Tag Archives: Virginia McKenna

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….

 

 

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A Little Bit of Film History

Contact sheet - Sophie Neville with Amazon's anchor

~ Titty with Amazon’s anchor ~

When I first posted an extract from ‘The Secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons’ on a literary website, someone wrote a review assuming it to be a novel. They must have thought that I was some poor creature who had imagined the whole thing. The reviewer considered the plot too far-fetched and fantastical – as you might if it had not been true.

‘You must have been dreaming.’

‘But Captain Flint, there were burglars, you’ve got to believe me.’

Poor Titty! No one ever believed her. Fortunately quite a bit of documentary evidence exists to support the fact that a certain feature film was made in the Lake District in 1973. I do wish I’d kept a copy of the book review though.

Contact sheet - finding Titty in Amazon

~ The Swallows find Titty sleeping in Amazon near Cormorant Island ~

Contact sheet - Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville sailing Amazon

~ Titty and Susan sail Amazon back to Wild Cat Island ~

Contact sheet sailing Swallow & Amazon in 1973

~ Sailing Swallow and Amazon on Derwentwater ~

Contact sheet - sailing Swallow & Amazon on Derwentwater

I was encouraged to collect things as a child, in case they might one day be of value. Back in 1973, I was given a number of black and white photographs and contact sheets of stills taken by Albert Clarke on the set of ‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974) – if you can call Derwentwater a movie set. I pasted some of these in a scrapbook but others remained in a roll that has only recently been returned to me. Each sheet looks roughly like this:

The Making of Swallows & Amazons contact sheet - both boats

The eye is easily tired by looking at the whole set but scanning and editing reveals a little bit of film history in every shot. I can see here that Titty wasn’t letting Amazon’s anchor down, she was hauling it in while Susan was at the helm, with a fair wind in her sails. This must have been quite tricky.

Sophie Neville pulling up Amazons' anchor

You can tell by the numbers above each shot how many were taken and in what sequence. presumably 2003 photographs had been snapped by the time the Swallows found Titty moored near Cormorant Island.

Contact sheet - filming Swallow

~ These bizarre shots show the film crew afloat on their pontoon ~

The photographs below show Virginia McKenna rowing away from Peel Island on Coniston Water in a native canoe with DoP Denis Lewiston and his 35mm camera, which is pretty unique.

One thing is certain, if these contact sheets had not been given to me they would have been thrown out and yet, over time, they have become precious. Do add a comment below if you would like to see more.

It is quite interesting to see which shots were chosen for the press. You can see a few of the action shots used in magazines of the time by clicking here. Newspapers tended to chose photographs akin to portraits as you can see here.

Recent newspaper articles tend to use a black and white film still that was clumsily tinted giving the lake water an unreal and bright blue hue as you find here.

Some of the black and white prints are now held at BFI. StudioCanal hold a vast selection of the best photos in their library and have an on-line shop here. I have included about a hundred behind-the-scenes snaps taken by my parents in the latest edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ recently published by The Lutterworth Press, available from libraries, bookshops and online stockists including The Nancy Blackett shop, where proceeds go towards the upkeep of Arthur Ransome’s favourite little ship.

9780718894962_cover Amazons.indd

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News of 2nd edition of ‘The Making of SWALLOWS and AMAZONS (1974)’ published by The Lutterworth Press on 25th May 2017

9780718894962_cover Amazons.indd

The long-awaited second edition of ‘The Making of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS (1974)’ is being published in paperback by The Lutterworth Press on 25th May. Pre-orders are now available from their website here
This memoir of an odd thing that happened in the early 1970s is similar to the first edition but has a new cover and includes a few more stories, photographs and names from the ‘seventies that have floated to the surface. It compliments StudioCanal’s 40th Anniversary DVD and Blu-ray and makes a good present for anyone who has grown up watching the 1974 film.
StudioCanal DVD cover
The new paperback edition will be stocked by the vast majority of book retailers including Amazon, Waterstones, Blackwells, Paperback Bookshop, Books Etc. and is available direct from The Lutterworth Press  who also publish ‘Swallows, Amazons and Coots’ by Julian Lovelock that has a forward by Sophie Neville.  Those in North America can order copies from the US distributor Casemate Academic
 Swallows & Amazons flags for book

Sophie hopes to be signing copies at events around the country this summer.

Please click here for details

Roseland Festival 2017
Last weekend Sophie was signing copies of her books at the Tavistock Festival and gave a talk at the Roseland Festival in St Mawes before a screening of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) on Sunday evening at the lovely Hotel Tresanton cinema.
Arthur Ransome Pin Mill Jamboree
We are hoping copies of the 2nd Edition will be available by Saturday 13th May when Sophie will be opening the Arthur Ransome Pin Mill Jamboree in Suffolk, to celebrate the  20th Anniversary of the Nancy Blackett Trust and Visit England’s Year of Literary Heroes. As we Discover the Land of Literary Greats, Sophie will be giving a talk on the adaptations of Ransome’s books set in East Anglia and the English Lake District.

