Announcing the publication of ‘The Making of SWALLOW & AMAZONS’

The Making of SWALLOWS & AMAZONS

The long-awaited paperback published by Classic TV Press

Sophie Neville at home with the S&A flags

Sophie Neville who played Titty Walker

Swallows & Amazons flags for book

‘Forty years after she enchanted film-goers as Titty in Swallows and Amazons, Sophie Neville has found a new audience… telling the behind-the-scenes secrets of the film of Arthur Ransome’s classic novel.’ The Daily Mail  The Making of  Swallows & Amazons ‘…is based on diaries, letters and old photographs which Sophie has turned into a heart-warming account of making the movie, which starred Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser.’

The Telegraph ~ Culture:  ‘Set in the Lake District in 1929, the film follows four young adventurers who sail a dinghy around Lake Coniston, cook for themselves over campfires and sleep in makeshift campsites.’

‘…The occasional chaos and terrible weather during filming contributed to the eventual popularity of the extraordinary and very much loved film.’ The Times

‘The film Swallows & Amazons is 40 years old, but thanks to its careful period evocation, its respect for Arthur Ransome’s original book and the performances of its child actors, it’s become a timeless classic. One of those children was Sophie Neville, who played Titty, and who kept a diary during the filming. That diary, with her adult recollections, is this book. It’s a fascinating insight into filming on location in the Lake District… Classic Boat

Sophie Suzanna and Sten

‘… The result is compulsive reading as she recalls that cold wet summer, while the camera crew wrapped up warm and she shivered in her skimpy dress as Able Seaman Titty Walker. Sophie brings to life all the many memorable characters who worked on the film and in particular the other children, the Director Claude Whatham who developed a great relationship with his young cast and the stars Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser. Nor are the other young actors forgotten for there are diary contributions from Suzanna Hamilton who played Susan, Stephen Grendon who played the Boy Roger and Kit Seymour who played Nancy Blackett. The text is supported by numerous illustrations showing life on and off the set.’ Roger Wardale, author of Arthur Ransome: Master Storyteller and other books

‘You don’t need to be a Swallows & Amazons fan to enjoy this book – it’s universal!’ Winifred Wilson, Librarian of The Arthur Ransome Society

‘This was a most unusual and interesting book. I picked it up expecting to browse through it, and found myself so drawn in to Sophie Neville’s detailed, amusing and insightful description of film making in the 1970’s that I was unable to put her book down. As Arthur Ransome fans, my family and I have always loved the film, and felt that Sophie Neville was ‘just right’ as Titty. What fun it has been to be introduced to the young twelve year old Sophie with her intelligent awareness of the challenges facing the production crew while she shivered in her cotton dresses. The many photographs and illustrations contribute richly to bringing the 1970s setting to life. Sophie recorded her experiences beautifully, and in so doing, added one more valuable book to the cultural heritage of all Arthur Ransome fans.’ Juliet Calcott, English teacher, South Africa

Lots of photos throughout the book bring the scenes to life – a delightful read.’ Celia Lewis author of An Illustrated Country Year

Mark Forrest Evening Show

Sophie Neville has been chatting to Mark Forrest on The Evening Show.

Please see her post on the Funnily Enough, the website  or click on his image above and slide the cursor to 02:14:20

**********

Where is Rio and were you there in 1973?

A number of people have specifically asked, ‘Where is Rio in Swallows and Amazons?’

The answer is that Rio lies on the eastern shore of Arthur Ransome’s imaginary lake. I have always loved the map in his book, originally drawn by the illustrator  Stephen Spurrier, that was used on dust jacket and frontispieces of the first editions. The Arthur Ransome Literary Estate have given me permission to include a thumb-nail image:

Arthur Ransome
The hardback edition

The Arthur Ransome Trust have made the map into a jigsaw puzzle. You can buy a virtual piece of this map to raise funds for their projects.  If you go to their website and hover your cursor over the jigsaw pieces you can discover a great deal about the locations mentioned in the books with names of all the islands. Please click here and wait for it to load. 

Simon Hodkin's collection
An early letter Ransome wrote a fan of the book

Arthur Ransome told his readers that they would need to go and find the places mentioned in the books themselves. Most people think that if you compare his lake with Windermere there is only one option for the town of Rio.

Rio Bay ~ Steam boat
Photograph taken by Martin Neville 1973 showing Windermere skiffs and George Pattinson in his steamboat ‘Elizabeth’. The old green boathouse can be seen beyond the town jetty.

Bowness-on-Windermere in the English Lake District was used as the location for ‘the native settlement of Rio’ in the film of Swallows & Amazons produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1973 and now distributed by StudioCanal, who have a shot of the town on their website here.

