At the location used as Beckfoot on Coniston Water in June 1973

Sophie Neville at Beckfoot
Sophie Neville who played Titty in ‘Swallows and Amazons’, eating icecream at Brown Howe, the location used for Beckfoot and the Amazon Boathouse ~ photo: Martin Neville

A hot sunny day in the Lake District, at last. This was 1973 and Mum had a blue sunhat firmly wedged onto my head. I suppose this was so that I wouldn’t go pink. It was lovely to be able to eat lunch outside under the rhododendrons with my sisters but I started to roast in my stripy acrylic polo-neck jersey and begged to be able to wear something cooler. Terry Smith the Wardrobe Master was not pleased when he found me wearing one of Suzanna Hamilton’s costumes, especially since I was eating a choc-ice in it.

Mrs Causey, our long suffering Tutor, was helping me to swot for the summer exams we knew being sent north from my school. These were taken very seriously. My father was still paying my fees. They amounted to as much as I was earning for appearing in the film. I don’t think my little sisters had any formal education at all that week. I can only suppose that they learnt a little more about being in films even though this was the one day that I didn’t appear in Swallows and Amazons.

Who were the boys?  The lad in the film clip with a Motorola and cigarette, who seems to have taken off his shirt for the first time that summer, is Gareth Tandy, the Third Assistant. The boys mentioned in my diary were slightly older. Why did we call them Prop-boys? Is it something left over from the theatre? I know Bobby-Props ~ Bob Hedges ~  must have been over 40 and was regarded as the father figure of the unit. He worked out of a lorry with a sunshiny roof with John Leuenberger, Terry Wells and Bill Hearn the carpenter. Dad caught them on film when they were having lunch. I think they must have later gone off to Bowness to help set up for our big scene the next day and kindly returned with ice-creams and Coco-cola, which would have been a great treat. They were generous to a fault.

The Prop-men on Swallows and Amazons have movie credits to their names which would delight any actor. They never seemed to stop working. Claude Whatham may well have asked for them to join us as they’d all been on the crew of  his first film That’ll be the Day.  Bobby Hedges later worked with some of the others on The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Julia, The Shout and Midnight Express. John Leuenberger went on to work on Stardust, Bugsy Malone, Chariots of Fire and Superman III.  Terry Wells is listed as having been the Property Master on amazing movies such as The Mission, Braveheart, Quadrophenia, Cry Freedom, Full Metal Jacket, Troy, 101 Dalmatians and the most recent Robin Hood starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, as well as big TV series such as Holby City and The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret.

If you look at our Call Sheet for the day you can see at a glance how important the Property Master’s job was. Swallows and Amazons was a technically unsual film as the dinghies were action props. Swallow had to be kitted out with exactly the same rigging – plus the same ‘continuity props’ – the torch, compass, whistle, charts, blankets and provisions, originally listed by Arthur Ransome, that were in the little ship when she left Wildcat Island in the scene when John gave me the telescope.

In Scene: 135 the envelope containing the Amazon’s message is key to the action, thus an Action Prop. If we’d seen it before it would have been known as a ‘Continuity Action Prop’. You can see it pinned to the post in the short film clip. Simon Holland, our Set Designer, to whom the Prop-men were working, had a number of identical envelopes made. Lesley Bennett, who played Peggy Blackett, wrote the message in her clear, italic writing quite a few times so that there would be replacements for re-takes after John scrunched up the first one and flung it in the water. There are times when a continuity action prop such as our telescope, which was irreplaceable, becomes very precious indeed.  Had it been forgotten or lost it would have caused major disruption to the day’s filming.

There was very little ‘set dressing’ for theses scenes but you can understand that it was crucial that the guys mounted Captain Nancy’s scull and crossbones on the Amazon boathouse. They would have taken this off at the end of the day and stored it in case re-takes were needed, which is why the carpenter returned from Bowness with a long ladder in the lorry and ice creams for us all.

