‘Oughtn’t I have the telescope?’ ~ Arthur Ransome’s story breaks into three strands

Sophie Neville who played Titty in Swallows and Amazons on location in the Lake District ~ photo: Martin Neville

When David Wood constructed the screenplay of Swallows and Amazons he introduced dual action soon after the Swallows arrived at the island. By this I mean that he split us up a bit – John went to fetch the milk from Dixon’s farm whilst Susan and I were teaching Roger to swim.  This isn’t quite as Arthur Ransome wrote but it added vitality to the script, moving it along.  I reckon the Director, Claude Whatham needed to avoid a gang scenario of Five go to Treasure Island at all costs. It also enabled us to get on with our school work since no one actor was in every scene.  I was in all the scenes shot on this day 5th June (I wrote 5th May by mistake) but went back to my lessons whilst Claude was out on the pontoon filming John and Susan jibing Swallow – a pick-up shot set into the long shot, when I waved them goodbye from Wildcat Island, recorded on 2nd June.

I think this is of Mrs Bennett, Martin Neville, Lesley Bennett’s sister and Jane Grendon with the film crew on the pontoon filming Suzannah Hamilton, Simon West and Stephen Grendon in Swallow just off Peel Island. Who is the boy sitting on the Capri moored to the temporary jetty?

At this stage in the story Arthur Ransome actually split the action into three. John, Susan and Roger sail off to find the Amazon river, Titty is left alone on the island with her telescope, while the Amazons are busy plotting and planning at Beckfoot.  Up until this time most films followed linear stories – this happened, then that happened – a bit like my diary. My favourite wartime drama A Town like Alice, which stars Virginia McKenna, is an example of this. It’s a road movie.  Lovely – but I need to watch it whilst doing my tapestry.

As it happened the method of running three storylines at once became all the rage in television dramas of the 1980s and 1990s, so when Swallows and Amazons was first broadcast on television it felt fresh even though it had been made six or seven years previously. The playwright John Mortimer said that when he first started writing three strands of action for Rumpole of the Bailey it terrified him. Would the audience be able to follow what was going on?  Now every detective story breaks into three as soon as possible, while soap operas keep a number of storylines boiling furiously. The technique helps to pace the action, up the suspense and gives the director much more flexibility in the cutting room. Apart from anything else it makes it easier to bring episodes in at the exact length required by the television schedulers. One reason why credits roll after a programme is because the Presentation Department can alter the speed they run at. Did you know this? It means that every story can be made to last exactly 37 mins 30 seconds.

Nowadays linear stroy-telling in movies, such a The Kings Speech seems to be received as more cinemagraphic.  I think that multiple action just went too far. ‘Flashbacks’ seem dated and running two storylines in different time periods can be confusing. I couldn’t do my embroidery whilst watching A Social Network.

Meanwhile two or three things were happening behind the scenes in the Lake District.  Terry Needham, the Second Assistant Director, found that most of the men who had come forward to be Supporting Artists for the scene soon to be shot at Bowness were refusing to have their hair cut. My mother was astonished. They couldn’t portray the Lake District unpopulated by men. Only a few, very elderly gentlemen, who didn’t have much hair anyway, agreed to a short-back-and-sides.  And my father.  He was more than happy to receive a free hair cut. Ronnie Cogan brought out his scissors and snipped away there and then on the shore of Coniston Water. Someone grabbed Dad’s Bolex and took a few shots for posterity:

Dad missed seeing me capture the Amazon. Although it seems I was all alone in my story line, this was not the reality. I rowed away from Peel Island with the DoP Denis Lewiston, his 16mm camera and a reflector board held by Claude Whatham who was also tucked into Amazon’s stern. No wonder I was tired by the end of the day.

Sophie Neville in The Amazon with DOP Denis Lewiston, his 16mm camera and a reflector board ~ photo: Martin Neville
Movie Call Sheet for 'Swallows and Amazons'
The Call Sheet for the day. It is quite inaccurate. I was rowing Amazon in Scene 154. We actually shot Scene 120: ‘Oughtn’t I have the telescope?’
Call Sheet for filming on 5th June - You can walk on water
I love the note at the end about having sufficent faith to walk on water. I avoided getting my feet wet by being carried ashore.

‘I thought he was a retired Pirate’ ~ filming the parley with the Amazons on Wildcat Island

Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton confronting the Amazon Pirates on Wildcat Island in Swallows and Amazons

Richard Pilbow says that the fantastic thing about filming Swallows and Amazons was that breakfast was served on location every morning, without fail, sending ‘a wonderful aroma across the set.’  Huge English breakfasts were dished up by two chaps working for a location catering company from Pinewood to greet the film crew every morning, with bacon and eggs, mushrooms, sausages and tomatoes. And the fried bread was well fried. So, it didn’t really matter that we missed breakfast at the Oaklands Guest House in Ambleside. A bacon butty would we placed into my hand as soon as we reached the base camp on Coniston Water. I only wish our guest house had been nearer Peel Island where we spent so much of our time filming. 

