30th Anniversary talk on filming ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’

Coot Club - Sophie Neville with Port and Starboard in Coot Club

Unbelievably, thirty years have passed since we started filming the BBC adaptations of Coot Club and The Big Six on location in Norfolk.  We drove up to Norwich on 17th June 1983 and by 3rd July would have been in full swing. It had been my job to cast the children who I was now looking after on location.

Coot Club - the hay wagon

Amazingly, we were to able enjoy three months of almost solid sunshine and had the most wonderful time. The eight-part serial, produced by Joe Waters, was first broadcast in 1984 under the generic title of Swallows and Amazons Forever! This was because Joe was hoping to dramatise other Arthur Ransome books, but sadly they proved too expensive.

The Big Six

The Death and Glory Boys weighing their great fish with Sam Kelly

I gave an illustrated talk about how the series was made at the Royal Harwich Yacht Club on the River Orwell for the Nancy Blackett Trust Annual Meeting, explaining how Rosemary Leach and I had both appeared in the BBC drama Cider with Rosie back in 1971. Having starred as Laurie Lee’s mother, she had the lead part of Mrs Barrable, the Admiral in Coot Club.

Henry Dimbleby and Rosemary Leach in 'Coot Club' and 'The Big Six'

BBC TV’s adapation of  ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’

Swallows and Amazons Forever! (1984) DVD

The drama, set in the early 1930’s, was nominated for a BAFTA.  It had an exceptionally talented cast including Rosemary Leach, John Woodvine, Sam Kelly and Henry Dimbleby.  I’m not sure if you can spot him that easily on the cover of the DVD, but one of the characters in the story soon became a household name. It was William, Mrs Barrable’s fawn pug dog. He was soon known nationally – if not internationally – as Little Willie, Ethel’s pet dog in the soap opera Eastenders.

Coot Club -

The puppy we chose to play Williams who later starred as Little Willie in ‘Eastenders’

While Jack Watson was at the helm of the Sir Garnet, Julian Fellowes played Jerry, self-appointed skipper of the Margoletta and the leader of the Hullabaloos. Whilst with us on the Norfolk Broads he forged a creative partnership with our director Andrew Morgan that launched his career as a writer.  They were soon working together on adaptations of classic books such as The Prince and the Pauper and Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Julian Fellowes as Jerry in Coot Club

Julian Fellowes as Jerry in ‘Coot Club’

Looking back, I can see a number of connections between Coot Club and Doctor Who. You will see we had not one but two Time Lords with us in the guise of The Eel Man, who was played by Patrick Troughton, and Dr Dudgeon, played by Colin Baker, who went on to become a later incarnation of the Doctor.

Patrick Troughton as the eel man

Patrick Troughton as The Eel Man in ‘The Big Six’

A number of the crew worked behind the scenes on Doctor Who including our Visual Effects Designer, Andy Lazell and the writer Mervyn Haismen. I found myself working on Vengeance on Varos a year later when Colin Baker swapped his Norfolk tweeds for the multi-coloured coat he wore in the TARDIS.

Colin Baker as Dr Dudgeon in 'Coot Club' and 'The Big Six'

Colin Baker as Dr Dudgeon in ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’

However,  I expect the members of the Nancy Blackett Trust will want to know most about the beautiful period boats that appeared in the series, some of which members of the Arthur Ransome Society have been tracking down. Sadly some, such as the Catchalot seem to have deteriorated but the Janca, who played the Margoletta has been restored, and the  Death & Glory is still on the Broads.

Lullaby undersail, playing the Teasel with her stage name painted on a false transome

Lullaby under sail, playing the Teasel with her stage name painted on a false transom

 The wonderful thing is that you can still hire the yacht we used to play the Teasel and take the same route through the Broads as Arthur Ransome took with his wife in the 1930’s when he was absorbing experience from which to write. What I did not know until recently was that Titty Altounyan ~ the real Titty portrayed in Swallows and Amazons ~ accompanied them one year, but I will leave that story for a future post.

Coot Club - book cover

I remember setting up this photograph for Puffin at Gay’s Staithe on the Broads

For more information on Saturday’s talk please click here

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

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