Tag Archives: Virginia McKenna playing Man Friday

Questions about filming ‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974) and tips for camping

3rd June 2017, marked the 50th Anniversary of Arthur Ransome’s death – a day to remember his books and the inspiration they have brought to our lives, not least since he encouraged the pursuit of outdoor activites such as sailing and camping, along with reading, writing and keeping a ship’s log. I’m not sure what he’d think of some of the conversations I’ve had about Swallows and Amazons but at least his well-loved story is being talked about.

Last time I gave a Q&A about the 1974 movie of ‘Swallow and Amazons’ at a cinema, I was interviewed by the actress Diana Quick, which was wonderful as she was so easy to talk to. She asked a few questions that have not come up before.

 

Did you children feel the film was like the book?

Very much so, I’d read most of the books in the series and ‘Swallows and Amazons’ twice. Richard Pilbrow, the producer was aiming to keep as close to the Arthur Ransome’s well-known story as possible. I never saw David Wood’s script, but simply sung out Titty’s dialogue from my Puffin paperback. It was amazing to find ourselves in Secret Harbour, just has Ransome had depicted it. We were rather disappointed that the storm scene was cut but could appreciate that ‘you can’t have everything’.

 

How much time did you have to get to know one another?

Not long, only two or three days. The weather wasn’t that good but we were taken out sailing which was fun and Virginia McKenna was wonderful at getting us to play games that broke the ice. We played consequences with folded strips of paper, the results of which made us laugh a great deal.

Would you have felt able to take a boat out as Titty does, on your own at night?

Yes, I managed to launch Amazon and row her out of Secret Harbour in one take, but I was aged twelve, rather than nine, which is Titty’s age in the book. Amazon was a very easy dinghy to handle and had been used in the BBC serial made in 1962, when Ransome was alive.

Although he claimed to have read ‘Swallows and Amazons’ forty-two times, David Blagdon, our sailing director, forgot that Titty was meant to sail Amazon back to Wild Cat Island, so I never practiced taking the helm, or sailing her alone. In the end the Mate Susan took my place, which I felt was a bit of a shame as in the book Titty sailed her back with John crewing.

It is interesting that Titty, the most adventurous character was played by you who have gone on to lead an adventurous life.

It may be partly the way I’d been raised. My father grew up reading the first editions of Ransome’s books in the 1930s and we often went camping as a family, certainly every summer holiday. My mother still goes camping at the age of eighty.

Perhaps the director, Claude Whatham recognised an adventurous spirit. I always need to see around the next corner. I was hugely inspired to travel by my father and by friends at university, particularly Alastair Fothergill who has spent his whole life travelling while making wildlife films, most recently African Cats, Chimpanzee, Bears and Monkey Kingdom for DisneyNature.

Have you got any tips for camping?

Yes! There is an art to camping:

  • You can always fill a metal water bottle with hot water at night and use it as a hot-water bottle in your sleeping bag. If you get thirsty later you can always take a drink without having to get up.
  • I usually keep my clothes for the next day with me in my sleeping bag so they stay warm and dry.
  • It’s important to keep tents clean. Never brush your hair inside a tent and never let anyone step of the fly sheet when they are folding it up otherwise you risk having footprints on the ceiling.
  • Make sure you keep a supply of dry firewood.
  • There are dangers to camping: always set down a cup on the ground before filling it with boiling water from a kettle. It is too easy to get burnt by super-heated water if you hold it.
  • I pack a leather glove or pot holders for cooking over camp fires.
  • Take care about where you place knives, barbeque grids or pans as it is easy for others to tread on them in the dark.
  • Make sure your torch is in the same place every night. I keep a small torch in my washbag.
  • Take a hair-dryer. If there is ever an electricity supply you can use it to heat your tent or dry out wet clothes and sleeping bags. We got soaked riding through New Zealand once but arrived at a sheep shears’ shed and found great comfort in drying our socks. I gave this task to rather an annoying German man who took such pride it doing the job thoroughly that he regained our respect on a number of levels.
  • Enjoy every moment.

If anyone has any questions, please leave a comment below.

If you would like to read more about my current adventures please click here

StudioCanal hold a vast selection of the best photographs from ‘Swallow and Amazons’ in their libray and have an on-line shop here.

