Film 2018 – Swallows and Amazons


It’s my working Sunday again, which influenced my choice this week to a film I’ve already written about, here.

This is the third time I’ve seen this film, the second time on DVD, and to be frank I’ve no new thoughts to add to those I recorded in 2016, home from a visit to the now-closed Showcase Cinema.

With more time to consider the film and the degree to which it succeeds in animating a book both classic and archaic, it becomes even more a film of two halves, two stories rather, joined at the hip in a manner that is well done enough without ever convincing anyone here for Arthur Ransome that it was worth doing.

On the one hand, we have a decent representation of the bones of Ransome’s original story, the children’s holiday adventure, the first of its kind: camping and boating and rivalry and making up your own world that is perfectly real behind the adults’ backs. I’m still no more convinced of Seren Hawkes as Nancy Blackett, but one understrength child actor is bearable, and any defects in the young lady’s wooden performance are more than made up for by those of the Swallows, and especially the two genuinely child actors, Teddie-Rose Mallesen-Allen as ‘Tatty’, and Bobby McCullough as Roger.

And I simply cannot watch young Bobby onscreen without a sense of awe that fortunately does not interfere with the flow of the film: he isn’t acting, he’s a seven year old boy from 1929 (sod the film’s updating to 1935) brought into the Twenty-First Century. They’re all good, but he just is Roger Walker, untouched by nearly ninety years since the Altounyans spent that summer on Coniston Water.

Whilst it would have been nice to have had more of the film take place on Windermere and Coniston Water, the modern world has impinged too much on the former, always the most accessible Lake from the south-east and thus the most commercial. Derwent Water may be wrong for ever so many reasons, none of which will affect anyone not a purist, but it has the advantage of consistency: unlike the 1974 film, the constant distraction of watching the little boats glide from lake to lake to lake indiscriminately is not present. And it is, of course, beautiful from every angle.

It’s still noticeable that, even though the film explicitly acknowledges it’s taking place in the Lake District, there isn’t the faintest effort to provide a Cumbrian or Westmoreland accent. If anything, particularly in the Blackett family, the accent drifts vaguely in the direction of Yorkshire, which is heresy so far as I am concerned.

That aside, there’s a comfortable familiarity to language in use by those Northerners. In the book, Ransome makes no play with accents or dialect. Beyond individual characteristics, the Amazons speak with the same middle-class voice as the Swallows. Like his prose generally, Ransome goes for a clear, limpid, smooth speech that assumes intelligence on his listeners’ parts but which never offers them any difficulties.

The film, however, unashamedly goes for northern epithets. Peggy Blackett calls her elder sister ‘cleverclogs’, and the General Store lady, upset at her corned beef display being knocked down, sends Tatty out of the shop with the words ‘you cheeky monkey’. Not having been brought up in Cumbria in the Twenties/Thirties, I can’t speak to local authenticity, but this is the language of my East Manchester boyhood all right.

Of course, the film still has its other half to negotiate, the spy plot that’s half John Buchan and half Arthur Ransome’s background. The book’s Jim Turner/Captain Flint has always been Ransome himself, spiritually as well as physically, and so the idea of turning him into the secret agent Ransome appears to have been in Russia during the Revolution at least has the merit of authenticity, though turning him into Rafe Spall doesn’t.

Spall underplays his part with a genuine sense of period overlaid by a low-key Buchan heartiness, which provides a useful contrast with the spicier Andrew Scott as Laslow, supercilious and cold, adapting his manic Moriarty to a role demanding naturalness. For what it’s worth, with the exception of the attempt by the two little boats to halt the seaplane from taking off – which in isolation is exactly the kind of thing children of their age and resourcefulness would think of trying – the spy plot works and works effectively. The jury is still out as to whether trying it in the same film should have been done at all.

As a Ransome fan possessed of all twelve books in those classic greenbound Jonathan Cape hardbacks, naturally I find against the film. But I enjoy it too much, and respond too much to those parts that represent the book at its most honest to hold it too badly against the film.

It’s getting on for three years since Swallows and Amazons was filmed and there are no proposals of which I am aware to adapt other books in the series. And Bobby McCullough is now ten, or thereabouts, so unless you’re going to clone him and grow the clone to age seven (or at worst eight), more fundamental damage would need to be done to Swallowdale to have him repeat his role. More’s the pity. I’d love to see a decent stab taken at that, at least once, especially if they genuinely climb Coniston Old Man as part of it.

But this film enables me to go back there whenever I want, not just to the Lake of 1929, but the sitting room at Brigham Street where I received my first Swallows and Amazons book from my Dad: he’d have found Rafe Spall and Andrew Scott stupid, but he’d have drunk in every other bit of it, the way I do.

