On 7th June 1973 the seventy-strong crew busy making the movie ‘Swallows & Amazons’ arrived at Bowness-on-Windermere in Cumbria to film the scenes when the Swallows decide to explore Rio, the native settlement due north east of Wildcat Island. The weather was glorious.
I have just been sent a scrap-book that contains a clipping from the Evening News, when reporter Terry Bromley joined the film crew for a day. He lists many of the forty or so local people who either appeared as supporting artists in the scenes or provided action props such as vintage cars and traditional boats. Everyone, including the drivers and boatmen were dressed in costumes from 1929 ~ 44 years before 1973.
The caption reads: “Susan and Titty rush past some of the local extras in a scene filmed on Bowness jetty.”
“Below, Mrs Jill Jackson, of Kendal, takes her family, Fiona, 9, Lindsay, 13, Nicola, 9 and Shane,11, for a donkey ride.”
“Four jovial extras from Ambleside with other members of the cast. They are Stanley Wright who plays a motorboat mechanic, Herbert Barton (casual holiday maker), James Stelfox (boat mechanic) and L.Lucas Dews (a man just returned from abroad).” They were dressed by Wardrobe Master Terry Smith, while other period details were organised by the Art Director Simon Holland, his Set Dresser Ian Whittacker and crew of prop men lead by Bob Hedges.
“Sarah Boom of Bowness with a period cycle, a member of the Kendal Borough Band and a member of the Ambleside Players, Mrs Peggy Drake, with her 13-year-old son William.” I know that the Kendal Band wore their own, original 1020’s uniforms as they played in the bandstand.
The caption reads: ‘Janet Hadwin and her father, Jack Hadwin, stand by an Austin car and BSA motor cycle of the period.’ The photograph below shows Sophie Neville, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sten Grendon in a pony trap during a break in the filming.
For a full list of actors and supporting artists who were involved in the filming please see the second edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’, published by The Lutterworth Press, which can be purchased on-line or ordered from your local library.
If you would like to see more behind-the-scenes photos and home movie footage taken in Bowness on 7th June 1973 please go to earlier posts:
“The Duchess of Cambridge showed she was fully prepared when she braved the snowy weather to visit a Scout camp in the Lake District today.” (22nd March 2013)
“Her Royal Highness, who is a volunteer in the Scout Association, joined fellow adult volunteers as they trained to work with Beaver and Cub Scouts at the Great Tower Scout Camp near Newby Bridge in Cumbria.
She used her training to help look after a group of Cub Scouts from Cumbria and Manchester taking part in a pack holiday event at the 250-acre activity centre close to Lake Windermere.
As part of their programme, the Cub Scouts will get a chance to try outdoor cooking, fire-lighting and tree-climbing under the guidance of The Duchess and the other volunteers.”
According to Claudia Joseph’s biography of Kate ‘Princess in Waiting’, the Duchess is distantly related, not only to Beatrix Potter, but to Arthur Ransome.
The Duchess is obviously fond of Donny Osmond hats. My mother wore one on location in the Lake District whilst filming SWALLOWS & AMAZONS (1974) . She can be seen here teaching Lesley Bennett, who played Peggy Blackett,to shoot with a bow and arrow for the scene on Wild Cat Island when the Amazons attack the Swallows who are occupying their camp.
Our Director, Claude Whatham took a shine to it and would put it on to amuse us, although in this instance he was wearing it for warmth, probably like the Duchess on Friday. Click on the photo above to see me wearing the original purple velvet, 1973 winter season designer version, bought in Carnaby Street. I wear it all the time. It is very useful in this weather.
Peter Walker has found more photos of the Duchess in Cumbria in the Westmorland Gazette ~ she was visiting a scout camp next door to Low Ludderburn where Arthur Ransome wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’ about a mile above Blakeholme, the island on Windermere he originally envisaged as Wild Cat Island.
Our first major public appearance for the promotion of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was The Lord Mayor’s Show . For the first time since the filming we climbed into our costumes and then into Swallow who had been mounted on low-loader. Afloat on a float, we made ready to sail through the City of London.
It must have been early November and was so very cold before we set off that we needed to keep our own coats on. We were anxious this would spoil things for people. I’m sure it would not have made much difference. Did anyone know who we were? The film hadn’t come out. We were riding on the wave that Arthur Ransome and his books were so well loved by the people of our nation.
