Boats used for making the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

I went on BBC Radio Cumbria recently, to ask if I could meet anyone involved in filming the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the summer of 1973, since it was made on location in the Lake District with a young crew.

~Nick Newby of Nicole End Marine~

Nick Newby of Nichol End Marine in Portinscale came to find me when I was helping at the Keswick Convention. As a young man in the 1970s, he provided boats for a number of films and was contacted by Graham Ford, the production manager of Swallows and Amazons in the Spring of 1973. Graham had began working with Mike Turk who had started building boats for TV and films at his family firm, Turk’s Launches, but this was based on the Thames in London. They needed help from someone in the Lake District who knew about traditional boats.

Ronald Fraser being transported to the Houseboat

~Ronald Fraser being trransported by Dory to The Lady Derwentwater in 1973~

Arthur Ransome had clearly based Captain Flint’s houseboat on the Esperance, originally a steam launch cruising on Windermere. You can read more about her and see photos here. ‘Since she was sitting on the bottom of Whitecross Bay at the time,’ Nick told me, ‘the film crew decided to use the Lady Derwentwater.’ This was a launch licensed to carry 90 passengers that Nick had worked on and knew well. ‘She is about 58 foot long and quite a rigid boat, having four full length steel RSJs set inside her. She was built the Lakes in 1928. We moored her at Brandelhowe in Great Bay for the filming. You need to be careful getting in, as there is a rock shelf.’ The advantage of using her was that you could see the view over the lake from her large cabin windows, which enhanced interior scenes. The Lady Derwentwater, whose nick-name is Dishy, has since been re-built with a different stern, but you can book a passage and go out on the lake in her yourself.

Lady Derwentwater 2018

~The Lady Derwentwater today~

Nick told me that Captain Flint’s eight foot Wright’s dinghy, the houseboat’s tender, had been made by Wright’s Brothers of Ipswich. The Jackson’s ‘native canoe’, rowed out to Peel Island by Virginia McKenna was ‘a family fourteen’ Wright’s sailing dinghy with a centre case. He knew many of the traditional boats in the Lakes. ‘I served me time as a yacht and boat builder at Shepherd’s in Bowness Bay.’ This company was based the green double-story boat sheds featured in the ‘Rio’ scenes. ‘During the winter we used to have to break the ice on the buckets of water when we were rubbing down boats. The sail lofts had a square panel in the apex so we could poke the 8 to 10 metre masts inside. A boom could go up the stairs but a mast certainly couldn’t. ‘

Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville on Wild Cat Island - contact sheet

~Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville and DoP Denis Lewiston~

‘Amazon belonged to a chap called Vosey who was rather reluctant to let her be used for the filming,’ Nick said. ‘We did her up a bit after the filming.’ I gather she had been used in the black and white BBC serial of Swallows and Amazons made in 1962 when  Susan George played the party of Kitty.

~Swallow sailing towards the filming pontoon in 1973~

I believe Swallow had been found at Burnham-on-Crouch as she was built by Williams King and Sons. Mike Turk, who had built a shallop for the 1966 movie ‘A Man For All Seasons’, purchased her for the film and brought her up to the Lakes. She had no added buoyancy. Nick claims that being a wooden boat she would never sink but I reminded him that we came close to hitting the MV Tern on Windermere when loaded with camping gear, which was a bit scary.

MV Tern of 1891 on Windermere
~MV Tern on Windermere today~

Swallow was later used at Elstree Studios when the sound was dubbed onto the finished film. Mike kept her out of the water in his store at Chatham until SailRansome bought her at auction in 2010. She was sensitively restored by Pattersons, has a new sail, added buoyancy bags and is now available for anyone to sail in Cumbria.

Swallow and the pontoon

~Mike Turk’s filming pontoon with Swallow attached in 1973~

‘Mike already had the flat-bottomed filming pontoon. It had originally been used for carrying a vehicle. We added twin outboard engines and rigged scaffold under the water so that either Swallow or Amazon could be attached to it but still keel over naturally as they sailed. When the dinghy went about, I would turn one outboard and thrust the other into reverse so that the pontoon went about with them.’ I remembered that the first time they tried this Swallow’s mast footing broke. Amazon’s mast-gate broke on another occasion. Nick had to persuade a friend to let him borrow his welding workshop and managed to mend it over night, so that she could be ready on set first thing the next day.

Behind the scenes while filming Swallow fromthe pontoon

~The camera pontoon, Capri and one of the Dorys used behind-the-scenes~

Nick went on to say the pontoon leaked a bit. ‘We would have to pump out hull every morning.’ The Capri used behind the scenes was Nick’s equivalent of a marine Land Rover. ‘It had a reinforced glass fibre hull for increased capability and a 55-horse power engine that had been used for the Olympics. We used it for Ken Russell’s film ‘Tommy‘, the rock opera with Roger Daltry and The Who. Once, when we were using it for Swallows and Amazons, Clive Stuart shoved it into gear with rather too much gusto. Someone only just managed to grab the director, Claude Whatham, before he was flung over the back. ‘Claude was spitting feathers after that.’