Swallows and Amazons: Let’s Try Again, or maybe…


Can you imagine this man in ‘Swallows and Amazons’? Me neither.

Reading a feature interview in today’s Observer magazine with Andrew Scott, the impossibly charismatic Jim Moriarty of Sherlock, I was startled by a passing mention of his filming a re-make of Swallows and Amazons, set in the Lake District (I’m sorry, did someone think you could possibly set it somewhere else?).

The news of a new film, some forty plus years after the good-hearted but ultimately unconvincing Virginia McKenna/Ronald Fraser version in 1974, came as a simultaneously welcome and unwelcome thought. I mean, I love the book, and anything set in the Lakes that uses the landscape will drag me down Grand Central, but what the heck are they going to do to it this time? I mean, Andrew Scott, utterly brilliant, but who the hell is he going to play? Surely not Captain Flint?

One hasty Google later, I am left yet more concerned. No, Scott is not playing Captain Flint, that honour goes to Rafe Spall (so we’re not casting according to descriptions in the book then). No, silly me, I should have realised, Scott’s going to play Lazlow. How obvious.

That there is, of course, no such character in Swallows and Amazons alerts us to the fact that some serious fuckery could be about to take place. The news that they’ve also been filming in West Yorkshire (I’m sorry, but reservoirs off the M62 don’t look anything like the Lake District) doesn’t fill me with anticipation, either.

What the film plans to do, I would surmise, is to shift the balance of the story well away from the Walker and Blackett children, who are the whole point of the novel, and towards Captain Flint. Notably, Spall’s part is not being referred to by the cognomen that Nancy and Peggy Blackett have long since lavished on their Uncle, but as Jim Turner.

Turner/Flint in the book is a mainly offstage character, until the final phase of the book, where he is brought properly onscreen by the robbery on the Houseboat. It’s widely recognised that the preoccupied author is Ransome himself, and that’s the key to the new film. It’s now recognised that Arthur Ransome was not merely a journalist in Russia during the Revolution, but that he was also an operative of MI6.

What the film plans to do, according to reports, is to bring that hitherto hidden aspect of Ransome back to Jim Turner: Lazlow is an old enemy from the spy world. This has the potential to be A Very Bad Idea Indeed, not least if the film intends to follow through on this descriptive paragraph: “The story follows four children dreaming of an escape from the tedium of a summer holiday with their mother. When finally given permission to camp on their own on a remote island in the middle of a vast lake, they are overjoyed. But when they get there they discover they may not be alone… As they battle for ownership of the island, they learn the skills of survival and the value of friendship, which helps prepare them for the real danger they must face from the adult world.”

Does that fill you with dread? It does me. At least the probability is that if Turner is Ransome 2.0, the tale will take place in the late Twenties/early Thirties, though I shudder at the devastation that could be caused if they update it.

(One necessary updating has already occurred: Mrs Walker’s middle daughter will be called Tatty).

Nevertheless, I am prepared to be more open-minded about this film, which should appear in 2016 than I am about the ever-nearing Dad’s Army re-make. As long as the scenery’s plentifully in sight, and they have filmed on Peel Island on Coniston Water, I shall be partially satisfied.

“To the Six for whom it was written in exchange for a pair of slippers”


