‘I remember going to the Puffin Club exhibition in London around the time of the film release and some of the cast were there with one of the boats. There was a quiz about S & A and you could win a copy of the book – which I did! Sophie, were you there? And do you know if the boat was ‘Swallow’ or ‘Amazon’?’
I do remember going to the Puffin Club. They published a very good article about Arthur Ransome and the film using the black and white stills in a better way than any other magazine. I still have the clipping:
We were very excited because the publishers had just brought out a copy of Swallows and Amazons with a photograph of the two little ships near Cormorant Island on the cover. You can’t see us clearly but it was from the scene after Titty had just captured Amazon and both dinghies were being victoriously sailed back to Wild Cat Island by John and Roger, Titty and Susan. On the back of the book was a photograph of the Amazons in their red knitted caps waiting in the reeds at the mouth of the Amazon River. What I didn’t realise was that 75,000 copies were printed.
Kaye Webb, famous for her successful book launches, had us up to London to promote it:
About ten years later Puffin also bought out a copy of Coot Club and The Big Six, the series I worked on behind the camera at the BBC. I can remember getting the cast together for the shot of them on the Death and Glory – an old black boat. It was a happy time.
I had forgotten that we had one of the dinghies at the Puffin Club event but remember going to the Commonwealth Institute. I found appearing on television could be rather more daunting than public appearances. We were once taken to the BBC television studios to appear, live, on Points West, the regional news programme that came under the Nationwide banner at the time. The designer had gone to a great effort and made a camp fire in the studio, but it felt weird sitting around it in our own clothes. I think the problem had been that the presenters had not actually read the book so were not in touch with the subject matter. Before we knew it, the item was over and we were whisked off again, home to bed no doubt. Being interviewed on the radio was less scary although I broke into French once when being interviewed on Woman’s Hour. That scarred the presenter.
By far the most enjoyable programme to be in was Animal Magic, which was presented in those days by Johnny Morris. The Assistant Producer Robin Hellier came with a small crew to film me at home with my own boat and my green parrot, Chico.
I was deeply impressed by Robin as a director and I thought him far more talented than Claude Whatham, who had directed the movie. More than twenty years later I met up with Robin when I was working on a BBC natural history programme in South Africa called Global Sunrise. He arrived at Johannesburg International Airport having flown from the Kruger Park in a small passenger plane. They had been delayed by a terrible storm and I had ten minutes to get him onto the Friday night scheduled flight to Cape Town. It was a good thing I knew him. I saw him at a distance and shouted, ‘Quick, Robin! Run.’ And we just made it through the gate in time, laughing about Animal Magic. He told me that the film he made at our house with me and my parrot was the very first he had ever directed. I never knew.
Forty years later, we made a little montage of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ to accompany the ebook, now in its 2nd edition and available here. The audiobook of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ is now also available.
‘When you went to see the charcoal burners, did Susan really leave her basket behind?’
‘Yes, she did!’ I’d totally forgotten, but she left it behind by mistake.
I was invited to speak after dinner at the 11th Arthur Ransome Society Literary Weekendheld at Willis Hall, Bristol University. It was a joy and delight to meet the organisers and delegates, of which there were about 150. All seemed interested in learning more about the making of Swallows and Amazons, the feature film of Arthur Ransome’s book produced in 1973 by Richard Pilbrow of Theatre Projects and distributed by EMI in 1974.
Director Claude Whatham with his cast of Swallows and their basket
‘How old were you all?’ I was asked.
‘Ahh, that is rather a secret,’ I had to admit. When the filming began I was twelve, yet playing the part of Titty who was meant to be only nine. I managed to pretend to be much younger but the reality was that, although skinny, I was a tall child with long legs, so tall that in some shots you can see that I am taller than my elder brother John. Claude Whatham, the director, seemed unconcerned but had either holes dug for me or a box produced for John to stand on when were side by side. At other times he simply had John in a higher position.