I do believe my mother is still eating in the picture above. We all ate hugely to stave off the cold. You can see in the movie how much we enjoyed eating the iced buns before the Amazons attacked. 

I remember the Parley Scene as being of importance to Mrs Ransome, who was still living at the time.  Arthur Ransome had died in 1967 but his formidable widow, Evgenia, owned the copyright to his books. And she did not want there to be any sexual frison between John and Nancy. Richard Pilbrow had had quite a job of persuading her to give him the rights to the film at all. He know that Tom Maschler, the head of Jonathan Cape, had already had to turn down many movie offers. The Ransomes feared ‘a Disney-ization of the story, a vulgarization.’  Neither Arthur Ransome nor his wife, Evgenia, had liked the black and white BBC version of Swallows and Amazons made in 1962 when Susan George played the part of Kitty, rather than Titty. I watched it with Joe Waters at the BBC library. I remember it as being terribly boring and rather badly made but am fascinated by the clips now. Susan George had such beautiful hair. In his recently published book A Theatre Project, Richard describes how, by vowing to be true to the book, he finally persuaded Mrs Ransome to let him have the film rights.  But life wasn’t easy. At the very last minute, just as we were about to start shooting, she put her oar in.  ‘She took a violent dislike to the casting of Roger…He was dark haired. “This is outrageous; he has to be fair,” she protested.’  It was too late for Claude Whatham to re-cast. Richard admits that with regret he had to over-ride her. This is a secret that has only just been revealed. I was amazed when I heard about it since all the Swallows in Arthur Ransome’s drawings had very dark hair – as did the real children – the Altounyans, whose father was of Armenian descent.  They lived in Aleppo, in Syria where Ernest Altounyan was working in his father’s hospital as a surgeon, and all looked quite tanned in the old photos. I though that, if anything, Mrs Ransome would have objected to me being too blonde but apparently, once the books became well known, the Altounyans didn’t want people identifying the Walkers too closely with their children. Roger Wardale said that Arthur Ransome’s intention was to keep the apperance of his characters vague so that any child could easily associate with them and imagine themselves in their place. He originally described the Amazons as having curly hair, but edited this out.

Stephen Grendon playing Roger

Although we loved filming on Peel Island, our real families, who had come up to the Lake District to be with us over half-term, couldn’t watch. Our friends the Selbys, with whom I had learnt to sail, had driven up to Cumbria from Chelmsford and yet probably saw nothing except for the bedraggled crew and me at lunch time.

Jane, Michael, Clare and Lucy Selby on the shore of Conniston Water talking to my sisters, Perry and Tamzin who is holding their dog, Minnie ~ photo: Martin Neville
Other members of the crew had been joined by their children. Brian Doyle noted in his diary that took his daughter Pandora off to Beatrix Potter’s farmhouse Hill Top, travelling in Dad’s car with my sisters Perry and Tamzin. Although it was good to be on Coniston Water hanging around at the base camp all day would have been terribly dull for them. This, however was about to change.  That evening Mum went to help Terry Smith, the Wardrobe Master, sort out costumes to fit the Supporting Artistes. My sisters were about to earn their own breakfasts . They were to become Film Extras.

The diary I kept whilst filming Swallows and Amazons… with a day off spent exploring Cumbria with my family

It was Sunday and a much needed, formal day off for the crew of Swallows and Amazons. It was also a day of rest for the ‘Artistes’ as Claude Whatham, the Director called us.  The crew called us ‘Saucepans’. Saucepan lids : kids.  It is Cockney rhyming slang. There was a lot of that about in Ambleside that year.

Sophie Neville with her mother on a scenic railway in Cumbria during a break in the filming of Swallows and Amazons in 1973 ~ photo: Martin Neville

My parents were still in bed, exhausted on that Sunday morning.  To keep me busy Mum had me writing letters to my Headmistress, Sister Ann-Julian and to my Housemistress, Sister Allyne. Amazing!  I wrote them.

My father’s idea of a day out in Westmorland was to drive over the hills and up the Hard Knott Pass taking car rugs, a picnic and his volcano. This is a brilliant item of equipment with which you can boil enough water to make a cup of tea using an old newspaper. I am sure I’ve read that Arthur Ransome had one…  I think my mother just pulled on her Charlotte Mason College of Education sweatshirt and came too.

The highlight of the day was a trip on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, through the National Park to the coast and back. You can still do this today. The historic line was opened in 1875 to ferry iron ore from the mine near Boot to the coast at Ravensglass by steam locomotive. They say that nowadays:

“Four steam locomotives are currently in regular service, ranging from River Irt, the oldest working 15″ gauge locomotive in the world, to Northern Rock, one of the most powerful. The locomotives names, with one obvious exception, are those of the local rivers, the Esk, Mite and Irt, the last mentioned flowing from Wastwater just a few miles away from the railway.”

