On set with Swallows and Amazons

Swallows and Amazons BBC Films and Harbour Pictures’ upcoming feature adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s much-loved classic Swallows and Amazons filmed on location in Cumbria, Yorkshire and Scotland.

Some of the key players involved have provided an insight into how the project came about, what life was like on set and the main challenges faced during last year’s summer shoot last.

A producer’s view

“I first thought about making this film in 1992 when I bought a sailing boat in Norfolk. I started to negotiate the rights [to the book] in 2007. And BBC Films and Harbour Pictures commissioned Andrea Gibb to write a treatment.

“She started on the script in 2010,” says Nick Barton of Harbour PIctures, who produced the film alongside Nick O’Hagan and Joe Oppenheimer. Six years later the film is ready to be released to the public.

“We went back to the original book. Gibb hadn't seen the 1974 film. But we also included elements inspired by Ransome’s own life as a spy in Russia in 1917,” Barton says.


Swallows and Amazons

Swallows and Amazons started principal filming in the Lake District in June 2015. The team shot mainly in Yorkshire and the Lake District with two days in Scotland, which was used for the seaplane.

Summing up the main pros and cons of the shoot, which were generally weather-related, Barton says: “It was great fun but very hard work. The challenges were the wind (we could have done with more!), water and boats, rain in Yorkshire and the number of hours the children could be filmed.

“The pluses were the scenery in the Lakes, the camaraderie of the six children – they never complained and loved every minute of being on location – our adult cast, our crew, the sailing (I took my boat too) and the friendliness of all the people who helped us locally.”

Yorkshire as a backdrop

Although famously set in the Lake District, the film used Yorkshire extensively – for just over half the eight-week shoot - to double for the iconic Cumbrian landscape.

Swallows and Amazons

The region stepped in to provide the backdrop of many of the scenes after Screen Yorkshire came on board with investment funding. The organisation would typically invest somewhere between £200,000 and £1m for a production of this scale.

Locations used in Yorkshire included Stockeld Park, Plumpton Rocks, Heptonstall, Wakefield and the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway.

The involvement of the area as a main location translated into a wide variety of positions for local crew and service providers, with around 50% of the film’s crew across all grades coming from Yorkshire.  Many ancillary services were also sourced locally, including the actors’ trailers and support vehicles, water safety equipment, the main production office and much of the accommodation.

Swallows and Amazons

As an investor, Screen Yorkshire (whose Content Fund is the largest regional fund of its sort in the country) was closely involved with every aspect of the shoot, from pre-production, budgets, location scouting and casting through to promotion and distribution.

The organisation has an in-house production support service dedicated to its film and TV projects, and also works with partners like Creative England who provide hands-on support with aspects such as filming permissions, recces and call outs to local crew.

Sally Joynson, chief executive, Screen Yorkshire, said: “When projects such as Swallows and Amazons come along, excitement can be tempered by trepidation for the huge responsibility that reimagining such a beloved classic brings with it.

“We had every confidence however in the raft of talent, both in front of and behind the camera and we are delighted with the result and the warm reception from audiences [from test and press screenings]. We are also very proud to have Yorkshire double for the Lake District.”

Swallows and Amazons

A location manager’s take

The location manager on the film was Jethro Ensor, whose insight into some of the challenges faced by the team during a weather-dependent shoot could make one glad to be indoors.

“Anyone who has spent time in the Lake District will tell you to be prepared for the weather. You can be standing in glorious sunshine one minute and driving rain the next, which as you can imagine can be quite a challenge in itself, particularly when you add boats into the mix.

“Really you can only plan to work to the schedule and keep an eye on the forecasts and be prepared to change your plans if required. Certainly in the Lake District we had alternative interiors to hand to use should they have been needed but for the most part we were blessed with good weather in Cumbria but managed to get rained out of a set in Yorkshire – so you never can tell.”

Swallows and Amazons

Cumbria and the National Trust

The majority of the shoot was on location although some filming took place in a studio space. “The practicalities of shooting in the enclosed spaces of house boats and sea planes did mean a small amount of studio work in Yorkshire to give some of our trickier interiors more scope and hopefully the result is seamless,” says Ensor.

Support came not only from Screen Yorkshire: in Cumbria the production team was fortunate to have backing from Nick Beech at Creative England as well as the National Trust teams at Coniston and Derwent Water.

“The Lake District is truly a remarkable part of this country’s landscape and the Trusts work exceptionally hard to ensure that the land is respected. With their help we were able to navigate the local terrain and agricultural sensitivities to ensure that while we completed our work there was no detrimental effect to the landscape,” Ensor concluded.

Location specifics

As is often the case, finding the perfect locations came through a combination of experienced scouting and good luck. “We were very fortunate in the first instance to be able to film at both Coniston & Derwent Water to set both our Holly Howe Farm and our Island,” explains the location manager.

Swallows and Amazons

“On the initial scout I was sent to Cumbria to see what we could find. While there was no doubting that magnificent scenery and expansive lakes were abundant, the real key was finding our Holly Howe Farm.

“However, fortune favours the brave, and though I didn’t know it from our initial meeting and first day in the Lake District, I was lucky enough to meet a farmer called Bob McCarthy.

“Bob’s home was set with a perfect vantage point of Coniston and from an initial tentative chat through to returning visits with director and designer followed up by a large dose of technical recces. Bob seemed to take us in his stride and him to our hearts.”

Ensor makes it clear that Ransome himself “opened many of the doors” as the location manager worked closely with the director Philippa Lowthorpe and production designer Suzie Davies, all feeling a responsibility to bring the author’s much-loved classic to the big screen.

“Away from Cumbria we were fortunate to work with all those involved in Yorkshire including the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway - I’ve never known a man as patient or practical amidst the whims of filming as Roger France [filming liaison officer for the KWVR].

“Plumpton Rocks provided the perfect home for our Island camp, while the village of Heptonstall set the stall for our carnival, with members of the local community also volunteering props and acting abilities."

Swallows and Amazons

Open water challenges

There are no simple logistics when filming on open water in vintage sailing boats. This much becomes clear when Ensor sets out the challenges faced by the production team during some of the major scenes.

“Simply co-ordinating not only our action boats but also camera boats and safety vessels was a huge consideration for the production team but we worked with local businesses, David Coxon on Coniston and Platty Plus on Derwent Water, who were able to provide us with additional boats and support during our work on the water as well advise us of the open water conditions on each stretch of water.

“Once we had established a schedule we were able to co-ordinate action vessels, marine support and local knowledge to ensure everything was where it needed to be at the right time and with little or no mobile phone signal it helped for all parties to have the plans in place before we set sail.

“As all good boy scouts know, the key is to ‘Be Prepared’.”

Swallow and Amazons is released on 19 August. It stars Andrew Scott, Rafe Spall, Kelly Macdonald, Jessica Hynes and Harry Enfield.


Many thanks to Nick Barton, Screen Yorkshire and Jethro Ensor for their help in compiling this article. Photos via StudioCanal. 


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