Map of the Jamboree

 this Saturday 22nd May at 2.00pm

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‘Swallows, Amazons and Coots’

9780718894368_cover Swallows3.indd

‘Swallows, Amazons and Coots’ by Julian Lovelock, with a forward by Sophie Neville, was launched on 23rd September at The Radcliffe Centre at the University of Buckingham. Published by the Lutterworth Press, it is a companion for anyone who loves Arthur Ransome’s series of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books.

julian-lovelock-with-sophie-neville

To read more and enter a competition to win a copy please click here

For photos of the book launch please click here.

About the new book

‘In 1929, Arthur Ransome (1884-1967), a journalist and war correspondent on the books of MI5, now widely regarded as one of the most influential children’s writers of the twentieth century, turned his hand to writing adventure stories for children. The result was Swallows and Amazons and eleven more wonderful books beyond, spanning in publication the turbulent years from 1930 to 1947. They changed the course of children’s literature and have never been out of print since, beloved for the author’s ability to create a world of escape so close to reality that it is utterly believable, in which things always turn out right in the end. Yet to be properly appreciated today, the novels must be read as products of their era, inextricably bound up with Ransome’s life and times as he bore witness to the end of Empire and the dark days of the Second World War.

‘In the first critical book devoted wholly to the series, Julian Lovelock explores each novel in turn to offer an erudite assessment of Ransome’s creative process and narrative technique, highlighting reflections of his experiences and contradictory politics, colonial imagery, the spectre of war and of course his remarkable skill as a story-teller as he constructed a fictional refuge for himself and his readers. Thus Lovelock convincingly demonstrates that, despite first appearances, the novels challenge as much as reinforce the pervading attitudes of their time. Elegantly written, Swallows, Amazons and Coots is both up-to-date and nostalgic. It will appeal to anyone who has enjoyed the world of Swallows and Amazons, and there is plenty here to challenge the Ransome enthusiast and the student as well.’

Endorsements 

Virginia McKenna wrote: ‘There is always more in life than meets the eye. The delightful and unique Arthur Ransome stories from Swallows and Amazons to Great Northern? have delighted us over the years. But now we learn, thanks to this fascinating book, that there are more aspects and depths to the stories than we ever imagined. In no way does this diminish them – on the contrary. By giving us a more profound understanding of the author, the adventures and exploits of his characters take on an extra depth and dimension. These are stories for children that no adult should miss.’

‘An admirable introduction for newcomers to the Swallows and Amazons novels, written with detailed and expert knowledge. Julian Lovelock clearly has a deep affection and admiration for Ransome’s writing, and places the books in a rich and complex context. This is an elegant and leisurely guide through the books in the company of an amiable and well-informed companion.’ Peter Hunt, Emeritus Professor of Children’s Literature, Cardiff University, and co-author of How Did Long John Silver Lose His Leg? (2013)

Available from Amazon online and from all good bookshops

There was an interesting feature published in the East Anglian Daily Press here

Julian Lovelock is the editor of Mixed Moss,2016, the journal of The Arthur Ransome Society, which includes an article by Sophie Neville who is President of the literary society.

mixed-moss-20160004

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‘Swallows and Amazons’ profiled on ITV News at Ten

Swallows and Amazons on ITV News 29th July

As president of The Arthur Ransome Society, I am keen to promote ‘Swallows and Amazons’, emphasizing the aspect that children today can enjoy the outdoor activities advocated by Arthur Ransome back in the 1930s.

Sophie Neville sailing with Nina Ninnar

ITV reporter Nina Nannar bravely came out sailing with me in a scow, rigged like Swallow with a balanced lug sail, to experience the excitement of letting the wind take us along at speed.

Nina Nannar sailing with Sophie Neville

One of the shots was used on ITV on Thursday 28th July as a trailer for the next day:

Nina Nannar with Sophie Neville on ITV News

When it came to the News on Friday 29th July, ITV showed clips of the new movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, being launched on 19th August 2016. The item was shown on the News in New Zealand on 5th August. A viewer wrote in saying:

‘Great to see a full 3+ minutes about the new S&A film on NZ TV news tonight. Sophie Neville did a great job of promoting the value for modern kids to get out on the water or under canvas.’

Swallow in 'Swallows and Amazons' 2016

It stars Ralph Spall, Kelly Macdonald & Andrew Scott, seen here spying on Captain Flint.

Andrew Scott in 'Swallows and Amazons'

After a clip from ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) starring Virginia McKenna

Showing 'Swallows & Amazons' 1974 on News at Ten

in which I played her daughter, Titty Walker or rather Able-seaman Titty,

Sophie Neville playing Titty in 1974

they showed children today learning to sail, unaccompanied by adults.