My father has always loved steam.  He’s also rather enjoyed using the self-timer on his camera.

The Nevilles in the Lake District in 1973

I am guessing that we sitting on part of the Hard Knott Roman Fort near Boot with the fells behind.  Built between AD120 and AD138 at the Eskdale end of the Hard Knott Pass it must have been one of the furthermost outposts of the Roman Empire. As children we had grown up on a diet of Frankie Howard, dressed in a Roman tunic, telling us ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’. I didn’t know until this week that it was Richard Pilbrow who brought this production from New York to the West End, where the play that he produced ran for two years.

The hotel I mention was the Kirskstone Foot Hotel, at the top of Lake Windermere, in Ambleside where Richard Pilbrow and the senior members of the film crew were staying. Mum must have left her camera there.

Tamzin Neville and Daphne Neville in 1973

Setting sail from Wildcat Island during the filming of Swallows and Amazons in 1973

If it is tricky navigating in and out of the Secret Harbour on Peel Island, leaving from the Landing Place under sail in a clinker built dinghy can prove even more hazadous. You need a decent shove to get going so you can catch the wind, escape from snaring tree branches and avoid the danger of flat rocks lurking just under the surface of Coniston Water.  This was my job on a rainy, grey day in the Lake District in 1973. With a telescope in one hand.

On the filming of 'Swallows and Amazons' in 1973

In the finished film you don’t see the shot when I slipped in the water up to my waist, and kept on shoving.  The “Don’t forget about the lights, Titty ” scene had to be re-shot on a sunnier day.

What you see is a long-shot on a grey day with Titty waving furiously from the shore, as Swallow leaves Wildcat Island. You can not see that her dress is soaking wet but the trees on the island indicate just how windy it is. While Susan is waving back, Roger is looking out for rocks for all he is worth. John is sailing hard, running with the wind, with the boom right out and white water on his bow. He hung on, as he had to, until Swallow passed the big rock, before coping with a massive, dramatic jibe. You see him rise to handle this, while Susan ducks. She needed to. It was so violent the mast nearly broke, but John ‘scandalised’, spilling excess wind and sailed on. The film cuts to two closer shots of the jibe taken on the sunny day, then cuts back to the long shot when Susan bobs up and Swallow sails at speed, north up Coniston towards grey clouds and rain over Langdale.

My father watched all this from the shore, knowing the risks, knowing Stephen Grendon aged nine, who played Roger couldn’t swim. But Simon West was proving himself yet again as a very good sailor. He was totally confident. You can tell – even from a distance – how calm he was, how instinctively he read the wind. He knew it would hit him with force as he left the lee of the island.

These wet windy days in the Lake District were a worry to the Producer and a challenge for the crew. They had already lost a number of days to rain. Whilst Claude Whatham, the Director was always trying to find a way of making the best use of his time, David Bracknell, his First Assistant Director had to make things happen. The practicalities of each day rested on his shoulders.

David Bracknell, First Assistant Director on ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on the shore of Coniston Water near Peel Island ~ photo: Martin Neville

Just co-ordinating our transport out to Peel Island, so that we while the camera crew were never waiting for us we were not missing time at our lessons – would have been difficult. Getting the tea urns out there twice a day, must have been a struggle. I’m not sure what we did about anyone wanting the loo. There wasn’t even a bucket on the island. Working in purple trousers, with a Motor-roller on his hip, David kept things safe and kept things going whatever the weather. He would call for ‘Quiet’, before each take, calling, ‘Camera? Sound? then: Mark it!’  The clapper board would be named and snapped shut before Claude the Director shouted ‘Action!’  Then off we’d go.  And the rule was to keep going – whatever happened – come the hell of slippery rocks or high water – until the Director shouted ‘Cut!’ David would then take over command and set up either for a re-take or a subsequent shot. Once a scene was completed he’d move the crew on for a new sequence.

The cast of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ setting off in the Capri for Peel Island, my mother in her bobble hat, a journalist taking photographs and Brian Doyle, the film Publicist, wrapped up warm ~ photo: Martin Neville

David Bracknell was very experienced. He’d worked on a number of hugely popular Carry-on movies, which according to Maureen Lipman, were made at terrific speed. Prior to Swallows and Amazons his credits included Carry on Abroad, Carry on at your Convenience, (I’d seen this at school; it’s all about lavortaries) Carry on Henry and Carry on Loving with Kenneth Williams, Sid James and Charles Hawtrey.  He’d worked on Far from the Madding Crowd  with Julie Christie, Alan Bates and Trevor Stamp, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg with Janet Suzman and Peter Bowles, Bless this House with Sid James, Diana Coupland and Sally Geeson and Battle of Britain, which starred Michael Caine, Trevor Howard and Harry Andrews, Ian McShane, Susannah York and Laurance Olivier. By 1984 he was working on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in 1986 on Shaka Zulu with Edward Fox, Robert Powell and Trevor Howard again.  We were in capable hands.

