Sophie Neville, who played Titty in the 1974 film Swallows and Amazons, shares her experiences of sailing the Blackett’s dinghy and its special place in her heart
Amazon and Swallow are perhaps two of the most famous dinghies in film history, having sailed into cinemas nearly 50 years ago.
Both of these clinker-built boats now belong to The Arthur Ransome Society, and the challenge is to fully restore these traditional craft so that families can set their sails and live out the pages of Arthur Ransome’s iconic books today.
At the age of 12, I was cast as Able Seaman Titty when the original film Swallows and Amazons was made on location in the Lake District in the summer of 1973.
Dame Virginia McKenna played my mother and the six of us children had fun making Ronald Fraser walk the plank.
Now hailed as a classic sailing film, I’m assured it has been broadcast on British television more times than any other movie and is currently streaming on Amazon and Netflix Europe.
Behind the scenes
One secret is that the film was made on four different lakes – Coniston Water, Windermere, Elterwater, Derwentwater – and a smelly lily pond.
We were able to use Bank Ground Farm as Holly Howe and Brown Howe as Beckfoot, home to the Amazon Pirates (Nancy and Peggy Blackett) who careened their dinghy on the lake shore in the company of a 45-man film crew from Pinewood Studios.
We were only given a couple of days to get used to handling Swallow and Amazon before filming began.
Although happy out on the water, the director, Claude Whatham, knew little about boats.
To make up for this, we had instruction from a sailing director in the form of a good-looking actor called David Blagden who presented a television programme called Plain Sailing.
He’d recently raced across the Atlantic in a 19ft yacht called Willing Griffin but was unfamiliar with blustery Lakeland winds and did not know how to break down a script.
Simon West, aged 11, who played Captain John, ended up explaining to Claude how to get a decent shot while I tried not to shiver.
My costume was designed by Emma Porteous of James Bond fame but consisted of nothing more than a short yellow dress and an enormous pair of navy-blue gym knickers.
Winning the prize
Amazon, flying the Jolly Roger, with her seamed white lugsail and heavy centreboard is a lovely boat to sail.
Although vital to the story, no one took into account that I needed to take her, on my own, from Secret Harbour on Wild Cat Island and drop her anchor off Cormorant Island.
I was given a grey cardigan to wear but had not been asked if I could row.
Having grown up handling a Thames skiff, I managed to use the leading lights we’d set up to negotiate the narrow channel and threatening rocks in one take.
I repeated the action with Dennis Lewiston, the lighting cameraman, and his 35mm Panavision camera in the stern but grew so tired that I needed to be carried ashore by a frogman acting as our safety officer.
Titty later anchors Amazon off Cormorant Island on Derwentwater, but the shot of her wrapped in the sail, sleeping aboard, was taken in Mrs Batty’s blacked-out barn at Bank Ground, with the boat rocking on a cradle made by the unit carpenter.
This was for a night scene when Titty is disturbed by burglars hiding a heavy trunk that turns out to contain Captain Flint’s treasure.
When the action was repeated out on Derwentwater near One Tree Island, I got soaked; rain had collected in the furled sail.
After dawn broke and John, Susan and Roger sailed towards me, puzzled as to why Amazon was moored offshore, I emerged from the folded canvas unsure of how to explain myself.
Titty was supposed to say something quite different but what came out was, ‘I’ve got her, I’ve got her!’
It was a moment akin to the scene in The Railway Children when Bobby runs down the station platform crying, ‘My Daddy, my Daddy,’ or not quite, but I had captured the Amazon, which meant Swallow would be the flagship.
Arthur Ransome was so clever to make the littlest girl the heroine.
Could a nine-year-old have achieved all that?
I managed but was really aged 12, pretending to be younger. My one regret is that we didn’t follow the book when sailing the Amazon back to Wild Cat Island.
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The wind was up and Claude Whatham needed Captain John to sail Swallow ahead of the Amazon which is the faster boat. I originally took the tiller, as Titty is urged to in the story, but had trouble with the rudder.
Mate Susan, played by Suzanna Hamilton, is at the helm on the cover of the Puffin paperback brought out to accompany the film, while I’m fending off.
The second part of the scene was shot on Coniston Water, with the Amazon Pirates, Nancy and Peggy ‘dancing with rage’ on Peel Island.
A shot of Susan at the helm with me sitting on the bottom boards looking like a baby monkey was used on the cover of a hardback and a DVD distributed by the Daily Mail.
Not many sailing films have been made and it was unusual for a movie to feature so many scenes set in two small dinghies.
Mike Turk, whose family had been boatbuilding for centuries, and Nick Newby of Nicol End Marine near Keswick, took up the challenge of adapting a cross-shaped pontoon to act as a mobile camera mount so that our dialogue could be recorded.
This extraordinary vessel had two outboards but wasn’t easy to handle.
