Tag Archives: Westmorland

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.

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Call for poets to enter Lakes competition

I have been lying in the bath dreaming up a poem to enter this wonderful competition. So far, I have:

If you ever go for tea 

at Bank Ground Farm, you’re sure to see

the field where the Swallows waited

for the telegram that stated

they could go to sea.

 

IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN

has become quiet well renowned

as a response to Health and Safety

when adult natives get too hasty

or turn adventure down.

 

Did Arthur Ransome ever think

that a feature film might one day link

Lucy Batty to a famous movie star

like sweet Virginia McKenna

while at her kitchen sink?

 

‘I put a paddlock on the gate,

obliging them to wait

until they paid a decent fee

to use my property

and reinstate

my lino.’

 

But if you stay at Bank Ground Farm’s

rooms in the house, the stable block or barns

you’ll be certainly

welcomed personally

with open arms.

 

 

I think I need to try I littlhe harder. Here are the competition details:

NorthWest News and Features

A new competition for poets is being launched at a Lake District farm with a strong literary heritage.

The owners of Bank Ground Farm, on the eastern shore of Coniston, are asking poets to write about their visit – or about Swallows and Amazons, the children’s classic story which is set in the area.

S&A tearoom

The entries will be judged by American poet and author David Whyte who is visiting this summer to run a residential school. Whyte, the Anglo-Irish poet now living in the USA, is the author of eight books of poetry and four books of prose. With a degree in Marine Zoology, he has traveled widely, including living and working as a naturalist guide in the Galapagos Islands and leading anthropological and natural history expeditions in the Andes, Amazon and Himalaya.

Swallows and Amazons, loved by generations of children – and adults – opens at a farm called Holly…

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Launching the second edition of The Secrets of Filming ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)

front-cover-1974

A second edition of the ebook ‘The Secrets of Filming ‘SWALLOWS & AMAZONS'(1974) is now avaialble on Amazon Kindle, Smashwords, itunes, Kobo, and Nook for £2.99 . You can download this free of charge if you already own the first edition.

If you would like a copy but don’t have a Kindle, worry not. We have added a link whereby you can download a free Kindle app. Please go to my Book Page and scroll down for the details.

If you already have a copy of the ebook, contact a Customer Advisor and ask for a free update. You just need to give Kindle the ebook’s ASIN number. The ISBN for all online editions except Kindle is: ISBN 9781311761927

Since being contacted by others who were involved in the filming, I have been able to add a few more anecdotes and images, including this beautiful shot of Virginia McKenna in 1973 kindly sent in by the photographer Philip Hatfield.

virginia-mckenna-photo-by-philip-hatfield

I found a copy of my original contract for the film and when Jean McGill rang from Bowness, a few more secrets floated to the surface.

Sophie Neville and David Wood

CBBCTV’s Cinemaniacs  interviewed the screenwriter David Wood and myself on how the original movie of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was made back in the summer of 1973.  The idea was to use 30 second clips, so please excuse my over-the-top reactions, but you can watch the whole recording below.

‘This has to be one of the most delightful interviews in my recent memory.’ Tim Lewis, USA

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A Swallows and Amazons childhood

Swallows and Amazons fly sheet

The first swallows have arrived and summer is here. You only have to look around to see parents advocating a ‘Swallows and Amazons’ childhood for their offspring. They want to go camping, catch fish and learn to cook on open fire.

Titty’s dream of being alone on an island to experience what it must have been like for Robinson Crusoe has never been seen as worrying. Parents want to encourage their offspring to use their imaginations and explore the wilderness, knowing it will be memorable. As long as the weather holds they are happy to act as Man Friday. By exercising her imagination, Titty comes up with ideas that ultimately win the war and develop courage and resourcefulness by taking part in the adventure even though Captain John is at the helm. The fact that the mere able seaman becomes hailed as the hero of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ has inspired a generation.

Cobnor Camp 2015

TARS at Cobnor Camp

If you want the real deal, become a family member of The Arthur Ransome Society and sign up for one of our summer camps while there is still space:

If you can get to the Lake District, there is a camp on Coniston Water in Cumbria – 2nd to 13th August 2016

If you are nearer the south Coast, there is a weekend camp at Cobnor, sailing around Chichester Harbour – 14th to 17th August 2016

There is a ‘Swallowdale’ Camp in North Derbyshire – 27th August to 29th August 2016

and a sailing weekend in Staffordshire.

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Swallow at Cobnor

If you are keen on sailing find out about the Nancy Blackett Trust. They offer memorable opportunities for children and teenagers, as well as adult sailors who’d love the opportunity of going out in Arthur Ransome’s yacht and meeting like-minded people.

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The Nancy Blackett is based on the Orwell near where the Ransomes lived in Suffolk but she ventures forth and was even spotted on the Hamble last year.

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What did you think of ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’?

The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons

‘I’ve just read this delightful ebook – thank you so much for writing it! I’m sure you must get messages all the time like this, but I hope you will deservedly enjoy hearing that I absolutely adored the film of S&A and learned your name, along with all of the other actors and actresses off by heart from the record, which I played and played.

LP of Swallows and Amason with vinyl record

‘I also had the jigsaw of the campsite scene, which I thought was an incredible piece of merchandising (and it was, for its day).

