Monthly Archives: December 2012

Happy New Year!

Amazon with the pontoon

2013 will be the 40th Anniversary of making of the EMI movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Forty years! Where did they go to? I must have been looking the other way.

Everyone wants to know what we are all doing now. I am only in touch with Richard Pilbrow, Suzanna Hamilton, Virginia McKenna, Lucy Batty of Bank Ground Farm and my own family. Please do send me an e-mail if you were involved in the film in anyway. It would be wonderful to hear from you. I am sophie@sophieneville.co.uk

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Filed under 1973, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, David Wood, 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

A steam roller in Horning for the 1983 BBC drama serial of ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’

 
Mary Soan, Susannah Buxton, Sam Kelly and Penny Fergusson in 1983
 
Assistant director Mary Soan, Costume designer Susannah Buxton, Actor Sam Kelly and Make-up artist Penny Fergusson when filming on location in Norfolk in 1983
 
“I had a telephone call one day from a man working for the B.B.C. he said he had heard I had a steam roller, if so could I take it to Horning to appear in  a film they were about to shoot in the broads area.”

I have just been sent this extract, copied word-for-word from Jimmy Nicholson’s autobiography I kept a Troshin’ originally published in 1989 (by S.J. Nicholson).

“The title was ‘Swallows and Amazons’ which was shown on B.B.C.2.  So on the appointed day I loaded the roll onto our low loader and Geoffrey, our lorry driver, took it to Horning.  I unloaded it near the Swan Hotel about eight thirty, some of the people were already there, the people in charge rolled up about nine.  Then a coach load came, there was also a coach full of costumes. The young lady who was helping to organise things said I had better change some of my things into old time dress, as the film was supposed to have been in older times.  So I went in the bus where all these costumes hung. The young lady in there said I had better change my shirt and boots and wear another hat, an old fashioned cap. So I pulled my shirt off she handed me one of these old ones. I said, ‘What about my trousers, do you want me to take them off!’
She laughed and said, ‘No I think yours will do.’
I thought what a shame.
Another young lady said she thought I should have my hair cut. So I sat on a chair on the Swan car park and had a hair do. The next thing they were queueing up for breakfast from a mobile canteen. The lady in charge said, ‘Come on Jimmy.’ she had learned my name by now. I said, ‘I’ve had mine.’
She said, ‘Never mind have another one. ‘Which I did and had a full English breakfast.
By the time they wanted me to start operating it was time to stop for coffee and other drinks. When I did start I had to drive the roll up the road passed the cameras. I did this about a dozen times, I had to time this with some children running down a side road to see me go passed. By now it was lunch time so I joined the queue again and had another cooked meal.
After having a pint in the Swan the lady in charge said, ‘I think we’ve finished with you now.’
I thought what a shame,  I could put up with this for a week.”

Jimmy was obviously very much taken by all the girls working for BBC television on the drama serial of Arthur Ransome’s books ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’. When we made the EMI movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 the only female member of the actual film crew had been the ‘Continuity Girl’ or script supervisor. In ten years things had changed. Joe Waters, our producer, aimed at having a 50/50 ratio of men and women on his production team and crew. This was a good policy and created an atmosphere that was so full of fun the children thrived.

The young lady ‘who was helping to organise things’ would have been our incredibly efficient AFM, or Assistant Floor Manager, Mary Soan. She would have been known as a ‘Second Assistant Director’ on a feature film. I should explain that in BBC Drama, stage management roles had evolved from equivalent in the theatre, so her job also involved being responsible for the ‘action props’ and action vehicles – in this case a 1930’s steam roller. I am sure Jimmy would have been quite taken by Mary – she was very pretty, with thick blonde hair, an ever radiant smile on her face, a Motorola on her hip. Whilst I went on to direct television programmes for the BBC in the late ’80s, Mary became a Production Manager. It wasn’t long before she went  freelance as a First Assistant Director and started working on the most incredible movies ~ Pearl Harbor (2001), Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), The Chronicles of Narnia (2005), Stardust (2007) and Skin (2008) as well as TV mini-series such as Place of Execution(2008).

Coot Club - Helena

Helena on the Norfolk Boards in 1983

‘The young lady’ in the costume bus, who was happy for Jimmy to keep his own trousers on, must have been Helena,  the assistant costume designer, while the young lady who thought he should have a 1930’s short-back and sides, would have been our ever laughing Make-up Assistant Penny Fergusson.