BW Wearing Life Jackets in the Safety Boat - trimmed

~Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West, Sophie Neville & Sten Grendon with David Stanger at the helm of the Dory in 1973~

Mike Turk provided two Dorys, built at his yard, to use as run-around boats. One was driven by David Stanger who is now skipper of a launch on Ullswater. It was a stable boat but you needed to watch how it was not overloaded. Water came over the bows one day giving my mother rather a shock.

Nick Newby with Sophie Neville in Keswick

~Nick Newby at the Alhambra cinema in 2018: photo Marc Grimston~

‘The boating world is a small world,’ Nick assured me. This July, forty-five years after making the film, he brought his grand-daughter to watch ‘Swallows and Amazons’ at the Alhambra Cinema in Keswick and gamely came up on stage for a Q&A to explain how some of the sailing scenes were achieved.

In his time, Nick Newby has worked a number of films made in the Lake District including Mahler – a Ken Russell film starring Robert Powell, a movie called Gothic (1986) starring Julian Sands and Natasha Richardson, Julia (1977) starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, Brazil (1985), Planet of the Apes, a couple of episodes of Sherloch Holmes with Ben Kingsley, and a number of adverts.

Mike Turk, Swan Upper and Queen’s Waterman, who provided boats for numerous films from Moonraker to Hornblower, sadly passed away aged 78. You can read his obituary here. He went on to work on a number of James Bond movie. You can see his film credits here.

Swallow on the Alde

A group of Arthur Ransome enthusiasts clubbed together to buy Swallow from Mike’s collection in 2010. She is currently kept on a trailer at Kendal in the Lake District. If you would like to sail her, please visit SailRansome.com

For Nicol End Marine, about two miles outside Keswick on Derwentwater please click here

 

‘I Chaperoned Six Film Stars’ Daphne Neville’s memories of making the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 part three

Daphne Neville in about 1973
Daphne Neville in about 1973

I clearly remember my mother winding carbon paper into the roller of her portable typewriter and bashing out articles. Ping! the bell would ring as she reached the end of a line. She would then pull left on a shiny paddle, with relish, to begin a new paragraph. She seemed to type like the wind, it was only a pity she didn’t write more. Was it more time-consuming when making changes was so laborious and a dictionary needed to be flicked through to check spelling? I was forever pouring through a thesaurus and looking for reference books in libraries as a child in the ‘seventies but find computers seems to steal more time.

Sophie Neville with the cast of Swallows

~The photograph that illustrated an article in Woman magazine taken at the Commonwealth Institute in 1974~

Here is the second part of the article Mum wrote for Woman magazine when the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was screened in cinemas around the country in April 1974. Earlier pages can be read in a previous post here and there is also a programme she wrote for BBC Radio Bristol on the same subject here.

Jean McGill, Jane Grendon, Sten Grendon, Kit Seymour, Sophie Neville, Claude Whatham, Simon West, Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Ronnie Cogan, 1973

Daphne Neville giving Lesley Bennett (Peggy Blackett) archery lessons, 1973

The Saucepan and her mother, Daphne Neville in 1973

Terry Smith, Sophie Neville and Daphne Neville on location in the Lake District
Wardrobe Master Terry Smith with Sophie Neville and her mother Daphne Neville outside the Make-up caravan on location near Keswick in Cumbria

I’d forgotton that Kit was sent half a Birthday cake but do remember Ronnie Fraser arrived at her party quite tiddly. I am amused to learn we finally left Oaklands Guest House with fifty peices of luggage but I still have a hazel bow and arrow set, which I don’t expect ever fitted into a suitcase.

Please let me know if you would like to see old scripts and letters relating to the original publicity for the film, kept in my mother’s archives.

To read more about Daphne Neville’s adventures in film and television please click here

‘Swallows and Amazons’ in Keswick

This summer marked the 45th Anniversary of filming the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Derwentwater when Ronald Fraser was obliged to walk the plank in a solar topi in July 1973.

Ronald Fraser walking the plank

To celebrate the anniversary, Sophie Neville, who played Titty, introduced a screening of the 1974 film at the Alhambra Cinema in Keswick on Saturday 28th July.

Captain Flint having walked the plank

She demonstrated how one of the visual effects was achieved and signed copies of her book ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ after a Q&A.

‘I brought one of the original arrows that the Amazon pirates fired over my head. It looks so dangerous on film that the shot was cut from the television version but is included in the re-mastered cinemascope edition that we are now able to watch on the big screen. You might be able to spot a few other things that went wrong while we were filming, such as the time I inadvertently slipped up to my waist in water.’

