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
Swallows And Amazons Forever! (Coot Club & The Big Six) SPECIAL EDITION [DVD]

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.

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

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

  1. Hi Sophie! I think the reason you’d always pictured Dot as blonde was that in Big Six, there’s a line about “straw-coloured plaits.” I forget the chapter’s number, but it was the scene where she and Dick forst arrive.

  2. That’s right. I wanted to find a girl with an open face and with thick long blonde hair, who at thirteen was still a child – but we couldn’t! Caroline was dark, but Arthur Ransome did wasnt all children to be able to identiy with the characters and wasn’t that fussed about hair colour. As it happened the twims we found, and Andrew Morgan wanted to cast had blode hair so we ended up with balance. The lead part of Dorothea is not easy and I think Caroline did well, coping with all the boys as well as William.

    1. Thank you! I am aware that not everyone was happy with the casting of individual characters but as a complete cast they came together well. In the end final casting decisions lay with Andrew Morgan, the director. I had found slightly older twins with auburn hair to play Port and Starboard but Andrew fell in love with the Matthews sisters who were adorable and proved brilliant to work with. I think all the children’s performances were convincing. None of them had ever acted before.

      1. I agree (with the exception of Dick perhaps. But I’m sure I couldn’t have done any better).
        For me, the Death and Glory boys were the best of the lot. They were completely natural and believable in their roles.
        I love the series and still watch them regularly.
        I’ve been on the Broads a couple of times and it is sad that there is so little made of the Arthur Ransome connection to the area. You can still find some of the locations that are seen in the programs. Even the Death and Glory was moored, out of the way, going to waste. I’m led to believe that new life had been breathed into her and she might be taking part in future Swallows and Amazons events but that could be wrong.

        1. Oh, the Death and Glories were lovely boys. So many great kids auditioned for the parts. I ended up running what amounted to days of acting workshops before it was obvious which lads were right for the parts and would be confident out on the water. When it came to finding older boys with Norfolk acents for the difficult little parts of the baddies there was far less choice, but I think the young actors did well. They were all under sixteen and had never worked before. I only wish that we’d been able to find all the children in Norfolk.

      2. Yes, I had heard in Horning not long after the programme was made, that Andrew ‘fell in love’ with the Matthews sisters — great pity. Otherwise, the general view that I have heard expressed by enthusiasts was that the cast were well chosen and Dot’s hair did not matter at all.

        1. The Matthews twins were lovely girls, confident and easy to work with. Their performances were faultless but they were far too pretty to play Port and Starboard. Looking back, I wish we had cut their hair into 1930s bobs. They were only 11, whilst all the other children were actually aged 13, playing a bit younger. The twins do come across as too tiny to be hitching lifts across East Anglia – but, do you know, the real girls had enough character to do just that. They were absolutely adorable.

        2. Dear Roger, I have just quoted you extensively on a post about the boats of ‘Coot Club’. I hope this is OK! I have plugged your book, hyper-linking it to the Amazon page so it might result in a few sales. You must have a look at my mother-in-laws 1939 photos in my latest Blog. Are these ‘Fairway’ yachts?

  3. We have loved reading your posting and if their are any more stories of the filming we would love to hear. Last summer we sailed Teasel from Hunters boatyard. The Death and Glory is moored at Belaugh and the Margolletta is in a shed at Wayford Bridge. Thank you for the pleasure.
    Phil, Charlotte and Victoria

  4. Sophie! Yet more riches! I was preparing to despair as you finally drew to the end of the S&A film accounts. This sort of details is EXACTLY what we love. And Dot fitted perfectly, and the D&Gs. Are we going to get a piece about William??

  5. Sophie
    So glad you have gone on to tell us about Coot club and The Big Six. I never even found these until I was an adult (not sure if we got them here in Australia in the 80s) and at 42 I love em! My kids have watched them at least 6 times, but me a few more than that..
    I really don’t understand criticisms of the cast as everybody just did their part so well I thought. What was the story with the boats used? Were they from hire companies on the Broads? Good to hear from someone that at least some of the boats are still going strong. Is Titmouse still floating around somewhere?
    Where on the Broads was most of the filming done?
    Your doing a great thing writing all this down here for present and future S&A buffs
    Thanks so much 🙂

    1. Yes, I think that all the boats were hired locally in Norfolk. The Titmouse is still around – I’ll try to post a photo of her. We used most of the locations mentioned in the books, which was fun, and a lovely village that is up a dead-end lane, so was free from traffic.

      I am so glad that you are enjoying the story of our efforts to adapt the books for the screen – never an easy task! Do you have an Arthur Ransome Society in Australia? We have had nearly 800 Australians visiting this Blog alone – ie 800 different Aussie PCs, which may mean more actual viewers.

  6. One day I’ll get over there and hire a yacht on the Broads….. .

    Yes, but its based in Victoria which is a few thousand kms away from where I am on the Gold Coast in Queensland. The best I can do is fly my S&A burgee on my dinghy! Eight Hundred Aussie PCs visiting your blog does not surprise me – plenty of sailors here and many sailors feed their kids/grandkids on Ransome. 🙂

    1. You could probably hire the Teasel! One of the others who has left a comment just has.
      Come and sail ‘Swallow’, the dinghy we used in the film.
      She’s in the Holly Howe boatshed right now.

  7. Wow, just looked at the visitor location details – fascinating! I confess that I accounted for most of the Turkey log-ons – Bursa, Istanbul, Canakkale are me…..

  8. Teasel is Lullaby at Hunters Yard,Ludham, Norfolk and Titmouse can be found in their shed. The boatbuilder at Hunters put the cabin on the Death and Glory and said she was quite unstable. Some of the filming was at Horning and Breydon was Womack Water with false fog. Is this correct Sophie?

  9. Port and Starboard were fab I am only sorry they never appeared in The Big Six at all. Dick wasn’t great but he didn’t have to be

    1. It was a pity the twins did not appear in ‘The Big Six’ but they are not in the book. As it was, the girls were too young to legally do anymore television work that year. They were brilliant and did go on to be in another production.

  10. I thought the whole cast in ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever’ were great. Thanks for giving us some details on their auditioning and training, Sophie.

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