Do all children dream of living on a houseboat? Going out across Derwentwater for tea in Captain Flint’s cabin was fun. He had laid on such a lavish one. It was a feast.
We hadn’t actually seen Captain Flint walk the plank at this point, but together as Swallows and Amazons, we could all imagine it.
Suzanna described the afternoon quite differently. Her focus was on the food.
The green parrot had very sharp claws. If my eye’s are watering in this scene it is because they were digging into my shoulder. A piece of foam rubber was slipped under my blouse but it didn’t do much good. He really wasn’t a very tame parrot and had to have a chain around one leg in case he took flight. I was really rather worried he would nip me but ploughed on with the dialogue. If this is convincing it was because I needed to get through my close-ups before I lost part of an ear.
Despite this concern, I did rather want a parrot of my own. A tame one. Not long after we finished filming my parents came across a green parrot called Chico who was remarkably friendly, a sweet bird who soon came to live with us. He chatted away in Spanish and was good company. I went everywhere with him – even taking him out rowing on the lake.
I am often asked if Captain Flint’s parrot really did speak. He could certainly talk. I remember something along the lines of , ‘Who’s a pretty boy, then?’ delivered in a broad Lancashire accent. ‘Pieces of Eight’ was beyond his natural vocabulary and was dubbed on later along with music from the accordion. Ronald Fraser couldn’t really play this. Having said that, all music from instruments played on screen is added later so that the sound runs seamlessly no matter how the editor cuts the shots together. The accordion had been muted by Bobby Props.
Did the wishful lines given to Titty by the screen-writer David Wood cast light on my future? Rather unusually for an English child of the 1970’s I had already been to Africa. My family grew coffee on a farm between Arusha and Moshi in Northern Tanzania where I had been the summer before we made Swallows and Amazons.
I did not see forests of green parrots there, although, much later in my life I often saw Meyer’s parrots in the palm trees above our camp in Botswana. They would clatter about looking for wild dates while I sat painting maps I had made, just as Titty would have done.
The question is ~ did Arthur Ransome ever have a parrot, or was it just a wish?
Ronald Fraser with Wardrobe Master Terry Smith being transported to the Houseboat played by The Lady Derwentwater
My diary entry for 24th June 1973 is not exactly revealing. As it was raining steadily in the Lake District, I was given a second day off. ‘We had a quirte morning,’ I wrote. I am sure I needed one. After a heavy week’s filming I’d spent the official ‘Unit Day Off’ writing five end-of-year exam papers, answering correspondence from school friends and going to Kit Seymour’s thirteenth Birthday party. I must have been exhausted. Legally I was meant to have two days off a week. This was the first time it had been possible.
Suzanna Hamilton’s diary adds little more, but my mother was on set, as was a journalist from The Guardian, so I can tell you what happened. I can even tell you what the location caterers from Pinewood cooked that day: Melon, followed by roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, boiled or roast potatoes, peas and carrots with apple crumble or tinned peaches served with custard or evaporated milk. It was a Sunday. Suzanna noted that we had ‘salad for super’, her favorite food.
“The houseboat has been converted from a pleasure steamer,” wrote Michael McNay in the Features section of The Guardian, “the whole of the superstructure fore faked up by props, the cabin aft converted into a retired colonist’s sittingroom – African rug, flowery curtains, assegais on the walls, an ebony elephant with silver howdah and trappings, a walnut wireless cabinet, tall brass oil lamps, a pile of 78rpm records, a silver mounted cricket ball (presented to G.Gumbleton, 1899, for the highest individual score of the season), a chest, a writing desk and an ancient upright Imperial.” I have typed this up exactly as it was published on 7th July 1973.
By props, I don’t think Michael McNay meant pit-props. He was talking about the work of the design team headed by Simon Holland. Ian Whittaker, who later won an Oscar for set dressing, helped Simon to create Captain Flint’s cabin with one of the Prop men who is photographed here. Does anyone know his name? I think it might be Terry Wells. I expect the cane chairs and side table were being temporally stored on the roof when this snap shot was taken so as to make space for camera and lights. The gaffer and camera crew would have been in the process of setting up inside the cabin. Sound would not have settled in yet. How do I know that after all these years? I can see the recordist’s arm at the left of the photograph. I still remember his coat.