‘The elegant Lakeland steamer, the Lady Derwentwater, had the starring role as Captain Flint’s houseboat. She was adapted for the part by the award-winning set designer Ian Whittaker, who went on to receive an Oscar for Best Art Direction on ‘Howards End’ starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. His astonishing list of nominations can been seen here.

Swallow, the 1930s sailing dinghy used in the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was at the lakeside for Arthur Ransome enthusiasts to admire. She is looked after by Rob Boden, from Kendal, who is happy to take people for a sail by prior arrangement via the SailRansome website here.

Secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons

‘I Chaperoned Six Film Stars’ – Daphne Neville’s memories of working behind-the-scenes on the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ 45 years ago.

My mother is a squirrel. She arrived at my house, not with nuts, but a large envelope. Amongst other things, this contained the transcript of a piece she wrote almost forty-five years ago for BBC Radio Bristol, when she presented a programme called ‘Come Alive’.  The four flimsy sheets of copy paper have only just been unearthed, along with a similar article for Woman magazine.

Daphne Neville was commissioned to write about her experience working on the original feature film, Swallows and Amazons, filmed on location in the Lake District in the summer of 1973 and brought to cinemas in 1974. Sold worldwide, has been broadcast on television for the last forty years and was last shown on TV in Australia on Boxing Day.

Daphne Neville with Sophie Neville while filming 'Swallows and Amazons' in Cumbria
Daphne Neville with Sophie Neville while filming ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)

It is interesting to have Mum’s perspective. Some of the details are new to me. She timed this piece for BBC Radio as taking ‘8 minutes’ to read:

Suzanna Hamilton, Lesley Bennett, Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour and Simon West before their hair was cut for the film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Daphne Neville Chaperone

~ On Derwentwater in 1973: Suzannah Hamilton, Kit Seymour, Daphne Neville, Sten Grendon, Simon West, Sophie Neville & Lesley Bennett ~ photo: Martin Neville

'Swallows and Amazons'(1974) Daphne Neville with Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, fellow chaperone, Jane Grendon and Simon West on location in 1973
Daphne Neville with Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, fellow chaperone, Jane Grendon and Simon West on location in 1973

A Day Off in Blackpool - Suzanna Hamliton, Simon West, Claude Whatham Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour, Jean McGill with Daphne Neville kneeling at Blackpool funfair in 1973
Suzanna Hamliton, Simon West, Claude Whatham Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour, Jean McGill with Daphne Neville kneeling at Blackpool fun fair in 1973

But Mum, were we ever ‘Film Stars’?

We scowled at the terminology at the time. Ten years later and I thought of us a merely puppets, marionettes of the director who carefully honed our performances. I can now see the contribution we made when I watch the film, but we were never film stars.

What do I wish? I wish that we’d been able to make a sequel and develop our work more fully. The flip-side of this would have been that any more success, or more publicity, might have stripped us of our anonymity, which is the bain of real film stars. We’d have had to go around wearing sunglasses.

The film star Ronald Fraser with Daphne Neville and Sophie Neville in 1973

If you would like to see what we were filming 45 years ago, on 1st July 1973, please click here.

Let me know if you would like to see more archive material. I have the draft of my mother’s article for Woman magazine – it’s a different version of the same but with added detail. She needed permission from Anglo EMI Film Distributors before it could be published. There is also a draft of another radio script and a number of letters. If you would like to see vintage photos of Mum appearing on television herself, please click here

Speaking about filming ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ on the Norfolk Broads

 

Sophie Neville with Titmouse

~Sophie Neville with the star of ‘Coot Club’~

I was invited to talk about making the BBC TV classic serial ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ at the Norfolk Broads Yacht Club to help celebrate their 80th Anniversary. Titmouse, then 1930s dinghy owned by Hunter’s Yard had been brought down from Ludham for the occasion.

The bonus was that I was able to go sailing in one of the classic boats gathered at the club for their Open Day.

Geoff and Rose Angell kindly took me out on Pippa, their beautiful yacht with brown sails that appeared in ‘The Big Six’. I am sure Arthur Ransome would have loved her.

I’d spent nine months working with the BBC production back in 1983 when it had been my job to cast the children and teenagers who appear in the drama, many of whom needed genuine Norfolk accents.

Coot Club - book cover
~Henry Dimbleby, Nicholas Walpole, Jake Coppard, Mark Page, Caroline Downer and Richard Walton as they appeared in ‘The Big Six’ (1984)~

We had been looking for young actors who could swim well and were able handle boats. We then spent three months filming in East Anglia when I looked after the children and helped rehearse their lines. I set up this shot for the cover of the Puffin paperback that accompanied the series.

