Before Jean McGill arrived at the Oaklands Guesthouse in Ambleside, to transport us to the location, a letter arrived. It was from my Daddy who somehow must have found time to post a quick note while taking my sisters to school. We were, indeed, all looking forward to the wrap party to be held that evening. There was much to do before it started. Twelve scenes are listed on the Unit Call Sheet and it was pouring with rain.
Here we are – it was Ernie Russell who was in charge of the action and support boats. Does anyone know where he is now? The day proved difficult and wet, but everyone was in high spirits. It was the last day for most.
It was a great Wrap party, held at the unit hotel. Suzanna noted that it didn’t start until 10 O’clock. 10pm! Very grown up. It must have been the talk of Ambleside. Mum took off her Donny Osmond hat and wore a long high-collared dress in pink gingham. I wore the brown and black velvet pinafore dress Mummy and Daddy had bought me in Carnaby Street when we went up to London for my first interview with Claude Whatham. Everyone was kind and jolly. For a while the party revolved around us. We enjoyed the dancing so much didn’t want to leave, but it was evident that the adults wanted to start to play. As you can imagine, no one could persuade us to go to bed. Jean McGill saved the evening by organising a conga. Having led a sheltered life I had never danced the conga before and thought it the greatest fun. Luckily the Carnaby Street dress was well designed for the job. We conga-ed around the Kirkstone Foot Hotel with the entire crew. Somehow we ended up conga-ing into her mini-bus and were whisked back to Oaklands before midnight.
This clip shows Jean McGill (in red) with Sophie Neville (in blue tracksuit top) and Albert Clarke our stills photographer. Our Chaperone, Jane Grendon, is teasing Terry Needham, the second assistant director. Simon West, playing John Walker, stands by Derwentwater in costume. Neville C Thompson (in yellow shirt) smiles at our glamorous tutor Margaret Causey while Graham Ford and others get into a support boat. Actor Ronald Fraser walks towards the lake and waiting boat, followed by hairdresser Ronnie Cogan. You can see Swallow in the background whilst Jean McGill chats to my mother, Daphne Neville who is wearing her yellow, flowery Donny Osmond hat. She originally had a pink flowery version, which Claude admired (and wore himself) but it blew off and sunk to the bottom of the lake.
You can read about the adventures we had making the film in one of the editions of ‘The making of Swallows and Amazons’ available online and from Waterstones where it has been reviewed here:
Filming on location in Cumbria in 1973 ~ nearly forty years ago.
Our designer Simon Holland was rowing Swallow without his shirt. Producer Richard Pilbrow was hanging on the side of the houseboat clad in denim. Terry Smith, the wardrobe Master, was busy drying off Ronald Fraser’s wet costume on the aft deck. The white pith helmet was being touched up by the unit painter. Unions must have been strict back then.
Director Claude Whatham was making the most of the rare but glorious Lake District weather to complete the scene on the foredeck of the houseboat. The Swallows, the Amazons and their Uncle Jim, who had just been made to walk the plank and was now dripping wet, waited patiently while I delivered Titty’s immortal line: ‘Captain Flint – we’ve got a surprise for you.’ Not quite the same as in Arthur Ransome’s book but it worked well.
War cries from everyone…
Kit Seymour, who was playing Nancy, must have dropped on top of us all.
The cabin of the houseboat had been turned into a dressing room for Ronald Fraser.
A long day’s filming out on the lake.
My mother took a series of photographs showing how the crew managed in the limited space:
The 16mm camera in the grey punt.
I think the chap in the swimming trunks is a boatman from Keswick. Does anyone recognise him?
The 16mm camera was noisy. This would have been the shot taken when I said we just went through the movements.
And all the time Molly Pilbrow was keeping an eye on the script. I don’t think there was any room for Graham Ford. He was looking after the base camp:
It had been a productive day; a battle well fought, the treasure returned.
