Sophie Neville remembers making original Swallows and Amazons film as remake is released

Virginina McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island in the 1974 Swallows and Amazons film.

Virginina McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island in the 1974 Swallows and Amazons film. - Credit: Archant

A new Swallows and Amazons film, based on Arthur Ransome’s children’s outdoor adventure tale, is due for release on August 19. But how will it measure up to the 1974 original?

Sophie Neville in South Africa

Sophie Neville in South Africa - Credit: Archant

Sophie Neville, who appeared in that 1974 film, spoke to Sheena Grant about this classic novel.

More than 40 years ago, at the age of just 12, Sophie was chosen to play Titty Walker in a film version of Arthur Ransome’s classic outdoor adventure tale, Swallows and Amazons.

What followed were seven glorious weeks in the early 1970s, filming scenes of sailing, camping, fishing and even a bit of piracy as the “Swallows” and “Amazons” meet, battles ensue and friendships are forged in the kind of carefree, idyllic summer that childhood memories are made of.

The experience – recorded by Sophie in a diary as part of her school work and also recordded on camera by her parents – was to inform much of her life.

Sophie Neville having a 'Titty haircut'.

Sophie Neville having a 'Titty haircut'. - Credit: Archant

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In fact, if fans of Ransome’s classic stories were ever to wonder what might have happened to the fictional Titty when she grew up, they could do worse than look at how Sophie’s life turned out for a possible answer.

After university she had a behind-the-scenes television career but, in true Titty style, Sophie also worked in Africa as a horse-riding safari guide, is a keen rower, sailor, deep sea diver and archer. Oh, and she’s a wildlife artist, otter conservationist and author to boot.

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Now living on the south coast, she gives talks on a range of subjects, but says the most popular remains the Secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons, a tale that seems to grow in people’s affections over the years as part of a wider nostalgia for a more innocent time when children could play outside and roam freely without an adult in sight.

On Saturday, Sophie was in Aldeburgh for a screening of the remastered 1974 film. Afterwards, she talked about the film, which starred Virginia McKenna, in a question and answer session.

It was one of several Ransome-themed events in the town over the weekend (some later stories were set in East Anglia after he came to live in Suffolk.) as part of the Aldeburgh Lapwings’ Swallows and Amazons regatta.

Fittingly perhaps, Sophie, who is president of the Arthur Ransome Society and involved in the Nancy Blackett Trust, which works to preserve Ransome’s “favourite” yacht, has also been involved in a new film version of Swallows and Amazons, due to be released in August, doing some technical research and appearing in a cameo role.

The remake has not been without controversy. Titty was renamed Tatty for fear modern audiences might be offended, prompting newspaper articles and complaints from the family of Mavis Altounyan, the character’s real life inspiration, who was nicknamed Titty after the children’s story Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse.

The fuss has taken Sophie by surprise.

“I can understand why they’ve done it but I’ve never had any adverse reaction over the years to the name of the character I played,” she says. “I think the response the name change has prompted is a reflection of the affection in which the books and Arthur Ransome are held.”

Sophie was 12 when she played the part of nine-year-old “Able Seaman” Titty Walker, who with her brothers John and Roger, and sister Susan, set sail to make camp on a lake island, while their father is away and mother stays at home with their baby sibling.

She got the role after appearing in a TV dramatisation of Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie and says the director remembered her when it came to casting for Swallows and Amazons.

“I grew up in Gloucestershire, by a lake,” says Sophie. “My father was a great sailor and taught me to sail. He was a child of the original Arthur Ransome generation and would take me to the Lake District and out on boats, determined to give me the same Swallows and Amazons childhood.

“One day a letter arrived out of the blue for my father when he was away on a business trip to South Africa. My mother only told me recently that she never usually opened mail addressed to him, but with this one she felt she had to break that rule. It’s a good job she did, as it was a letter inviting me to be interviewed for the part of Titty.

“There were five of us short-listed for the role. I thought I was too tall and gangly, and would not get it, but, sometimes, extraordinary things do happen to ordinary people. They wanted children who could give as natural a performance as possible, not actors. I think they were more interested in the fact that I was comfortable in a boat and had read Swallows and Amazons.

“I had an amazing time making the film, although we started filming in May and at times it was very cold and lots of things went wrong.

“Early on, Suzanna Hamilton, who played my on-screen sister, Susan, got tonsillitis and couldn’t speak. It rained a lot and we had to film the night-sailing scenes in a barn.

“Having said that, they made a real effort to film at authentic locations. People have grown up with the film, imagining themselves as the characters. It’s become a classic.”

Incredibly, Sophie was paid only £45 a week for her work.

“I wanted to buy a pony with the money but it was invested and I later bought an air ticket to Australia, where I learned to dive on the Great Barrier Reef,” she says. “Titty was a great pearl diver and I’ve gone on to follow her example. I’m a very keen sea diver and I love snorkelling. I still do a lot of rowing and sailing.”

After university, Sophie got a place on a BBC graduate training scheme and in the 1980s worked on Swallows and Amazons Forever, an adaptation of two other Ransome books, Coot Club and The Big Six, both set around the Norfolk Broads.

“I had the job of casting children and went round local secondary schools looking for boys who could sail. One of the boys we cast lived in Saxmundham. People sometimes forget Arthur Ransome lived in Suffolk, around Pin Mill and the Orwell, for a while before the Second World War. He moved away to escape the bombing of Ipswich in 1940.”

In the early 1990s Sophie left the BBC after falling ill with chronic fatigue (she later transcribed a diary she kept at the time into a book) and a new chapter in her life began.

“I had a friend in South Africa who invited me to stay and I ended up as a safari guide, cooking for people over a campfire,” she says. “In the final scene of Swallows and Amazons Titty says: ‘I would like to go to Africa and see forests full of parrots’. Strangely, real life played out that way for me in the end.

“I think the film reinforced a lot of the things in my life. I even met my husband through my interest in archery, which was something else that runs through Swallows and Amazons.

“Now there’s a really big revival about the outdoor lifestyle that ties in with the themes of the film. People cherish their own childhood memories from the ’70s. I’m constantly amazed at how interested people are in it. After so many years it’s still a huge part of my life.”

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