Swallows and Amazons is rather jolly from the outset. It follows the four Walker children on their summer holidays in a remarkably sunny Lake District. “Just look at the scenery!” one of them exclaims while looking out of the train window. “Wow! It’s not raining,” I thought. The kids may be aged from six to 14, but Mother doesn’t seem to mind that they spend days away from her with no adult supervision or so much as a text message.
But how could they send a text after all – this film takes place in that prelapsarian world of childhood that existed in British children’s literature until the end of the 1960s. Everyone travelled by splendid chuffing steam trains, when you saw a car it looked vintage, and a decent meal consisted of sandwiches and ginger beer. The digital revolution was waiting quite a few decades off and children’s minds had yet to be sucked into the Cloud.
Mostly, parents weren’t worried that their children would get murdered or abused, not to mention drown or fall out of a 50-foot pine tree. Perhaps this was because Daddy was often not there – in The Railway Children he was away in prison – here he is abroad with the Royal Navy. Perhaps parents weren’t quite as laissez faire as this in real life, but these stories just wouldn’t get very far without children being given a very long leash.
What would you do if you were 12-years-old and were given absolute freedom? Buy a packet of fags and a jumbo bottle of Strongbow? Lock your bedroom door and start a mammoth session on the X-Box? No, you’d head off to have adventures, you’d transform the ordinary English world of the Lake District into a land inhabited by pirates, enemy ships and treasure islands. The definitive version of Arthur Ransome’s evergreen novel, Swallows and Amazons is a classic of its kind, a children’s film just can’t help but win you over.
Once the Walker children arrive with their mother in the Lake District, they hang around at the house for approximately five minutes before sailing off to camp on their own on a deserted island in the middle of the lake. “Don’t let’s unpack now,” says one of the boys “let’s explore.” Good advice young man. The last thing their mother gives them before they sail off in their small wooden dingy (and they do all their voyages under sail) is a box of matches. Yes, and why not also a can of petrol to really get the fire going?
Despite all this Health and Safety baiting, the first part of the film is more of a procession of the children’s activities, than proper story. They make charts, fetch milk from the local farmer, go off to buy supplies (iced buns, grog – ginger beer, of course – that essential item, rope), and explore the surrounding area in their boat the Swallow. Things only really get going when they meet their ‘enemies’, the two Blackett sisters who sail a dinghy called the Amazon. After all, what story is complete without enemies?
The eldest of the Blackett sisters is Nancy, who is probably the most fearless of all the children. Her tomboy character is considered so unusual it has gained her character a decent-sized wikipedia page all of her own. She is probably the most interesting of all the characters, but that’s not to say that they aren’t all fairly brave. Incredibly, mother (Virginia McKenna of Born Free fame) only makes her second appearance after the children have been living on their own for three or four nights.
The film concludes with a winner to the war declared, the pirate being made to walk the plank, and a tea party, as we should expect. No one gets more than a scraped knee and all the children have had a grand time. Swallows and Amazons is a charming film and one that sails many leagues away from Health and Safety obsessions and iPad culture. And if you were after one piece of advice to take away from it, remember this: “Pretend you’re going to the North Pole.”
Swallows and Amazons 40th anniversary re-release is out on Blu Ray on 4th August, 2014. The digitally restored version includes a host of special features including cast interviews, locations featurette, behind the scenes footage, stills gallery and the trailer.
To celebrate 40 years since the film was made, there will be special anniversary screenings of the new restoration during the school summer holidays:
- Electric Palace Cinema, Hastings, 20th July, Hastings Pirate Day
- 18 Picture House Cinemas, 31st July, Summer Family Film Festival (including Q&A with Sophie Neville, who played Titty Walker, after the 11am screening at Hackney PH).
- Royalty Cinema, Bowness-on-Windermere, 3rd, 6th, 7th August
- Roxy Cinema, Ulverston, 3rd, 6th, 7th August
- Zeffirellis Cinema, Ambleside, date tbc
- Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal, 7th August