Francesca Tyer interviews award-winning author Sophie Neville, who became well-known for starring as 'Titty' in the 1974 film adaptation of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons.
Neville was able to live out Arthur Ransome's much-loved adventure alongside her co-stars amidst the stunning scenery of the Lake District. Despite her early work as an actress, she went on to become a producer and in more recent years, an author. Her non-fiction work, The Making of Swallows and Amazons, was released in 2014 and is based on a diary she kept during filming.
1. How old were you when you first read Arthur Ransome’s books?
My father devoured the Swallows and Amazons books as they were published in the 1930s.
I was a slow reader but must have started the series aged about ten or eleven as I had read seven by the time we arrived in the Lake District to make the film in 1973. I enjoyed the practical aspects of the novels and most readily identified with Mate Susan, although I counted all the characters as my friends. Ransome published thirty other books. Some are heavy going, but I enjoyed his autobiography.
2. Have you re-read the books since your childhood? If so, how has your perception of the books and the characters, in particular Titty, changed?
I’ve re-read most of the books in the Swallows and Amazons series as an adult and gain something new each time I read Swallows and Amazons, recently appreciating how important Titty’s imagination was to progressing the story. Her ideas take the plot forward. I ended up writing an article on how Swallows and Amazons can be seen as an allegory to missionary work undertaken by Arthur Ransome’s great aunts, one of whom received a Boxer arrow in her bonnet for her efforts in China.
Sophie Neville on the camera boat while filming Swallows and Amazons
on Derwentwater in 1973
3. Do you think playing Titty influenced your own personality? If so, how?
Titty helped me to look beyond the saucepans and concentrate on being creative rather than getting bogged down by management and leadership administration. Acting in the film instilled in me a work ethic, responsibility and striving for excellence. Looking back, the part was a huge burden to lay on the shoulders of a twelve-year-old. The film is still broadcast today with fans writing in. I find constant interest when I’m in social or sporting situations. For me, it has truly been a case of ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’
4. Do you remember what you wanted to be before you became an actress? Did a
writing career ever interest you as a child?
I acted professionally from the age of ten to twenty-one, going into television production at the BBC before I became a writer. I’ve also worked as a safari guide, wildlife artist and – thanks to Titty – as a cartographer. I’ve undertaken quite a bit of charity work, fundraising and acting as webmaster for The Waterberg Trust. I can’t remember having a strong career ambition as a child but knew art to be my strongest subject. I have a visual brain.
Always more interested in film production than acting, Sophie Neville can be seen here
with Terry Needham in 1973, outside the Makeup caravan
on location in the Lake District
5. What led/inspired you to become a producer in the end?
Claude Whatham was a ground-breaking director who inspired all those around him, but directing became a viable option at opera camp, annual amateur productions we took part in over our summer holidays as teenagers. I began directing plays at university and developed a burning desire to direct for television, always ‘looking for the shot.’ The attraction in producing documentaries was that I got to direct and put them together, editing voice-overs into a narrative arc. I would now like to adapt my own stories for film, so have Final Draft software on my laptop and Witness Films Ltd registered as a UK company. Although I have a couple of ideas out to tender, I’ve been concentrating on polishing my historical novels.
5. I’ve read that before filming Swallows and Amazons, you were in a production of
Cider with Rosie. Was playing Titty anything like your experience of playing Eileen
Claude Whatham directed bothb Cider With Rosie and Swallows and Amazons so the experience was similar. I also appeared in a Weetabix commercial he made in the Cotswolds. All three productions were set in roughly the same period, but Titty’s costumes, designed by Emma Porteous, were easiest to wear. 'Cider With Rosie' was the most daunting as I had to play the piano, which required three days of intensive practice.
Sophie Neville aged 12 playing Titty Walker
6. What were your favourite/least favourite parts of the Swallows and Amazons filming process?
We loved eating iced buns on set but hated waiting around in the cold. There was a lot of waiting for clouds to pass in the Lake District where I spent days clad in nothing but a thin cotton dress and enormous pair of navy blue gym knickers.
7. What were your first impressions of the Lake District? Had you ever been there before filming Swallows and Amazons?
My parents had taken me to the Lake District as a three-year-old and loved going themselves so it was a treasured destination in my family. I was dazzled by the lakes and mountains. Holly Howe (Bank Ground Farm) above Coniston Water is a very special place. I love gazing up into the Langdales and walking up into the fells. We were members of the Steam Boat Association, something I have written about in my book, ‘Funnily Enough’.
Sophie Neville aboard the Nancy Blackett, a 28 foot yacht Ransome bought with
’Spanish gold’ (his royalties from Swallows and Amazons)
9. How detailed was the diary you wrote during the filming? Had you ever thought about turning your notes into a book before you were persuaded to write The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons?
I have put every page of my diary kept whilst making Swallows and Amazons on my blog: sophieneville.net/writers-blog/ My mother kept them, nagging me to write them up for years. Finding the time was difficult but I got there in time for the 40th Anniversary of the film’s release when StudioCanal brought out a DVD with an Extras package we appeared in.
10. What was the writing process like?
The challenge with adapting a diary is to eliminate inevitable repetition but something extraordinary or disastrous happened everyday whilst filming Swallows and Amazons. With so much filmed afloat or on islands, it was an incredibly challenging production to work on and made a story in itself. I enjoyed finally bringing the book to life and interacting with readers who so kindly sent in reviews and comments. Some love hearing what we all went on to do after the film, one person did not want to know, but I included this as there were many interesting
links and coincidences, especially since I worked on the BBC serialisation of Coot Club and
The Big Six.
Sophie Neville became president of The Arthur Ransome Society 2014-2019
11. What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned as a writer?
I never guessed how many times I would need to re-work my books. Each one is read though and edited repeatedly, on and on until it flows well and reads flawlessly.
12. Do you have any events lined up to promote the book?
I list the events on my website: sophieneville.net/recent-news/
I often give illustrated talks on how Swallows and Amazons was made and Q&As at cinema screenings. I’ve begun running workshops on photographing books at literary conferences, which is proving popular and am currently setting up book signings.
Sophie Neville riding in Dorset
13. Could you tell me a little bit about your other books?
Funnily Enough and Ride the Wings of Morning are illustrated memoirs that follow on from
The Making of Swallows and Amazons, which is now in its 2nd edition. Merry Christmas Everyone and Write Well are anthologies to which I have contributed a chapter. I have written Forewords to four books, including the Czech version of Swallowdale by Arthur Ransome, and Swallows, Amazons and Coots by Julian Lovelock.
14. Are you currently writing anything, either to do with Arthur Ransome or entirely
I often write articles for magazines, which have connections to Swallows and Amazons, but have completed two historical novels, which are set in East Africa with no mention of Arthur Ransome.
'Ride the Wings of Morning’ about leading an adventurous ’
Swallows and Amazons’ life in Africa with 'trees full of parrots'
15. Finally, could you tell me about your other pursuits such as litter picking, art
and the combination of the two?
I have always been passionate about wildlife conservation, often giving talks about otters since they are key indicator species we have been active in protecting as a family. I am currently completing the Race for Reading, litter picking whilst walking the coast to raise funds for the UK literacy charity SchoolReaders. I sometimes make collages out of the rubbish to attract attention to the composition of sea plastic. You can see examples of this and my paintings on Instagram
With many thanks to Sophie Neville for this interview.
You can find out more about Sophie via her website: sophieneville.net/
Sophie the explorer in Ethiopia