This is a question I sometimes try on people. He ran away from home at the age of 18 to take part in the artistic Bohemia of London in the 1900s. He wrote a literary biography of Oscar Wilde that included the first publication of any part of Die Profundis, which attracted the second great Criminal Libel suit relating to Wilde, and which made him a cause celebre. He ran away from his wife and daughter to be a Foreign Correspondent in Russia, and was an eye-witness to the Russian Revolution. He wrote an account that is regarded as second only to John Reed’s classic Ten Days that shook the World, he played chess with Lenin and married Trotsky’s secretary. For years he was exiled from England and regarded as a dangerous Bolshevik. After his return, he was dispatched to China, where he met Sun-Yat Sen, and wrote a weekly fishing column. But what is he famous for?
They never get it, which is hardly surprising, although the more widely-read may get an inkling from the mention of the fishing column. He is famous for writing Swallows and Amazons, and inventing the Children’s holiday adventure story, for this is a potted version of the life of Arthur Ransome, until the age of 44. It always comes as a surprise.
The title of this essay is the original dedication to the book, which has been suppressed now for over half a century. In part, this essay is the story behind that dedication.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Ransome a hero of mine, but he’s someone who has always fascinated me. I was introduced to his books before the age of 10, ironically being given the last of his twelve Swallows and Amazons novels to read before any of the others. Though the books are indelibly wedded to their era (though written between 1929 and 1948, the children talk as products of the 1920s throughout, and the dozen novels cover a fictional period of only four years), underneath the “Look here”s and the middle class stiffness of Captain John Walker (one of two characters in the series who stood for Ransome himself), the books still stand up as intelligent and serious stories that do not look or write down to the audience.
Ransome wanted to be a writer from a very early age. He lost his father when only 13, (the news conveyed to him with typical British callousness by the Headmaster of Rugby), but in his teens adopted a father figure in the form of the historian and writer W G Collingwood, formerly secretary to John Ruskin. Ransome found himself absorbed into the Collingwood family as an extra son, and indeed at one point proposed to become a son-in-law, suggesting an engagement to Dora Collingwood. Thankfully for literature, she turned him down, recognising his immaturity and lack of purpose, and went on to marry a half-Syrian Doctor, Ernest Altounyan.
Arthur would go on to marry, most unwisely, one Ivy Walker. Ivy was an excitable woman, eager for adventure and excitement, and very much a fantasist, pretending all manner of dramatic things. Arthur, who was dedicated to writing and to Story, soon found what he had let himself in for, though the couple had a daughter Tabitha that they both loved.
Ransome wrote profusely and prolifically in the first dozen years of the century. His biographer, Hugh Brogan, has read these books, of which only two remain in print and, in Brogan’s estimation, quite rightly so. They say that every writer has hundreds of bad stories in him that he must write before he can get to the good stuff, and reading Brogan’s sometimes quite detailed descriptions of Ransome’s works, it seems that most of Arthur’s went into print. The one that he regretted most was, however, not among these. Not only did Ransome wish to write Story, he was an avid student, and a skilful technical analyst of Story itself. In 1912, he wrote the aforementioned literary biography of Wilde, and was allowed to quote extensively from the then-unpublished Die Profundis. Wilde’s fall had come from a famous and unsuccessful criminal libel trial against the Marquess of Queensbury, father of Wilde’s love, Lord Alfred Douglas, who abandoned Wilde after his committal to Reading Gaol. Die Profundis is a long cry of despair and rage by Wilde at his abandonment. The former ‘Bosie’, now himself Marquess of Queensbury, and perennially in need of money, sued Ransome.
Ivy was in her element, Ransome in despair. The trial lasted several weeks, with attendant publicity comparable to the excesses of our own age, and though it ended in acquittal for Ransome, the stress had opened his eyes to the state of his marriage. Taking a Foreign Correspondent’s position in Moscow, he left England for many years.
There, in addition to his journalistic duties, which he pursued with enthusiasm and intelligence, honing and clarifying his prose style, Ransome also studied Russian Folk-Tales with intensity. The first of his books to remain in print, Old Peter’s Russian Tales, collects Ransome’s interpretations of a dozen Russian children’s stories, about night, the forest, aloneness and the life of the Russian peasant. Ransome created mediators in the form of Old Peter, who tells these stories to his grandchildren, Maroosa and Vanya, guiding them in learning the folklore of their land.
More should and would have followed (a second volume, of just tales, without Old Peter and his kin, were published in 1984, long after Ransome’s death in 1967), but the Revolution intervened, and for several years it became the central focus of Ransome’s career and his writing.
It’s been suggested that Ransome was working as an Agent for MI6 during this period, and he would not have been the first nor the last journalist to take on such an auxiliary role but, as Brogan details, the longer the Revolution went on, and the closer Ransome got to the dominating Bolsheviks, the more his writing begins to unconsciously reflect their influence: hence his denouncement privately in the Foreign Office. The  truth was that Ransome, whose ideal at heart was England’s interests, was on the ground and unable to see the circumstances of Russia, whereas the Foreign Office were utterly opposed to the idea of the Bolsheviks, and continued to oppose them long past the point at which they were the only stabilising force in Russia (even if the lack of alternatives was deliberately created by themselves).
