Great pushings in ~ filming in the Lake District in 1973

Sophie Neville with Terry Needham and the unit radio at Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

I am often asked about my career in acting. I was even asked about it by the crew of  Swallows and Amazons as we climbed in and out of boats.

‘Are you going to be another Bette Davis?’ (I gathered I looked vaguely like her but didn’t really know who she was.)

‘Will you get stuck as a child actress like Shirley Temple?’ (I didn’t really know who she was either.)

There was much speculation. The truth was that I was always really more interested in what was happening behind the camera, and how the story was told, than I was in our performances. I had an empathy for the men who had to keep changing carefully made arrangements when the clouds rolled in. Whilst I was always interested in set dressing I loved aiding and abetting Terry Needham, the second assistant director, with whom we naturally spent a great deal of time. The 2nd July 1973 must have been a busy day for him. A maddening day really.

 

  

Whilst I was in front of the camera, delivering the line that fore-shadows the adventurous section of Arthur Ransome’s story, Terry would have been busy planning who would go out in which boat and when. Just as important really.

Producer Richard Pilbrow and Director Claude Whatham discussing the script in the Capri on Derwentwater. Molly Pilbrow is in the boat with them ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Whilst filming out on the lakes ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was far more complicated than most movies to stage manage. Terry needed  to have what Claude Whatham called his ‘Artistes standing-by, ready on set’ when the set was a boat moored out in a lake. In reality this meant that Ronald Fraser had to wait around on the houseboat with Costume, Make-up and Props, whilst the sun tried to decide whether to come out.

Ronald Fraser playing Captain Flint with Peter Robb-King and Ian Whittaker waiting on the houseboat moored on Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Terry Needham, ever straight forward and prosaic, also had to make provision for a number of extra people who wanted to try and watch the action, notably Albert Clarke, the stills photographer, and the Producer, Richard Pilbrow who was often looking after journalists from major newspapers and magazines. We were making a movie that needed to be well publicised if it was to succeed.

Claude Whatham discussing plans with sailing director David Blagden (in white hat) and Richard Pilbrow with Molly Pilbrow in checked jacket, on the aft deck of the houseboat played by The Lady Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

What made Terry’s job even more demanding than usual was that since we were all under sixteen we still had to complete at least three hours schooling a day. I was only meant to spend three hours a day on set and leave at 5.00pm. This meant that, unlike Ronnie Fraser, we had to be collected from our red bus and taken over the water to our set at the last possible moment when the camera and crew were ready to roll.

Since our set was a clinker-built dinghy wired to a floating pontoon the job of our loyal Lakeland boatmen was particularly important. Can anyone tell me the name of this chap, in the photo below?

Chaperone Jane Grendon on Derwentwater in a Dory with a local boatman

Terry Needham also had to take into consideration the numbers of people licensed to be in each support boat. Although a period film, our clothes were simple, so we didn’t need the contingent of dressers and make-up artists typically demanded by costume dramas. However life jackets were a must and wherever we went one of our licensed chaperones had to come too. Since Mum stayed at our guesthouse in Ambleside with Kit Seymour who was ill with ‘flu that day, it was Jane Grendon came out on the lake with us.  It was her son Sten, who played Roger, who walked off the jetty into the water. Poor Jane was pushed in fully clothed. Suzanna also fell in – or so she claims. What a nightmare for Terry Needham.

Terry Needham with the crew on the Houseboat moored on Derwentwater, Cumbria ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Terry survived to have the most prestigious career in film. Whilst he worked as an assistant director for Stanley Kubrick on The Shining (would Jack Nicholson have been easier to manage than us lot?) Terry was unit manager on Empire of the Sun for Stephen Speilberg and the first assistant director on such classic movies as Full Metal Jacket, Rambo III, A Man for All Seasons, The Field, The Golden Compass and Clash of the Titans. I only list a few of his many credits. He worked for Ridley Scott as Associate Producer and First Assistant on White Squall, G.I.Jane, Gladiator, Hannibal and Black Hawk Down – all gigantium tasks – and was Executive Producer of Red Dragon, and Kingdom of Heaven, again for Ridely Scott. He is still working on movies. What changes he must have seen. I wonder if he can remember that far distant summer spent in the Lake District?

I would not have had the physical strength to follow in Terry’s footsteps. It was his job – plus a bit of work with action props and set dressing – that I found myself busy doing at the BBC when I was an Assistant Floor Manager on big costume dramas. I was exhausted after about four years. The walky-talky I found so attractive aged twelve became rather heavy on my hip. I have a Polaroid photograph of myself looking tired out when working as a Location Manager in Bayswater, kept to remind myself not to accept such work again.   Perhaps I should have taken the Bette Davis route after all. I might have had Terry looking after me again.

You can see Terry Needham with his portable radio at the end of this short 16mm film clip that was shot a couple of days later on Coniston Water. The pushings-in were still all the rage.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

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