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Filed under Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, British Film, David Wood, Dinghy sailing, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, filmography, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, sailing film, Sophie Neville, Swallows & Amazons, Swallows and Amazons, titty, Titty in Swallows and Amazons, Travel, truelife story, Uncategorized, Vintage Film, Virginia McKenna

Being Robinson Crusoe on Wildcat Island ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Sophie Neville, playing Titty Walker in Swallows and Amazons

Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker, who envisaged herself as Robbinson Crusoe alone on Wildcat Island

I did not invisage it beforehand, but at this point in my life I became one of the actors who played Robinson Crusoe in film, with Virginia McKenna taking the part of Man Friday. It would come across rather well on a chat show.  The audience would be taken unawares and we could meet the other actors who took the same parts after us. I am sure they were stranded on warmer desert islands.

Losing a milk tooth when you are twelve-and-a-half years old is really rather embarrassing. When you are in the middle of appearing in a feature film it’s disastrous. Not only was the gap sore but since it was an upper tooth at the front of my mouth the continuity of the whole movie was blown.  I think today they may have tried to fit a bridge but Claude Whatham, the Director decided he would just have to live with the problem. I spent the next few days trying not to let my teeth show, but even today, all these years later, those who know the film well comment on the fact that I lost an eye tooth.

Virginia McKenna playing Man Friday in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

As it was, I had to concentrate on pushing the hideously heavy Holly Howe rowing boat away from our desert island in the scene when I bid farewell to Virginia McKenna who was galantly playing Man Friday. This was more tricky than it would be in real life as the massive 35mm camera, the Cameraman and Sound Recordist where in the boat with Virginia. The water was cold, the rocks rather slippy.

And I had the telescope in my hand. This was in order to deliver Arthur Ransome’s line, ‘Duffer. That’s with looking too hard. Try the other eye,’ whilst lowering the telescope to wipe away a tear. I’m afraid that what came out was ‘That’s for looking too hard.’  I busy thinking of terribly sad things, all geared up to produce the tears, when glycerine was produced and carefully blown into my eyes. The most enormous tears, far more difficult to contain than real ones, gushed forth. And I think that the Wardrobe Master must have forgotten about a hanky. You can tell that the square of white cotton I had tucked in my knickers is just a frayed piece of cloth.

Daniel Defoe’s hero Robinson Crusoe has been portrayed on the big screen by Douglas Fairbanks, Dan O’Herlihy – who earned an Oscar nomination for playing the part in 1952, Aidan Quinn, Pierce Brosnan and me. Or rather me playing Titty being Robinson Crusoe. Oh, dear, Oh dear.

The scene opens with Titty sitting on a biscuit tin, reading from her log. ‘Twenty-five years ago this day, I Robinson Crusoe, was wreck-ed on this desolate place.’ The fact that I had missed the -ed from wrecked was real. I hadn’t written the word down properly.  As you can see in my actual diary there was then a dash ______ . At this point I flung myself  to the ground and dragged my exhausted body into the camp grasping my throat so as to portray the fact that Robinson Crusoe was virtually dying of thirst.

I hauled myself to my feet by grabbing the forked stick by the fire. What I didn’t realise was that Graham Ford, the Sound Recordist had hidden his microphone there. You can still hear the sound crunch as I grasp the crossbar that held the kettle. He was a perfectionist and, despite my apologies, was really rather annoyed about it.

‘Make a good place for a camp,’ Titty declares heartily, whilst looking around. ‘I’ll build my hut here out of  branches and moss.’ And so continued my solo performance. ‘Can’t have two tents for one ship-wrecked mariner.’

As I have mentioned before my mother is very theatrical. In her eyes this was my great soliloquy. The most embarrassing thing I have to admit is that for ages after the film, during my sensitive teenage years, Mum would insist that I used this scene as my audition piece.  Can you imagine? It was dotty. Instead of something appropriate for a young girl, like a scene from I Capture the Castle, which Virginia McKenna had been in, or even something from Shakespeare such as Romeo and Juliet, I would fling myself to the floor of the audition space and enact Titty playing a bearded man. Even now I blush as I remember doing all this in front of five amazed executives, who had never seen Swallows and Amazons. They were looking for nothing more than a normal girl – to be in an advertisement for Parker Knoll armchairs.

Have you ever read the book?  I don’t think many nine-year-olds would manage it. Despite the impression given by the poster above there are no girls in it. It’s about slavery. And cannibals. And rearing goats.

Douglas Fairbanks’ film was released in 1932, too late for Titty. The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was released as a movie in 1922 and in 1929. I wonder if Arthur Ransome ever saw either version? I have to say that if there is every a Hollywood line-up of actors who have played the part I want to be included in it. I might make up for the ignomity I suffered.

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