John was played by Simon West, who even aged eleven was a true leader and excellent sailor. He became a National Optimist champion in 1975. Suzanna Hamilton, who played my elder sister Susan, was aged twelve. Lesley Bennett, who played Peggy was actually the eldest aged thirteen, and Kit Seymour turned thirteen during the filming. But, unlike at school, it didn’t seemed to matter to us. We all felt the same age and got on well as a result. Sten Grendon, who played the seven-year-old Roger was actually aged nine. He couldn’t swim well, but somehow survived.
I do remember that Roger received more danger money than any of us. Claude would compensate us for getting scratched by brambles – as poor Roger was – by handing out extra pocket money. I think we earned £2 each for enduring the icy waters of Coniston when the swimming scene was shot on a grey day in May. The water was so cold that it was agony and the money hard earned. Titty, who was keen on imitating cormorants, had to dive underwater. I nearly passed out. I am not very good at being wet and cold or when it comes to heights either, so it was encouraging to be rewarded after climbing trees, ‘For fear of ravenous beats.’
When you watch the film you can see that Susan inadvertently burnt Roger with the large flat frying pan, which she’d just taken off the camp fire. He flinches and she muttered ‘Sorry’, before ploughing on with the scene. The moment was captured in the film.
One problem encountered when filming with children is that they can unexpectedly lose their milk teeth. I did. People still comment on this today. I lost an eye tooth. In some scenes it is there, then it will suddenly vanish only to re-appear again.
Claude was not very pleased that his continuity was blown and there was definitely no tooth fairy. He wasn’t very pleased when I grazed my leg falling off a swing at lunch time either. Suzanna cut her hand whittling wood. Bobby, the Props man seemed so happy and absorbed making bows and arrows for the Amazons, out of local hazel saplings, that we all wanted to try for ourselves and started carving. I bought a penknife with my danger money and made a bow, which I still have today. This occupation kept us all quiet until of course Suzanna nearly chopped a finger off and ended up with such a big bandage that Claude howled with dismay. We were banned from whittling after that, but I did learn to shoot with the bow and arrow. This proved providential since I gained the part of an archery champion in the next feature film I appeared in. Years later I met the man who became my husband at an archery event. He was chairman of the society. I might never have met him if I hadn’t learnt to shoot for the feature films.
‘Here we are, intrepid explorers, making the first ever voyage into uncharted waters. What mysteries will they hold for us? What dark secrets shall be revealed?’ Titty uttered dramatically as she looked out towards Wildcat Island. In fact we weren’t that intrepid. Our dinghy was wired to a pontoon on which was a 35mm Panasonic camera, a few yards of track and an entire film crew: sound, camera, lighting, wardrobe g et al.
The little bit of extra money Claude gave us was indeed compensation for encountering grave danger on one occasion. I don’t remember there being anything about it in Arthur Ransome’s book, but in the film there is a sequence when the Swallows nearly collide with the Tern, an elegant steamer that has taken tourists up and down Windermere since 1891. There is rather a large difference between the shot of the dinghy with the Tern coming towards her when Susan calls, ‘Look John! Steamer ahead!’ which was shot when Swallow was attached to the floating pontoon, and the next shot, a top shot, which was taken from the steamer when we were sailing free.
That is when things went wrong. The Tern turned, John lost his wind in the lee of the larger vessel and we four children came perilously close to ending up in a very Duffer-ish state. Swallow had no centre board, only a keel and a shallow rudder, so she was difficult to turn at the best of times. We were acutely aware that Roger couldn’t swim, we had no buoyancy and I was perched on a pile of heavy old camping equipment. My father, who is a good dinghy sailor with years of experience racing in the Solent, was watching from the deck of the steamer, helpless. He could foresee the problem and yet was able to do nothing. Although we just managed to avoid a true collision he was so shaken someone had to find him a glass of whisky.
You can read more about the making of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) here:
When Harbour Pictures, in association with BBC Films, announced at the Cannes Film Festival that they were planing to re-make Swallows and Amazons based on Arthur Ransome’s iconic book that was written in 1929, a debate broke out as to whether the characters should wear life jackets.