~Author Sophie Neville giving a talk at the Norfolk Broads Yacht Club~

At a forum organised after my talk, Pat Simpson from Stalham Yacht Services explained how he found one of the stars of the series – an old lifeboat suitable to play the Death and Glory. She had been brought from where she is kept at Belaugh for the evening. You can see more photographs of her in the previous blog post here.

'The Death and Glory'

Pat provided a number of other vessels for the series including Buttercup and support boats such as the safely boat, a large modern cruiser used as a school room along with another for the costume and make up personnel. He explained that this came as a god-send as boat rentals had not been good that summer. Working on the series was harder than he imagined, ‘We once had to take a boat from Regan to Horning Hall overnight’ but he was pleased that ‘after three months of concentrated work, we got it all done.’

~Robin Richardson~

Robin Richardson, who co-owned Pippa back in 1983, explained how the shot of her being cast adrift was achieved. This wasn’t as easy as first thought as even when Simon Hawes, who was playing George Owdon, flung her stem line on the deck, a gentle breeze was blowing her back against the staithe. ‘Pippa didn’t want to go anywhere’. Robin had to stage the action by throwing out a mud anchor, climbing under her awning and pulling on the line to create the effect of a boat drifting out of control into potential danger. Pippa’s white canvas cover is pulled back here, but you can imagine the scene.

He was on location when Henry Dimbleby, who played Tom Dudgeon, was attempting to tow the Teasel under Potter Heigham bridge. He was rowing Titmouse, pulling hard on the aors but nothing was happening. ‘Stop for lunch,’ Robin advised the director, ‘and the tide will turn.’ This they did, and Henry we able to row under the bridge, towing the Teasel quite easily. Hunter’s Yard, who own Lullaby, who played the Teasle, could not bring her down for the weekend as she had been leased out with other boats, but they sent her transom, painted with her stage name.

'TEASEL'

Robin Richardson owns the ‘Slipstream’ class dinghy called Spindrift who played Shooting Star in the serial. She was built by her father but couldn’t be with us as they were not able to complete her winter maintenance in time but Richard Hattersley said she came tenth in this year’s Three Rivers race when only 15 of the 98 entries actually finished. It’s a 24 hour endurance challenge, which they completed despite light winds. He sent me this shot, ‘of her battling it out with much larger Thames A Raters.’

Spindrift a Slipstream class dinghy

I was shown a wonderful black and white photograph of the vessel used to play the Cachalot. She was skippered in the series by the film actor Sam Kelly in the role of the unnamed pike fishermen who the Death and Glory boys simply called ‘Sir’. She is seen here with John Boswell, her real owner who has sadly passed away. His son, the artist Patrick Boswell, brought along an album of behind-the-scenes photos.

The theme of the weekend was ‘Boats of the 1930s’. I explained how Swallow, the dinghy used in the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ originally came from Burnham-on-Sea where she was made by W. King and Sons to be used as a run-a-round boat. She was stabilised by a keel that ran the length of the hull, as Ransome described. It makes her rather difficult to turn. You can sail her today and is in the Lake District right now. Please see Sailransome for details.

There was quite a bit of interest in memorabilia from the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I bought along the white elephant flag captured from Captain Flint’s houseboat in the 1974 film, which was approved by a young Amazon pirate.

After a celebratory dinner, David and Nicky Talbot invited me to spend the night in the comfortable for’ard cabin of Kingfisher, a 1970’s motor yacht moored at the club.

I woke early on the Sunday morning to find mist hanging above the water as the sun was rising on what proved to be another sunny day with a fair wind for sailing.

After breakfast aboard, I was invited out in the 1930s river cruiser ‘Water Rail’, who had also appeared in the serial. We took her down the River Bure to her mooring in Horning where she is still part of the scene.

It was wonderful to be out on the waterways of Norfolk, passing traditional buildings. This was a stretch of river never featured in the television drama as Rosemary Leach, who played Mrs Barrable, took Dick and Dorothea from Wroxham to Horning in a trap pulled by Rufus the pony. One reason for this was that in 1983 we had to use the North Norfolk Steam Railway, since Wroxham Station had been modernised but Joe Waters, the producer, said he wanted to add variety by featuring a pony rather than a motorboat.

IMG_6885

We encountered a number of period cruisers, although Janca, who we used to play the Hullabaloos’ Margoletta, sadly could not be with us, as she is still under repair.

IMG_6912

However, by motoring into Horning ourselves, we passed The Swan Inn and Horning Staithe where a number of scenes had been shot, including some that featured Julian Fellowes and Sarah Crowden, playing the hated Hullabaloos. You can see photographs of them in an earlier post here.