Assistant Make-up Designer Penny Fergusson with John Woodvine who played PC Tedder in 'Coot Club', 1983

Assistant Make-up Designer Penny Fergusson with John Woodvine who played PC Tedder in ‘Coot Club’, 1983

Penny Fergusson originally trained at the Royal Ballet School. What would Jimmy have said had he known he was having his hair cut by a girl who had performed at the Royal Opera House and the Venice Film Festival before dancing her way across Europe with Pan’s People?

‘The lady in charge’, who gave Jimmy permission to go was probably Liz Mace, our senior Production Manager. Sadly I don’t have a photograph of her, but she was certainly in charge of our film schedule, logistics and locations as well as Health and Safety on set.  You will have seen her name on the end-credits of BBC drama serials such as The Ondein Line, When the Boat Comes In, Secret Army, on Doctor Who, the Police series  Juliet Bravo and All Creatures Great and Small. She worked with me in Ealing on a series of Thinkabout Science before returning to work at Elstree Studios making numerous episodes of the soap opera Eastenders.

Jimmy concluded his tale by adding:

“When the film was shown on television you could just see the roll go passed and that was it, but I did enjoy myself and I enjoyed it even more when I received a cheque for the job.”
Coot Club - the cycle shop

Mark Page, Jake Coppard, Richard Walton & Henry Dimbleby filming at Itteringham Village Shop in Norfolk in 1983. Click on the photo to see the location today.

 Where was this bike shop location?  Was it in Horning? I remember it being a set, rather than a real shop but the boys were deeply interested in the window display.

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Filed under 1983, Arthur Ransome, Biography, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, truelife story

How Julian Fellowes and Andrew Morgan launched a creative partnership in 1983 ~

Julian Fellowes as Jerry in the BBC TV Movie of Arthur Ransome's 'Coot Club', 1983 ~ photo: Sophie Neville

Julian Fellowes playing Jerry in the BBC adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Coot Club’

Julian Fellowes’ finest moment as an actor was playing Jerry, one of the hated Hullabaloos, in the BBC adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s book Coot Club, or that is how I’d cast my vote. He stood on the bows of the Margoletta, as she motored at speed towards the camera, relishing every moment as the leader of the callous and nouveau-riche baddies of the Norfolk Broads. He did so, wearing the most revolting mustache.

John Harding with Sarah Crowden ~ photo: Sophie Neville

John Harding as Ronald and Sarah Crowden as Livy, Hullabaloos in ‘Coot Club’

Julian was flanked on one side by the incredibly tall glamorous actors, John Harding and Sarah Crowden, and on the other by David Timson and Angela Curran who, it has to be said, are both on the short side.

Coot Club - a Hullabaloo

David Timson resting whilst playing James, the Hullabaloo in ‘Coot Club’

Descending into the cabin of the Margoletta, and seeing them altogether in their fabulous 1930’s boating costumes was breathtaking and comic all at once. On the first day they were called, the Hullabaloos were all made-up and ready for a scene that we never had time to shoot. Andrew Morgan walked along the river bank at the end of the day, in his  sweatshirt and jeans, to join us in the Margoletta, apologising deeply for putting them out. But nobody minded. We’d spent a lovely afternoon, moored in the reeds near Horsey Mere, just getting to know one another. David Dimbleby had come up to see how his son Henry was doing and everyone was full of chatter.

David Dimbleby and Henry Dimbleby with one of the Matthews twins

David Dimbleby with his son Henry Dimbleby and one of the Matthews twins, lying on the river bank next to the Margoletta up near Horsey Mere in 1983

Julian Fellowes’ time spent bobbing about on the Norfolk Broads was pivotal, because, as I understand it, the working relationship forged with our director Andrew Morgan led to great things. In 1987 Andrew cast Julian as Brother Hugo in his Si-Fi adventure series  Knights of God . John Woodvine and Patrick Troughton, who were with us on the Broads appearing in Swallows and Amazons Forever!,  also had leading parts in this, but it was Julian who started to write.

