Alison Hull interviews Sophie Neville about her involvement with the original 1974 “Swallows and Amazons” film…
1 – How did you get the part of Titty Walker?
In March 1973, a letter arrived, out of the blue, inviting me to audition for a role in “Swallows and Amazons”. I was twelve years old, an ordinary school girl at a convent in Berkshire. I’d read the Arthur Ransome books but had no idea I was up for the lead in a major EMI feature film intended for a universal international audience.
The movie was directed by Claude Whatham. Back in 1970, he’d cast me as Eileen Brown, opposite a boy playing Laurie Lee, in the BBC’s first adaptation of “Cider With Rosie”. It was a role that demanded learning a piano piece so complicated it took twenty-one hours to master, but I did it.
Claude must have respected my hard work. I was too tall to play Titty but, after a sailing audition at Burnham-on-Crouch, I was offered the part. He cast Sten Grendon, who’d played the young Laurie Lee, as Roger, Suzanna Hamilton was Susan and Virginia McKenna starred as our mother. She later admitted to finding her character rather dull but it was her name, in lights outside cinemas, that drew big audiences. We’ve kept in touch. She is still acting, aged 87, and has led the Born Free Foundation’s international campaign to redeem the lives of wild animals held in miserable conditions since 1998.
2 – Why was it so suitable for you?
We loved visiting the Lake District as a family. My father helped the Maryport Button Factory with their publicity and once took us to stay on a farm near Castle Craig above the River Derwent. I spent my childhood camping and messing about in boats, adding a sail made from a dust-sheet to an old rowing skiff.
The great thing about the original film of “Swallows and Amazons” was that Simon West, who played Captain John, was an exceptional sailor. He went on to become a national champion. Kit Seymour, who played Captain Nancy, also had a natural command of the waves. It shows on screen. They were able to handle our small boats when squalls rolled down from the fells.
I didn’t have their innate understanding of the wind but it was Titty’s job to row everywhere – back from the charcoal burners and off to One Tree Island on Derwentwater. “Pull harder, Roger!” I managed to row Amazon out of Secret Harbour in one take, with the cameraman and a massive 35mm Panavision Camera on board.
Casting-off Swallow was more of a challenge. It doesn’t show on a small screen, but when “Swallows and Amazons” is screened in cinemas, you can spot the sequence when I slip on a rock with the telescope in one hand. I was up to my waist in water but got back on my feet and battled on, waving as the others sailed up Coniston Water. I knew how difficult the shot was to achieve and was desperate to do my best for Claude Whatham.
3 – Did it fire your wish to work in TV?
No! It was directing plays while reading Anthropology at Durham University that ignited a desire to work on television dramas. However, the experienced I’d gained acting in movies helped me win a place on the BBC TV Graduate Trainee scheme.
After working on “The Russell Harty Show”, I grabbed the chance to cast children on the adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s books set on the Norfolk Broads: “Coot Club” and “The Big Six”. I found Henry Dimbleby, then aged thirteen, to play the lead and spent three months on location with Julian Fellowes and Rosemary Leach – who I’d met when she played Laurie Lee’s mother.
I later worked on “Doctor Who”, “Eastenders” and “My Family and Other Animals”, before producing an INSET series, directing one episode at a village school in Cumbria. I began casting children in the Lake District to appear in BBC adaptations of Arthur Ransome’s Lakeland books but they were axed, which was sad, as we were all set to make “Swallowdale” and “Pigeon Post” on the high moors.
4 – What does the Lake District in general, and Keswick in particular, mean to you?
We live on the south coast but take the train north at any opportunity. I’m now President of the Arthur Ransome Society and came up for a fabulous weekend in May when we sailed from the jetty at Bank Ground Farm – Holly Howe in Ransome’s books.
I gave an illustrated talk on the secrets of making “Swallows and Amazons” at the Bassenthwaite Institute, using behind-the-scenes photographs taken when we were filming on Derwentwater forty-five years ago. We shot all the scenes involving Captain Flint’s Houseboat in a bay on the western shore. She was played by the Lady Derwentwater, converted for the drama by Ian Whittaker, a talented young set dresser who went on to win an Oscar for set decoration on the feature film “Howards End” starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.
We shot the lighthouse tree scenes near Friar’s Craig and used Lingholme or One Tree Island for Cormorant Island, where Titty finds the treasure chest. We enjoyed making Ronald Fraser, the film actor playing Captain Flint, walk the plank and sailed up Derwentwater to the strains of ‘What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor’, played as the end credits roll. Forty years later, Suzanna Hamilton and I were asked to lunch with Richard Pilbrow the producer of “Swallows and Amazons”. Buskers were singing this song outside the restaurant in Covent Garden. We couldn’t believe the coincidence.
I meet people from far and wide who tell me the 1974 film of “Swallows and Amazons” inspired them to visit the Lake District. It has been broadcast on television every year for the last forty years and was last shown in Australia on Boxing Day. It has been dubbed into Czech twice and is often shown at festivals as only ‘U’ certificate movies can be screened outdoors. I just hope this has proved a blessing to the people of Keswick, which I so loved visiting as a child.
I thought the 2016 film of “Swallows and Amazons” – that I appear in for approximately two seconds – would overshadow the classic version but it has simply raised awareness along with DVD sales. Fan mail continues to arrive. A beautiful card came today. Arthur Ransome would have been touched. It had fish on it.
5 – Do you want to mention mental health/physical health issues are always in the news?
I find that many of my readers are stuck in bed or battling with ill-health. I hope they are amused and uplifted in some way by stories in my books. “Funnily Enough”, a diary I kept after collapsing at the BBC, is about my own struggle with what I am pretty sure was a tick-bourne disease. I lost my job but recovered in Southern Africa, where I fulfilled Titty’s dream of seeing “forests full of parrots” and produced decorative maps for a living, inspired by Spurrier’s illustration on the original cover of “Swallows and Amazons”.
I used maps and details from my sketchbook to illustrate a paperback entitled, “Ride the Wings of Morning’“, which is out in colour as an e-book.
6 – What else?
People often ask how “Swallows and Amazons” influenced my life, keen to know what I am doing now. I am still keen on rowing. I completed the Voga Longa, a 32-kilometre marathon through the Venetian lagoon with Olympic gold medallist Ed Code, and was on the crew of The Queen’s row barge Gloriana for the Boat Race Flotilla this year. This summer, I grabbed the chance to row through the canals of Amsterdam, which was fascinating.
However, it was the Amazons bows and arrows that impacted my life. After learning to shoot on the shores of Coniston Water, I was cast as an archery champion in another movie and have since won three Ladies Championships. I met my husband at an archery match. My stepson shot for England in July, winning a tri-annual match against the Royal Company of Archers (so proud!).
I gave a talk recently demonstrating how the arrows in “Swallows and Amazons” were fired over my head. The shot looks so dangerous that it was cut from the TV version of the film, but is included in the re-mastered 40th Anniversary cinema Blu-ray version, which we are now able to watch on the big screen.
Originally published by Sophie Neville in October 2018.