What was fun, if a little odd, was that it was the first time, indeed the only time, that the Swallows and the Amazons had been in a dinghy together. As we were taken through the streets of London passers-by started to wave at us and we waved back. Soon it was waves all round. Being Titty, I had Swallow’s flag to fly. John let Nancy take the tiller.
We were amazed to find huge crowds of people had gathered and that it was all rather fun. I don’t know why but Sten must have joined my mother on the pavement by the time this shot was taken. I can see the back of his head in this next photograph. He is wearing the tartan hat Claude Whatham bought him at Blackpool fun-fair.
Jeremy Fisher Frog was leaping about in front of us, which was rather amazing. With him danced other representatives from the Tales of Beatrix Potter, The Royal Ballet’s wonderful feature film that also came out in 1973/4. We were marking the 35th anniversary of EMI, whilst bringing the Lake District to London Town, which is something we all could celebrate.
Since we didn’t have to talk to anyone, we were able to enjoy being involved in the pageant, which included so many icons of British Life.
I hadn’t met a Pearly Queen before, but there was a whole clan of them in their glorious suits, lovingly embroidered with mother of pearl buttons. I resolved to collect enough to adorn my own jacket. My favorite view was of HM the Queen’s gold state coach pulled by her lovely white horses, six in hand. I’d been to see them at the Royal Mews when we came up for my first interview at Theatre Projects offices in Longacre when I first met our director Claude Whatham.
My mother took a photograph of the Queen’s Drum Horse. Much later she found that he was a stallion, on offer as part of a British Horse Society breeding improvement scheme. He was brought over to service her Irish mare Gerty. The result was a lanky skewbald called Nimrod, an enormous gelding who Andrew Parker Bowles rejected on behalf of the British Army. This proved an error. Like most heavy horses Nimrod was just slow to grow. He eventually became a national dressage champion, although not in our hands.
We have one last photograph which shows that the float in front of us depicted an EMI film crew, with 2K lights, a camera and technicians. It is studing this photograph that made me feel that we were not in Swallow as the transom seems so differnet. I don’t suppose anyone else noticed.
Funnily enough I was in a boat for the Lord Mayor’s Show this year. We rowed up the Thames in the Lord Mayor’s procession on Saturday 12th November.
I am on the crew of the Drapers’ Barge, Royal Thamesis a 33 foot shallop, which I last rowed on the tideway for the re-creation of Nelson’s funeral covered by Sky TV. You may have seen her taking part as the in the Queen’s Jubilee Pageants. We have been asked to take part in the procession of boats that heralds the Lord Mayor’s Show this coming November.
This colour footage shows various aspects of the Lord Mayor’s procession in 1973 including the Queen’s Gold State Coach built in 1762 and a float with Daleks, which must represent Doctor Who, a series I worked on about ten years later when at the BBC.
‘Here we are, intrepid explorers making our way into uncharted waters. What mysteries will they hold for us? What dark secrets shall be revealed?’
The dark secret was that the inky black night scenes had to be shot in Mrs Batty’s barn. At Bank Ground Farm. During the day. The design team strung up thick light-proof drapes and made the dusty out-building into a studio. The director, Claude Whatham had no choice. We had quickly run out of interior scenes and the weather was so bad that we could do little else.
‘While the rest of England melted in a heat wave, the Lakes seemed wrapped in mist and rain,’ Richard Pilbrow the Producer remembers. I have a press cutting from The Guardian dated 7th July 1973, which opens with the words:
‘THE WEATHER report follows in half a minute. Richard Pilbrow is obcessed with the weather. Every morning he wakes around 4 o’clock and crosses his room at the Kirkstone Foot Hotel to cock a weather eye at the sky above Wansfell Pike. Most mornings it is the same story… Pilbrow looks out of the window. Raining. ‘
What a worry and concern that rain was. Swallows and Amazons is firmly set in an idlyic childhood summer, August of 1929, when the water was warm enough to swim daily and the only disapointment was a total lack of wind. When we arrived to start filming at Derwent Water on 12th June 1973 it was too windy to even go out on the lake.
I loved filming in the barn. The Third Assistant, Gareth Tandy, lead me through the high wooden doors and into a magical version of our camp on Peel Island, beautifully recreated by Ian Whittaker the Set Dresser. A real camp fire was burning. Blankets (goatskins in Titty’s imagination) and pillows from out tents had been laid out so I could be ‘shrouded in my cloak’ while I was waiting up for the Swallows to return from the Amazon River. The scene was beautifully lit with branches held in stands in front of the lights with a gentle wind produced by the prop men wafting a board to lift my hair at the right moment. I don’t think there was an owl hoot for me to hear. I had to imagine that so they could add a real owl call later. Someone has written in to ask if I learnt how to make an answering hoot. I’m afraid not. I tried and tried. I still can’t. John could do it but Claude asked us both to just pretend so that he could lay the sound on afterwards.
