Four mischievous youngsters go boating while on holiday in the Lake District. Dubbing themselves “the Swallows”, John (Simon West), Susan (Suzanna Hamilton), the unfortunately nicknamed but utterly adorable Titty (Sophie Neville) and young Roger (Stephen Grendon) command their swift sailboat for adventure and intrigue on “the high seas”, and eventually set up camp on Wildcat Island.
Here they discover rival seafarers, Nancy (Kit Seymour) and Peggy (Lesley Bennett), known as “the Amazons” (“They’re girls!” gasps a perplexed Roger) have already staked claim to the island.
The children engage in friendly warfare, while calamitous events bring them into conflict with the girls’ grumpy, river-barge-owning Uncle Jim (Ronald Fraser).
Lovingly photographed by Denis Lewiston, this is an engaging if sometimes pedestrian, adaptation of the Arthur Ransome children’s novel.
This is a world where children are given the freedom to learn through play – a world that nurtures them without talking down to them. Elders John and Susan take on the roles of surrogate parents, cooking and caring for their younger siblings without any fuss, while there is always a friendly farmer’s wife to lend a pint of milk or a kindly charcoal smoker (Jack Woolgar) to offer fishing tips or entertain with his pet snake.
Mild emotional trauma arises when Uncle Jim accuses John of lying, while danger exists only in the form of some barely glimpsed burglars, whom wily Titty soon outfoxes.
While her nickname drew guffaws from generations of schoolchildren – to the point where a 1965 BBC adaptation changed her name to “Kitty” – it’s Titty who displays the most active imagination (“this cross marks the spot where cannibals ate six missionaries!”) and emotional growth.
She wins the day by stealing the Amazon ship all by herself, finds the stolen treasure chest and wins the ultimate accolade from Nancy: “By thunder, able seaman, I wish you were in my crew!”
Look out for a charming scene where Titty imagines herself as Robinson Crusoe, with sound effects conjuring an imaginary storm and wild beasts. Things turn poignant when mum (Virginia McKenna) arrives to play Man Friday, clearly missing her children.
The tricks and counter-schemes the kids devise are fiendishly clever, and everything ends in a great big, glorious sea battle/pillow fight, wrapped up with a huge feast of cake, ice cream, jelly and ginger pop.
Director Claude Whatham clearly revels in the innocence of a 1920s summer when the four swallows and two amazons embark upon their adventures – clearly pre-Health & Safety as campfires, bow and arrow assaults, and firework pranks loom large – and some of his enthusiasm is clearly evident in the willing performances of his young cast.
He also makes the most of the beautiful sun-dappled Lake District scenery, but the story stubbornly refuses to come to life and, sadly, few modern youngsters will relate to such old-fashioned game-playing.
A 2016 remake captured the essence of the author’s vision whilst telling a significantly altered story.