Things to do in the school holidays: Watch Swallows and Amazons
August 16, 2016
During our first school holidays (and my first time looking after 2 children all day every day for 8 weeks until Pip starts school in September) I am re-capping in a series for The Little Pip novelly entitled Things to do in the school holidays… Sometimes I find even routine ideas can slip the mind, so I’ve been compiling a series of posts of ideas and things to do over the summer, or indeed, all the myriad half terms that will soon be on our radar.
An exciting parcel arrived for me one day from England. It contained Swallows and Amazonsand was from my grandmother. I was 6, living in California for a bit and from the moment I started reading, a life long Arthur Ransome relationship was started.
I have been often asked how I came to write Swallows and Amazons. The answer is that it had its beginnings long, long ago when, as children, my brothers, my sisters and I spent most of our holidays on a farm at the south end of Coniston … We adored the place. Coming to it we used to run down to the lake, dip our hands in and wish, as if we had just seen the new moon. Going away from it we were half drowned in tears. While away from it, as children and as grown-ups, we dreamt about it… Swallows and Amazons grew out of those old memories. I could not help writing it. It almost wrote itself.” Arthur Ransome, 1958
Throughout my entire childhood, Arthur Ransome’s books were a constant back drop. Reading them, listening to my grandmother reading Pigeon Post to me on tape, playing games inspired by them, dressing up for Book Day competitions, and finally, back in England, learning to sail and spending time trekking round the Lake District looking for possible Wild Cat Islands and Swallowdales.
So it was with great excitement that I booked tickets for Pip and I to watch a special preview at the BFI, which also included a q&a with the director and script writer. I was absolutely desperate for Pip to enjoy the film and, at 4 and a bit, she is a little on the young side, but, I am pleased to report that it was a winning choice. We both loved the experience.
Why to watch the film…
As an appealing family adventure film, I thought it was excellent. Ransome had a way of turning the ordinary into an adventure, and Philippa Lowthorpe has certainly captured this in a heart warming film. I actually really liked the upscaling of the robbery storyline into a spy story, although I doubt any spy of Ransome’s calibre would have been quite so careless as Rafe Spall’s Captain Flint appeared to be, and it added an element of danger such as would never have been so explicitly articulated by Ransome. As a mechanism for the film though, I thought it worked well if elements seemed slightly forced and super unrealistic. Spall did make a compelling Captain Flint though, if somewhat younger, far less rotund and much more attractive than his character ever read to me as a young child! Kelly Macdonald made a good Mother and I thought Seren Hawkes was an excellent Nancy.
Set in 1935 as opposed to the 1929 of the book, (Andrea Gibb says that they moved the date forward 6 years to be closer to WW2 and therefore make the spy line fit a little better – although I’m not sure that was really necessary) this is in some ways a period piece, which makes for a nice piece of wholesome escapism, albeit perhaps much more along the lines of the times Brexiters harker for than canny observations. I doubt any child watching it would have noticed but at times I felt there was a bit of jarring between the more modern children seeming more worldly than their 1935 characters should have been, yet also oddly incapable in ways that children of that age used to being in the countryside wouldn’t have been.
Pip, when asked which her favourite bit was says “all of it” (although I should note that whilst watching she found the spy climax scene a little scary) and thoroughly enjoyed the outing.
(& some notes for the adults – particularly any fans)
If, like me, you first read Swallows and Amazons as a child and love the novel so much, bear in mind that this is not a faithful representation of either the plot line or the essence of the book. Without spoiling anything of the plot that you wouldn’t get from watching the trailer, you can tell that the script writer, Andrea Gibb, only read the book for the first time when she was asked to write the screen play. She is unable to craft the childhood magic in the way that Ransome could, having experienced himself as a child his subject matter. That is not to say that it is a poor film per se, just that for me something substantial was missing – Ransome’s Walkers do not fall out with each other or berate each other for their failings. They are nuanced where Gibb’s Walkers are flat, albeit with reasonable acting particularly from the two youngest. (Don’t get me started on the changing of Tatty’s name – I suspect it is less about giggling potential as Gibb and Lowthorpe maintain and more about wanting to get it past strident American censorship). Her Blacketts fare better I thought, but for me the beauty of the book as a child were that the adults were far less present than they seem to be in the film. With only an hour and 40 minutes into which to condense the entire storyline there is obviously not much time to scene set but the vast majority of the book is unaccompanied, which is not reflected in the film.
If one of the things you like about the book is that things are always done properly, including all the sailing details, you will have to suspend this for the film and enjoy it first as a film and remember that your children probably won’t notice… Whilst I can sail both dinghies and bigger boats, I don’t personally know much about lug rigged sailing boats but even I probably wouldn’t think it wise to leave the dinghy at the end of a shingle spit with the sail still fully up.
Don’t let these details put you off though, I still thought it was a very enjoyable stand alone entertaining family film that I would recommend watching if you have children aged 5 upwards. I just wish they hadn’t named it after the book!