Friday, 11 July 2014

How I came to write 'The Making of SWALLOWS & AMAZONS'

Now available from Classic TV Press

Back in 1991, when I was at home in bed suffering from chronic fatigue, I kept a diary that has been adapted into the book 'Funnily Enough'. I wondered what my mother would say when she read it, as my portrait of her is pretty blunt, but all she suggested was that I should think about making the diaries I kept as a child into another book. She was referring to the year 1973 when I was given the role of Titty in the feature film of Swallows & Amazons, made on location in the Lake District. She'd made me write the diaries in the first place.


In that summer of 1991 my father took the Humber yawl he had just finished building in the garage up to Windermere to take part in a Steamboat Rally.

Steam Boat Association Rally on Windermere1991

I wasn't very well but he was staying in great luxury at the Motorboat Racing Boat Club and Mum thought the mountain air would do me good. She was right. I was also taken back to the magical place where I had spend part of my childhood, a very memorable part.


Here is an extract from my diary, published as the book 'Funnily Enough'

2nd August 1991 ~ 
We left the crowded waters of Windermere and drove through rain to Coniston Water. It was peaceful and still and wild. We drove up the eastern side. The oak woods clinging to the hillside and flowing down to the shore took me reeling back to my childhood. ‘Here we are, intrepid explorers, making the first ever voyage into uncharted waters. What mysteries will they hold for us? What dark secrets will be revealed?’

Long ago I appeared in the feature film of Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons. I played Titty, or rather I was Titty for a while wearing thick blue gym knickers, which the crew referred to as passion killers. The book was written in 1929 and although the film adaptation was made in the early ’seventies it had an ageless quality and was repeated on television at Christmas time year after year, between Rock Hudson and Doris Day. I was once handed a copy of the TV billings in the Radio Times. On one page I was credited as producing a documentary for teachers that I’d just spent six months pouring myself into. Above it was a huge colour picture of myself as a gawky looking child, described as the star of Swallows and Amazons. My life travelling in circles. Our Head of Department caught me in the lift. ‘Do you think I could have a VHS tape of your programme?’
‘Oh, yes,’ I said, thrilled that he was interested in my series. ‘But I haven’t finished dubbing the music yet. Do you mind having a copy with the timecode on?’
‘Ah, er. No. It was actually a copy of Swallows and Amazons that I wanted; my sons are longing to see it.’ And off he rushed.

My father tipped his boat off the trailer and we motored over to Peel Island where we’d made the film. Wild Cat Island. It was slightly less over-grown but had hardly changed in the eighteen years since I’d last been there. It still had just the one old fireplace where I’d cooked potato cakes with Virginia McKenna and talked about very savage savages. Arthur Ransome had us call self-important men in open necked shirts ‘natives’ then, so I suppose it’s not surprising that Granny, who was a real child in the1920s, still does.
I walked down to the secret harbour where I captured the Amazon, up to the oak tree that I climbed ‘for fear of ravenous beasts’ and on to the place where we had gutted fish. It’s a wonderful island. I’d love my children to be able to go and camp there. Not that I did in reality, I was only ever there with an eighty-strong film crew. I’d worked hard, even then as a child. It was often cold and we would have to hang around for what seemed like hours, waiting for lights to be set or clouds to pass. As I walked out over the same rocks I began to feel the emptiness of not having enough to do. Strangely enough, filming is an incredibly boring occupation for children who find it difficult to endure the hanging around. It’s a restrictive discipline; I hadn’t been allowed to go off exploring or even walk around the headland then. Now I don’t have the stamina.

Sten Grendon, Simon West, Virginia McKenna, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville in 'Swallows & Amazons' directed by Claude Whatham  ~ photo: Daphne Neville

It was only after others read this section of Funnily Enough, and much urging from various members of The Arthur Ransome Society, that I was finally persuaded to convert the diaries kept in 1973, when I played Titty, into another book. It is now out in paperback - quite a fat one at that. StudioCanal, who own the film rights, graciously allowed me to reproduce a number of official stills from the movie and have released a restored version on Blu-ray and DVD with a fabulous extras package. My book is also illustrated with call sheets, old letters, snap shots my parents took on location and three maps that I have drawn to show where you can find the locations next time you are in the Lake District.

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