Andrew Thomas talks to writer Sophie Neville about her role in the 1974 film Swallows and Amazons and how that experience has influenced her life

Arthur Ransome is one of the Lake District’s most important literary figures and his children’s book Swallows and Amazons holds a special place in many people’s hearts.

The novel was made into a film in 1974 and featured 12-year-old Sophie Neville playing the role of Titty, one of the Walker family who sail the dinghy Swallow, camp on Wild Cat Island and have adventures with Nancy and Peggy, the Blackett children, who call themselves the Amazons.

Sophie described how out of the blue, as ‘an ordinary schoolgirl’, she was asked to audition for a leading role in Swallows and Amazons, after having previously acted in an adaptation of Cider With Rosie.

The recognised stars of the film were Virginia McKenna as Mrs Walker and Ronald Fraser as Captain Flint. “But Arthur Ransome was very clever in the book in making the little girl into the heroine because she was imaginative and creative and had a bit of grit,” said Sophie, 59, who lives on the Solent on the South Coast.

In a pivotal part of the film Titty captures the Amazon, rows it at night through the rocks which line the ‘Secret Harbour’ and moors it on a nearby island. “If I had only been nine, the age of Titty in the book, I don’t think I would have had the strength or gumption to do the part. It was a huge responsibility to put on a child – the full weight of the success of the movie on a little girl.”

Ironically, Sophie had not seen herself as a natural for the role. “As the oldest daughter in my family and being quite practical and bossy I identified more with Susan,” she said. But Ransome’s wife, Evgenia, was determined Titty in the film should be ‘an English rose’ and Sophie, with her fair hair, got the part.

There was a fairly gruelling 50-day shoot in 1973. Sophie’s father had been brought up on Ransome’s books and Sophie, who grew up in Gloucestershire, had already read Swallows and Amazons twice and also loved the Lake District.

“We were very fortunate because we were able to film in Bowness before they took away the green historic boatsheds. There’s a lovely scene when the Swallows are rowing into ‘Rio’ and my father, as an extra, is standing on the jetty talking to someone. The film did capture Lake District before a lot of the development.

“We were able to film on Peel Island on Coniston Water. The beauty of the film is when children go now to Peel Island they can find the campsite, the tree I sat in and the place where we gutted the fish and they love it,” said Sophie.

She continued to act during her teenage years and while at university – she appeared in The Two Ronnies and Crossroads. “I had amazing opportunities as a child but it was just not in my make up to be an actor. I was much more interested in the logistics of filming,” she said.

After university she joined the BBC and worked in television production, casting and looking after the children in its adaptation of Ransome’s Coot Club and The Big Six, broadcast in 1984 as ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever’.

She was also working on adaptations of Pigeon Post and Swallowdale but filming in the Lake District was very expensive in those days and the series never happened.

She was involved in the 2016 film remake Swallows and Amazons, finding some of the investment and also appearing as an extra in the station scene.

After nine years in TV production she moved to Africa, where she worked as a horse safari guide. “I stepped back into a true Swallows and Amazons existence, camping, cooking outside and exploring the wilderness. It was fantastic – a real adventure.”

She also became a wildlife artist and, having returned to the UK, worked freelance for the BBC setting up wildlife documentaries.

She began writing, including a memoir called Funnily Enough and Ride The Wings Of Morning, about her time in southern Africa. She also wrote The Making of Swallows and Amazons, based on her diaries written during the 1973 film shoot.

 “We are hoping to bring out a third edition, including stories which have filtered through. We found out, for example, that the parrot in the film was called Beauty and came from Kendal.

“Any Gazette readers who saw the filming and have any of their own stories can contact me via my website”

She was president of The Arthur Ransome Society for five years and gives question and answer sessions at screenings of the film all over the country.

New, remastered versions of Swallows and Amazons showed on big screens at cinemas or in people’s living rooms, she said, allowed people to really appreciate the Lake District scenery and also some of the film’s subtleties. “For example, you can feel the tiny muscles in Virginia McKenna’s face and appreciate the quality of her performance,” said Sophie.

She said visited the Lake District whenever she could and was due to record herself reading the penultimate chapter of Ransome’s The Picts and the Martyrs as part of a project for the website

It was, she said, Ransome’s best chapter. “The Great Aunt is brought up the lake by Dick and Dorothea and Nancy thinks she will be found out for hiding them in the wood – but she largely gets away scot-free!”

Sophie said her other main hobby was picking up discarded plastic from the Solent shore. “That is where you will find me,” she said. “On the mud flats, picking up plastic pollution and litter!”

And if she had been able to meet Arthur Ransome and ask him a question, what would it have been?

“I would need to take a deep breath and ask if he was moved by the film adaptations of ‘Swallows and Amazons’,” she said. “I’m sure watching them would have been agonising at first, but I hope he’d be glad to know what has come from them in the long run.

“They have, after all, encouraged book sales and promoted the adventurous outdoor life he advocated.”