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‘I read my first S&A book (Swallowdale, but never mind) in the summer holidays when I was 7, and rapidly recruited my best friend Linda to being a fan. One of our mums spotted that the film was on at our local cinema in Dundee that Christmas, but the next day was the last date it was showing – so we were collected early from our school Christmas party, so that we could make it in time. We were in heaven. The next Easter, our families took us to the Lake District (staying in Coniston) for the first of many holidays there. We remember “finding” Gondola submerged in the reeds, and sailing with our dads over to Bank Ground and seeing the two dinghies named Swallow and Amazon. We soon found a favourite picnic on the shore close to Peel Island, and in later years, my dad and I rowed over to the Island in a rubber dinghy, which was tremendously exciting. Fascinating to hear about the artificial shingle beach!

I was interested to read that one of your qualifications for getting the job was that you could row, and that you’d practised at home in a Thames Skiff.  Many thanks again for giving me such a delightful film to immerse myself in as a child. Helena Smalman-Smith

Fan letter for Swallows & Amazons -

‘We love your book and tales of filming.’  Love Ambleside – on Twitter

‘…the girls adore your film of Swallows and Amazons. In fact, I fear it is thanks to your film rather than the book that my Swallows and Amazons camping weekend was full to bursting. I also have friends in Suffolk who would happily hot foot it across the country with their three children to hear you!’  Grainne Dennison (teacher and Ransome fan).

‘My daughter is 11 today & this is her favourite present!  Titty was always Moira’s favourite character from the books AND the film, she is thrilled!’

Fan mail

‘My daughter LOVED your book! She couldn’t help sharing gems & finished it in a few days on hols. Magic! My turn now!’

‘I have been hesitating to write, but I do want to tell you how much I enjoyed reading ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’. It made watching the film so much more enjoyable. I came to Arthur Ransome late in life, but I’ve read all of them, and have a complete collection of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ adventures.’ Mark Cheng, Bedford

Puzzels

‘I really love the Swallows and Amazons movie. I actually went to see it at the pictures in London, with my family when it first came out, but I was only about 4 or 5 years old, so I don’t remember much about that day. But of course I have watched it many times over the years and since I have the DVD I make a point to watch it at least once every year. You are my favourite as you are so charming!!’ Robert Newland, Dorset

If you have a memory of the film, do leave a comment in the box below.

If you would like to write a short review on Amazon, here is the link for readers in the UK

A publicty photograph for 'Swallows and Amazons'

Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Virginia McKenna, Simon West and Kit Seymour gathered at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water

 

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More memories of making the original film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in 1973

Following my last post, David Stott has written in to say, “When l got the job driving for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ l think I took over the production car when Jean started driving you children around in the mini-bus.” This must have been in May 1973 when the original film of Arthur Ransome’s classic book was being made in Westmorland.

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David explained that, although he lived in Ambleside, he has not seen Jean since the filming, so enjoyed reading that I had been in touch with her. “Jean’s Mum was called Girlie and she used to run a nursing home on Lake Road. Jean had a brother who was nicknamed Blondie.  We would often have a cup of tea with Girlie in the nursing home kitchen.”

Lake District 6

David has all sorts of memories of filming ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in the Lake District that I knew nothing about. “Jean mentioned that she took Ronnie Fraser for an early morning glass of champagne to get him going.  I remember having to take him to the Lodore Swiss Hotel in Borrowdale while filming on Derwentwater.  He would order what he called, ‘A Frazer’, which was some sort of vodka cocktail.” David was only about seventeen at the time. Driving Ronald Fraser around must have been something of an eye-opener.  “I remember bringing him back to film ‘walking the plank’ and he was very drunk at the time. Expect he needed it for the cold water.  He could be a little difficult when he had had a few.”

Boats at Lake 2

“I was rather star struck when l was driving Virginia McKenna,” he admitted.  “On one occasion I had to drive her from the farmhouse on Coniston to Grange railway station. She was telling me all about filming ‘Born Free’ with the lions and I drove a bit slowly as l was enjoying her company.  We arrived rather late and l had to throw her and her luggage onto the train just as it was leaving.” I asked Virginia about this but she couldn’t remember ever being late for the train. I can only imagine that David must have coped well.

 

Rydal Water Summer

“On another occasion I think l had Richard Pilbrow in the car,” he was the producer of the film. “We were driving back from Derwentwater when a cow jumped off a bank and landed on the bonnet, causing quiet a lot of damage.  I was dreading going back to Browns Motors and telling Alan Faulkener the owner what had happened.” Richard is still alive and well.

Lake Jetty 2

David, who now owns Crossways Hotel near Glynebourne,  comes from an old Cumbrian family. His  grandmother lived at High Green Gate, the farm next door to Beatrice Potter  Hilltop. “My great grandfather was Farmer Potatoes in the ‘Tale of Samuel Whiskers’. It was sketched from a photograph that my mother still has.  There is shortly to be an article in Cumbria Magazine about Beatrice Potter’s relationship with the Postlethwaite family.”

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One of our locations – Haverthwaite Station today

“My father was the local joiner in Ambleside. He also kept about 1000 hens and delivered eggs around the hotels at the weekends.  My brother and l would often help him on a Saturday morning.” David obviously knew the roads of Cumbria well.

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