Bowness in 2014 photo John Burgess
Photograph of the town jetty at Bowness taken in June 2014 by John Burgess

Today the Bowness lakeside looks a little different, although the skiffs are still pulled up on the beach.

Martin Neville on Jetty in Rio

 My father admiring the traditional boats

The old green boathouses have been replaced by a modern development but you can still walk along the town jetty, as the Swallows did, and even catch a native steamer down to the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway where the opening scenes of the film were shot.

DSCF9379
MV Swan on Windermere today, seen from Lakeside Railway Station.

The secret known to a few people is that the chandlers shop where the Swallows bought grog and rope for the lighthouse tree is actually in Windermere town.

The Swallows in Woodland Road, Windermere in 1973
The Swallows in Woodland Road, Windermere – now a barber’s shop

This is what the location looks like nowadays:

Woodland Road, Windermere
Woodland Road, Windermere

John, Susan and Titty can then be seen walking past the Stags Head Hotel in Church Street, Bowness-on-Windermere, which was ‘dressed’ with a pony and trap and vintage cars to emulate 1929 when the book was written. Click on the image to see the same view today:

John Susan and Titty walking past the hotel
John, Susan and Titty walking past the Old England Hotel. The Stags Head Hotel lies just beyond them in Church Street

This is how Church Street looks today.  Please click on this image for the source.

Rio - Stags Head Hotel today

If you go to explore the location, do send in more photos.

Rio - walking past the Stags Head Hotel
The Swallows in Church Street in 1973

To read more about filming in Bowness in 1973 please click here.

Rio Bay ~ newspaper article
Evening Post 11th June 1973. Please click on the photo for more news cuttings

Where you there?

We’d love to hear from anyone who took part in the filming. The entire Kendall Borough Band came along, someone brought a pony and trap, others arrived with period vehicles including a motorcycle. A man arrived with three donkeys and a number of local people took part, appearing as film extras. Do contact us in the comments box below.

If a new film adaptation is made,  the producer has told me it may now be too difficult to use Bowness. It’s busy place in the summer months. The village of Coniston might be an alternative. What do you think?

Meanwhile here are the lyrics to the sea shanty Titty loved, Away Rio. The tune was incorporated into the film score.

O, the anchor is weighed, and the sails they are set,
Away, Rio!
The maids that we’re leaving we’ll never forget,
For we’re bound for the Rio Grande,
And away, Rio! aye, Rio!
Sing fare-ye-well, my bonny young gel,
For we’re bound for the Rio Grand!

So man the good capstan, and run it around,
Away, Rio!
We’ll heave up the anchor to this jolly sound,
For we’re bound for the Rio Grande,
And away, Rio! aye, Rio!
Sing fare-ye-well, my bonny young gel,
For we’re bound for the Rio Grand!

We’ve a jolly good ship, and a jolly good crew,
Away, Rio!
A jolly good mate, and a good skipper, too,
For we’re bound for the Rio Grande,
And away, Rio! aye, Rio!
Sing fare-ye-well, my bonny young gel,
For we’re bound for the Rio Grand!

We’ll sing as we heave to the maidens we leave,
Away, Rio!
And you who are listening, good-bye to you,
For we’re bound for the Rio Grande,
And away, Rio! aye, Rio!
Sing fare-ye-well, my bonny young gel,
For we’re bound for the Rio Grand!

Come heave up the anchor, let’s get it aweigh,
Away, Rio!
It’s got a firm grip, so heave steady, I say,
For we’re bound for the Rio Grande,
And away, Rio! aye, Rio!
Sing fare-ye-well, my bonny young gel,
For we’re bound for the Rio Grand!

Heave with a will, and heave long and strong,
Away, Rio!
Sing a good chorus, for ’tis a good song,

Traditional – Lyrics from Iron Men & Wooden Ships, by Frank Shay

The cutting room floor

Members of the Arthur Ransome Group have recently raised questions about what ‘fell onto the cutting room floor’ after we shot the movie ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in the English Lake District in 1973.

‘I have always had the feeling that the Amazon’s role in the 1974 film was very much secondary to the Swallows.’ Stephen O’Brien posted.  ‘This was probably down to much of the Amazon’s footage ending up on the cutting room floor. What do you think?’

The answer is that there were few scenes excluded from the film.