We loved the props as children. I treasured the few items that Bobby made on the set and gave me at the end of the filming, such as his proto-type flags. When I became an Assistant Floor Manager, the BBC’s equivalent to a Second Assistant Director, I found myself responsible for the Action Props with one or two prop men working with me. The few times that continuity props were forgotten or mislaid are painfully etched on my memory. That awful feeling, when a lost item effects so many people, like losing a wallet or your car keys, is magnified hugly when filming is so costly and involves so many. Despite always being terribly careful I had a continuity prop stolen from the Eastenders’ studio (see my About page and scroll down until you find the section with William the pug dog).  Someone once stole the soap from the set of Bluebell. I can’t think why. It was a miserable little piece for a scene set in Bescancon Internment Camp. Prisioner of war soap. The Prop-buyer got very angry. I quickly made up something that looked like the original but I couldn’t do the same when our Prop-man lost Gerald Durrell’s pre-war binoculars on the island of Corfu. I remember him turning out his van in despair before finding them carefully stored in bubble-wrap behind his seat. I don’t think any of the props were mislaid on Swallows and Amazons, despite all the rushing around in boats, but Mum says that we shot a scene wearing the wrong costumes.  We are not sure which this was but no doubt it will be recoded in the later pages of my diary…

‘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.

The third day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the Lake District in 1973

At Beckfoot: The Amazon’s garden and boat house ~

Day 3 of the diary

Day 3 of the diary  page 2

The Amazon’s time had come. In the script, the short scene where Nancy and Peggy careen their dinghy is set in the Amazon boathouse, but Claude Whatham shot them scrubbing the underside of their dinghy on the lakeside with Beckfoot behind. Nancy threw a bucket of water over him for his pains. It was a complete accident.  She actually chucked the water onto the bottom of the boat but it splashed back.  He was squatting below the camera to the bottom right and got well and truly soaked by what must have been very cold, lake water. Kit Seymour roared with laughter and he took in it good spirit but only up to a point. I don’t think he had anything else to wear.

David Blagden, David Cadwallader, and David Bracknell looking at the Amazon’s bottom with DPO Denis Lewiston in the backround with the Panavision

I was a conscientious child and keen not to fall behind with my school work.  Children under the age of sixteen have to be issued with a licence by their local education authority before they can act in films.  Mum, who was our legal chaperone, decided it would be quite fine if we did fifteen schooling hours a week rather than a minimum of three hours a day, as stipulated in the rule book.  I spent the day catching up in our school bus.

Mum was equally fluid about the time we spent on set – or indeed on location. Sten Grendon, who played Roger, was aged nine. I now know he was meant to go home every day at 4.30pm but we all returned together whenever it was deemed practical. But his mother, Jane, was with him and if ever there was a child who needed to expend energy it was Sten. Sending him back to the Oaklands Guest House early could have endangered the people of Ambleside.  It did us a lot of good to work hard, and cope with real, if channelled, responsibility.

We were all busting with energy, so much that I grazed my leg badly climbing a tree at lunch time that day. Claude put a stop to any more tree climbing as a result. He couldn’t risk any of us getting injured. My sister Tamzin Neville broke her ankle when she was in the middle of playing Anthea, the leading role in a BBC serialisation of E.Nesbit’s  The Phoenix and the Carpet. It could have been a disaster but she wore long Edwardian dresses with petticoats that covered up her splint. My legs were fully on display in Swallows and Amazons. If I hadn’t have been wearing dungarees when I climbed that tree the world would have seen the scratch.

I can remember admiring the large house featured as Beckfoot, the Blackett’s house on the lakeside, and wandering past towering the rhododendrons in the garden, but I have no idea where is is.  Christina Hardyment felt that Arthur Ransome must have modelled Beckfoot on Lanehead, the Collingwoods’ house on the East of Lake road above Coniston, but the film required a big house with lawns going down to a lake.  I don’t have the call sheet for that day. Can anyone tell me where the location was?   Is it on the south western shore of Coniston?  And is the Amazon Boathouse in the same place?  My mother thought it was at Elterwater but John Ward has written in to say that the ‘big house’ was Brown Howe House on the western Shore of Coniston Water south of Peel Island. The boathouse is also there on the edge of the lake.

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I have just found an article in The Times which includes an extract from Kit Seymour’s diary:

‘This is the day I had been waiting for. The Amazons had at last begun filming. We got changed and had to be made up sunburnt. We then rehearsed what to do. We did the second scene. I quite accidently threw a bucket of water at Claude. After lunch we had to film the interior of the boat house. Peggy had to say, ‘Not a breath of wind.’ This was quite funny becasue our hair was flying about everywhere. They had to film this scene quite a lot of times.’