Ironically Sophie Neville, who played Titty in the 1974 feature film of Swallows and Amazons nearly drowned one Easter because she was wearing a buoyancy aid. ‘My sister insisted I wore a big old fashioned life-jacket as an example to her children. When I capsized it trapped me inside my canoe. I’d lost my paddle and hung upside down, in the cold water, unable to get out. I was literally plugged inside and couldn’t get free.’
The EMI film of Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons was made entirely on location in the Lake District 1973. ‘It can get quite gusty on Coniston Water but we never fell in,’ Sophie remembers. ‘We had a wonderful time.’
Ten years later the BBC made the drama series Swallows and Amazons Forever! an adaptation of Ransome’s later books Coot Club and The Big Six, which are set on the Norfolk Boards. Julian Fellows featured as a Hullabaloo, an enraged tourist driving a motor cruiser.
In both the film and television series the decision was made to be true the 1930s period in which the books are set and let characters – adults and children alike (plus pug dog), go out on the water without life vests. They carried knives, lit fires and sailed at night without lights in boats that had no buoyancy aids.
Lanterns were hung in tents and arrows were fired at other children. The boys in Norfolk also rode bikes without helmets, but that is how life was led in the 1930s. No one had safety belts in cars. Not much safety gear had been invented. ‘You wouldn’t film Elizabeth the Golden Years with Cate Blanchett in a BHS riding hat, or Russell Crow playing Robin Hood in a jockey’s helmet. No one moans about that. When filming Swallows and Amazons we wore life jackets when setting up shots and had a lifeguard in a zoomy rubber boat on constant stand-by when filming, but you wear period costumes in a period film and that is it.’
Sophie worked for the BBC behind the camera on the crew of Coot Club and The Big Six. She said what concerned her in Norfolk was the thought of someone getting trapped between a moored boat and the staithe wall or getting bashed when boats passed under the famously low bridges. ‘This situation won’t exist in the Lake District when Swallows and Amazons is made into a film again. They will have a wonderful – inspirational – time.’
Meanwhile if you are planning on going canoeing – sign up for a safety course first and wear the proper gear. This is the year 2015 and buoyancy aids are available…
Serendipity [ser-uh n-dip-i-tee] an aptitude or faculty for making desirable discoveries by accident
Serendipity indeed. The word has been quoted to me so many times that I’ve started to take note. The serendipit in question connects me to a rather large, bald man with massive moustaches called Arthur Ransome.
In March 1973 my father was sent a letter, completely out of the blue:
We are at present casting for a film version of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS which Mr Whatham is going to direct. We were wondering if you would be interested in your daughter being considered for one of the parts in this film. Amazing!
To gain a part I had to be able to swim well. I think this was to do with ensuring I was unlikely to drown. As it happened I could row, sail and swim. My parents had taught me but I can’t remember Claude Whatham asking me about this when he interviewed me. He wanted to know what my favourite Television programme was.
‘Because they show you how to do things.’
It was exactly what Mr Whatham wanted to hear. Why? Because that is what Arthur Ransome does in his books. He doesn’t tell. He shows his readers how to sail. And how to camp. By the age of twelve I had already read about seven books in the series and loved the stories. What I didn’t know then was the effect they would have on the rest of my life.
By May 1973 I was on my way up to the Lake District to play Titty Walker in the feature film being produced by Theatre Projects and distributed by EMI. I didn’t think I was right as Titty at all. In real life Titty had been Anglo-Armenian and grew up in Syria. The illustrations show her with dark hair, cut in a bob. And I thought of myself as far more like the practical Susan, Titty’s older sister. However I was assured that I could play Titty and I did. Able seaman Titty, crew of the Swallow. Thankfully they cut my straggly blonde hair and I sang out the dialogue that I already knew off by heart from reading the book, ‘I expect someone hid on the island hundreds and hundreds of years ago.’