~Horning in Norfolk showing The Swan Inn and Horning Staithe where boats are moored~

Another vessel that interested me was a river launch that reminded me of the 1901 steamboat Daffodil, which I renovated with my father in 1978. I have photographs of her here.

IMG_6903

You can read more about the traditional boats used in the series by clicking here.

Gerry Spiller, has written from Woodbridge in Suffolk, to say that she has found an oar labelled TITMOUSE, bought at a boat jumble. Could this date from the early 1930? Does anyone have the pair?

Blade labelled TITMOUSE

The DVD of the serial is now available on a re-mastered DVD, available from Amazon here

(Do not be tempted by the old version with a more colourful cover as the image quality is very poor)

New DVD of 'Coot Club and The Big Six'

Additional photographs by Richard Hattersly

The Tavistock Festival

~Tavistock Festival – from the original painting by Celia Duncan~

The Tavistock Music and Arts Festival is in full swing. Do take a look through the brochure and take part in some of the events on offer, especially if you are planning to visit Dartmoor over the next few weeks. You can find the online brochure here.

Author Sophie Neville giving talks at the Tavistock Festival in Devon - Literary Festivals

The talk and Q&A on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ went down well, with audiences made up of Arthur Ransome enthusiasts, those who loved both the old film and the Lake District. There were also young people interested in acting and film-making who said they had watched the DVD a number of times.  One couple remembered Titty Altounyan who had lived in Coniston and was so well-loved by the people of the Lake District.

Questions included: ‘How did you get the part of Titty?’, ‘What was the most difficult scene to film?’ and ‘Where did you stay when you were filming?’ The answers, of course, can be found in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ published by The Lutterworth Press.

~Sophie Neville after opening the Tavistock Festival: photo-Helena Ancil~

The Plymouth Pipe Band heralded the beginning of the festival outside the Church of St Eustachius where the Chamber Ensemble of London played later that evening.

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Christopher Kirwin, Chairman of the Festival, took me to Tavistock Library where I found a copy of ‘Swallows and Amazons’.

They had created a display of Arthur Ransome books, including a vintage copy of Robinson Crusoe, and now have ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ on their shelves.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Was he a Devon lad? I forget! After being interviewed by the Tavistock Times, I was called on to open the Festival in the portrait room at The Bedford Hotel when I met the Trustees and President, the composer Andrew Wilson. It was good to see Simon Dell, an expert on Dartmoor, who will be giving a talks and leading walks during the festival.  I first met him in 2015 when visiting Lundy Island with The Arthur Ransome Society.

On Sunday 22nd April, the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was screened at The Wharf Cinema on the Tavistock Canal. We held a book signing directly afterwards, when festival members gathered to chat about films and film reviews, books and book reviews, along with all manner of things.

I met David Harrison, the projectionist, who told me that he first screened the movie when it came out in 1974. He worked at the Drake Cinema in Plymouth from 1967 to 2000 and is quite an expert on film with what sounded like an impressive private collection of DVDs. Dave told me I was ‘His favourite girl’ in the movie and presented me with a bunch of narcissi.

~Sophie Neville at the Wharf cinema with David Harrison~

In the foyer of The Wharf, where Virginia McKenna once gave a talk on making her iconic movie ‘Born Free’, they have new star: a glitzy otter called Rosie who was happy to pose wearing a red Amazon hat. She is one of many otters made for the Moor Otter Trail, that is becoming popular with visitors. You can read how they raised £126,000 for Dartmoor National Park here.

Sophie Neville with Rosie the Otter at The Wharf Cinema for the Tavistock Festival~Sophie Neville, Patron of the UK Wild Otter Trust: photo-Helena Ancil~

You can see pictures of the otters hand-reared by my family here

The Chairman of the Tavistock Festival, Christopher Kirwin, chatted to Belinda Dixon on BBC Radio Devon’s Sunday morning programme for about thirty minutes. You can listen to this, 1hr.26mins into the programme here:

 

Longing to add more stories to ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’

Almost as soon as we published the second edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ in May 2017, a number of facts and stories washed up on the incoming tide. I didn’t know that Ransome was aged twelve – Captain John’s age – when he first met the Collingwood family on Peel Island. I knew he went to Rugby School but not that he was given the study once used by the English author Lewis Carroll. I’m not sure if that inspired him to write children’s books but he certainly borrowed the term galumphing from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).

~ Lewis Carroll’s plaque at Rugby School ~

I never knew that Rusland, where Arthur and Evgenia Ransome lie buried at St Paul’s Church, is also a name for Russia, where of course they met in what was then Petrograd when Evgenia was working as Leon Troski’s private secretary. Thanks to the feature writer Maggie Dickenson, I’ve learned that this kneeler at St Paul’s was embroidered by Jean Hopkins:

Cross flags at Rusland Church where the Ransomes are buried - photo Sophie Neville

Brian Crawley has just written in to say that, in 1973, our visit to the charcoal burners was filmed less than a mile to the west of the church in Glass Knott Wood. I gather the remains of the wig-wam’s fireplace can still be seen. I didn’t know it was so close, and just assumed we had been in the Grizedale Forest. I’ll have to add it to my map!