I think what we gained, despite or perhaps because of the weather, was a camaraderie that forms a foundational basis to the film. We had to be stoic and get on with filming despite getting cold and wet. Rain doesn’t show up on screen unless it is really pelting down. You can see the effects – wet hair and soggy costumes, but you actually have to use rain machines if you want to show rain in a drama. We could film our trek up the hill to visit the charcoal burners without a problem but going out on the lake was impossible. You’d have seen the rain drops falling on the water. And it was too windy. As it was, we had a brilliant Director of Photography who used what light he had to capture that limpid quality you find in the Lakes, so quintessentially English it draws you in, reeling back to childhood days when we had time to make camps and rush about in the woods.
The rain did deter my mother from taking photographs. She didn’t have a flash to use in the barn but she took lots – masses – the following day…
Serendipity [ser-uh n-dip-i-tee] an aptitude or faculty for making desirable discoveries by accident
Serendipity indeed. The word has been quoted to me so many times that I’ve started to take note. The serendipit in question connects me to a rather large, bald man with massive moustaches called Arthur Ransome.
In March 1973 my father was sent a letter, completely out of the blue:
We are at present casting for a film version of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS which Mr Whatham is going to direct. We were wondering if you would be interested in your daughter being considered for one of the parts in this film. Amazing!
To gain a part I had to be able to swim well. I think this was to do with ensuring I was unlikely to drown. As it happened I could row, sail and swim. My parents had taught me. I can’t remember Claude Whatham asking me about this when he interviewed me. He wanted to know what my favourite Television programme was. ‘Blue Peter!’ ‘Why?’, ‘Because they show you how to do things.’ It was exactly what Mr Whatham wanted to hear. Why? Because that is what Arthur Ransome does in his books. He doesn’t tell. He shows his readers how to sail. And how to camp. By the age of twelve I had already read all eleven books in the series and loved the stories. What I didn’t know then was the effect they would have on the rest of my life.
By May 1973 I was on my way up to the Lake District to play Titty Walker in the feature film being produced by Theatre Projects and distributed by EMI. I didn’t think I was right as Titty at all. In real life Titty had been Anglo-Armenian and grew up in Syria. The illustrations show her with dark hair, cut in a bob. And I thought of myself as far more like the practical Susan, Titty’s older sister. However I was assured that I could play Titty and I did. Able seaman Titty, crew of the Swallow. Thankfully they cut my straggly blonde hair and I sang out the dialogue that I already knew off by heart from reading the book, ‘I expect someone hid on the island hundreds and hundreds of years ago.’
How the real parrot arrived on my shoulder I can’t quite remember but within months of returning from Coniston Water I had a green and yellow parrot of my own. I think he had outlived his owner and was given to us to keep. He was good company and very chatty. I adored him and could take him anywhere. When I was asked to be in Animal Magic to talk about the film he sat on my shoulder while I was rowing a boat, and I think did most of the talking.What I didn’t realise was how themes from Arthur Ransome’s life would follow me through the rest of my life.
When the time came for me to matriculate I went to Collingwood College at the University of Durham. The name resonated later when I discovered that W.D. Collingwood’s grandchildren were the real Swallows. W.D. Collingwood was an archaeologist living above Coniston Water, where the books are set, and had excavated Peel Island– or Wild Cat Island– finding the remains of a Viking settlement there. Some one had hidden there hundred of years ago. WD Collingwood Titty’s Gransfatherstudied at the Slade, as did my own grandfather HW Neville. He may have been there at the same time as Titty’s mother Dora Collingwood.
Arthur Ransome won a Kitchener Scholarship. Years later these rare awards have been won by both my niece and my nephew. When Arthur Ransome first lived in London, he had digs in Hollywood Road. When I moved to London I shared flats with friends, first in Tregunter Road, then Harcourt Terrance, which ware merely extensions of Hollywood Road, which is off the Fulham Road in West Brompton. I had gained a graduate traineeship at the BBC. The first drama series that I worked on was Swallows and Amazons Forever! an adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s books set on the Norfolk Broads, Coot Club and The Big Six. It was not a chance thing, I contacted the Producer and asked if I could work on the series, but the fact that I’d heard about it was unusual, and amazing really that it was made that year when I was available to join the production team. I had first worked with Rosemary Leach, who played The Admiral – Mrs Barrable, when she starred, not as Missee Lee, but as Mrs Lee in Cider with Rosie. I later found myself working with William the Pug dog on Eastenders when he featured as Ethel’s ‘Little Willie’ . It was such fun to see him again. He was a playful little dog with a great sense of fun.