In about 1990 Andrew and Julian began to work together as director and writer on a number of costume dramas for the BBC. Little Sir Nicholas was followed by an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel Little Lord Fauntleroy  in 1994/5. We had lunch with them when they were filming at Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire. I was mildly surprised to find a writer on location but it was clear Julian was adding more to the story than just typed pages of the script. When he held up an antique powder- compact and started telling Andrew about the cultural history of women applying make-up in public, I realised there was obviously a creative partnership in operation. They also collaborated on a similar BBC book adaptation, producing a six-part drama serial of Mark Twain’s book, The Prince and the Pauper, which was broadcast in 1996. For this, Andrew and Julian were nominated for a BAFTA Children’s Award. The success of these period dramas established Julian as a producer and screen writer. His next hit was the movie Gosford Park, 2001 for which he was rightly awarded an Oscar. Since then the screenplays have tumbled out: Vanity Fair, Piccadilly Jim, Separate Lies, The Young Victoria, From Time to Time, Romeo and Juliet, Crocked House and Titanic for television. Did it really all start on the Margoletta, up near Horsey Mere?

I have just learnt that Sarah Crowden appeared in Downton Abbey as Lady Manville in 2012. Isn’t it wonderful how things come round? If you go to see the film, Quartet, you’ll see quite a bit of Sarah sitting at various pianos. As the credits role they show pictures of the musicians in their heyday. A beautiful black and white photograph of Sarah comes up with the caption ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’.

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Filed under 1983, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Biography, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

Filming ‘Coot Club’ & ‘The Big Six’ for BBC TV in 1983 ~

Coot Club

Caroline Downer, Henry Dimbleby, Richard Walton weighing William the pug dog

I saw so many children when I was casting Coot Club and The Big Six that I could have left the BBC and set myself up as an independent casting director, but I was twenty-two and all I wanted to do was to join the film crew on location in Norfolk. I was just not sure how.

Andrew Morgan was a lovely director with two children the same age as those in our cast. To my surprise, I met him with his family one weekend on Port Meadow near Oxford. They had a narrow-boat moored at Bossom’s Boatyard where my father kept his steamboat Daffodil. Arthur Ransome would have approved.

Andrew had previously directed action dramas such as Secret Army, Blakes 7, Buccaneer, Triangle, Kings Royal and two episodes of Squadron, which Joe Waters had produced. Andrew, who was good at delegating, later declared himself, as he cued the steam train on the North Norfolk Railway, to be a director who specialised in films about different forms of transport. He very graciously asked me if I would work on location in the formal role of chaperone to the children whilst preparing their performances for the scenes ahead. He anticipated being out on the water in a boat without enough time to go through the children’s lines with them.

Coot Club -Sophie Neville with David Dimbleby

Sophie Neville with Henry’s father David Dimbleby in Norfolk, 1983

Once the casting was complete and licenses for each child safely lodged with various education authorities I took a weeks’ leave before returning to the production office on Shepherd’s Bush Green, where I helped book transport and accommodation. Filming on the Norfolk Broads for three months took quite a bit of preparation. While Joe and Andrew were casting the adult parts, we had to find a local tutor, buy life jackets and make numerous arrangements idiosyncratic to our particular production. The most exciting of these was commissioning the animal handler, Jan Gray of Janimals, to find a pug dog to play William. She bought a puppy so that he could be accustomed to his character name, travelling by boat, working with children and specifically trained to walk across mud. William had no idea of the stardom that awaited him. He ended up spending a great deal of his life in Gretchen Franklin’s arms playing Willy in Eastenders.

The day came when I packed up the little room I had been renting in Shepherd’s Bush from the actress Zelah Clarke  and drove to the Dimblebys’ house in Putney to collect Henry. As he had just passed his Common Entrance he’d been let off school earlier than most thirteen-year-olds and we motored up to Norwich in a jubilant mood, singing most of the way. Whilst most of the production team and crew had found holiday cottages, I was to live at Sprowston Manor, the unit hotel with Caroline Downer, Henry and the other actors including the Matthews twins who travelled up with their mother. It was terribly grand. We had small quiet rooms at the back.

