Exclusive: On location in Yorkshire with Swallows and Amazons

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Breathless but driven by boundless energy, film producer Nick Barton leads his guest down a narrow gulley enclosed on both sides by ancient rock formations.

“I want to show you something that you won’t have seen before,” he says. At journey’s end is a paradisiacal view across a stunning, lily pad-covered lake. It’s a timeless scene, and one that provides the backdrop to a classic tale of adventure and youthful exuberance.

Jessica Hynes, Kelly Macdonald and Harry Enfield in Swallows and Amazons

Jessica Hynes, Kelly Macdonald and Harry Enfield in Swallows and Amazons

“It looks like something out of Raiders Of The Lost Ark.” Barton points to the track running into the little gorge. “All of this behind you is real. All of this down here…” – he waves his hand towards the rocks – “…is what we built.”

His poker face adds to the plausibility factor. Then it breaks into an enormous grin. “No, it’s all real! In America, Disney or Warner Bros would recreate this, wouldn’t they? You can’t deny that this has a magic. It is extraordinary.”

It’s so quiet that the only sounds to be heard are made by nature. Progress, as represented by man and his machines, seems to belong to another world. The landscape that has so captured Barton’s imagination is Plumpton Rocks near Knaresborough. And on this hot August day in 2015 filming is taking place in a sun-dappled glade for a new screen version of Swallows and Amazons, based on the beloved novel by Leeds-born Arthur Ransome.

The beauty spot was among those suggested by Screen Yorkshire, a vital funding partner along with the BBC and the British Film Institute. Haworth and Heptonstall were also key locations. Of the eight-week shoot, almost half was in the Broad Acres. It’s picture postcard Yorkshire at its best. Best known as being one of the team behind Calendar Girls, Nick Barton has been producing films and television series since the 1980s, and commercials since 1969. He chooses his projects carefully, possessing that mix of patience and tenacity that marks out many filmmakers.

But he admits that Ransome’s book has been something of an obsession ever since he read it as a 12-year-old living in South Africa in the Sixties. In 1992 he bought his own boat. In 2007 he commissioned Andrea Gibb to write a script and secured the rights to the book from the Ransome estate.

“I’ve always thought that there’s a market for this film,” he asserts, “because it’s children having an adventure on their own without adults.

“They sail to an island by themselves; they’re in charge of their survival and their destiny. It’s a great story. Also nearly a million people sail in the UK and most of them sail because of one book that they read when they were kids: Swallows and Amazons. Movies like Paddington have shown that there is an appetite for a family film that isn’t a big Hollywood blockbuster. Our audience will run from five or six years old right through to their parents and grandparents.”

Ransome’s book, set in 1929 and published a year later, chronicles the experiences of the Walker children, two boys and two girls on holiday in the Lake District. In a sailing dinghy called the Swallow, John, Susan, Titty and Roger embark on their exploration of the lake and the island at its centre. They soon find rivals for their kingdom in the form of Nancy and Peggy Blackett and their boat, the Amazon. War is declared...

The two groups come together to deal with Jim Turner, the Amazons’ taciturn uncle, living an isolated life in his boat away from his nieces and polite society. There is evidence that Turner – played in the film by Rafe Spall – was based on Ransome himself, a former foreign correspondent with sympathies for the Bolsheviks who was also a spy for MI5. An espionage element finds its way into the new film. It’s one of two changes that could potentially alienate purists, the other being the change of the name “Titty” to “Tatty”.

“There was a view amongst us, the BBC and the BFI that ‘Titty’ might be difficult for some territories, like America,” says Barton. “We talked to the Ransome trustees about it before we made a decision. Titty was a nickname for a girl called Mavis, who was from a real family. She was called TittyMouse.

“I was nervous about asking and they were very good. They understood that times have changed. There was a recent BBC version where her name was changed to Kitty. We felt we couldn’t really call her Mavis, so Tatty it became.”

Back down the path, past a handmade sign (surrounded by animal bones) that reads ‘No Trespassing. Danger of Death. The Amazons’ and into a clearing, can be found the film crew and actors. The scene being shot by director Philippa Lowthorpe is one of high drama. Watching it is screenwriter Andrea Gibb. Like Barton she is rooted in Ransome. And as a writer she sees the value in contextualising but never contemporising the story.

“We moved nearer the Second World War, from 1929 to 1935, because we wanted to have that idyllic sense of one last golden summer. Then it all crashes in. It wouldn’t have worked if we’d contemporised it,” she says.

“Contemporary children are not allowed the adventures that these kids go on in the book. It’s good to say to modern parents, ‘Maybe you should think about letting them go slightly more’, [embracing] contained risks.

“Sometimes it doesn’t do them any harm to find their own way. I tried to tap into that zeitgeist. By giving it that little distance of the past it helps people view it objectively.”

Both Gibb and Barton are reluctant to go into detail about the espionage aspect of the film but Gibb is adamant that she felt the importance of being true to the essence of Ransome whilst bringing added energy and a sense of action to the piece. “We’ve had a great old time,” says Andrew Scott, the rising star of Pride and TV’s Sherlock, who joined Swallows and Amazons not long after finishing Spectre, aka Bond 24. He played a bureaucrat in Spectre. In Swallows and Amazons he plays a spy.

“You’d be surprised at how similar this is to Bond. The creative atmosphere is the same.

“It’s slightly mythical to say that children don’t go out and explore like they used to; this story makes children the heroes. With the advent of the iPad and screens, children don’t find their entertainment in nature.

“None of the kids in the film have acted before and they’re all incredibly natural.

“There’s a grittiness to it – a sense that something hasn’t got to be drowned in treacle to make it appealing. It’s not patronising or perfect. In fact the aesthetic is quite imperfect. I think that’s really good for kids.”

Scott and fellow actor Dan Skinner play Lazlov and Zukin, two mystery men on the trail of Jim Turner. Theirs is a partnership that borders on a quasi-comedy double act. What’s more, their banter is accomplished.

“I’m a bit abrupt whereas Andrew is more measured and cunning. He’s cooler,” says Skinner, provoking laughter from Scott.

“Most of our scenes are together,” adds Scott. “It’s fun to be a double act. It’s not much fun being in a double act with Dan!” Skinner nods, saying, “Anyone else. I have to concur with that. It’s been awful. His comic timing is appalling.” Both men give knowing smiles.

And so to the children. Fresh from filming a chase sequence down those glorious rocky paths and shooting a stand-off with Scott, Skinner and Spall, the junior cast members sit down and gabble delightedly through their multitudinous first-time experiences of being in a movie.

Dane Hughes, 15, Bobby McCulloch, nine, Orla Hill, 13 and Teddie Malleson-Allen, nine, play the Swallows. Seren Hawkes, 15, and Hannah Jayne Thorp, 12, are the Amazons. Between them are shared experiences of opening castings, auditions, read-throughs, improvisation and the thrill of landing the role.

Making the movie, by common agreement, 
has been exciting, even if modern life frequently bled into the proceedings via video games and songs by Eminem. But it’s the interplay that proves joyful, with the bickering between screen sisters passing muster for real life.

“We all learned to sail,” says Teddie. “On the first day I didn’t know what I was doing so I got hit by the boom 49 times. The next day was better.”

“You still managed to get hit, actually,” adds Orla helpfully.

“Once! Talk about yourself!”

“That’s different. I was meant to get hit by the boom.”

“It wasn’t actually supposed to touch you.”

‘I was Method acting…”

It’s a perfect representation of sibling rivalry. Barton, proudly watching from the side-lines, observes: “We were smiled upon by Arthur Ransome.”

• Swallows and Amazons is released on August 19.