The dinghies were wired to it with underwater cables but tended to pull away. Swallow’s mast broke the first time she was rigged, but the idea eventually worked and only Sten Grendon, playing Roger, fell in. This is not quite true.
He didn’t fall in.
A member of the camera crew got fed up with Sten’s hijinks, grabbed him under the armpits and dunked him in the water.
Being confined to such a small space, where no-one could say anything while we were recording or move for fear of camera wobble, became challenging.
It was either cold out on the lake or scorching, which is difficult to bear when shots are complicated to set up.
Another problem was that the film schedule was weather-dependent and kept changing.
It must have been difficult to move the pontoon from one lake to another. A grey punt was often used instead. It was even more precarious.
In 1983, when I worked on the BBC adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s books set on the Norfolk Broads, Coot Club and The Big Six we hired a private fishing boat for the camera crew.
It had a cabin and heads but was more tippy.
The skipper and his mate occasionally had long journeys through the night, taking the waterways from one location to another.
Somehow David Cadwallader, the grip looking after the camera equipment on Swallows and Amazons, managed to keep the horizon horizontal using no more than a spirit level on the tripod.
Shadows were lifted from our faces by using reflector boards and, since the whole movie was post-synced at Elstree Studios, the audience can hear what we say.
Origins of the Amazon
The first Amazon was originally called Mavis. A chunky sea-going 14-footer with a brown standing lugsail, she was bought in 1928 by Dr Ernest Altounyan.
His friend, Arthur Ransome, paid for Swallow II, which was collected from the same boatyard in Barrow-in-Furness.
Together they watched the four older Altounyan children: Taqui, Susie, Titty and Roger learning to sail the dinghies below Bank Ground Farm.
The children lived in Aleppo but were staying in the Lakes so that their mother could spend time with her ailing father, WG Collingwood, who lived at Lane Head next door.
Ransome later took Swallow II to Windermere, mooring her in Bowness Bay where she was looked after by a boatman called John Walker.
When she grew up, Brigit, the youngest Altounyan child, kept Mavis in the boatshed at Nibthwaite at the southern tip of Coniston Water where Ransome had spent his own childhood holidays.
Roger Altounyan, who became an allergist inventing the Intal asthma inhaler, taught his own children to sail her there, bailing frantically as they headed for Peel Island.
In her old age, Mavis was renamed Amazon in line with Ransome’s books but even after restoration remained too leaky to take out.
Painted white, she now resides in the John Ruskin Museum at Coniston where she can be visited like a great aunt.
None of us children knew that the Amazon we sailed had been used in the 1963 BBC adaptation of Swallows and Amazons made in black and white with Susan George playing ‘Kitty’, as Titty was renamed.
Looking at the photographs, it would have been good if Amazon’s hull had been painted a piratical black but her varnished planks are a nod to the 1970s when everyone was busy stripping pine.
By 2003, she was owned by the White family who I met when they brought Amazon from Kent to Cumbria to feature in Countryfile and an episode of Big Screen Britain.
Ben Fogle met their twin daughters on Peel Island, looking very much like Nancy and Peggy in damp bathing costumes having been swimming in Coniston Water.
It has been extremely generous of them to pass such a precious boat on to The Arthur Ransome Society.
Restored to sail again Amazon is currently being kept at Hunter’s Yard near Ludham where you can apply to sail her on the Norfolk Broads, along with the Titmouse and the Teasle, (a cabin cruiser called Lullaby) and a punt called the Dreadnaught featured in the 1984 BBC adaptation of Coot Club.
Swallow is also there under restoration, needing a new keel.
While no one wants to over-restore classic boats, we’re determined to make it possible for them to be enjoyed out on the water and not to become mere museum pieces.
The plan is for both Swallow and Amazon to be on display at Windermere Jetty in Cumbria for the weekend of 28-29 June 2024 to mark the 50th anniversary of the film’s release.
We hope some of the steamboats used to dress the Rio scenes set at Bowness-on-Windermere such as Osprey and George Pattinson’s launch Lady Elizabeth can be in attendance.
Windermere Jetty is currently restoring the steam launch Esperance used by Ransome as his model for Captain Flint’s houseboat, and you can find the 14ft RNSA dinghies used in the 2016 movie of Swallows and Amazons moored in the wet dock.
In 2021, everyone at Windermere Jetty gasped when Rupert Maas valued Swallow at £20,000-£30,000 on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, but the true worth of both Swallow and Amazon is akin to Captain Flint’s hidden treasure: instead of gold ingots, his trunk contained precious memories of friendship and adventure.
They no doubt kept him on course when the storms of life blew in and gave him plenty to write about.
Just as Arthur Ransome’s books grant us solace, my prayer is that many will be able to grab the chance of sailing the little boats that take us into the stories immortalised on film so long ago.
Thanks go to all those who have looked after and lovingly restored the inspirational boats that appear in the adaptations of Arthur Ransome’s books.
- You can support the restoration of Swallow and Amazon at arthur-ransome.org/sail
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