The Russian edition of Swallows and Amazons, that can be borrowed from The Arthur Ransome Society library, has proved a great source of reference. Donated by the Gatchina Library it is the only copy in the UK. I learnt from the comments at the back that the Black Jack is a pirate flag, which I’ve always called a Jolly Roger, and that ‘in one’s mind’s eye’ is an expression used by William Shakespeare in Hamlet. “Tip us a stave” means “give us a song”, a term used in Treasure Island.

Other flotsam and jetsam on my tide-line  is  a wonderful quote to accompany this behind-the-scenes photograph when re-reading Winter Holiday written by Arthur Ransome in 1933:

What’s in that box?” asked Roger.

It’s just about big enough for you, isn’t it?” said Captain Flint.

Sten Grendon in the camera box~ Sten Grendon playing Roger in the Panavision camera box in 1974~

A member of the Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook commented on how annoying it was that Ronald Fraser made a funny face when he first sipped the tea Suzanna Hamilton offered him. Captain Flint ALWAYS enjoyed Susan’s tea.

Contact sheet - Ronald Fraser with Lesley Bennett

There was some discussion amongst members of the same Arthur Ransome Group about how female characters depicted in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Eddie Castellan wrote: Ransome is remarkably non-sexist for his era and remains so by today’s standards. Mind you, most great storytellers realise that weak female characters are simply dull… great storytellers seem to give women better roles than mediocre ones.’ 

Contact sheet - Claude Whatham directing on the houseboat

Fionna Grant added: Arthur Ransome had a range of roles for his female characters from Nancy to Susan to Titty…. not only represented, but honoured for their contribution to the group… All the kids in Swallows and Amazons are encouraged to learn through achievement but they are also allowed to choose their own path, follow their own interests.

Contact sheet - Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville on Cormorant Island

At a talk given about the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen given by Simon Browne, at a meeting of The Arthur Ransome Society, we were given a definition of the word Hero: one who combats adversity through integrity, bravery or strength, often sacrificing personal concerns for the greater good.

Titty was brave but all she really did was to grab a chance to swipe Amazon. It meant she had to sleep on board, which was rather uncomfortable, but what made Titty a true heroine in the film was her determination and persistence: she woke up early and persuaded Roger to help her find the treasure hidden on Cormorant Island. Like Ransome himself, she was prepared to grab a chance, take a risk – even if it meant being cold and uncomfortable for a while.

Contact sheet - blurred images of Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville rowing to Cormorant Island

I received another lovely note on Facebook from Zena Ashberry (nee Khan) who appeared as a film extra in the Rio scenes shot at Bowness-on-Windermere when she was a little girl, despite being of half-Asian descent:

‘I was nine at the time and my sister was eight. I remember going through an audition – which was really just a panel of three or four men looking at Mum, my sister and me to see if we would be in keeping with the ‘look’ of the film. They seemed very keen on having Mum. My sister, at the time had sandy coloured hair and so was not at all problematic, however I was very dark and because they wanted Mum they said that they could hide ‘it’ by putting me in a white dress and hat! How times have changed…obviously I remember other things too, like feeding the horses which pulled the open carriage and the horse standing on my foot oouuch!, the strange awkwardness of having to act ‘naturally’ whilst being watched through a camera, having to repeatedly carry out the same activity to ensure a good shot – how many times did we throw stones into the lake? The ice-cream tricycle with real ice cream mmmm a treat … being watched by crowds of tourists gathered along the footpath and flower beds. It was a strange and unreal experience, doing what as children we would normally do but doing it in ‘dressy-up’ clothes that weren’t from our own dressy -up box and playing the game with Mum and her friends with total strangers telling us what we should do…just a bit bewildering really, but funny in retrospect.’

Contact sheet - Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton night sailing

Please let me know if you have any points of interest that I could add to ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ that you think might of interest to readers. The great thing about ebooks is that they can be updated and re-loaded free of charge.

I’m going to be giving a number of talks on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ this summer. Please click here for details.

Out of the archives: a 1974 script for a BBC Radio Bristol show about the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’

Swallow and Amazon sailing on Derwentwater in the Lake District 1973

When the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ first came out in cinemas it stirred up quite a bit of interest in the media.

This script for a programme made for BBC Radio Bristol has recently been discovered in a box in my mother’s attic. Typical of the early ‘seventies, it is a carbon copy, so is rather feint, but it a little bit of media history in itself:


It’s intriguing. What did we say in the interviews that they ran in?