You can read the full story of making the film here:
I am often asked about my career in acting. I was even asked about it by the crew of Swallows and Amazons as we climbed in and out of boats on Derwentwater back in 1973.
‘Are you going to be another Bette Davis?’ (I gathered I looked vaguely like her but didn’t really know who she was.)
‘Will you get stuck as a child actress like Shirley Temple?’ (I didn’t really know who she was either.)
There was much speculation. The truth was that I was always more interested in what was happening behind the camera, and how the story was told, than I was in our performances. I had an empathy for the men who had to keep changing carefully made arrangements when the clouds rolled in. Whilst I was always interested in set dressing I loved aiding and abetting Terry Needham, the second assistant director, with whom we naturally spent a great deal of time. The 2nd July 1973 must have been a busy day for him. A maddening day really.
Whilst I was in front of the camera, delivering the line that fore-shadows the adventurous section of Arthur Ransome’s story, Terry Needham would have been busy planning who would go out in which boat and when. Just as important really.
Whilst filming out on the lakes ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was far more complicated than most movies to stage manage. Terry needed to have what Claude Whatham called his ‘Artistes standing-by, ready on set’ when the set in question was a boat moored out in a lake. In reality this meant that the film actor Ronald Fraser had to wait around on the houseboat with Costume, Make-up and Props, whilst the sun tried to decide whether to come out.
Terry Needham, ever straight forward and prosaic, also had to make provision for a number of extra people who wanted to try and watch the action, notably Albert Clarke, the stills photographer, and the Producer, Richard Pilbrow who was often looking after journalists from major newspapers and magazines. We were making a movie that needed to be well publicised if it was to succeed.
What made Terry’s job even more demanding than usual was that since we were all under the age of sixteen we still had to complete at least three hours schooling a day. I was only meant to spend three hours a day in front of the camera and leave at 5.00pm. This meant that, unlike Ronnie Fraser, we had to be collected from our red bus and taken over the water to our set at the last possible moment when the camera and crew were ready to roll. We had no mobile phones, only Motorollas.
As Swallow, our clinker-built dinghy, was wired to a floating pontoon, the job of our loyal Lakeland boatmen was particularly important. Can anyone tell me the name of this chap, in the photo below?
Terry Needham also had to take into consideration the numbers of people licensed to be in each support boat. Although a period film, our clothes were simple, so we didn’t need the contingent of dressers and make-up artists typically demanded by costume dramas. However life-jackets were a must and wherever we went one of our licensed chaperones had to come too. Since Mum stayed at our guesthouse in Ambleside with Kit Seymour who was ill with ‘flu that day, it was Jane Grendon came out on the lake with us. It was her son Sten, playing the Boy Roger, who walked off the jetty into the water. Poor Jane was pushed in fully clothed. Suzanna Hamilton also fell in – or so she claims. What a nightmare for Terry Needham.
Terry survived to have the most prestigious career in film. Whilst he worked as an assistant director for Stanley Kubrick on The Shining (would Jack Nicholson have been easier to manage than us lot?) Terry was unit manager on Empire of the Sun for Stephen Speilberg and the first assistant director on such classic movies as Full Metal Jacket, Rambo III, A Man for All Seasons, The Field, The Golden Compass and Clash of the Titans. I only list a few of his many credits. He worked for Ridley Scott as Associate Producer and First Assistant on White Squall, G.I.Jane, Gladiator, Hannibal and Black Hawk Down – all gigantium tasks – and was Executive Producer of Red Dragon, and Kingdom of Heaven, again for Ridely Scott. He is still working on movies. What changes he must have seen. I wonder if he can remember that far distant summer spent in the Lake District?