Coot Club

One of the Matthews twins having her hair plaited by Make-up Artist Penny Fergusson

Liz Mace, our production manager, had taken my advice and scheduled ‘running around scenes’ for the first few days of filming, so that the children could get used to working with the film crew. The whole series was shot on 16mm by a wonderful, patient lighting-cameraman called Alec Curtis. We were very lucky to get him. He’d just finished The Kenny Everett Television Show and  had worked on a huge number of well known comedy dramas ~ The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin with Leonard Rossiter, Fawlty Towers for John Cleese, The Morecambe & Wise Show, Sorry!, To the Manor Born and a BBC thriller called Scorpion. Alec had made God’s Wonderful Railway and was more than happy working with Andrew on the Bluebell Line for the opening scenes of Coot Club. Filming from a boat presented many more challenges, not least simply keeping the camera horizontal, but Alec was ever patient and kind. And always wearing a sun hat.

'The Big Six' - The D&Gs with Andrew Morgan

Mark Page, Nicholas Walpole and Jake Coppard as the crew of the Death and Glory with director Andrew Morgan and Cameraman Alec Curtis, 1983

I had drawn Andrew endless diagrams of Claude Whatham’s camera pontoon, built with a flat surface to accommodate camera track, that used to make Swallows and Amazons in the Lake District. However a more normal and faster vessel was chosen as the camera boat for the Broads. It had to travel around quite a bit since a far greater variety of locations was required than we had in Cumbria. We also had a couple of glass fibre run-around boats which would sometimes be used for the camera, especially in backwaters too shallow for the larger boat.

The Big Six - showing the runaround boat ~ photo: Sophie Neville

Alec Curtis and Andrew Morgan filming theDeath and Glory , with Peter Markham as First Assistant ,and Jill Searle looking after the boats, on one of the few rainy days on location at Gays Staithe, 1983

 

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Filed under 1983, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

Casting children for the BBC adaptations of Arthur Ransome’s books ‘Coot Club’ & ‘The Big Six’ in 1983 ~

Sophie Neville with Port and Starboard in 'Coot Club'

Sophie Neville with Port and Starboard in ‘Coot Club’

Looking back, it was a complete miracle that I able to work on the BBC adaptations of the Arthur Ransome books, but in 1983 I spent nine months working on Coot Club and The Big Six, released in 1984 as an eight-part drama serial under the generic title ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever’ . Awarded a BAFTA nomination, it is available on DVD today.

Swallows and Amazons Forever! Coot Club children cast by Sophie Neville

In 1982 I graduated from university and entered the BBC as a researcher on the General Traineee Scheme. I had so enjoyed working for Ronnie Barker on The Two Ronnies that my initial aim was to go into the Department of Light Entertainment.  I joined the Russell Harty team, which had a series of thirty-minute shows broadcast live from a studio at London Bridge. I actually invited Susan George on the show without realising she had played Kitty Walker (Titty) in the black and white BBC drama serial of Swallows and Amazons in 1963.  Since The Russell Harty Show ended at the same time as my contract, I started looking around for a programme strand that was right for me.

The Unit Manager on our team heard that BBC Drama Series and Serials had acquired the rights to the Arthur Ransome books and suggested I went to see the  Producer, Joe Waters.  I knew we’d get on well as soon as I spoke to him on the phone.  Joe was always laughing. Although he’d made numerous episodes of The Enigma Files and Squadron, as well as Police series such as Z-Cars and Dixon of Dock Green, Joe had never filmed with boats and was interested to see the photographs of the camera pontoon devised for Claude Whatham in the Lake District. Joe explained that he had plans to film a number of the Arthur Ransome books but decided to start with the pair set in Norfolk and already had scripts adapted by Michael Robson.

The first miracle was that, although he had a full production team booked, Joe needed someone to help find children who could handle boats confidently on the Norfolk Broads. In the 1980’s drama directors at the BBC were expected to do their own casting, but Joe’s director, Andrew Morgan, was still editing another series and wasn’t going to have enough time to cast the children’s parts.  This had to be settled at least seven weeks before filming as Education Authorities request six weeks to process licenses required for children to work as actors. The second miracle was that Marcia Wheeler, the BBC Department Manager would not have given the job to me had I not been able to point out that the Graduate Trainee Scheme was paying my salary.  It was January and she had a choice of permanent staff available.

Coot Club - Death and Glories

~Jake Coppard, Mark Page and Nicholas Walpole as the Death and Glory boys ~ photo: Sophie Neville 1983

I set to work, scouring the schools of Norfolk, as we needed boys with local accents to play Pete, Joe and Bill – the Death and Glory boys, as well Roger, little Malcomb and youths who could take on the roles of George Owden and his side-kick Ralph as well as Brian and Rob.