Sadly, two of the first newspaper reviews of the movie were not complimentary. Last year, when interviewed by Tim Fenton at Pin Mill on the Orwell, Professor Hugh Brogan said that one of these articles was so ignorant and so angered him that he resolved to write the truth about Ransome’s distinguished career. This involved years of research but resulted in his biography, ‘The Life of Arthur Ransome’.

I haven’t been able to find the article Hugh read but he remembered it being ignorant of Arthur Ransome’s politics rather than the film. His beautifully written book sparked an enormous amount of additional research and television documentaries, including ‘The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome’, which can be viewed on iPlayer.

Since The Lutterworth Press published the seconded edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ in May last year, a number of other stories and facts have reached me. I’ve learned that the creamy yellow taxi in which the Walker family arrived at Holly Howe was a Vauxhall 20/60 R type saloon, 1928 – 1930 model hired for the film by the property buyer Ron Baker, whose name I must add to the credits. When the Altounyan children stayed at the same farmhouse, which in reality is called Bank Ground Farm, their hostess was called Mrs Jolly. Apparently her husband, Mr Jolly, did not live up to his name.

The lady in blue who waved from the deck of MV Tern after the Swallow’s near miss was played by Lorna Khan. Here she is with her daughter Zena and a yellow Austin Heavy 12/4 tourer, after they appeared in the Rio scenes. You can see other film extras and supporting artists in 1929 costume, patiently sitting in the Browns of Ambleside coach behind them.

 Photograph (c) Zena Ashbury

Did you know that missionaries in Africa used semaphore? Until I read a Russian edition of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ I’m afraid I didn’t know that Darien was the former name of the Isthmus of Panama, that the Rio Grande flows from South Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico or that ‘Shiver my timbers’ was a curse used by R. L Stephenson in Treasure Island.

Nick Owen had been living at Elterwater for seventeen years before he learnt the fishing scene from ‘Swallows and Amazons(1974)’ was shot there.

It had not occurred to me that the film was recorded in the annals until I was sent this excerpt from the third edition of ‘Time Out Film Guide’ (1993). Perhaps I should bring out a third edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’.

Please let me know if you would like to see more archive material from the attic.

To read more about Cider With Rosie (1971) directed by Claude Whatham, starring Sten Grendon as Laurie Lee please click here

A marathon reading of ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ by Arthur Ransome

On Saturday 21st October, local  ITV News interviewed Griff Rhys Jones and myself at Pin Mill in Suffolk. We were taking part in a marathon reading of Arthur Ransome’s iconic book ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ with other authors including Libby Purves, Francis Wheen, Christina Hardyment, Julia Jones and Marc Grimstone. Ivan Cutting of Eastern Angles and Dan Houston, editor of Classic Sailor, also read chapters. You can read more about the event here.


~Pin Mill on the Owell ~ photo: Anthony Cullen(c)~

The story begins at Pin Mill where the Swallows – John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker, along with their mother and Bridget-the-ship’s-baby, are waiting for their father to take up a Naval posting nearby at Shotley. The four children didn’t mean to go to sea at all but somehow ended up sailing to the Netherlands in a terrific storm. I was asked to read the last chapter.

Griff Rhys Jones and Sophie Neville at Pin Mill 21st Oct 2017

~Gryff Rhys Jones and Sophie Neville appearing on Anglia Television~

The reading, which lasted nine hours, was held to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the book’s publication in 1937. It has been profiled in the magazine Classic Boat and on the BBC News website. The event was organised by Peter Willis of The Nancy Blackett Trust who spoke at length to Lesley Dolphin on BBC Radio Suffolk

Julia Jones, Francis Wheen and Sophie Neville - photo by Anthony Cullen

~Julia Jones, Francis Wheen and Sophie Neville with a photograph taken by Arthur Ransome when his yacht Selina King was being built. Photo: Anthony Cullen~

You can read about our adventures sailing Nancy Blackett this summer in Country Life magazine:

Sophie Neville profiled in Country Life magazine 12 July 2017

There are also photos of our cruise through the Netherlands on the Nancy Blackett Trust website, as well as a six page colour feature in Classic Sailor magazine. You can watch the ITV News clip here.

Nancy Blackett in Classic Sailor

Going back twenty years: Members of The Arthur Ransome Society alerted me to a BBC Children’s Television programme, which shows Griff Rhys Jones at Pin Mill in 1997 when he met Taqui Altounyan who knew Ransome when she was a girl. The Swallows were originally based on her family who learnt to sail in two clinker-built dinghies called Swallow and Mavis when they stayed at Bank Ground Farm (Holly Howe) above Coniston Water in the Lake District. I recently discovered the secret that Taqui was also the model for Captain Nancy in Ransome’s well-loved books.