How the real parrot arrived on my shoulder I can’t quite remember but within months of returning from Coniston Water I had a green and yellow parrot of my own. I think he had outlived his owner and was given to us to keep. He was good company and very chatty. I adored him and could take him anywhere. When I was asked to be in Animal Magic to talk about the film he sat on my shoulder while I was rowing a boat, and I think did most of the talking.What I didn’t realise was how themes from Arthur Ransome’s life would follow me through the rest of my life.
When the time came for me to matriculate I went to Collingwood College at the University of Durham. The name resonated later when I discovered that W.D. Collingwood’s grandchildren were the real Swallows. W.D. Collingwood was an archaeologist living above Coniston Water, where the books are set, and had excavated Peel Island– or Wild Cat Island– finding the remains of a Viking settlement there. Some one had hidden there hundred of years ago. WD Collingwood Titty’s grandfather studied at the Slade, as did my own grandfather, HW Neville. He may have been there at the same time as Titty’s mother Dora Collingwood.
Arthur Ransome won a Kitchener Scholarship. Years later these rare awards have been won by both my niece and my nephew. When Arthur Ransome first lived in London, he had digs in Hollywood Road. When I moved to London I shared flats with friends, first in Tregunter Road, then Harcourt Terrance, which ware merely extensions of Hollywood Road, which is off the Fulham Road in West Brompton. I had gained a graduate traineeship at the BBC. The first drama series that I worked on was Swallows and Amazons Forever! an adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s books set on the Norfolk Broads, Coot Club and The Big Six. It was not a chance thing, I contacted the Producer and asked if I could work on the series, but the fact that I’d heard about it was unusual, and amazing really that it was made that year when I was available to join the production team. I had first worked with Rosemary Leach, who played The Admiral – Mrs Barrable, when she starred, not as Missee Lee, but as Mrs Lee in Cider with Rosie. I later found myself working with William the Pug dog on Eastenders when he featured as Ethel’s ‘Little Willie’ . It was such fun to see him again. He was a playful little dog with a great sense of fun.
The first documentary I directed for the BBC involved an adder. I was filming in at a Nature Reserve in Dorset with a group of children who came across one immediately. It was huge, a black adder. The Billies would have declared this a great sign of luck. I’m not sure I thought much about Swallows and Amazons, over the next few years but I did film at a school in Cumbria and loved being back in the Lakes.
After working at the BBC for eight years I fell ill and, much like Arthur Ransome, had to abandon my full time job to work from home. Like him I had a yearning to spend as much time as possible in the great outdoors and chose to live in the wilderness. I spent my time exploring southern Africa, camping and cooking on fires. Of the subjects I’d studied at university the ones I most enjoyed were cartography and water-colours. I started to earn my living by drawing birds, animals and decorative maps. The maps usually depicted game reserves and involved giving names to landmarks as places of interest, just like Titty’s maps. I must have drawn forty maps in the style of those on the original cover of Swallows and Amazons, using the same borders and style of lettering. And I kept diaries, writing just as Titty would have done. I also worked freelance for the BBC, mainly setting up wildlife programmes. A rye smile did pass my lips when I was asked to find South African items for Blue Peter. I was thinking back to my first interview at Theatre Projects with Claude. They came to South Africa for their summer expedition one year, and it was I who sent them off to film the Outspan harvest and wild dog puppies in the Kruger National Park. After a while I fell into the pattern of flying back to England at Easter time and returning to Africa in the autumn. This was partly through choice, partly to comply with visa regulations and work commitments. I’d migrate every year with the swallows.
When we were making the feature film of Swallows and Amazons my mother looked after all six children. The girls playing the Amazons, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, needed to learn how to shoot with a bow and arrow. My mother taught them. She had learnt how to draw a long bow when she was first married, and was encouraged by an ex-Olympian called Bertie. I became interested too, which stood me in good stead as the next part I had in a feature film was playing Liz Peters, a fictional archery champion.
