Sophie Neville asks – would you let a film crew use your house?

Arthur Ransome’s Nancy Blackett was once used as a film set for the movie Ginger and Rosa. It was more complex than appearing in a television documentary or on the local news but proved both worthwhile and interesting.

Sophie Neville.
Sophie Neville.

Sophie Neville, star of the original “Swallows and Amazons” film and President of the Arthur Ransome Society, is often asked whether it is wise to make your property available as a movie location. Is it disruptive?

When we made the original film “Swallows and Amazons” in the Lake District in 1973, Mrs Ransome was insistent that every aspect was true to her husband’s book. The producer brought her up to Cumbria to point out the locations Arthur Ransome had in mind.

The Walker Family at Holly Howe. (c) Sophie Neville.

Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water was used as Holly Howe where the story begins. When I arrived to play the part of Titty Walker I felt the iconic illustrations had come to life. We ran down the field to the boatsheds and stone jetty looking for Swallow, excited about sailing off to camp on Wild Cat Island.

At Holly Howe with Virginia McKenna. (c) Sophie Neville.

But for Mrs Batty, who was bringing up seven children in the farmhouse, the invasion of a seventy-strong film crew and their assorted vehicles had more impact than she was led to believe. She decided that a £75 fee was not enough, padlocked her front gate and wouldn’t let us back until the Producer agreed to pay her £1,000. It was a lot of money, more than double the fee I received.

Sophie Neville with Lucy Batty. (c) Sophie Neville.

Brenda Colton from The News wrote: “when art director Simon Holland started tearing up her lino and carpet in the kitchen to get to the bare stone floor, she did get a little annoyed. Especially when he removed all the electric sockets, lights and switches, pushed all the kitchen furniture into the larder and whitewashed the newly papered walls.” Could you cope with that?

After acting in movies as a child I went on to become a location manager for BBC Television. In 1983 we looked into making a drama series based on Arthur Ransome’s books “Swallowdale” and “Pigeon Post” but the adaptation proved too costly. The National Trust were asking for location fees of £1,000 a day to film on open moorland. Sadly the series was axed.

Mr Jackson and the Walkers at Holly Howe. (c) Sophie Neville.

As a producer, I returned to make documentaries in Cumbria when there was no budget for either contributors or locations used, but we only had a crew of four and altered nothing. My parents farm has been used for a number of drama productions including “Arthur of the Britons”, “Dark Secret”, “House of Elliot” and, more recently, “The Durrells”. No lino was ever pulled up and Dad was thrilled when one designer installed period French windows. We ate delicious meals from the catering wagon and appeared as film extras just for the fun of it.

Lesley Bennett’s photo of buses converted for cast and crew use at Bank Ground Farm. (c) Lesley Bennett.

In his book “An A-Z of Cumbria and the Lake District on Film”, David Banning profiles the amazing movies made in the North West from the “French Lieutenant’s Woman” to “Star Wars”. Read it and see how you’d feel if you owned the properties.

Filming at Holly Howe. (c) Sophie Neville.

Nowadays an effort is made to ensure landowners are happy with any deal. Exteriors are less disruptive than interiors. Normal business may need to be suspended, there could be a number of vehicles to park and things will look messy but filming is only temporary. I’ve always found it great fun and believe it could be beneficial when you come to sell your property. It might prove a business asset.

Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm. (c) Sophie Neville.

Bank Ground Farm now has a Swallows and Amazons tearoom and restaurant where they entertained members of the Arthur Ransome Society this summer. Book in from Easter to October and let your children run down to the boatsheds on the lake where they can let free their imagination.

Sophie Neville recounts more stories in her memoir “The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)”, which is available from our Swallows and Amazons shop.