BW Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville

Virginia McKenna as Mrs Walker with Sophie Neville as Titty

One featured Virginia McKenna and Mrs Battys clock, which can still be found at Bank Ground Farm, our location used for Holly Howe. It was shot on the second morning and I fear that our director Claude Whatham might have taken it out because my own performance was rather stilted. I had quite a bit to say, most of which was really rather bizarre:

15th May deatil of outtake
The pages of my diary written on 15th May 1973

15th May detail  page two

The only other scene from Swallows & Amazons that I know was excluded was when the Swallows lay patterans on their way to visit the charcoal burners. The location was in a beautiful spot up above Derwentwater, the dialogue was straight from Arthur Ransome’s book and our performances would have been fluent by the time we shot the sequence. BW The Swallows make Patterans

 Suzanna Hamilton, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West as the Swallows

I can only expect that when the movie came in over-length these scenes were cut as the action was not exciting and had no influence on the plot.

In the original script the Amazons do not really appear until page 41 – which would equate to nearly half-way into the the film. I thought that there might have been one or two shots of the Amazons sailing that were never used, because there was  a day spent filming on Derwentwater when Kit and Lesley who played Nancy and Peggy weren’t feeling very well but I’ve checked the script and nothing that they said was excluded. Not one word. Perhaps David Wood who dramatised the book could somehow have increased the Amazons’ parts. However, as Janet Means points out:

‘…in the book we find out more about what the Swallows think but only about what the Amazons do. There is little about the Amazons except when the Swallows are present too (hiding Amazon in the reeds and Nancy berating Peggy for losing Amazon when Titty’s made off with her). There’s lots about the Swallows without the Amazons.’ 

One scene in the DVD of the film actually gets cut out of the television version. The clue is that it comes just before this photo was taken in Bowness-on-Windermere for Lancashire Life kindly sent to be by Stephen Sykes of Hill Top near Haverthwaite.

Lancashire Life May 1974 - S&A - Contents photo only Sten Grendon, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville as the Swallows in Rio, an official still from the film published in Lancashire Life in 1974

There are a few scenes in the screenplay that were never actually shot, but that’s on a different tack. To read more, please see: The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons.

Dennis Lewiston, director of Photography on 'Swallows and Amazons'  ~photo:Richard Pilbrow
Denis Lewiston, director of Photography on ‘Swallows and Amazons’ ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow, taken on Derwentwater in Cumbria, 1973

Our sad news is that Denis Lewiston, the brilliant  Director of Photography on Swallows & Amazons (1974),  died recently. After a long and fulfilling career he will be remembered fondly and admired for the numerous films he made, seeking excellence with every sequence.

To see some of the shots Denis set up for the film of Swallows & Amazons,  please click here for the BFI site.

Your questions about Swallows & Amazons

Sophie Neville with Suzanna Hamilton on Coniston Water in Falcon ~ photo: Gordon Bourne
~ Sophie Neville with Suzanna Hamilton on Coniston Water in 2003 ~ photo: Gordon Bourne

‘How did Titty capture the Amazon?’

What did Swallows and Amazons wear?

The Swallows and the Amazons – where are they now?

These are some of the many questions that people type into search-engines. Members of The Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook have also had questions:

Dan Ford asked, ‘I think I heard it said that the four Swallows and two Amazons all wore life-jackets under their clothes whilst filming.  If that is so, they were very well concealed, so were they specially made for this use?’

We didn’t wear life jackets under our costumes, we only ever wore buoyancy aids when travelling out to the location. Last time I went out rowing on Coniston Water I didn’t wear a life-jacket either, which was very naughty.

Chris Roisndale asked: ‘What became of ‘Amazon’ from the film?  Is she still in existence like ‘Swallow’?

Amazon on Coniston 2003
Amazon at Bank Ground in 2003 ~ photo: Geraint Lewis

Suzanna Hamilton and I went out on Coniston Water in Amazon in when the BBC invited us to Bank Ground Farm to appear in Countryfile with Ben Fogle. We met her owners who live in Kent. I gather she was the same dinghy used to play Amazon in the 1963 BBC serial of Swallows and Amazons made when Arthur Ransome was still around to comment. Her owner told me, ‘She was built locally on Windermere sometime in the 1930.’

Amazon sailing
Amazon under sail while filming Countryfile in 2003 ~ photo: Geraint Lewis

Duncan Hall writes, ‘Just before Roger finds the camp, I’m fairly sure I can see a chimney in the background (somebody last said that it was a tree stump but it doesn’t look like a tree stump) – did you film any “on island” sequences on the mainland? Also – I know Rampsholme on Derwent Water was used for some “Wild Cat Island in the distance” shots, but it was mostly Peel Island. Did any Windermere islands get used for Wild Cat Island locations?

The Boy Roger was definitely on Peel Island when he was looking for the camping place. I remember he got rather scratched by brambles.  I can see what does look like a chimney in the background but it would have been a stump.

