Norfolk producer’s new film Swallows and Amazons set to sail onto cinema screens this week
- Credit: PA
Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, as with his Broads-set books, is a classic adventure loved by generations and now Norfolk film producer Nick Barton is bringing a new film version to screens.
Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, the classic tale of six children on the summer holiday of a lifetime, sits on the bookshelves of millions; a cornerstone of British literary culture.
The author's fond memories of an idyllic summer spent teaching children to sail on the Lake District served as the inspiration for a rip-roaring story of friendship, family, and adventure. Just as Ransome's visits to the Norfolk Broads in the 1930s were for two of his related childrens' books Coot Club and The Big Six.
Unexplored on the big screen for over 40 years, the tale was ripe for a revival - with its themes of exploration and self-discovery serving as a potent reminder of the myriad possibilities of the imagination and the simple joys of the outdoors.
For Norfolk-based independent film producer Nick Barton, Ransome's novel had left 'an indelible impression' ever since he'd picked it up at the tender age of 12.
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'I always thought what fun it would be to camp on an island and have an adventure of my own,' he recalls.
Yet it was only in 1992 – when he bought a boat that resembled a larger version of Amazon – that he truly began to understand the thrill that sailing must have brought the author and his characters.
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'I started sailing every weekend of the season on the coast in Norfolk. Big waves, challenging conditions; It became, as I believe it does for all those who sail, a whole new dimension to life'.
And with each passing weekend on the water, the yearning to bring Ransome's story to the big screen for the first time since Claude Whatham's much-loved 1974 effort grew. 'I thought 'Now I've got to do it. Now I've got to find a way of making this film''.
It would be 15 years later in 2007 that Barton, founder of Harbour Pictures Productions, the company behind British successes including Calendar Girls, would truly set the wheels in motion on his passion project. He began negotiating the rights to the novel with the Ransome Estate; and, crucially, identified the writer Andrea Gibb to handle the treatment and early drafts of the screenplay. Her work on the award-winning Dear Frankie had already drawn acclaim and showcased her rich skills at authentically giving voice to child characters, and Barton believes that 'she's proved to be the perfect writer for the project.'
Two key creative decisions would make their way into Gibb's screenplay, as the writer and Barton sought to give Ransome's novel a fresh new take for the big screen.
'We decided to move the period just slightly from 1929 to 1935,' says Barton, 'so it was closer to Second World War. The Walker children's father was in the navy, and it just added another dimension to the story'.
The additions enabled the pair to keep Ransome's text at the film's core, whilst providing an additional shot of adrenaline for the modern audience. 'We're aware that we needed to be truthful to the characters of the children, the period, the story itself…but at the same time present a film that could compete with big, modern day action adventure films.'
With a first draft of the script, Barton and fellow producer Nick O'Hagan found the perfect director in Philippa Lowthorpe, helmer of the acclaimed BBC adaptation of Cider with Rosie. 'She was completely engaged with the idea of these children being in the world for real - really experiencing the exhilaration of this adventure for themselves,' recalls Barton.
With the script and story locked, and the core creative team in place, the next step for Barton, Lowthorpe and team was finding their Swallows and Amazons – the boys and girls who would become the film's stars.
'We wanted the children to be as natural as possible,' Barton recollects, 'We were all agreed on that. Therefore, we looked at a lot of children who hadn't acted before.'
Over 800 children were auditioned. To ensure authenticity, the final few were sent to a final audition at a sailing club 'so we could determine which ones could be believable on the boats,' says Barton.
Likewise, the iconic boats which spirit the Walker and Blackett children off on their adventures were carefully selected.
Barton made it his mission to track down and find authentic vessels: 'They're very old boats, they're clinker built, and they're a particular size, which Ransome specified. It took me three years to track them down.'
The boats were then painted – black in Amazon's case ('Nice and piratical') and varnished with white elements in Swallow's - before sail makers were brought in to research and design the sails of the rival boats – each sail stitched in different colour threads. Barton says they were 'as close to what Ransome intended'.
The film's release marks the end of journey decades in the making for Barton. He's delighted with the result: 'I think we've been very sympathetic to the classic story that is there already.
'I think audiences will understand what we've done and we've tried to be as faithful as possible in our adaptation to the true story that is Arthur Ransome's life.'
Barton also hopes too that the film can inspire the next generation of sailors: 'I've always felt that the people who sail absolutely sail because they read Swallows and Amazons as children ...who knows how many more future adventures the film will inspire.'
• Are you excited for the release of Swallows and Amazons? How do you think it will compare to the book? Share your thoughts in the comments below.