Swallows and Amazons for ever?

I brought my kids up right. They learned to swim and how to make a camp fire. They could put up a tent before they could read; and as soon as they could read, it was to read a map. They loved lakes and climbed hills. And so their favourite films are – well, maybe Shaun of the Dead, Withnail and I?

For me it was always Swallows and Amazons, for ever. Discovering Arthur Ransome and his narrative power came late in my childhood; I must have been 20 at least. But it was a revelation, to find a “fantasy” landscape set within my beloved Lakeland hills, and a storyteller who knew the blurred boundaries between fantasy and reality. I read all the stories over and over again, still convinced that Pigeon Post is the perfect example of adventure narrative. And Claude Whatham’s 1974 film version became my movie comfort blanket, the ultimate tranquiliser in times of emotional turbulence.

I’ve seen the musical version, staged in both the West End and in Keswick. In recent years I met and became very fond of Sophie Neville, who played Titty (sic) in that film, and whose book about the making of the film is a charming and detailed insight from a child’s perspective with charming and detailed  hindsight from a grown-up perspective. And occasionally I go for lunch with delightful friends who live in the house where Arthur Ransome spent his last years.

So it wasn’t with an exactly open mind that I went to see Nick Barton and Philippa Lowthorpe’s new film, cleverly credited to writer Andrea Gibb “based on the book by” Ransome. It’s a delightfully old-fashioned adventure film, with some scary moments to send small heads burrowing into parental shoulders, and a pastiche James Bond finale involving a waterplane’s escape stymied by a length of rope thrown between two small sailing boats.

(Oh, and did I mention that I’ve actually sailed in one of those very boats, Swallow, a prop in both films and owned by a group of Ransome fanatics? Yes, many times, sorry.)

It’s beautifully filmed, with cinematic landscapes that were mostly Derwentwater, to fool the purists, and some terrific performances. Kelly Macdonald as Mrs Walker is allowed to become a native Highlander to justify her delicious accent. Jessica Hynes, on the other hand, is bluntly Cumbrian as Mrs Jackson.

The children squabble and fall out, as real kids do, and Bobby McCulloch plays Roger beautifully,  exposing the frailty of a seven year old ship’s boy who’s not too old to cry. Teddy-Rose Malleson-Allen is the unnecessarily renamed Tatty (sic) but Ransome would have no difficulty recognising his creation here.

He might be squirming in his grave, though, at Rafe Spall’s portrayal of Uncle Jim/Captain Flint, for here is evidence of Gibb’s detailed research and insight. This Captain Flint is a moody and introspective curmudgeon with a dodgy past and a dubious career, and this is how biographers have revealed the character of Ransome himself, at least for part of his life.

And what a fascinating life it was. Love the film, and you’d do better to read more about the man who created the stories than to read the original tale. Because this isn’t Swallows and Amazons. A generation that watches this version and expects books full of spies, guns and defiance will be disappointed indeed. The book – the whole series of books – is both too simple and too complex to be condensed onto the screen. Each has a valid place in our cultural legend. Go and enjoy the film for what it is, beautifully crafted, enjoyably relayed, terrifically acted. Later, some time later, pick up the book, but only as a taster, an hors d’oeuvres, before the masterpiece of Pigeon Post.

Then sneak off to watch Withnail and I without your mum.


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