Some of the scenes set on Wild Cat Island were indeed shot on the mainland. This was because there is no light house tree on Peel Island. I don’t think there was one in Ransome’s day. We filmed the light house tree scenes on two different promontories near Friar’s Crag overlooking Derwentwater and the Houseboat Bay. For a description of one location  please click here.

Falcon with Amazon in Secret Harbour: photo Geraint Lewis
‘Peggy Blackett’ & ‘Amazon’ in Secret Harbour on Peel Island: photo Geraint Lewis

Chris Clarke has asked, ‘Were any of you allowed to keep props from the film set as a souvenir? For example, were the Amazons allowed to keep their red hats?’

A number of red hats were made and I think the Amazons may have been able to keep one each. Their hats were initially bright pink, but my mother was insistent they should be red and others were knitted locally. She tried to get ones made more like a finely knitted woolen hat of mine that would have been much more in keeping with Ransome’s original sketches. However this picture was not known of back then and the Wardrobe Master, and the Director went with the design of the ones you see on the screen. Funnily enough the caps do look a bit pink in Mum’s faded photo.

Virginia McKenna with us at Bank Ground1
The Amazons in their red caps, sitting with the Walker Family at Holly Howe ~ a scene neither in the book or film of Swallows & Amazons: photo: Daphne Neville

I still have a bow, two arrows with green feathers and a pair of flags used for rehearsal props. I was given one of the pink hats but it meant nothing. I didn’t keep any of my costumes, but Caroline Downer who played Dorothea says that she still has the buttercup yellow dress she wore in either ‘Coot Club’ or ‘The Big Six’.

Scores of people have asked, ‘Where was Swallows & Amazons filmed?’

One of the secrets of filming Swallows & Amazons is that while most of the film was shot on Coniston Water, we also filmed with the dinghies to Derwentwater, Windermere, Elterwater and rather a smelly lily pond.

Amazon with Ben Fogle

Ben Fogle making a documentary about the locations used for Swallows & Amazons (1974)

~ photograph: Geraint Lewis who will be representing the Arthur Ransome Trust at a number of country fairs this summer ~ please click here for details

If you would like to sail the Swallow please click here for details

News and Reviews of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’

Have you received the same despatches as me?

I opened my post to find not one but three reviews of my books, including this article published in The Outlaw and another in Signals, for which I am very grateful. I have pasted them here for fans of the film who do not yet subscribe to these literary magazines.

Review by Jack Parker in The Outlaw

This review was followed by by a comment from Winifred Wilson, librarian of The Arthur Ransome Society:

Review by Winifred Wilson1

The Library Supplement in The magazine of The Arthur Ransome Society gives a full description of all three books:

Review in Signals Library Supplement

Review in Signals

Mixed Moss  arrived before Easter with Spurrier’s map on the cover:

Mixed Moss 2014

I found another review inside, this time from New Zealand:

Mixed Moss1

Mixed Moss2

Mixed Moss3

The News is that The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons has been signed up by the publisher Classic TV Press who plan to bring out a new edition in paperback this July. It will include glossy photographs and additional points of interest. If you would like to order a signed copy please email: classictvpress@live.co.uk

If you are interested in joining the Arthur Ransome Society please click here.

Here is a shot from 1973, capturing some of the deb-archery:

Sophie Neville watching the Amazons practicing with bows and arrows

Sophie Neville with Peter Robb-King (Make-Up) and Ronnie Cogan (Hair) watching Lesley Bennett and Kit Seymour trying out their bows and arrows with Terry Smith (Wardrobe) while on location near Peel Island on Coniston Water in the Lake District.

 

If you enjoyed watching ‘Swallows & Amazons’ on ITV3 last weekend

The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons

If you would like to know how the movie of Swallows & Amazons was made and know where the real locations can be found, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ is currently available as an ebook on Amazon and Smashwords for £2.56.  The paperback was launched to mark the 40th anniversary of the film’s release, by Classic TV Press.

Do you know where the Peak of Darien can be found? photo: Roger Wardale
Do you know where the Peak of Darien can be found?

The book, which is suitable for any age group, is based on the diary that I kept when I played the part of Titty Walker in 1973. It is illustrated with behind-the-scenes photographs and memorabilia such as one of the tickets to the Royal Gala premier in Shaftesbury Avenue held on 4th April 1974. You will also find out what the actors who played the Walker family ~ the Swallows ~ are doing now.

The joy of the ebook is that it includes a number of home-movie clips that my parents took of life behind the scenes that you can play wherever you have internet access.

Classi Boat magazine Books ~ Feb 2014
A review of the ebook in Classic Boat magazine ~ Feburary 2014

If you have any questions about making the film, please add them to the comments below, and I will get back to you.

