This is the latest version of Arthur Ransome’s classic children’s adventure tale first published in1930 and which over the years has been adapted for film, television, radio and even staged as a musical. I never read the original as a child, so I come to it with an open mind but those of you with fond and fixed memories of the book from your own youth may perhaps object to some of writer Andrea Gibb’s embellishments to the plot.
The story concerns the four Walker children – John the eldest (Dane Hughes), Susan (Orla Hill), Tatty (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen) and the youngest Roger (Bobby McCulloch). There’s also a baby but she doesn’t do anything so leave her out. The children, who are on holiday with their mother (MacDonald) in the Lake District, persuade her to let them go sailing on the lake in their boat The Swallow and camping on a nearby island. Here they encounter rival child claimants to the territory in the form of local sisters Nancy and Peggy Blackett (Seren Hawkes and Hannah Jayne Thorp), who like to play pirates in their boat The Amazon, and a bit of rivalry sets in .
That pretty much is the plot of the original. Gibb has changed the year of the action to 1935, making the Second World War and the political situation leading up to it imminent and giving the fact that the children’s absent father is a British navy captain stationed in Hong Kong an uneasy tinge. More importantly she has drawn on Ransome’s own experiences as a journalist and spy for the British in the Russian revolutions. So the Hackett sisters’ uncle James Flint (Spall), who is merely a grumpy and annoying adult in the original, now becomes a British agent who is being chased by two sinister Russian spies, Lazslov (Scott) and his sidekick, played by Dan Skinner. Which gives the children something a bit meatier to deal with in terms of adventure.
Several critics objected to these additions when the film was released theatrically. My view may be coloured by the fact that I am a bit of a fan of both Scott and Spall but I would also argue that without this element, which is not by any means over violent, today’s youngsters might have found it tricky to get involved with four middle class children, who speak properly, spend their time mucking about in boats, claim territory like right little Empire builders, short of planting the British flag, and go off on adventures without any mobile phones for adults to keep track of them with. The extra plot element also gives the film a good shape and pace. There is one more adjustment to Ransome’s original that I should mention. The third child, originally named Titty, as been daftly changed to Tatty to suit modern sensitivities.
I have named the adults at the top of this page, as they are the ones you will have heard of but despite the addition of spies Spall and Scott, the children are still very much at the heart of the action for young viewers to identify with. In supporting roles Hynes and Enfield play the farming couple with whom the Walkers are staying – she is amusingly grumpy and he uncharacteristically quiet – and Fenella Woolgar is the nosy postmistress. The very quietness of the village where the postman delivers the mail on his bike tells you we are in a different era while the lakes and surrounding countryside are very prettily shot – a bit of a scenic holiday for the viewer.
Extras include feature interviews with members of the cast, a couple more short documentary features about the “making of” and some deleted scenes, which are really interesting and add to our understanding of the film makers’ take on Ransome’s story. Some of them also might have been dropped though because they have a boom in shot!
Review by Carol Allen
Released on DVD and Blue Ray 12th December