My father recognised this, watching patiently from the base camp with Perry and Tamzin, my younger sisters. I fear it must have been terribly dull for them, especially on the cold grey days, but we were all together and did have a chance to explore Westmorland, as you will see when I reach tomorrow.

My sister Tamzin Neville on the shore of Coniston Water in Cumbria with Stephen Grendon and Peel Island beyond~ photo: Martin Neville

‘X marks the spot where they ate six missionaries’ ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island in 1973

‘Natives again. Or cannibals. This marks the spot where they ate six missionaries’ has to be the best line that anyone in the history of film making has ever had to utter.  It is not in the book, just that ‘…they might have been killed and eaten by other natives,’ as Titty, having digested huge helpings of Daniel Defoe, declares herself the most ardent imperialist of all time. And she has such fun doing so. I have always liked the talk of ‘the powerful native’ (Mr Jackson the Lakeland farmer) and the savages living around Rio. I always hope it shocks lots of people.

What I have found really does shock people – shocks them so much that they admit to being shocked – is that I was once a missionary. In Africa. And in Australia. I think they think I try to convert the natives but of course it is not like that. You go not knowing what will happen and find yourselves making life a bit more fun for people who belong to God but are battling a bit.

It is like this:  The Amazons, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, who are energetic tomboys living in the Lake District, had lost their father. It goes unsaid, but Peggy very touchingly lets it out in Swallowdale when they find a hidden tin on the peak of Kanchenjunga.  Their mother’s brother, Jim Turner, took them sailing and did things with them with them the first summer but then decided to concentrate on writing his book. Nancy and Peggy feel so rejected they light a firework on the roof of his boat, which enrages him. The Swallows, who know what it was like to live without a father around as theirs is in the Navy, travel from afar but somehow manage to come alongside the Amazons and give them a reason to keep going and live life to the full. Nancy and Peggy excel – they find life-long friends and do all the things they are meant to do. All sorts of things happen as a result. And the Swallows are challenged and have more fun than if they had ever travelled in a structured way, intent soley on their own enjoyment. They have great adventures and do more things than they ever imagined possible .

I still go on short term missions. We went to China with the Bible Society in March. It was amazing – hysterical. A mission of encouragement that Titty would have loved. We met people who had not had European visitors for forty years. They were really excited to know that people in the wider world were interested in their welfare and had come to bring them the word of God. The only Europeans – only white people – they had seen before us were there to make money. It’s shocking, isn’t it?

Swallow in the Secret Harbour

Secrets of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island, Coniston Water ~ in 1973

Arthur Ransome’s description of Wildcat Island is based on two real islands. The landing place and open grassy camp site illustrated in the books can be found at Blake Holme on Windermere but when Richard Pilbrow went there in 1972 he was so disappointed by the sight of caravans, and the fact it was so near the shore, that he decided to make the film almost entirely on Peel Island where you find Ransome’s Secret Harbour. We never went to Blake Holme.

It was Peel Island on Coniston Water where the real Swallows, the Altounyan children, camped. Roger Altounyan told Bill Frankland that he secretly spent the first three nights of his honeymoon camping there. It must have been magical. We loved going there – it was hugely exciting, even in the rain. There is something about the steep sides, which makes it like a fortress, the ancient Viking settlement WD Collingwood believed it to be.

Had I been producing Swallows and Amazons I would have used Peel island for the unique Secret Harbour but used the peninsular nearby on the mainland for the landing place, if at all possible. There is a nice open beach there and one wouldn’t have had to lug all the heavy paraphernalia of filming over the water – you can imagine time and effort  involved in taking a 35mm Panavision camera across with its mountings and track. I don’t know how they powered the arc lamps we needed to light the campsite, which was quite dark beneath the trees.  They must have run the cables under water. We loved crossing over there but getting us back for lessons and lunch wasn’t easy. There was no loo.

Sophie Neville, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Stephen Grendon on Wildcat Island in the scene where the Swallows find a place to camp

But – the wonderful thing is that now, when children reach the island, nearly all the places from the film are there. The Landing Place has nearly washed away.  We never knew it at the time but one great secret is that it was created for the film. They must have dumped a huge amount of shingle there.  The other secret is that there weren’t actually enough trees for the Swallows to erect the tents their mother had made for them. Two had to be added by the construction team. Arthur Ransome’s tents are not as easy to put up as you’d imagine. It is difficult for children to get the rope taut enough between the trees to take the weight of the canvas. You need to use wagon knots or twist it with a stick. If you tie the rope too high the tents ruck up. The reality was that Suzanna had Bobby-the-prop-man to help her.