The first documentary I directed for the BBC involved an adder. I was filming in at a Nature Reserve in Dorset with a group of children who came across one immediately. It was huge, a black adder. The Billies would have declared this a great sign of luck. I’m not sure I thought much about Swallows and Amazons, over the next few years but I did film at a school in Cumbria and loved being back in the Lakes.
After working at the BBC for eight years I fell ill and, much like Arthur Ransome, had to abandon my full time job to work from home. Like him I had a yearning to spend as much time as possible in the great outdoors and chose to live in the wilderness. I spent my time exploring southern Africa, camping and cooking on fires. Of the subjects I’d studied at university the ones I most enjoyed were cartography and water-colours. I started to earn my living by drawing birds, animals and decorative maps. The maps usually depicted game reserves and involved giving names to landmarks as places of interest, just like Titty’s maps. I must have drawn forty maps in the style of those on the original cover of Swallows and Amazons, using the same borders and style of lettering. And I kept diaries, writing just as Titty would have done. I also worked freelance for the BBC, mainly setting up wildlife programmes. A rye smile did pass my lips when I was asked to find South African items for Blue Peter. I was thinking back to my first interview at Theatre Projects with Claude. They came to South Africa for their summer expedition one year, and it was I who sent them off to film the Outspan harvest and wild dog puppies in the Kruger National Park. After a while I fell into the pattern of flying back to England at Easter time and returning to Africa in the autumn. This was partly through choice, partly to comply with visa regulations and work commitments. I’d migrate every year with the swallows.
When we were making the feature film of Swallows and Amazons my mother looked after all six children. The girls playing the Amazons, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, needed to learn how to shoot with a bow and arrow. My mother taught them. She had learnt how to draw a long bow when she was first married, and was encouraged by an ex-Olympian called Bertie. I became interested too, which stood me in good stead as the next part I had in a feature film was playing Liz Peters, a fictional archery champion.
Thirty years after the premier of Swallows and Amazons I had flown back from Africa and was staying at my parents’ house, when a lady arrived from Korea. She timidly knocked on the door, explaining that she was translating Swallows and Amazons into Chinese and would love to talk to me about the book. She came bearing gifts: a hand-quilted wedding bedspread and a pile of silk garments amounting to a bride’s trousseaux. It was a week after I had met my husband-to-be. At that stage he had not even asked me out and I had no idea we would marry. I’d met him at the archery – shooting with my bow and arrow. He was Bertie’s grandson. My three sisters have never been a bit interested in archery. If I hadn’t been enthused by Swallows and Amazons, and consequently taken it up to play Liz Peters, I would never have met my husband. I still have the wedding quilt.
And then I met Dr Frankland, a Harley Street Consultant who was to become an historical adviser on a script I was developing. I soon learnt that Bill Frankland had been a good friend of Roger Altounyan and knew his sister Titty. As young men they both worked for Alexander Flemming.
Roger, Titty and their elder sisters Susie and Taqui were W.D.Collingwood’s grandchildren, the real characters on which Arthur Ransome based the Swallows. What I didn’t know was that Roger Altounyan became an allergist. He developed the spin-inhaler, experimenting on himself. Dr Frankland explained that he eventually died as a result. I was allergic to feathers as a child and prone to horrific asthma attacks. Not from parrot’s feathers but old pillows and eiderdowns. The Ventolin inhaler is something to which I probably owe my life. Dr Frankland, who is to celebrate his 100th birthday this March, still works as a Harley Street allergist and is often called upon to make broadcasts on Radio 4. He instigated the pollen count, numbered Saddam Hussein as one of his most gratful patients and has been the expert witness at a number of murder trials.
Bertie’s Olympic bow now hangs on my stairs. I am still sailing dinghies, still drawing maps but thankfully no longer suffer from asthma. Harbour Pictures with BBC Films are now planning a new film adaptation of Swallows and Amazons. A whole new generation of children will be shown how to sail and camp and cook on open fires. I couldn’t be more thrilled.