Emma sailing on ITV News

Young children were crewing for the junior instructors, aged 16 and 17

Evie Stokes with one of the junior instructors

Nina Nannar interviewed me about summer camps offered by The Arthur Ransome Society

Sophie Neville being interviewed on ITV News at Ten

‘Is Swallows and Amazons relevant to children today?’ was the main question.

Emma instructing

‘It’s timeless, isn’t it?’ I said, proving this by referring to the children sailing around us.

Sophie Neville on News at Ten

Andrea Gibb was interviewed in the studio about her screenplay for the new movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (2016), which will reach cinemas this August.

Andrea Gibb talking about 'Swallows and Amazons' 2016

You can watch the item here

itv News at Ten

‘Is Swallows and Amazons relevant to children today?’

Please add your comments below

Sophie Neville sailing with Nina Ninnar (2)

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Can you remember ‘Swallows & Amazons’ coming out in the cinema?

Swallows and Amazons at the Belfast Film Festival

‘Swallows & Amazons’ at the Belfast Film Festival ~ photo by Debbie Davidson who said, ‘We had a fab day watching the movie, reliving our childhood.’

The film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) is broadcast today, Sunday 12th July, on ITV 3 at 3.45, repeated on ITV+1 at 6.00pm.
It was screened at the Belfast Film Festival last weekend. Curiously, the ‘Terms and Conditions of Entry’ specified:
 
  • CHILDREN UNDER 16 MUST BE ACCOMPANIED BY AN ADULT
  • NO GLASSWARE OR CANS PERMITTED ON SITE
  • NO BARBEQUES OR NAKED FLAMES
This was quite funny since, ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is about children cooking on campfires, eating canned bully beef or ‘pemmican’ while swigging ‘grog’ out of bottles, as far as possible form adult supervision. However, the movie was actually shown outside last Saturday – on a huge screen under the trees opposite Belfast City Hall. ‘THIS OUTDOOR EVENT’, they declared, ‘WILL HAPPEN REGARDLESS OF WEATHER CONDITIONS’. Since the story is about camping this did seem apt but as you can see from the photograph above, it was an idyllic sunny summer’s day.
.
Ronald Fraser walking the plank

Ronald Fraser walking the plank in ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

‘How lovely…we love seeing this wonderful film.’ Gerry Spiller, Suffolk’

My Mother took me to see the film when it was first released, it was in a double bill with ‘Born Free’, which also had Virginia McKenna in. In those days you could just sit in the cinema and see the film again if you wanted to. We did.’  Jon Ford

‘Ok, a confession. When I was twelve I was a spoilt little bratt. My parents had decided to take my brothers and I out for a surprise. I refused to go until I was told what it was as I hated surprises. My parents wouldn’t tell me so I very nearly didn’t go. I went only after being told by my big brother that if I didn’t he would hit me. The surprise? A trip to the cinema to see Swallows and Amazons! ‘ Marc Grimston, Author

‘Can’t believe how long ago it was. I remember going to see the film at the Aylesbury Odeon and loving it.’ Kate Pearson

‘… the first film I saw in a cinema, Swallows & Amazons, ABC Colchester April 1974. Cinema now a pub.’ Fabian Breckels on Twitter

It was on at the local cinema. My son was too young to go so I offered to take a neighbour’s child on condition that the neighbour’s older child baby-sat for me.’ Janet Mearns

‘One of my all time favorite films. Watched it just the other day in fact. I never seem tire of it. Especially after a trip to the Lakes.’ John Heath

Nancy and Peggy on Wild Cat Island

Lesley Bennett and Kit Seymour as the Amazons when filming in 1973

‘I don’t know why we missed it when it was first shown (I was six at the time)…  it came back to the cinema for another showing a few years later and the place was almost empty, so it felt as if they’d put it on specially for us.’ David Cooper

Rather like David, missed it as a child. Which makes me rather sad in retrospect. Had no idea it existed until I discovered it through ‘Google’! a few years ago. I now have two copies of it on DVD.’ Paul Thomas

‘I was 11 when the film came out and I was already a huge S&A fan. I loved the film and you, well Titty really, she became my first ever crush. Thank you for the excellent portrayal of Titty. Thanks also on behalf of my own daughters who also fell in love with the film, probably due to my regular screenings!’ Mike Embleton

swa_co_tra_ 008

Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville on Derwentwater in 1973

‘I finally got to see it while we stayed at Bank Ground Farm our first visit to England. Loved it, cried over it, was delighted to finally see it after many years of sharing a love of Swallows & Amazons books with my mother, my sisters & my children! Mrs. Batty kindly put it on for us to watch in the farmhouse living room.’ Elizabeth Rondthaler Jolley, USA

