A CHILD star in the film adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, Sophie Neville is still riding on the wave of its enduring success.
Now 40 years on, she has brought out a behind-the-scenes book, giving fans an insight into what went on during the seven weeks of filming in the Lakes in the summer of 1973.
The Making of Swallows and Amazons, which is launched on Saturday, also coincides with Studio Canal’s digitally remastered DVD release of the movie, which came out in 1974.
Sophie, who lives in Hampshire with her husband, has been appearing on a tour around cinemas in Cumbria for the airing of the re-release.
At Kendal’s Brewery Arts Centre she said Swallows and Amazons, set in Cumbria, had played an already prominent part in her life before the film was made.
She was born in 1960 in Worcestershire to a father who was a director of an electronics company and her actress-come-news reader mother.
“My father was an insatiable reader of Arthur Ransome books,” she said.
He ended up being an extra in Swallows and Amazons and had his own on-screen career.
Sophie often visited the Lake District as a small child as her parents loved the area. And after moving to Gloucesteshire when she was four, she became a dab hand on the water.
“My father was a great sailor and we had our own two-and-a-half acre lake at home so I grew up mucking around in boats.”
This, she said, was not unlike her character Titty Walker, who was the able seaman of the Swallow. Playing her resulted in the 12-year-old shooting to fame.
It wasn’t the first time Sophie had appeared on screen, having played Eileen Brown in Cider with Rosie two years before, which was directed by Claude Whatham.
It was working alongside him that landed her the iconic role of Titty as he sent her a letter asking her to appear in Swallows and Amazons.
“It was a very challenging part – at points I had a green parrot called Beauty, from Kendal, sitting on my shoulder and biting chunks out of my ear!”
During the 51 days of shooting she kept a diary and has worked it into her book, written as a result of popular demand from fans and the Arthur Ransome Society, of which she is president.
Despite her role in the film and later featuring in The Copter Kids, Sunday Night Thriller and The Two Ronnies, she gave up acting.
“I haven’t acted since 1982 because I didn’t want to,” she said. “I knew as a child it wasn’t for me.”
Instead, after studying anthropology at Durham University and getting a place on the BBC training scheme, Sophie found her niche behind the scenes in television in roles including researcher, producer and director.
“I loved working with actors, and I just preferred the whole concept of directing - but it is exhausting.”
Falling victim to a virus and working ‘too hard’ while on antibiotics, Sophie was sick with chronic fatigue for ten months and ended up losing her job.
“The BBC doctor was worried and prescribed keeping a diary,” she said. Twenty years later Sophie transcribed her diary into a book, Funnily Enough.
At the time a friend in South Africa invited her to stay. “I flew out like a swallow,” she said.
Sophie began taking visitors on horse safaris and allowed her artistic side to soar.
“I was living the Arthur Ransome life still but on a horse, not a boat. There’s even a bit in the film where Titty says she would like to go to Africa.”
Having always drawn, she created paintings and decorative maps and during her 12 years abroad wrote letters to home, which she turned into a book called Ride the Wings of Morning.
In her 40s and single, Sophie decided she wanted to get married. “I went to an archery event and met my husband Sim, the chairman of the archery society.”
The pair married ten years ago and Sophie ‘inherited’ his three grown-up children. “I’ve never been happier,” she said.
The Christian and former missionary is now a speaker for the Bible Society and co-founded a charity which helps to combat HIV/AIDS in South Africa.
She is also involved in the Nancy Blackett Trust which works to preserve Arthur Ransome’s ‘favourite’ yacht the Nancy Blackett.
These days, Sophie keeps busy with running her blog, writing in South Africa, editing in England and making public appearances. And next in the pipeline will be Makorongo’s War, a story about a Commonwealth soldier during the Second World War.
“I’m still going on voyages of discovery in the same Arthur Ransome tradition. It’s like Arthur Ransome has always been sitting on my shoulder.”