Coot Club Baddies

Boys virtually cast for me by the teachers of Norfolk ~ Dean Harkness who played Brian and Sy Rainsbury who played Rob

I must have written to the Head teachers of every single secondary school in the country, and visited most of them. I managed to find really bright boy to play Dick Callum up in Norfolk, but although I auditioned a number of girls in Norwich, Caroline Downer, who played Dot Callum, and the Farland twins were represented by a London agent.

Coot Club - Richard Walton

Richard Walton, who was cast as Dick Callum, in Norfolk in 1983

You wouldn’t expect it to be difficult, but I couldn’t find a boy to taking the leading role of Tom Dudgeon. It was essential he was out-going and could sail well. I dredged school after school, meeting literally hundreds of children. Joe had found a very nice lad who went to a London stage school but he was fifteen and had never been in a boat. He rather wanted to give the part to Jason Lake, Diana Dor’s son, but he too, admitted that he couldn’t sail. We were getting very close to the deadline and I was almost in despair when I took my cousin to see a musical in the West End. During the interval I turned round and saw a boy, perfect for the part of Tom, sitting right behind me.

‘Do you by any chance sail?’ I asked.

‘Oh, yes,’ he replied, ‘We’ve got a cabin cruiser. I often take the helm.’

I went to meet his parents and found myself looking up at David Dimbleby, asking if his son would consider taking the lead in the Arthur Ransome series.

Henry Dimbleby in 1983

Henry Dimbleby who played Tom Dudgeon in 1983 ~ photo: Sophie Neville

Casting parts for book adaptations is never easy.  Arthur Ransome described Dot as having ‘straw-coloured plaits’ and portrayed Port and Starboard as being robust Tom-boys. Every detail may not have  fulfilled but in the end the right girls for the parts floated to the surface. Andrew Morgan was thrilled, appreciative of the fact that finding identical twins of the right age who could swim, sail and act convincingly was not easy. Caroline was the only girl I had met with hair long enough and thick enough to make into the plaits Ransome had drawn in his illustrations of Dorothea. She was dark and had no experience of boats but convinced us she was right in so many other ways that we offered her the part and sent her off to learn how to sail. She sailed across the Solent, single-handed and alone on her first lesson, gaining enough confidence to easily cope on the Norfolk Broads.

Caroline Downer as Dot Callum

Caroline Downer as Dorothea Callum in ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’, 1983

Since we were scheduled to make nearly four hours of television, we had three months of filming ahead of us. The six children who had leading parts in both books, legally had to be over the age of thirteen to work for such a long period of time. My job had been to find thirteen-year-olds who looked younger.  During the audition period, Andrew and Joe needed to see how well the children could act in the space of a few minutes. I had Anna Scher to thank for teaching me how to demonstrate this.

Anna Scher had been Suzanna Hamilton’s drama teacher and agent. In 1968 she’d started a wonderful after-school theatre for children, based in Islington, north London.  I knew Claude Whatham had respected her enormously and asked if I could sit in on some of her classes. Anna worked fast, getting her students to concentrate and giving them a number of improvisation exercises. I had directed plays at university, so was used to getting good performances out of young people, but she was an expert, explaining that conflict was the key, ‘Drama is conflict!’ she’d declare.

Coot Club Audition

Children who were short-listed for parts in ‘Coot Club’ having lunch at a final audition held in Norwich in 1983. The boys who played Joe and Pete are in the foreground.

When I auditioned children, I extended this by telling them they had to be able to list ten issues for the argument they were putting forward and that I wanted to see each point worked into the drama. For example,

‘You walk into your brother’s room and catch him smoking. I want you to try to persuade him it is stupid and give him ten reasons why he should quit.’

The boy playing the brother had to find ten reasons why he should be able to smoke if he wanted to. Joe Waters hadn’t seen this before but agreed that it worked much better than asking children to read scripts. It amused him. The kids who ended up playing Bill, Pete and Joe of the Death and Glory, responded well both to Joe’s laughter and exercises that required their own input. Despite never having had drama lessons they were able to prove themselves capable of delivering convincing performances.

But, would they be able to get the lines of a script out, whilst handling a boat on open water?