Richard Kay's column in Daily Mail Friday Nov 22nd1
A review of ‘the Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ in Richard Kay’s column in the Daily Mail ~

There were rather over-excited headlines in the Times and Telegraph when the ebook was launched but they only spoke of the legendary drinking of Ronald Fraser. Please don’t worry – there is nothing X-rated about the book – it is just the price one pays for half a page in a daily newspaper, especially since it came out on a Saturday.

The Times Sat 23 Nov 20131

The ebook has been doing well in the Amazon charts and hit Number 1 in the category ‘Stage and Theatre’.

Lymington Times 4th Jan 2014

A preview of what the book holds in store can be watched here:

‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ – the book trailer

Very many thanks to all those who have left customer reviews on Amazon. It is always exciting to find out how the book has impacted others, especially those who love the Arthur Ransome books.

To read more reviews please click here

Captain Flint’s Houseboat revisited

DSCF7742
SY Gondola on Coniston Water today

When people see the Steam Yacht Gondola on Coniston today, in all her re-built glory, she seems rather plush to have been cast by Arthur Ransome as Captain Flint’s houseboat. The main reason for assuming that she was used as the model for the illustrations is because Arthur Ransome grabbed a post card of the Gondola and drew on it to give the first illustrators of Swallows and Amazons some idea of his vision. However Ransome’s biographer Roger Wardale tells me it was a former steamer on Windermere that he had in mind: the S.L Esperance. Ransome was known to have been spotted looking through her cabin windows and much admired her distinctive bow, designed to cut through cat ice as she went daily up the the Lakeside Railway station.  

Houseboat  bay in 1963
Esperance in Rayrigg Bay, Windemere ~ photographed by Martin Neville in about 1963

When I was first taken up to the Lake District in 1963 my father found what he thought was houseboat bay on Windermere and took this shot of a vessel that must be SL Esperance. She does look very like the first professional drawing submitted to illustrate Swallows and Amazons.

Stephen Spurrier's unused illustration of Swallow sailing past Captain Flint's houseboat
Stephen Spurrier’s unused illustration of Swallow sailing past Captain Flint’s houseboat

Arthur Ransome’s terse note reads: ‘The ass has forgotten the mast’. Today the Esperance is lying at the Steamboat Museum on Windermere, where we went to visit her in 2011. Built at Rutherglen in 1869 she is nearly 65 foot long with a 10 foot beam.

Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum
SL Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in 2011

She did not always have such a traditional appearance. Roger Wardale kindly sent me this photograph showing what she looked like in the 1930s.

'Esperance' in the 1930s when she was owned by Sir Oliver Scott.
‘Esperance’ in the 1930s when she was owned by Sir Oliver Scott.

The cabin has since been removed from her rear end.

DSCF7695
SY Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in 2011

SY Esperance now looks more like this illustration – or could do. Although she has a setting for a mast the reality is that she has seven windows, whereas Clifford Webb’s illustration shows her with only six.

Clifford Webb's illustration of Captain Flint's houseboat
Clifford Webb’s illustration of Captain Flint’s houseboat

I have no idea if anyone could film aboard her today when safety regulations are so strict.

Claude Whatham discussing plans with sailing director David Blagden (in the white hat) and Richard Pilbrow on the aft deck of the houseboat with Molly Pilbrow looking on ~ photo: Daphne Neville
Claude Whatham took advantage of the larger cabin windows in the Lady Derwentwater whilst filming ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Back in 1973 Richard Pilbrow was obliged to use the Lady Derwentwater, still owned by the Keswick Launch Co. She has quite a different stern from the illustrations but was licensed to carry 90 passengers, which must have allowed him to take a seventy-strong film crew on board. At least she was given a mast. You can envisage Ronald Fraser, as Captain Flint, angrily stamping out the firework on the roof.

One advantage of the Lady Derwentwater was that the windows of her cabin enabled the director to get a good view of the lake, which he made use of when Captain John rowed over from Peel Island to visit Captain Flint and pass on the charcoal burners’ warning.  She couldn’t be moved to another lake, but Derwentwater is surrounded by such dramatic fells that the director, Claude Whatham used this to his advantage. A postcard of Friar’s Crag near Keswick was used by Ransome to give his illustrator an idea of what the Peak of Darien was like, even though he had originally based this on the rocky promontory at Waterhead on Windermere. Roger Wardale tells me the Ransomes would sail there in Swallow and stop for tea before heading back south.