It was during this period that Ransome’s life was, again, changed, by the tall, forthright Evgenia Shelepina, the elder of two sisters working in Trotsky’s office. The two became acquainted, struck up a friendship and then came an incident when Evgenia, descending from the Russian equivalent of a tram, slipped and almost fell beneath its wheels. The emotions of that moment confirmed for the couple their feelings for each other, though it was to be many years before Ransome could negotiated a divorce from Ivy, playing the part of the scorned woman to the hilt, and permission to bring Evgenia to England as his wife. It would cost Ransome dear, financially and emotionally. Ivy insisted on retaining his extensive Library of carefully collected books, thinking that a career in which literary criticism played a leading role would be killed by such selfishness. Worse still, she set about poisoning Tabitha against her father, including such things as telling the girl to turn down a holiday with her father as his only intention in asking his daughter was to drown her.
By now, Ransome had long been in the service of the Manchester Guardian, where he was close friends with Ted Scott, son and heir of the legendary C P Scott, and destined to step into his father’s shoes as Editor. Ransome would be one of Ted’s closest allies in the battle to assert himself when the time came, but, in the meantime, he was concerned about his own career. He was a success as a Foreign Correspondent, but his aspirations towards Story were being frustrated, and he was beginning to fear being trapped forever as a journalist. Despite feeling it to be a betrayal of his friend at a time when he needed allies, Ransome resigned from the paper in the spring of 1929, to avoid being sent abroad once more. At that time, he had no idea of what he would do instead.
As mentioned above, Dora Collingwood had married Ernest Altounyan who, jointly with his father, owned a hospital in Syria on the banks of Lake Aleppo. The couple had had five children, Tacqui (a girl), Susan, Mavis, Roger, and the baby Bridget. The coincidence in names is, of course, not a coincidence.
The Altounyans were holidaying in England, at the Collingwood family home near the head of Coniston Water, with Arthur and Evgenia living at Low Ludderburn, above its secluded eastern shore. Between them, the Ransomes and the Altounyans bought two fourteen foot boats in which to sail on the Lake throughout the summer. At the end, each family would take one, and it was agreed that the Ransomes should keep the boat that was the favourite of all, Swallow.
It was an idyllic summer, of sun, sailing, exploring, fishing and games. The party often visited Peel Island, near  Coniston’s eastern shore, a wooded island with an easy bay on its eastern shore at which to land, and a ‘secret harbour’ at its rocky southern end, with only one safe route into its harbour.
But September came, and with it the Altounyans’ departure drew near. Ransome had to take some decisions about what he was to do next with his life. Whilst this was worrying him, Ernest Altounyan rung to ask if he could call round the following afternoon. Ransome agreed, but grumpily insisted that Altounyan should come alone, and not bring the children. At the appointed hour, with Ransome in his first floor study, the car pulled up, disgorging all the children. Ransome stumped downstairs, ready to give Altounyan a piece of his mind, only to be greeted by Tacqui and Mavis, each carrying an ornate red leather Turkish slipper. It had been Ransome’s birthday the previous day, though he hadn’t noticed, and these were a gift. A splendid afternoon was had.
Ransome remained abashed at his ungracious temper and, once the Altounyans had returned to a dry desert land, with no chance of sailing (Lake Aleppo had temporarily slipped his imagination), he wanted to give them a gift in return. A present of the summer they had enjoyed, for them to keep forever. What he devised became Swallows and Amazons.
Much of the book is drawn from the Cumbrian countryside and the adventures of that real-life summer. Peel Island went into the story as Wild Cat Island, but Rio and its Bay was borrowed from Windermere, and the Lake, in size and shape, is a hybrid of the two lakes. As a perhaps unconscious gesture of reconciliation with his first wife, the children took Ivy’s surname of Walker, whilst Ransome wrote himself deliberately into the book as Captain Flint, aka the Amazons’ Uncle Jim: a balding, perspiring, much-travelled man whose treasure is the manuscript of his book (that’s not Mixed Moss that is stolen by the Bigland crooks, but Swallows and Amazons itself!). But that wasn’t Ransome’s only place in the story.
The Swallows are the Altounyan children, down to Mavis’s unusual, and now very uncomfortable nickname of Titty, though Dora Altounyan was somewhat puzzled to find herself transformed into an Australian. But the most significant problem for Ransome was the eldest child, Tacqui. Given the times in which Ransome wrote, it would be unusual to have a girl as the leader, and it was undeniably more commercial to have a two-boy, two-girl balance. But as Brogan argues, it is likely that the ultimate decision lay in Ransome’s subconscious: if the eldest child was a boy, he could himself participate in the adventure, play more than the outside role of Captain Flint who, in the book, exists primarily as a spoiler to the children’s holiday. And in the character of John Walker, stuffy, somewhat priggish, serious but, above all, anxious for the approval of his too-often absent Naval Commander father, there was indeed a role for Ransome, denied at a cruelly young age the chance to gain his own father’s approval.
Thus Swallows and Amazons began. I’ll be looking next at the books themselves, the relationship between them and the events of Ransome’s life, and the premature end to his writing career, almost twenty years before his death.