“Ronald Fraser, alias Uncle Jim, is tapping away at a book.” Michael continues. “Last minute panic: who can type out quickly a folio of copy to leave nonchantly in the roller?” That would have been Sue Merry, the continuity girl. The first scene was probably the one in which Uncle Jim is typing with the green parrot on his shoulder when a firework goes off on his cabin roof. I wonder if Arthur Ransome had ever been disturbed by the Altounyan children in such a way. Did he use an Imperial typewriter?
The film crew were on location on Derwentwater. “By now, the houseboat has been moved and moored to the western shore just off a promontory that is being faked up as one end of Wild Cat Island.” The houseboat, really one of the stars of the movie, was being played by a long-time resident of Cumbria, The Lady Derwentwater. A 56 foot motor launch, owned by the Keswick Launch Company since 1935, she returned to real life after the filming, rather like I did. She still carries up to 90 passengers. You can go out on her today.
My father, who is keen on steamboats, had been off to find the real houseboat that Arthur Ransome had in mind. Am I right in thinking this must have been the original Gondola? I expect she was too un-seaworthy for the production team to contemplate using in 1973. A reliable, water-tight boat that could be towed into the location used for Houseboat Bay was needed. Last year we went to see TSSY Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in Cumbria, which is another Victorian steam yacht invisaged by Ransome as a possible model for Captain Flint’s houseboat. It is a beauty but we did get a better view of the lake from of the cabin windows in the Lady Derwentwater.
“The rain has stopped, the mist is lifting from the 1,500 foot ridge of Cat Bells. Fraser climbs gingerly aboard, awkward in co-respondent’s brown and white shoes, rosy make-up and moves into the aft cabin.” McNay continues. He is describing the main scene to be shot that day. “John, alias Simon West, is in a rowing boat 15 feet away… The problem this time is that the rowing boat has to remain anchored but look as though Simon is pulling steadily in towards the houseboat and the anchor rope has to remain hidden.” This must have been so that Swallow could be lined up acurately and remain in focus for the camera. It is one of the secrets of making the film that I have been asked about directly.
“Simon shows Claude Whatham how he’ll manage it. Quick rehearsal inside the cabin. Ronald Fraser on his knees by the chest folding a white pullover, catches sight of approaching boat, mimes angry surprise. Told not to jerk head so far back. Instead jerks eyebrows up. The cabin is no more than eight foot by ten and contains besides Fraser and the props, four men on a camera, one on lights, and the continuity girl.” McNay had not included Claude the director, who I know would have squeezed in since these were the days before monitors from the camera feed. And he was small. The sound recordist was bigger but may have just planted a microphone on the desk.
“On the small aft deck Pilbrow is for the next few minutes going to be redundant.” This is Richard Pilbrow, who now lives in Conneticut and I am sure will read this post. “He is a mild, inoffensive looking man producing his first film. He is 40… looks like your friendly local antiques dealer. He and Whatham are a good team: Whatham is slight, energetic and calm. He has time, even as a sequence is being set up, to ask the Press if they can see enough of what’s going on from the crampt aft deck of the housebaot. It’s a cheerful crew, (Denis Lewiston the DOP) watching clouds overhead with benign suspicion, taking light meter readings inside and out-side the cabin every 30 seconds.
‘Action,’ said quietly into the cabin.
‘ACTION,’ across the lake to Simon. The clapperboard shows 461 take 1. Fraser folds the pullover, looks up, jerks eyebrows in angry surprise, camera swings round to follow Fraser’s gaze through the window, Simon pulls on left oar, keeps the rope hidden.
‘Once more please. Stand by. Action. ACTION (461 take 3) …. CUT.’
There’s a consensus that the third take was best. Ten minute break while the suceeding sequence is prepared: Fraser rushes out on deck and tells Simon to clear off. That too is filmed in triplicate. The time is 12.45. They started work at 6.30, began filming at 12.25 and they’ve got maybe 45 seconds in the can. Everybody seems pleased.”
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…