Coot Club - Joe Waters with Henry DimbJleby

Producer Joe Waters with Henry Dimbleby who played Tom Dudgeon in ‘Coot Club’ & ‘the Big Six’ ~ photo: Sophie Neville

One secret was that I asked all the children from Norfolk who were short-listed if they would like to work as Extras on the series even if they didn’t land a part. These children were issued with licences and could have been called upon if any of the cast had to back down at the last-minute.  If you look carefully you can see them  in some of the busier scenes.

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Filed under Acting, Arthur Ransome, Biography, Claude Whatham, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

Beyond, but because of, ‘Swallows and Amazons’ ~

Jan Leeming, Sophie Neville and Daphne Neville

Jan Leeming, Sophie Neville and Daphne Neville at a charity event in about 1975.

One of the reasons why I did not continue acting as a child was that it seemed rather more important to concentrate on my education. Another reason was that I simply grew too tall. I was all legs, like a foal.

Crossroads

Appearing as Kevin’s sister in the wedding episodes of the ATV Soap opera ‘Crossroads’. This continuity photograph shows how tall I’d grown. I wasn’t wearing high heels.

After a few years, the fact that I had leading parts in both Swallows and Amazons and The Copter Kids meant surprisingly little professionally, except that I was able to gain a much coveted Equity card. In the late 1970’s Trade Unions were very strong in Britain, holding the film and television industry under a ‘closed shop’ policy. If you were not a Union member you could not work, but you could not gain a Union card without having worked professionally. Even though I had taken starred in two movies and had appeared in a number of television dramas, I had only just worked for enough days to get a ‘Provisional Equity membership’ – although another reason for this might have been because I was still only sixteen. Virginia McKenna’s lovely daughter Louise, who I had met at the premiere, was working as a dancer in Spain to gain an Equity card. Meanwhile, directors in the UK could not find young actors in Equity to cast in their dramas. Not being fussy about how I looked, I volunteered to play the part of a boy in the HTV movie Kidnapped. 

Sophie Neville in the HTV movie 'Kidnapped'

Sophie Neville on location at Bisley in Gloucestershire, appearing as a messenger boy in the HTV movie ‘Kidnapped’ in about 1977.

Although the snow was not real, I nearly froze to death.  I must have appeared a more than twenty television dramas, wearing ever more uncomfortable costumes.  Wearing wigs was the worst thing. They can be terribly itchy.

Sherlock Holmes

Sophie Neville in a corset for ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’

Concentrating on academic work was certainly a warmer way to spend the day. I ploughed on with my studies only accepting work that I was offered close to where we lived. The exception was the Two Ronnies, which was recorded on the south coast but it was an opportunity not to be missed. I was about nineteen and had an amusing part in their long running story of Charley Farley and Piggy Malone – The Band of Slaves.

The Two Ronnies - Charley Farley and Piggy Malone

Sophie Neville, second from left, on location at Southampton Docks, appearing in The Two Ronnies for the BBC in about 1979

Since I was cast by Paul Jackson, the Producer, I hadn’t realised that Ronnie Barker would be directing the drama. It was the first time that I had acted with an actor/director, which was slightly tricky when I had my arms around him. The whole experience was surreal – and good fun. Ronnie had a wonderful costume designer who amused Ronnie by pouring us into outrageous outfits, including commodious Yashmaks.  She gave me little round spectacles.  Since I put on a Southern American accent I thought, ‘No one will ever recognise me in this part,’ – but they did.The series ended with a large wooden crate being lowered by a crane from a ship on Southampton docks. One side of the crate fell open and I marched out playing For all the Saints on a trombone, followed by all these ladies dress in pink. I’m holding a tuba in this shot but it was swapped for a trombone. My heel got stuck in one of the tram lines on the dockside but I kept marching on.

Sophie Neville in The Two Ronnies

Sophie Neville playing a trombone for Ronnie Barker in the Two Ronnies

My mother would have loved me to have followed her dream and try for RADA, where she was a student in the late 1950’s. Instead I was accepted by the University of Durham where I read Anthropology and made a number of very good friends.