Meeting up with Peggy Blackett – from the film ‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974)

Lesley Bennett in 1973

When the original feature film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ was made in 1973, Peggy Blackett was played by Lesley Bennett. She can be seen here on location at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water in the Lake District.

For the last thirty-four years, Lesley has been living in the Netherlands. I met up with her for lunch at Schiphol Airport on my way back from sailing Arthur Ransome’s cutter, the Nancy Blackett, through the inland waterways of Zeeland. (Please see the last two previous posts.) I nearly didn’t make the meeting. A man had been arrested for planting a bomb on a train just north of Middleberg, but the authorities must have acted quickly as I wasn’t delayed for long.

Lesley had brought along a blue file of documents and a number of black and white movie stills that she’d been given by Richard Pilbrow, the producer of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) on one of our last days in Ambleside after filming had finished. We could both remember them spread out on a table at the unit hotel so we could each chose the ones we appeared in. I had picked one where Lesley and I are sitting together, our hair bobbed in line with the 1930’s, I wearing a cream silk dress, Lesley in a dark top looking very pretty:

With Virginia McKenna on the first day of filming
~A publicity shot featuring Virginia McKenna, with Kit Seymour, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Lesley Bennett, Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton, published in the Guardian and other newspapers~

Lesley’s parents, who lived near Tonbridge in Kent, originally learnt that Theatre Projects were looking for children to take part in the film when the Associate Producer, Neville Thompson, wrote to their local sailing club. Lesley explained that her father, who was very well organised, kept a copy of the letter sent to the Secretary of the club in January 1973.  Plans were made for Lesley to be interviewed for a part with her younger sister Lyn, who sadly fell ill and couldn’t make the audition. The letter contains a mistake that might explain why Lesley ended up playing Peggy when she was thirteen years old.

Lesley got on well with Kit Seymour who ended up playing her elder sister, Nancy Blackett – ‘terror of the seas’. Both girls would sail well and enjoyed being out on the lakes. Lesley told me that the reason why she held her hands between her legs in this photograph is that it was so cold when we were filming on Peel Island.

‘Kit would fold her arms and I’d try to keep my hands warm.’ Although I wore a cardigan in this scene, Swallows had been cold too. I remember thinking that at least the Amazons wore knitted hats. Otherwise their costumes were simple short-sleeved shirts and long shorts with black plymsols, worn without socks.

~Kit Seymour as Captain Nancy and Lesley Bennett as Mate Peggy in 1973~

Lesley told me their hats had been quite a problem – not quite a full-blown movie disaster but a they caused consternation in Consiton. The first scene the Amazons shot was set in the garden of Beckfoot, the Blacketts’ house. Although it does not lie on the ‘Amazon River’ at the northern end of the lake, Brown Howe on the western shore of Coniston Water was used as the location and the crew set up the 35mm Panavision camera, along with reflector boards and enough lighting to bring sunshine to Westmorland. When everyone on the production was ready, Gareth Tandy, the third assistant led the Amazons down to the set wearing red knitted stocking caps – with no bobbles. Beanies were not quite what either the director or producer had expected. Lesley has a photo showing the great discussion that ensued:


~Director Claude Whatham, Producer Richard Pilbrow, 3rd Assistant Director Gareth Tandy, Make-up Artist Peter Robb-King, Hairdresser Ronnie Cogan and Associate Producer Neville Thompson with Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett at Brown Howe on Coniston Water in May 1973 ~

In the end Claude Whatham shot the scene with the girls bare-headed, their hair blowing all over the place, even though it was meant to be ‘dead-calm’ in the story.  This looked natural as they were at home but they needed to look like pirates in every other scene.

~Nancy and Peggy running down to Amazon at the Blackett’s house Beckfoot~

Wooly hats with ‘longer ends’ were knitted locally at some speed. Red is not a good colour on the screen. I remember a couple of bright pink ribbed bobble-hats arrived when we were filming on Peel Island but they were deemed a complete disaster and rejected in favour of scarlet ones originally described by Arthur Ransome even if the colour might look a bit jarring on screen.

No one on the production knew anything about knitting or subtle shades of wool and Emma Porteous, the costume designer, was back in London. When the third pair of hats arrived we were all a bit worried about the fatness of the bobble-end, as they didn’t quite match the illustrations in the books, but no one knew what else to do. Time ran out and the producer was forced to compromise. ‘They were warm but prone to flop about,’ Lesley said, ‘and sometimes flopped forward, which looked a bit silly.’ I’d never noticed this but it was captured in one photograph:

~Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett as Nancy and Peggy Blackett on Wild Cat Island in 1973~

Mum was given the pink version of the hats. She kept them for years but no one ever wore them.

To be continued….