One thing that is not a secret, but can take you unawares, is that there never seems to be any firewood on Wildcat Island.  It is the reason why the Swallows went to the mainland in the book. Roger really did struggle to find sticks to pick up on that wet day in May. Mine were carefully set out for me to find by the Designer.  Poor Roger did fall over and he did get quite badly scratched by thorns. Claude gave him a bit of  ‘Danger Money’ for being brave about it and not complaining.

Stephen Grendon playing young Laurie in the BBC Play ‘Cider with Rosie’

I’m not sure if Sten had ever received Danger Money when he played Laurie Lee in Cider with Rosie, which Claude had made two years before. We watched it that night when it was broadcast on television. It must have been shown quite late as it was was labelled as avant garde.  We had to stay up as of course VHS machines hd not been heard of.

Rosemary Leach played Laurie’s long-suffering mother, Mrs Lee, quite beautifully. She was later to take the role of Mrs Barrable, the Admiral, in the BBC series Coot Club. Mike Pratt, who played Mr Dixon in Swallows and Amazonswas Uncle Ray, and Young Billy – John Franklin-Robbins was The Stranger.  Claude cast me as a little girl from Slad called Eileen Brown, who Laurie Lee always said was the first person he ever fell in love with. He was a friend of Mum’s and was around during the filming, since he still had a cottage in Slad. I’d been to a village school in the Cotswolds myself and enjoyed being in the classroom scenes, despite have to wear a drab and rather itchy green dress.

Sophie Neville with Claude Whatham on location at Slad in 1971

I was too shy to put myself forward when Claude asked if anyone knew the chants to playgound skipping games, but I did work hard to prepare for my big scene. I had to play quite a difficult piece on the piano, accompanying the ten-year-old Laurie Lee as he sawed away on his violin at the village concert, while his motherlooked on with tears in her eyes. I was only given the music three days before the filming and had to practice eight hours a day, for those three days, before I got it right. We plodded through Oh, Danny Boy but were so relieved to get it right that our smiles were real enough. At one point Claude took a deep breath and said, ‘Do you think you could play a little faster?’  I looked at him and replied, ‘They’re crochets. They don’t go any faster.’ He claimed that he didn’t know what a crotchet was.

Wilfred Josephs, who was familiar with crochets, wrote the most beautiful music for Cider with Rosie. You can listen to some of it on You Tube ~

Sophie Neville as Elieen Brown and Philip Hawkes as Laurie Lee in ‘Cider with Rosie’ directed by Claude Whatham in 1971.

Holly Howe on the 5th day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ near Coniston in 1973 ~

Holly Howe again  or back to Bank Ground Farm ~

My diary

My diary

When you next go to Bank Ground Farm you must stand outside and imagine the sight of two red London Route Master buses making their way down the drive.  They swayed from side to side.  We thought it comic. I still can’t work out how they managed to avoid how bringing down the dry stone walls. While sheep grazed around us outside in the rain, we made ourselves comfortable at the Formica tables in our school bus and got down to our lessons. I am sure it was good for us to be kept busy.

Bank Ground Farm
Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water in Cumbria

Meanwhile Ian Whittaker, the Set Dresser, and Simon Holland, the Art Director, transformed two of Mrs Batty’s upstairs rooms into the Walker children’s  bedrooms of 1929. I changed in the cold and was rushed through the rain with a coat over my nightie to the magical atmosphere of the set, warmed by the lights with everyone’s focus on what was just in front of the camera; me reading a beautiful edition of Daniel Defoe’s classic. Claude needed to establish that Robinson Crusoe was Titty’s hero. I can remember having to hold the book in special way so the cover could be seen clearly. I described this as ‘a bed scene’, which might amuse some actors, especially those who are not at all keen on doing bed-scenes (every actor I know). The beds themselves are probably still at the farm.

The LP
Sophie Neville, Virginia McKenna and Simon West on the cover of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ LP, which is still available on Amazon.co.uk

I expect they shot the scene where John is learning Morse Code in bed before my scene. Simon West had to be made very brown indeed, the Make-up Designer dabbing away with a tiny sponge, for the uneasy sequence, much later in the story, when he came to explain himself to his mother. This was shot with Virginia McKenna sitting at a writing desk in the square bay window, with the view of Coniston Water beyond. I sat there myself when I was making Swallow’s flag.