In the summer of 1980 we went to see Virginia McKenna who was staring opposite Yule Brynner in the musical of The King and I in the West End. We would never have gone backstage if we hadn’t known her so well, if I hadn’t played her daughter in Swallows and Amazons. Virginia needed someone to look after her family in the country, while she was on the London stage. She wrote to ask my mother if she could recommend a cook-housekeeper. It was this domestic role I took on for the long university vacation, armed with a my school cookery book. It was just the Susan-ish job I needed to ground me. Bill Travers, Ginny’s husband, was working at home for much of the time, developing a screenplay for a film set in Africa.  Her son Will Travers had just returned from working on the crew of a movie made in the Nongorogro Crater in Tanzania, and, while her daughter Louise was still dancing in Spain, her second son was at boarding school, her youngest at day school. My feet did not touch the ground.

I couldn’t complain. Virginia hardly slept, and yet due to her obscure hours she could only ever see her youngest son when he was sleeping. She spent sixteen months at the London Palladium, with numerous other demands on her time such as performing at the Royal Variety Performance at the Theatre Royal in Dury Lane. While Yule Brynner had a bodyguard she would drive back though the night in her little blue car.

In her autobiography  The Life in my Years Virginia describes how The King and I  proved one of the highlights of her career. Yul Brynner was a complete perfectionist, which could make life hard, but she welcomed the discipline he bought to the theatre.  You don’t need to watch much of this clip to see  how demanding he could be ~

Almost as soon as I gained my Full Equity Union Membership, I decided that I really didn’t want to devote my life to acting.  After I finished working for Virginia McKenna, London Weekend Television came to make a drama called Dark Secret,  a two-part Sunday Night Thriller, shot at my parents’ house in the Cotswolds. Christopher Hodson, the director, thought it would be amusing if we turned up and knocked on the front door in the final scene, so I am regrettably credited is ‘Member of family party’ along with my mother.

Sophie Neville in 'Dark Secret'

Sophie Neville looking scary in The Sunday Night Thriller ‘Dark Secret’ for London Weekend Television in 1980

I’d actually been employed to help the Designer and his assistant modify our house in line with the story. I remember running errands for the Prop-buyer, who had no idea how to acquire action props of a rural nature such as dead rabbits. I got on so well with the LWT technicians that I decided that working on the crew was far more fulfilling that standing in front of the camera with an itchy hair-do. In 1982 I made a decision to opt for a career in television production. What I did not know is how soon Arthur Ransome would come back into my life.

For further details on the dramas I appeared in at this time, please scroll down on my About page.

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Filed under Acting, Autobiography, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, truelife story

‘How did appearing in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ affect your life?’

Wheetabix commercial

Sophie Neville appearing in a Wheetabix commercial directed by Claude Whatham in 1973

I am often asked what impact Swallows and Amazons has had on my life. Because I had been given the lead in a feature film, it naturally lead to ‘more work’, as any actor would put it. I had not expected this but things seemed to come our way. Sadly not riches, as I was still paid as a child, but it was fun and I learnt a great deal.

Wheetabix Commercial with Claude Whatham looking through the camera

Claude Whatham looking down the 35mm camera, giving direction to Ruth Shields and Percy Baxter, while Perry and Tamzin Neville stand by in the foreground.

I think Claude Whatham must have accepted a contract to direct commercials for Wheetabix even before he finished editing the Arthur Ransome movie, because in the summer of 1973, my sisters and I appeared in three lovely period films – each about 3 minutes long – that he made in Gloucestershire at harvest time.

Wheetabix Commercial with Tamzin and Perry

Girls in a Cotswold cornfiled hearvesting stocks of wheat ~ Photo: Martin Neville

Claude had a cottage near Stephen Grendon’s house in the Cotswolds. The location can not have been far from where we all lived as I recognise some of the Extras, who my mother must have gathered together. I can’t remember Sten being on the set but I have a photograph of our erst-while chaperone Jane Grendon in period costume.

Wheetabix Commercial with Jane Grendon

An unknown gentleman with Daphne Neville and Jane Grendon in Gloucestershire while filming a commercial for Claude Whatham in August 1973

We didn’t actually have to eat breakfast cereal. In my film there was simply a shot of me climbing over a gate to discover a cornfield with the voice track, ‘When I was young…’ over a shot of me  and my brother, played by Nicholas Newman, eating individual grains of corn. This was not in the script. We just did as children do.

Wheetabix Commercial directed by Claude Whatham

Nicholas Newman and Sophie Neville eating grains of wheat.