Sophie Neville at the Windermere Steamboat Museum
Sophie Neville at the Windermere Steamboat Museum

Was the Gondola so very different? Ransome had known her since spending his own childhood holidays on Coniston, when she was in service.  While staying at Nibthwaite he became a good friend of the Captain, or so the story goes. Back in 1973 the Gondola looked like this – her roof too curved to run along, her bow rising up a little too dramatically to accommodate the foredeck of a retired pirate busy writing up his devilish crimes while his a cannon lies glinting in the sunlight, ready to fire.

Was this the houseboat Arthur Ransome had in mind? ~ photograph taken by Martin Neville in 1973
Photograph of the Gondola on Coniston Water taken by Martin Neville in 1973

To read more about Esperance, please click here

For more about the Steamboat Museum with a photograph of Esperance, please click here

To read more, from another perspective please click here

Adaptations of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ discussed in the Independent on Sunday by Jonathan Brown

Author Arthur Ransome loathed BBC’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’, his diaries reveal

A new adaptation of the classic is coming, but its author called the 1960s version ‘a ghastly mess’

Sunday 16 February 2014

When the BBC announced plans to recreate the classic outdoor children’s sailing adventure Swallows and Amazons it was hailed as a blockbusting antidote to the health and safety culture of the mollycoddled video-game generation. Filming of the new version of the 1930s Lake District adventure is due to begin later this summer with big stars including Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens already linked to the project.

However, previously unread diaries of its creator, Arthur Ransome, reveal that the author considered the corporation’s last attempt to bring his much-loved story to life to be a “ghastly mess” marred by “dreadful ham” acting. The diaries reveal how Ransome clashed repeatedly with BBC executives in the early 1960s when the BBC commissioned a six-part dramatisation for television, starring Susan George, then aged 12, as Kitty (changed from the original Titty) Walker.

Ransome, then in declining health, was living in virtual retirement in his remote Cumbrian cottage Hill Top overlooking the spectacular Rusland valley with his wife Evgenia – the former secretary to Leon Trotsky, whom he met while working as a foreign correspondent and spying for Britain in revolutionary Russia. It was a spartan existence, often with no electricity or running water.

In a series of brusque entries at odds with his generally affable demeanour, he describes how he repeatedly fought with BBC executives over attempts to introduce two new characters – Ernie and Sam – to the story. Both he and his wife attempted to rewrite the script after concluding that one episode was “bad beyond belief”.

At his home Hill Top with his wife, Evgenia

At his home Hill Top with his wife, Evgenia

“I have agreed to Genia’s proposal that we shall wash our hands of the film leaving it to Mr Walls [of the BBC] to play the farceur as much as he likes. They may be right in thinking that vulgar ham acting is what the T.V. gapers want,” he wrote in July 1962.

Ransome was particularly unimpressed with the performance of popular British actor John Paul as Captain Flint – the character linked this time to Dan Stevens, and said to be based on Ransome himself – describing it as “dreadful HAM”.

On attending a screening at the Hammer Theatre in Wardour Street, central London in October 1962, he concluded: “Saw the ghastly mess they have made of poor old Swallows and Amazons … MacCullogh [his friend Derek MacCullogh, former head of children’s broadcasting at the BBC who was also known as the presenter Uncle Mac] did not come possibly to avoid trouble with his employers.” It was eventually broadcast the following year.

Stephen Sykes now owns Hill Top and has restored the Ransomes’ former home. He is also helping transcribe the author’s sparsely detailed diaries from his years at Hill Top, which are kept at Leeds University’s Brotherton Library. Sykes said the writer received £3,500 for agreeing to the BBC broadcast – a considerable amount of money. “He was clearly making a very good living out of the rights to Swallows and Amazons. This was his baby and he had obviously pored over it. It is a very leanly written story and it was pretty clear it was written by a journalist because of its clarity, because there is nothing extraneous,” he said.

“He is extremely protective of his own work. He felt he didn’t want a word changing, and that he had honed the story down and it was what it was,” he added.

Susan George, who played Kitty

Susan George, who played Kitty

Swallows and Amazons was first published in 1930. It recounts the adventures of the children from two families who while away an idyllic summer getting into scrapes sailing their dinghies across Coniston Water and Lake Windermere. As well as the television series, many theatrical and musical adaptations have been staged, and the story was made into a film in 1974 staring Ronald Fraser and Sophie Neville.

When the latest project was announced in 2011, head of BBC Films Christine Langan said it would seek to encapsulate a forgotten era of childhood adventure “from the pre-health and safety generation”.

Producer Nick Barton of Harbour Pictures, which is collaborating on the film with the BBC, the Arthur Ransome Society and the author’s literary estate, said it had not been decided yet whether the children would be shown sailing without their life jackets.

