It's no surprise that cinema and sailing have never really been comfortable bed-fellows. Movies are optimised for bangs and crashes – the rapid manipulation of the "everyday" into dramatic peril. Sailing is the art of avoiding drama – reefing early and battening down the hatches – or in the words of the Walker children's distant Navy captain father: "Better drowned than duffers..."
Yet for all its evocation of childhood freedom, innocence and imaginative play, Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons is really all about war and conquest. The newcomers, the Walker family, aboard their vessel, Swallow, assume Wildcat Island is unoccupied and are somewhat shocked after making camp to have upset "the natives" – the Blacketts and their ship, Amazon. War breaks out and John Walker, who has studied at the feet of his father, outwits the Amazons, who are under the influence of Captain Flint. John prevails, then wisely makes peace in order to further outwit a greater enemy.
In Ransome's 1930 novel, that greater enemy is a band of rogues overheard plotting at the pub to "do over" Captain Flint's fairly opulent houseboat. The latest film version reimagines Flint as a British spy in possession of top-secret documents, being pursued by Russian agents – a plot device that attracts more weaponry and skulduggery to the Lake District than perhaps fans of the book might be expecting. But although the final resolution requires viewers to suspend their disbelief to an almost unsustainable degree, in many ways, the new version is more historically resonant.
James Turner – AKA Captain Flint – has long been understood as Ransome's alter ego in the Swallows and Amazons series. But Ransome's true connection with the Russian revolution in 1917 has only recently been fully revealed. He was a Russian correspondent for the Manchester Guardian throughout the build-up to the revolution and supplied information to various British secret agencies throughout the revolution and the ensuing civil war. He became romantically involved with Leon Trotsky's private secretary, Evgenia Shelepina, with whom he eventually married and settled down in Tallinn, Estonia. While in Tallinn, he built his first yacht, the Racundra, and sailed with Evgenia back to England where they lived in the Lake District.
Nick Barton, the producer of this latest adaptation (best known for Calendar Girls in 2003) is a lifelong sailor and spent four years preparing for filming in the Lake District in 2015. He was active throughout filming and editing as sailing consultant and the devotion to period detail is a joy to behold. My six-year-old daughter – a novice sailor – and her Grandmother, a long-time devotee of Ransome and experienced ocean cruiser, both loved the film and recommend it highly to anyone. For me, the "Hollywood-style" high-octane drama and gun-slinging grated a bit, as did some of the unnecessary "duffer-ing" from the children while under sail. But this is a genuine addition to the Ransome legend and, tellingly, has the full backing of the Ransome Society.
Look out for the brilliant double-act of Harry Enfield and Jessica Hynes (Spaced) as Mr and Mrs Jackson and, depending on the success of this release (August 19th), Barton is hoping to make a follow-up film of Peter Duck, which features Captain Flint and all six children on a treasure hunt in the Caribbean aboard a two-masted schooner.
Hope to inspire your child to go sailing? Read Get your family boating in 6 steps and How to start your kids dinghy sailing.