I would not have had the physical strength to follow in Terry’s footsteps. It was his job – plus a bit of work with action props and set dressing – that I found myself busy doing at the BBC when I was an Assistant Floor Manager on big costume dramas. I was exhausted after about four years. The walky-talky I found so attractive aged twelve became rather heavy on my hip. I have a Polaroid photograph of myself looking tired out when working as a Location Manager in Bayswater, kept to remind myself not to accept such work again. Perhaps I should have taken the Bette Davis route after all. I might have had Terry looking after me again.
You can see Terry Needham with his portable radio at the end of this short 16mm film clip that was shot a couple of days later on Coniston Water. The pushings-in were still all the rage.
If you enjoyed this post, do think of getting a copy of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ available from libraries, online retailers and Amazon here
‘The rain poured down.’ Cumbria was covered in cloud, the Lake District dark and dismal. What a nightmare for Richard Pilbrow and his production team. We were behind schedule, Lesley Bennett who played Peggy was ill in bed and we had run out of ‘rain cover’.
There was one sequence left that could be recorded in dull weather. Today was the day Claude Whatham shot the haunting scenes of Octopus Lagoon. After finishing our school work Kit Seymour and I sat watching the filming from the sloping field above the beautiful but rather smelly lily pond.
I do not have the Call Sheet for 29th June 1973 but have an extract from this earlier one detailing the ‘Alternative Dull Weather Call’:
I can’t say whether the weather allowed for the scene set on the Amazon River to be shot. Lesley had ‘flu so they would have had to somehow manage without her. I think Claude devoted his time to capture the conundrum and challenges faced by Captain John in the lagoon. The location chosen for this was on private property near Skelwith Fold Caravan Park. Those who are interested in finding the film locations used might find this old hand-typed ‘Movement Order’ useful:
Roger Wardale sites Octopus Lagoon as being Allan Tarn a short distance up the River Crake at the Southern end of Coniston Water, near High Nibthwaite. This is the place Arthur Ransome had in mind. He spent time there with is brother and sisters as a child when they spent their summers on Swainson’s Farm at Nibthwaite nearby. His father went there to fish for pike. It you have a shallow bottomed boat you can get there but it is not exactly on a footpath. The lily pond we used was in a high sided dip, which made it appropriately dark and gloomy. It was also more accessible for the film crew.
Graham Ford, who signed the Movement Order was our Production Manager. I only have a photograph of him taken on a sunnier day.
Graham Ford would have been responsible for the film schedule, putting together the whole logistical jigsaw puzzle posed by factors such as the availability of leading actors and locations with the movement of vehicles and boats, including the massive camera pontoon. It was Graham who took the stress of problems caused by wet weather. I guess that he also took on the responsibilities of managing the locations, negotiating with owners and the Lake District National Park, something that authors such as Arthur Ransome would not have had to face.
Although young, Graham was pretty experienced. He had previously worked as an assistant director on such classic films as Steptoe and Son and had been the Unit Manager on The Devils, a film that starred Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed. After Swallows he went on to work as Production Manager on S.O.S Titanic, The Honorary Consul and Princess Daisy as well as Time Bandits and Brazil directed by Terry Gilliam starring Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist and Robert de Niro. Imagine being Terry Gilliam’s right hand man. He was a Location Manager for David Lynch on The Elephant Man and for Richard Attenborough on Ghandi in 1982. Graham’s career progressed. He produced The Nightmare Years and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in the late 1980s before working on Gettysburg, the massive four hour long movie about the American civil war, in 1993. A life in film. He died in Ontario in 1994 aged only 48.
If you would like to read more, the story of the filming can be read in a paperback entitled ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1976)’ available from libraries worldwide or from online stockist and good bookshops. The Nancy Blackett Trust have signed copies available here with proceeds going to the trust. These are illustrated so cost £15 but make good presents.
In Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons Titty is left keeping watch on an island, so small it is little more than a rock, whilst the Swallows sail into Rio Bay in search of the Amazons. Luckily for me, this is not so in the film. Susan declares, ‘They must be making for Rio’ and the scene cuts to a band playing in the municipal park at Bowness-on-Windermere. John rows into the bay pretty sure that the Amazons have given them the slip, Susan suggests that we could explore Rio and I happily declare, ‘We could buy rope for the lighthouse tree.’ And that is what we did – leaving the boy Roger in charge of Swallow. It was such a hot day I whipped off my grey cardigan before I leapt out of the boat, no doubt causing havoc for the Film Editor.
Simon Holland, the Set Designer on Swallows and Amazons had transformed the busy Bowness of 1973 into a Lakelandtown of 1929. To do this he must have had a huge amount of glassfibre boats moved. These were replaced by the beautiful wooden launches and skiffs of the period. You can see my father in white flannel trousers, his dark hair cut short, standing on the jetty in front of the lovely old green boathouses that then overlooked the bay. He is talking to the owner of the launch with the green and white striped awning.
Much of the first part of this sequence, including the close ups in Swallow, was filmed from the grey punt used as a camera boat. It seems that Simon West, who played John was towing this as he rowed up to the jetty. It was a hot day and for once we were all feeling the heat.
Although the Swallows spurned the conventional attractions of tripperdom, we spotted the Stop-me-and-by-one ice cream cart like lightening. I was entranced by the old cars, the pony and trap and the number of people dressed to populate Rio. They were organised and directed by Terry Needham, the Second Assistant Director. To our delight we found Gareth Tandy, the Third Assistant, was dressed in period costume too, his Motorola hidden under a stripy blazer so he could cue the Supporting Artists and keep back the general public without having to worry about appearing in vision himself. To his dismay he had had to have his hair cut. We all thought this a distinct improvement. He looked so handsome! I’m not sure if you can see him in the distance when we are climbing out of Swallow. You can just see my sisters walking towards the town at this point with Pandora Doyle, Brain Doyle’s daughter.
Jane Grendon, our chaperone looked fabulous in her 1929 costume. It was the one and only time I saw her in a dress. She was wonderful. Being in costume enabled her to keep an eye on all the children playing on the beach. I know she would have kept them going and maintained safety as they flung pebbles into the water or rushed about with the donkeys that were giving rides along the shore – no one wearing helmets of course.
Another excitement of the day was that Claude Whatham had given Mr Price, the owner of the Oaklands Guest House where we were staying, the part of the native. The native who says, ‘That’s a nice little ship you’ve got there.’ Mum said that Kit Seymour, Suzanna Hamilton and Lesley Bennett had spied him, pacing the garden at Oaklands trying out every possible way of saying this line. ‘That’s a nice little ship you’ve got there.’ Then, ‘That’s a nice little ship you’ve got there,’ leaving the girls in fits of giggles.
After we leave the general stores, me clutching bottles of grog, you can see Tamzin in a pink dress and straight back riding a chocolate coloured donkey along the beach while Dad is pushing out a rowing skiff with a log oar. Roger looks on from the Jetty to see Perry riding another donkey in a yellow dress while Tamzin walks by in the opposite direction with none other than Mr Price, in his striped blazer, who is walking along towards the boathouses holding a little boy’s hand. I am sure it was one of his own children but it looks a bit dodgy because while Roger watches my sisters and Pandora throwing stones into the lake from the beach were the skiffs are pulled up, David Price comes walking along the jetty and delivers his line: ‘That’s a nice little ship you’ve got there.’ It’s shot in rather a creepy way. John did warn Roger to ‘Beware of natives.’
A moment later Pandora and my sisters are surrounding the ice cream man while John, Susan and Titty return, striding along the jetty like the three wise men, carrying rope, buns and bottles of grog. My father’s all time passion in the form of a very graceful steam launch passes, almost silently, in the foreground. A happy, happy day. They only sad thing was that we didn’t have time to film inside the bun shop, which was such a pity as it looked glorious. Claude had been obliged to re-take a scene when some ladies – real life ladies in 1970’s garments and bouffant hairdos – had come scootling out of the Public Conveniences in the middle of a take.