Claude asked me just to stand in the crop and ended the film with a shot of me spinning around, enjoying the feel the ripe heads of corn as they hit my hands, captured against the low light of the setting sun. It was undirected action. Despite having endless lengths of track, the latest camera mounts and a massive 35mm Claude was letting us behave completely naturally – experimenting with improvised drama without even asking us to improvise.

My mother could not appear in the advertisement herself, as she had already been in a Television commercial for cereal and her agent did not want her to accept ‘Extra work’. She was with Bryan Drew, whose assistant Wendy found Mum featured roles in a wide range of television commercials, which paid very well as the repeat fees were good. I remember her taking me with her to the office in Shaftesbury Avenue when Brian Drew lent back in his chair, casually agreeing to represent me.

Sophie Neville in 1976

I went to a number of interviews – rather than auditions – to appear in feature films that I don’t think were ever made. Under Jim Callaghan Inflation was running at 17% in the mid 1970s and money for movies must have been tight in the UK.  This was probably why Richard Pilbrow couldn’t get the financing for an adaptation of Great Northern? 

When I was fifteen, I decided that the old black and white promotion photographs of me playing Titty wouldn’t do and arranged for my own Spotlight photograph to be taken by an old professional – the husband of rather an unpopular teacher at school. I decided exactly what I would wear and how I would sit. My friends and the teacher were amazed but it did the trick. On the strength of this one photograph, and obviously my experience gained on Swallows and Amazons, I was given the leading role of Liz Peters, an archery champion in a CFF adventure movie titled, The ‘Copter Kids alongside Sophie Ward and Jonathan Scott-Taylor.

Sophie Neville in The 'Copter Kids

Jonathan Scott-Taylor, Sophie Neville, Daphne Neville and Sophie Ward in a family adventure movie called ‘The Copter Kids’, 1976

This time my mother played our mother, wearing her red mac and rather tight jeans. Derek Fowlds played our father, an oil prospecting helicopter pilot. At the time he was only really well-known as ‘Mr Derek’, the straight guy for Basil Brush. I was actually asked at the audition whether I thought that girls my age would find him attractive. I was too polite to say that we all prefered Basil. Basil Brush was a fox puppet, but so enormously amusing and spontaneous, he was adored by the whole nation. What happened during the filming was that we all fell in love with the stunt men, Vic Armstrong and Marc Boyle, who were acting in their own right as the Baker Brother baddies. How could we not? Vic spent years playing Harrison Ford’s double. He was the real Indiana Jones. His numerous film credits include Thor, Robin Hood, The Golden Compass, Charlie’s Angels and Empire of the Sun. He is currently working as the stunt coordinator on Jack Ryan, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Chris Pine, Keira Knightley and Kevin Costner. Marc Boyle worked on Star Wars – return of the Jedi, Batman and Alien 3, as well as supervising the stunts on the Bond movie Licence to Kill.

Derek Fowlds went on to do incredibly well, famous for playing Bernard alongside (or under) the late Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne in the classic BBC TV comedies Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister that ran from 1980-1988 and are still adored. Sophie Ward, who played my sister Jill, was so very beautiful that she became a top model, the face of Laura Ashley, before she was sixteen and has never stopped working as an actress, starring in films such as The Young Sherlock Holmes and the TV movie of Joanna Trollop’s novel The Village Affair. Recently, she appeared as Lady Ellen Hoxley in Land Girls and as Rosie Miller in Secret State.

A star-studded cast, but should you rush off to order a DVD of The Copter Kids? Please don’t. It was a dreadful film. One of the stage school children who appeared in the crowd scenes floored me by asking, ‘What’s it like being a film star?’ I became self-conscious, which killed the sparkle and enthusiasm I needed for the role of teenage heroine. And I didn’t even shoot very well. You would be appalled. It was probably only made because being a charity, CFF  – The Childrens Film Foundation,  did have a bit of money in the coffers. A little bit. I was paid so meagerly that Bryan Drew waivered his agent’s commission.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Photography, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

A gift from Claude Whatham ~

From Claude Whatham

A package that arrived out of the blue from Apreys. The card came with very smart box containing a propelling pencil and a bushed steel fountain pen engraved with the words ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I used the pen to write all my A’level exams and most of my essays at university.  Sadly I lost it just before my Finals but I still have the pencil – a hugely appreciated and appropriate gift.

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Filed under Acting, Claude Whatham, Memoir, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story