But he said viewers could expect to experience the full majesty of the book’s setting. “The lakes and the mountains are very big and we are keen to recreate that grandeur of the scenery in the film,” he said. A spokeswoman for BBC Films said: “The film is still in development.”

To see a copy of the original article online, please click here

To contact Stephen Sykes at Hill Top, the Ransome’s last home, please click here

Memories of filming ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in 1973 from Simon West’s father

When I saw Simon West recently he told me that his father would love to see a copy of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’. 
Nigel West soon wrote to say:
     ‘…it makes fascinating reading. Simon told me very little in the way of detail about his experiences when filming so your account is very welcome.Simon’s mother, Dorothy, and I only visited the Lake District once during that period and then we only saw Simon fairly briefly and saw nothing of the filming. Things that I can recall about the whole experience I will describe below.
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     ‘Our family took up dinghy sailing when I built a Mirror dinghy in our dining room at home. It was built from a flat-pack and took nearly a year to construct, in my spare time, during which the family had to eat meals in the sitting room. I had been sailing on the Norfolk Broads with friends a few times in my college days, which had started my interest in boating. The family joined the Dorchester Sailing Club which was based on an old gravel pit not far from our home. Eventually we also acquired two children’s Optimist dinghies for Virginia and Simon, who spent many weekends racing their boats at open meetings around the country.’
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Simon West as John Walker
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     ‘One day at the club a notice appeared on the notice board asking children with sailing experience to audition for acting parts in a film to be made of Swallows and Amazons. Virginia immediately expressed interest and pressured Dorothy and me to take her to the auditions in London. We were reluctant to agree because we thought her chance of success would be so slim with thousands of other applicants, many with acting experience, queueing up for parts. Then, to my surprise, Simon said he was also interested, with his eye on the part of John, but surely, I thought, he would be too young and too short for that part and he had pooh-poohed the idea of trying for Roger.
     ‘As it happened we were due to visit Dorothy’s sister, who lived south of London, in Sussex, on the Saturday of the auditions, so we decided that a small detour would allow the children to attend without too much problem. Sadly Virginia fell at the first interview while Simon, to our utter amazement, won through that and all the other stages of selection to win the part of John. How pleased we were for him and proud – and sorry for Virginia who took her disappointment so well. You should ask Simon about the later stages of selection that included a long weekend living on an old motor torpedo boat at Burnham-on-Crouch having, among other things, his sailing proficiency assessed.
     ‘From the few things that Simon did tell us about the filming, I was extraordinarily impressed by the maturity he had so clearly gained in the whole experience. He explained how conscious he was of the crucial part he had to play in getting it right, in front of the camera, because the success of the whole project depended on that. With dozens of adults all working flat out as a team to a tight schedule meant that he had to concentrate on getting it right first time – a very maturing experience for an 11 year-old taking time out from his first year at secondary school.’
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BW Simon West learning morse code -  trimmed
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     ‘With Simon having no acting experience I was intrigued to know how Claude Watham had managed to get what he wanted from his young cast. Simon explained one technique that Claude had used to stop them looking wooden in front of the camera. He would make sure they knew their lines, send the children to run to some point and back again, then shoot the scene while they were still animated from the running.
     ‘One aspect of the production mentioned in your book is the studio post-sychronisation. I can remember taking Simon up to Elstree Studios in Borehamwood to re-record some of the dialogue, sometime after the filming had been completed. Maybe you did the same. Simon had to wear headphones to listen to the film dialogue, while watching a scene from the film, and to repeat to a microphone the dialogue in exact synchronism with what he heard in the headphones and saw on the film. He said it was an extremely difficult thing to do, to talk over one’s own voice, exactly, and then to give it the right expression. I imagine it needs a lot of practice to get it right. The object was, of course, to dub over recorded dialogue which had either been poorly recorded or which included extraneous noise.
     ‘Finally, I did manage to watch one scene filmed, but from a great distance, which you do mention in your book, and that was the Darien scene shot at Runnymede sometime much later in the year. In 1973 it was the fashion for all schoolboys to wear their hair indecently long. At Simon’s school the rule was that the hair was just allowed to touch the collar but not an inch longer. Simon’s hair was no exception but he had had it shorn for and throughout the filming and it had just started to grow back when he was summoned to the Runnymede shoot. On our arrival at Runnymede Simon was immediately sat on a chair and had his locks shorn once again. I think he should have been paid a special indignity fee for that day’s work.’
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Simon West having his hair cut - trimmed
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     ‘I remember watching the S&A float in the Lord Mayor’s Show pass by but the float passed too quickly to let you all spot our family in the crowd.
     ‘I also remember attending the film’s premier at the cinema in Shaftesbury Avenue, also attended by some minor member of royalty. It was a grand event and brought home to me that this was not some trivial little children’s entertainment but was a full length feature film of some standing. It must have been shown on British TV a dozen times over the years, particularly at Christmas, so it has stood the test of time by anybody’s standards.
     ‘That reminds me that at one point we made a half-hearted attempt to get Simon into Equity but without success. The result was that Simon only got paid a daily fee for his work on the film, with no residual payments for TV showings, overseas viewings or video and DVD earnings, to say nothing of his image appearing on a number of jigsaws!
Jigsaw puzzell
     ‘You probably know that Simon also acted in a film made for children’s television in 1974, when he took the title role in Sam and the River. This was recorded on film and was shown on BBC TV in the form of six 30 minute episodes. It was before the days of video recorders so we have only ever seen the original transmission. Fifteen years ago I approached the production company to see if I could obtain a copy, but they had been reorganised since the film was shot and had kept no copy, nor record, of the production. I then approached the BBC and they did a search for me but they drew a blank. At one stage the BBC had a Philistine in charge who infamously threw out masses of, now priceless, BBC archives as being a waste of space. One day I hope to put a name to him. Simon has since found that the BFI have an archive copy of Sam and the River so I will approach them, but they do emphasise that they have no authority to make or issue copies of archive films. Might, however, get them to show it to us one day perhaps.’
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BW Brenda Bruce with Simon West - trimmed
There were four jigsaws issued with the film. There is full image of the jigsaw above on an earlier post.