What none of us knew was that is was nearly our last day on earth. The same Supporting Artists, including my father, had been booked for the next morning…
‘The Bowness skiffs were not like the Thames version. The outriggers caught the oars and allowed a fisherman to let go of the grip if and when he caught an Artic char, the Winderenmere fish, the oars were retained. A heavy boat.
I remember the rope was huge, fat and unsuitable! Daphne was not around as she had to go south to present Women Only for HTV. She was devestated to leave the donkey scene.’
You can read more about our antics in the paperback or ebook of ‘The making of Swallows and Amazons’ available from online retailers, good bookshops, and libraries worldwide. You can read more on Amazon here.
When David Wood constructed the screenplay of Swallows and Amazons he introduced dual action soon after the Swallows arrived at the island. By this I mean that he split us up a bit – John went to fetch the milk from Dixon’s farm whilst Susan and I were teaching Roger to swim. This isn’t quite as Arthur Ransome wrote but it added vitality to the script, moving it along. I reckon the Director, Claude Whatham needed to avoid a gang scenario of Five go to Treasure Island at all costs. It also enabled us to get on with our school work since no one actor was in every scene. I was in all the scenes shot on this day 5th June (I wrote 5th May by mistake) but went back to my lessons whilst Claude was out on the pontoon filming John and Susan jibing Swallow – a pick-up shot set into the long shot, when I waved them goodbye from Wildcat Island, recorded on 2nd June.
At this stage in the story Arthur Ransome actually split the action into three. John, Susan and Roger sail off to find the Amazon river, Titty is left alone on the island with her telescope, while the Amazons are busy plotting and planning at Beckfoot. Up until this time most films followed linear stories – this happened, then that happened – a bit like my diary. My favourite wartime drama A Town like Alice, which stars Virginia McKenna, is an example of this.It’s a road movie. Lovely – but I need to watch it whilst doing my tapestry.
As it happened the method of running three storylines at once became all the rage in television dramas of the 1980s and 1990s, so when Swallows and Amazons was first broadcast on television it felt fresh even though it had been made six or seven years previously. The playwright John Mortimer said that when he first started writing three strands of action for Rumpole of the Bailey it terrified him. Would the audience be able to follow what was going on? Now every detective story breaks into three as soon as possible, while soap operas keep a number of storylines boiling furiously. The technique helps to pace the action, up the suspense and gives the director much more flexibility in the cutting room. Apart from anything else it makes it easier to bring episodes in at the exact length required by the television schedulers. One reason why credits roll after a programme is because the Presentation Department can alter the speed they run at. Did you know this? It means that every story can be made to last exactly 37 mins 30 seconds.
Nowadays linear story-telling in movies, such a The Kings Speech seems to be received as more cinemagraphic. I think that multiple action just went too far. ‘Flashbacks’ seem dated and running two storylines in different time periods can be confusing. I couldn’t do my embroidery whilst watching A Social Network.
Meanwhile two or three things were happening behind the scenes in the Lake District. Terry Needham, the Second Assistant Director, found that most of the men who had come forward to be Supporting Artists for the scene soon to be shot at Bowness were refusing to have their hair cut. My mother was astonished. They couldn’t portray the Lake District unpopulated by men. Only a few, very elderly gentlemen, who didn’t have much hair anyway, agreed to a short-back-and-sides. And my father. He was more than happy to receive a free hair cut. Ronnie Cogan brought out his scissors and snipped away there and then on the shore of Coniston Water. Someone grabbed Dad’s Bolex and took a few shots for posterity:
Dad missed seeing me capture the Amazon. Although it seems I was all alone in my story line, this was not the reality. I rowed away from Peel Island with the DoP Denis Lewiston, his 16mm camera and a reflector board held by Claude Whatham who was also tucked into Amazon’s stern. No wonder I was tired by the end of the day.