Virginia McKenna and Lucy Batty at Bank Ground Farm on 15th May 1973

Mrs Batty later explained to me that the bay window leaked terribly and she was glad to get rid of it. She now has a lounge area there, which is dedicated as a Swallows and Amazons room.  I was chatting to her back in 2002 when we were waiting for Ben Fogle and the BBC crew of Countryfile to return from looking for other locations used in the film before interviewing Suzanna Hamilton and myself at the farm. The problem was that Suzanna’s train was terribly delayed. We waited and waited and waited. It got later and later. When her taxi finally arrived I was so excited to see her I grabbed her and made her run down to the lake to see Amazon, the dinghy we had sailed together, which was there at the time. The poor director must have been at her wit’s end. Ben Fogle had to come down to fetch us. My excuse was that Suzanna must have needed a stretch after such a long journey. The Westmorland Gazette captured the three of us plodding back up the field before we sat on the grass for our interview.

Countryfile

Ben Fogle, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and the BBC crew recording Countryfile at Bank Ground Farm in October 2002

I did the whole interview holding a bottle of grog, which the Arthur Ransome fans who were staying at the farm gave me. You can see it in the photographs if you look closely.  I don’t think Ben knew what it was.

It was into this interview that my father’s 16mm footage of the making of Swallows and Amazons was cut, with such success that the documentary was re-shown as Big Screen Britain. What I didn’t know was that Ben Fogle was born in 1973 after we had made the movie. It was only once the crew had disappeared that Suzanna and I really began to talk.

A letter from behind the scenes on the third day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

16th May 1973, was the third day of filming the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’, recorded in this letter that my mother wrote to my father who was at home in Gloucestershire with my two younger sisters.

Mum kept her letters, my diaries and scrapbooks in a smart carrier bag. It once contained an expensive velvet dress bought for me in Carnaby Street when we met Claude Whatham, the director of Swallows and Amazons back in April 1973

1970’s English food ~

The food at our guest house was talking its toll. It was not a good idea to feed children on packet soups and baked beans in the days when 35mm film stock was so extremely expensive.  No one realised why, but the ingredients made Sten hyper-active, or as my mother put it, ‘causing a little hoo hah.’  A visiting  journalist wrote, ‘By the end of the day Roger, aged seven, had mown down the entire film crew using a hammer as a mock machine gun. He had fallen down several times and emerged with grazed knees all splattered with mud.’

Location catering ~

Suzanna Hamilton, who was playing Susan, simply refused to eat the revolting food.  Mum said,  “I couldn’t get her to eat anything.” Location catering is excellent now but back in the early 1970’s it could be pretty basic canteen food produced from a ‘chuck wagon’. We’d queue up for a tray of meat and two veg, which was usually consumed in a red London double-decker converted into a dining bus.  There were no salads, no fruit, just a working man’s lunch with coffee in plastic cups and paste sandwiches provided later with tea. The tea was good.

Pinewood location catering ~ Suzanna Hamilton pearing into the chuck wagon ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The fruit bowl in our bus ~

Mum started to order fruit and we relished it.  Back then, it was a huge treat to have bananas or melon, oranges and grapes.  A bowl sat in our bus where we were given lessons on Formica tables downstairs. The upper deck was used by Terry the Wardrobe Master as as our changing room. It was furnished with bunk beds. Mum made us rest in these after lunch. I don’t think she could pin down the Amazons easily but she made me use them. I know I objected at first but I must have needed to lie down and rest properly, especially when it was cold.

Molly and Richard Pilbrow

Molly and Richard Pilbrow on location with the two red London Double Decker buses where coffee was being served ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The film crew ~

Apart from Sue Merry the ‘Continuity Girl’ the film crew consisted entirely of men, forty-five of them. I include the Hair and Make-up Designers, the Wardrobe Master, the Art Director, Set Dresser, Propmen and Carpenters, Sound Recordist and Boom Operator, the Director of Photography, Camera Operator, Focus Puller and Grips with the Electricians from Lee Electric who looked after the lights and generators, Lorry Drivers and Sailing Director, the Director, three Assistant Directors and the Production Associate and Producer. I think there might have been a Film Accountant and Location Manager. Being a feature film we had a permanent Stills Photographer and a Publicity Manager.  And this was a small crew as Terry seemed to cope without Wardrobe Assistants or Dressers. They all knew each other pretty well from being on previous movies. I have a list of where they had digs in Ambleside. It’s quite interesting to see who shared with who.  Whenever we needed boats up to six local boatmen could also join the queue for the chuck wagon – and the mobile loos.  Mum wouldn’t let me use them. They were looked after by a ratty looking chap who later managed to persuade one of the Ambleside girls that he was the film’s Producer.

Neville  Thompson, who was effectively the on-line Producer, had a production secretary called Sally Shewing, but she must have been stuck in the production office as we never saw her.  Molly Friedel, Richard Pilbrow’s girl friend and assistant, was often on location. We adored her.  She was American, tall with long brown hair and always had time for us. I remember her working on the lighting design for the next Rolling Stones Concert by the shore of Lake Coniston while we milled about, playing on the rocks.

