small you can hardly see what is happening but I think it is a detail that Arthur Ransome would have appreicated. I wonder if the same sort of thing had happened to him as a child? He used his memories of Annie Swainson throwing him across her lap to darn his knickerbokers whilst they on him, just as Mary Swainson frequently has to darn Roger’s shorts after sliding down the Knickerbockerbreaker rockface in Swallowdale. Claire Kendall-Price discribes this and where it all happened beautifully.
Here is the diary entry I kept for that day in the Lake District ~
Suzanna’s diary is more susinct ~
I don’t know why she felt depressed. Perhaps it was the ants. She was on more of them than me and they were not waving. They were very angry.