It was two years ago in my 36th year. I found it somewhere on internet after I have read the first (book) to my son. And then we watched together. It was perfect. In Czech republic where I live, Ransome was in my childhood one of the most favorite authors.’ Jiri Precek, Romania

‘In June 1973 I was 9 months into my 3 year teacher training course at Didsbury Teacher Training College…
It was not for many years – probably 15 that I contacted Cape for info about locations – still have the reply !!’
Martin Robinson

John and his Flagship with Nancy and Peggy

Sten Grendon, Simon West, Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett on Peel Island 1973

‘I was 9 in 1974 and saw the film about four times that summer (I think it was shown with Born Free as a double feature) and I had a huge crush on Lesley Bennett! (Where is she now?) I read all the books several times over during the 70’s . Reading your memories made me re-read the book and watch the film for the first time since the 70’s and I have to say the film holds up very well!’ Richard Meads, Worthing, West Sussex

The DVD reviewer Stuart McLean writes: ‘The cast were pretty much the same age as me in 1973 (when it was filmed) and I remember enjoying this tremendously when it came out in 1974, forty years ago. Back then, the idea that four school-kids could take off in a boat for days at a time with no life-jackets seemed perfectly plausible. These days it would be cause for 24 hour rolling news reports.’ Please click here to read on.

Simon Hodkin kindly sent these scans of the cinema programme when he first went to see  Swallows & Amazons in Wales some forty years ago. He kept a scrapbook full of souvenirs, including a letter from Arthur Ransome.
 .

Simon Hodkin's collection. 4

Simon Hodkin's collection. 6

Can you remember the first time you saw the film?  Please add to the Comments box.

To watch a filmbeat interview about making the film please click here

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‘Man Friday!’ found in the pages of an old copy of Lancashire Life

Virginia McKenna rowing

The 2014 Blu-ray of  ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (c) StudioCanal

Forty two years ago, this shot was taken of Virginia McKenna valiantly playing Man Friday, rowing away from what I had decided was a desert island. We were filming on Coniston Water in the Lake District. She was playing my mother, concerned about leaving a small girl alone as the evening drew in. I’ve been set a copy of Lancashire Life, published in 1974, which describes the filming at length. Quite fun. You can see a still of Man Friday and I cooking Pemmican cakes for supper on the camp fire, top right.

Lancashire Life May 1974 - S&A2 - lr

Being awarded an OBE in 2004 for services to wildlife and the arts, Virginia has since become a national treasure. She will quickly deny this but you will find photographs of her at the National Gallery, along with Suzanna Hamilton, who played her daughter – and my sister, Susan in Swallows & Amazons (1974).

NPG x126895; Stars of the British Screen by Norman Parkinson

‘Stars of the British Screen’ by Norman Parkinson. Virginia McKenna sits bottom centre, Suzanna Hamilton bottom right, either side of Susannah York.

Having just celebrated her 84th birthday Virginia has also been heralded as one who inspires others. I concur. ‘Do one thing at a time,’ was her advice to me, ‘Otherwise you can’t do anything well.’

Virginai McKenna with an Oscar

Virginia has appeared in over thirty feature films, numerous television dramas and many fascinating documentaries. She won a  BAFTA Award for Best British Actress in ‘A Town Like Alice’ and was nominated Best Actress by BAFTA for playing Violette Szabo in the WWII story Carve Her Name With Pride.’. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Joy Adamson inBorn Free’ , which won the composer John Barry two Academy awards. She is still happy to work as an actress, soon to appear in ‘Golden Years’ with Simon Callow and her granddaughter, Lily Travers.

Virginin McKenna with Born Free composer John Barry

Virginia McKenna with ‘Born Free’ composer John Barry

If you interview her now, Virginia is more likely to talk about wildlife than acting. She uses her name to promote kindness. And to stop the slaughter of elephants. One of her latest missions is to urge schools to teach children about conservation. She has recently become patron of  Shropshire Cat Rescue’s Purr project. Arthur Ransome helped finance a similar project himself.

Virginia McKenna in Mail on Saturday 214

2015 marks the thirty-first anniversary of the Born Free Foundation, which Virginia established with her son Will Travers to help big cats and other large mammals held in captivity. She still travels the world to raise awareness and alleviate suffering, drawing on all she learned from George Adamson whilst filming Born Free in Kenya back in 1966, and An Elephant Called Slowly in 1970. You can read more about her work by clicking here.

Virginia McKenna onthe cover of Saga Magazine

Virginia has written about her career and conservation work in a number of books including Into the Blue and an autobiography entitled The Life in My Years available online from the Born Free shop.

Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2001

Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2001

42 years ago we were filming with Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm in the Lake District.

To read the sections of my diary on filming Swallows & Amazons on Peel Island, please click here.

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