More memories of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 from David Stott

David Stott, the Ambleside lad who worked as a unit driver on the film of  Swallows & Amazons in 1973 after he left college at the age of 19, has written from America:

‘I really enjoyed reliving Swallows & Amazons through your book.’

‘Oh my, what a trip down memory lane it was for me – so much that l had forgotten was rekindled. I cannot believe that it was forty years ago.

‘I think that I started work (on the film in) mid-June, which would fit in with finishing college. From your daily schedule it was when you went back to Coniston with Virgina McKenna on her second visit.’

Map showing film locations around Coniston Water
Map showing film locations around Coniston Water

David remembers the problem of being locked out of Bank Ground Farm by Mrs. Batty.  ‘I really could not blame her as the whole place had been turned into a circus and her house ripped apart.’

‘The first morning I met Richard Pilbrow was in his bedroom for some strange reason and remember thinking, ‘What a total mess. How can anybody live like this?’

‘My main contacts were Neville Thompson (the On-line Producer) and Graham Ford (the Production Manager). They were all based at Kirkstone Foot Hotel that was owned by friends of my parents, Simon and Jane Bateman.  Others stayed at the Waterhead Hotel down by the lake, where I would pick them up and take them to the location.

‘On arrival at the location I remember well the catering van and the breakfast that awaited us.  Having just competed three years studying hotel management at college I was amazed how two people with very limited equipment could produce the number of meals they did.  The washing up was done on a trestle table outside the van with bowls of water carried to location in large milk churns.

Map of film locations on Derwentwater in the Lake District
~ Map of film locations on Derwentwater in the Lake District ~

‘I did not have much contact with you and the other children, as you were under the watchful eye of your Mum and Jean McGill. Jean’s Mum was called Girly McGill and used to run a nursing home in Ambleside. As a child I used to deliver eggs to the home with my Dad.  Jean had a brother who I think everybody called Blondie.

‘Sten was a bit of a handful at times and held up shooting on a number of occasions while he was calmed down. I rather envied Simon West; I wished I had the chance he did to act in a film. To this day I’m a frustrated actor.

‘Dennis Lewiston (the Director of Photography) always seemed to be holding a light meter in the air or perhaps he was warding off the clouds.  I found him a little unapproachable.

‘My recollection of Sue Merry the continuity girl was setting up her folding table and tapping away on a portable typewriter.

‘Ronnie Cogan the hairdresser and I spent hours chatting. Once the shooting started, we had nothing else to do. He was such a nice man.

‘I was thrilled when I met Virginia McKenna and had to drive her around. One day I had to drive her to Grange railway station. I was so fascinated by her tales of working with lions in Born Free that I drove slowly to maximise her story-telling time. We almost missed the train and had to run from the car park.

‘One of the wettest days I remember is when the scene of Octopus Lagoon was filmed above Skelwith Fold Caravan Site. I don’t remember the support buses being around that day, but I do remember having to sit in the car for hours on end. Maybe the buses were somewhere else.

‘I know I was invited to the wrap party but cannot remember a thing about it.’

Map showing some of the film locations around Windermere
Map showing some of the film locations around Windermere