Thirty years after the premier of Swallows and Amazons I had flown back from Africa and was staying at my parents’ house, when a lady arrived from Korea. She timidly knocked on the door, explaining that she was translating Swallows and Amazons into Chinese and would love to talk to me about the book. She came bearing gifts: a hand-quilted wedding bedspread and a pile of silk garments amounting to a bride’s trousseaux. It was a week after I had met my husband-to-be. At that stage he had not even asked me out and I had no idea we would marry. I’d met him at the archery – shooting with my bow and arrow. He was Bertie’s grandson. My three sisters have never been a bit interested in archery. If I hadn’t been enthused by Swallows and Amazons, and consequently taken it up to play Liz Peters, I would never have met my husband. I still have the wedding quilt.
And then I met Dr Frankland, a Harley Street Consultant who was to become an historical adviser on a script I was developing. I soon learnt that Bill Frankland had been a good friend of Roger Altounyan and knew his sister Titty. As young men they both worked for Alexander Flemming.
Roger, Titty and their elder sisters Susie and Taqui were W.D.Collingwood’s grandchildren, the real characters on which Arthur Ransome based the Swallows. What I didn’t know was that Roger Altounyan became an allergist. He developed the spin-inhaler, experimenting on himself. Dr Frankland explained that he eventually died as a result. I was allergic to feathers as a child and prone to horrific asthma attacks. Not from parrot’s feathers but old pillows and eiderdowns. The Ventolin inhaler is something to which I probably owe my life. Dr Frankland, who is to celebrate his 100th birthday this March, still works as a Harley Street allergist and is often called upon to make broadcasts on Radio 4. He instigated the pollen count, numbered Saddam Hussein as one of his most grateful patients and has been the expert witness at a number of murder trials.
Bertie’s Olympic bow now hangs on my stairs. I am still sailing dinghies, still drawing maps but thankfully no longer suffer from asthma. Harbour Pictures with BBC Films are now planning a new film adaptation of Swallows and Amazons. A whole new generation of children will be shown how to sail and camp and cook on open fires. I couldn’t be more thrilled.
Actors are warned: ‘Never work with children or animals’. This was originally coined because they can come across so well that an actor’s performance won’t be noticed.
Sophie spent years at the BBC specialising in drama productions that featured children and animals. She directed her first documentary in Kenya at the age of 25. By the age of 27 she was directing improvised dramas in a tough London Comprehensive school. After spending 13 weeks on the Ealing film stages as Director of FX sequences and animation on a 10-part drama she was asked to produce a series working with 4 to 6 year-olds. By the age of thirty she was directing a serial that featured an 8-year-old girl in almost every scene. ‘I cast identical twins to play the part, used two cameras operated by sports cameramen and finished by 4.30pm each day.’
‘I’d acted in feature films as a child and knew what would work. And what could cause havoc. You need to check children’s teeth well before filming. They tend to lose them just when it is most likely to wreck your continuity. The BBC never used casting directors, so I’d look for kids myself finding a large cast of children able to sail for two Arthur Ransome book adaptations and the right boy to play Gerald Durrell in My family and Other Animals.’
‘I’d grown up with animals and love working with them. My family keep tame otters and filming wildlife sequences – handling creatures from adders to elephants – has always been part of my life. Making the zoo vet drama series with grat apes and big cats was fascinating . The best ting about working on Eastenders was that I was re-united with Little Willie, the pug dog that we had bought to play William, the hero of Coot Club.’
In 1992 Sophie emigrated to southern Africa where she worked freelance for the BBC setting up wildlife films and documentaries in Botswana,Namibia and throughout South Africa. ‘One highlight was setting up the Blue Petervisit to South Africa when Diane Jordan interviewed Archbishop Tutu.’
Breaking her pelvis in a riding accident Sophie was immobilized for a while but took up painting and established herself as a wildlife artist.
After meeting her husband at an archery match Sophie settled down to concentrate on writing, looking for true stories that could be adapted for the screen. She has published Funnily Enoughabout her life in Gloucestershire and Ride the Wings of Morningset in Southern Africa. She is currently writing a pair of historical novels. Her filmography, The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ is published by the Lutterworth Press and available here.