We had our tutor, Mrs Causey and a wonderful mini-bus driver called Jean McGill. She had been a top British Airways air hostess but had returned to Cumbria to look after her ailing mother and was driving us around the area she so loved to keep busy. As soon as my mother found out that she was also a qualified nursing sister she made sure that Jean was taken on as the official location nurse, which was great as it meant she could be around the whole time and we never had to wait for the bus. We found we soon needed a nurse too. Someone was always hurting themselves.

Jean McGill, our driver and location nurse, operating the radio with Sophie Neville ~ photo:Martin Neville

So in all, with our chaperones there were usually about six women around as well as journalists, friends and relatives who came to watch. It was a huge circus with often eighty people milling about. Certianly the Call Sheet asks the caterers to provide lunch for seventy on normal days. It would be much more when we had crowd scenes such as when we explored Rio.

The male:female ratio on crews is very different today. There are often more women than men, perhaps not on movies but certainly on BBC drama crews. It was already different by 1983 when Richard and Molly Pilbrow came to visit us on the location of  Coot Club in Norfolk, where there were about equal numbers of men and women on set. It made for a better, family atmosphere, certainly more appropriate with so many children involved.  Since he still held the rights to Arthur Ransome’s series of Swallows and Amazons books, Richard was the Executive Producer on the BBC serial Joe Waters produced. It was so good to see him again. I gather he is still going strong having just been awarded the Knights of Illumination Lifetime Recognition Award for more than 50 years of work in theatre lighting.

The third day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the Lake District in 1973

At Beckfoot: The Amazon’s garden and boat house ~

Day 3 of the diary

Day 3 of the diary  page 2

The Amazon’s time had come. In the script, the short scene where Nancy and Peggy careen their dinghy is set in the Amazon boathouse, but Claude Whatham shot them scrubbing the underside of their dinghy on the lakeside with Beckfoot behind. Nancy threw a bucket of water over him for his pains. It was a complete accident.  She actually chucked the water onto the bottom of the boat but it splashed back.  He was squatting below the camera to the bottom right and got well and truly soaked by what must have been very cold, lake water. Kit Seymour roared with laughter and he took in it good spirit but only up to a point. I don’t think he had anything else to wear.

David Blagden, David Cadwallader, and David Bracknell looking at the Amazon’s bottom with DPO Denis Lewiston in the backround with the Panavision

I was a conscientious child and keen not to fall behind with my school work.  Children under the age of sixteen have to be issued with a licence by their local education authority before they can act in films.  Mum, who was our legal chaperone, decided it would be quite fine if we did fifteen schooling hours a week rather than a minimum of three hours a day, as stipulated in the rule book.  I spent the day catching up in our school bus.

Mum was equally fluid about the time we spent on set – or indeed on location. Sten Grendon, who played Roger, was aged nine. I now know he was meant to go home every day at 4.30pm but we all returned together whenever it was deemed practical. But his mother, Jane, was with him and if ever there was a child who needed to expend energy it was Sten. Sending him back to the Oaklands Guest House early could have endangered the people of Ambleside.  It did us a lot of good to work hard, and cope with real, if channelled, responsibility.

We were all busting with energy, so much that I grazed my leg badly climbing a tree at lunch time that day. Claude put a stop to any more tree climbing as a result. He couldn’t risk any of us getting injured. My sister Tamzin Neville broke her ankle when she was in the middle of playing Anthea, the leading role in a BBC serialisation of E.Nesbit’s  The Phoenix and the Carpet. It could have been a disaster but she wore long Edwardian dresses with petticoats that covered up her splint. My legs were fully on display in Swallows and Amazons. If I hadn’t have been wearing dungarees when I climbed that tree the world would have seen the scratch.

I can remember admiring the large house featured as Beckfoot, the Blackett’s house on the lakeside, and wandering past towering the rhododendrons in the garden, but I have no idea where is is.  Christina Hardyment felt that Arthur Ransome must have modelled Beckfoot on Lanehead, the Collingwoods’ house on the East of Lake road above Coniston, but the film required a big house with lawns going down to a lake.  I don’t have the call sheet for that day. Can anyone tell me where the location was?   Is it on the south western shore of Coniston?  And is the Amazon Boathouse in the same place?  My mother thought it was at Elterwater but John Ward has written in to say that the ‘big house’ was Brown Howe House on the western Shore of Coniston Water south of Peel Island. The boathouse is also there on the edge of the lake.

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I have just found an article in The Times which includes an extract from Kit Seymour’s diary:

‘This is the day I had been waiting for. The Amazons had at last begun filming. We got changed and had to be made up sunburnt. We then rehearsed what to do. We did the second scene. I quite accidently threw a bucket of water at Claude. After lunch we had to film the interior of the boat house. Peggy had to say, ‘Not a breath of wind.’ This was quite funny becasue our hair was flying about everywhere. They had to film this scene quite a lot of times.’ 

Filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ at Bank Ground Farm in Cumbria in 1973

Bank Ground Farm ~

If you take the East of the Lake road along Coniston Water you will find Bank Ground Farm. It lies between Brantwood,  John Ruskin’s former home, and Lanehead where Arthur Ransome’s friends the Collingwoods lived. Ransome was particularly good friends of Dora Collingwood, who married an Irish-Armenian doctor keen on sailing called Ernest Altounyan. They went to live in Syria but every five years or so would bring their children to visit their Grandparents for the holidays. The would stay at Bank Ground Farm next door. Ernest bought two 14 foot sailing dinghies called Swallow and Mavis in which his family learnt to sail.

It was for the five Altounyan children, Taqui, Susie, Titty , Roger – and Bridget, the ships’s baby, that Arthur Ransome wrote Swallows and Amazons after they gave him a pair of bright scarlet Turkish slippers as a birthday present.  I don’t think I knew that Titty was a real girl when I played her in the film, but I did know her character in the books and only felt rather bad that I didn’t have her thick dark hair.

Bank Ground Farm
Bank Ground Farm with its views over Coniston Water in the Lake District

Bank Ground Farm is much smarter now. Lucy Batty, who let us take over her home in 1973, is still around but the guest house is now run by her grandson Jonathan. You can either stay in the main house, where there is a lovely corner bedroom with views right down Langdale, or you can take a self catering cottage or flat, since they have been able to convert the barn and stables into further accommodation. I’ve just received post from Peter Willis of The Nancy Blackett Trust who said,

“I stayed at Bank Ground in the summer – it was utterly lovely, exactly as it ought to be – Jonathan Batty and his wife are really hospitable, and one of the great pleasures was the friendliness and interstingness of the other guests, who included a Japanese Ransome fan. Do have dinner if they’re doing it. Food’s great, but so’s the sociable atmosphere.”

16th May 1973

15th May 1973

Int: Holly Howe ~ Bank Ground Farm near Coniston

It was grey and raining in the Lake District on 15th May 1973. Instead of filming the scene when Roger tacks up the field, Denis Lewiston, the Director of Photography, lit Mrs Batty’s living room at Bank Ground Farm for an evening scene. Simon Holland the Art Director dressed the room in the style of a Cumbrian farmhouse in the 192os with oil lamps, Bobby the prop man brought in all the camping gear we were to be packing, while Virginia McKenna was having her hair done up and we had lessons in our red double-decker bus. Then we recorded a scene, the dialogue of which was never used in the finished film.

Int/Ext: Holly Howe

Int/Ext Holly Howe
The Screenplay: David Wood’s adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’

You do see Susan packing bars of soap and me making heavy weather of sewing our flag, my hair pinned back in a hideous way, with rather a modern reel of white cotton laying on the desk.  John packed the telescope in a biscuit tin, which to me now seems a mistake as we used it on the voyage, very much not in a tin, but then one always re-packs many times before an important trip.

Virginia McKenna as Mary Walker with Sophie Neville playing her daughter Titty Walker busy stiching Swallow’s new flag in preparation for the voyage to the island

After lunch we shot the scene when Mother is teaching us how to erect a tent on rocky ground, as she did with Father when they were young. Titty asks if she is really old.

‘Not really. But I was younger then,’ Virginia McKenna replied looking dubious.

This is rather how I feel now, all these years later, especially when I walk into a room when people are expecting me as Titty. I’m not really old, but I do look different from when I was only twelve. This always happens when I return to Bank Ground Farm. Everyone is a bit taken back by my height but say I sound just the same. And I am married now with a family of my own. It is a bit like when Peter Pan flew back to see Wendy and found she looked just like her mother – not least because in the play the adult Wendy is always played by the actress who formerly takes the role of Mrs Darling.

Sophie Neville
Simon West, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton in the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ with Sophie Neville today, photographed at the recent Arthur Ransome Society Literary Weekend

I was standing outside the front door of Bank Ground once, talking to Lucy Batty, when two Japanese girls arrived to stay at the farm. They were fans of the film. They looked up at me and declared, ‘Ooo Titty!’ and bowed their heads whilst clasping their hands together in greeting. They had come from the other side of the world and yet recognised me immediately. Perhaps I haven’t changed that much after all.

The weather must have cleared up a bit by teatime on 15th May as we recorded the scenes in the boat house when John discovers Swallow, brings her out to the stone jetty and steps the mast. I’m pretty sure that the sunlight comes from an arc-lamp. They must have had to take the generator down to the lakeside. Suzanna got her shorts wet as she pushed out the clinker-built dinghy but we loved being by the water.

To be continued…