Behind-the-scenes in television and film

BW Filming on Peel Island

When I was a little girl, I was an avid viewer of Blue Peter, BBC Television’s flagship series for children. My favorite items would be profiles that were run from time to time about life behind the scenes at Television Centre. It was only later, whilst working for the BBC as a researcher, that I was told the terrible truth. The set designer Bruce Macadie said that such items were produced when the editor of Blue Peter was unexpectedly let down by a guest or couldn’t think of anything more newsworthy. I didn’t care a hoot. I was interested in how films were made from the age of about nine.

‘What a peculiar girl!’  I hear my friend Nac saying.

The reason was that I had rather a peculiar upbringing. I once described myself in an application for a job as a television director as a ‘Child of the studio floor’. The reason was that in 1969, when I was about eight years old, my mother became an in-vision announcer, reading the regional News and appearing on our crackly black and white set to brightly declare what would be shown that evening.  She worked at the Harlech Television Studios in Cardiff, alongside Martyn Lewis and Liz Carse. She would also descend in an oval wicker basket chair from which she would present a one-woman Children’s programme on called It’s Time For Me. This looked liked magic, and I wanted to know how it was achieved.

‘I was paid the same amount as a short-hand typist.’ The men were paid more than the women and her schedule was gruelling. On top of this she would drive 72 miles to the Cardiff studios in a rusty Mini van. Even though this was replaced she went part-time. Having become an expert on how long script bites took to read in different accents she would ‘whizz down to Bristol’ to read the letters on Any Answers for the producer Carol Stone.

‘But how did the basket come down?’

‘Oh, the rope was attached to a pulley on the studio lighting rig and  lowered  by three prop men.’

Daphne Neville making a radio commercial
My mother working in a radio studio in the 1970’s. Please not the producer’s cigarette and plastic cups.

I would often travel down with my mother to be shown around various studios. I remember sitting behind the Dalek-like cameras watching a live afternoon programme called Women Only being recorded at HTV Bristol. Mum presented it with Jan Leeming and a rotund TV cook called Tony. He had to wear a bright yellow chef’s hat and top so that they would come across as ‘chef’s whites’ rather than weirdo glowing garments on everyone’s black and white television sets. Mum spent ages looking for clothes to wear in vision as she was not allowed to wear either spots or stripes since they were liable to strobe. Dresses made from crimplene were all the rage but (luckily) she was banned from wearing this as TV screens would pick up on any static that it might exude. Sparkling garments were a no-no.

You wouldn’t think that Gloucestershire would be a hot spot for the film industry in the UK but in 1971 I was able to watch a film crew making a drama on location in Slad near Stroud, when I was chosen to play Eileen Brown in the BBC adaption of Laurie Lee’s memoir, Cider with Rosie directed by Claude Whatham. It had nothing to do with luck. I was the only little girl they could find with long hair who could play the piano.

Sophie Neville on the set of Cider with Rosie
Narrowly avoiding a collision with the BBC wardrobe mistress outside Slad village school where BBC TV were filming ‘Cider with Rosie’ in 1971. A tripod, camera cases and scenic props are stacked up by the blackout curtain.

In 1972 I was given a tiny non-speaking part of a ‘Woodchild’ in Arthur of the Britons that was made near Woodchester by HTV.  I had forgotten all about this until I saw a Youtube clip. I gather the serial has become cult viewing in the States.

Filming Arthur of the Britons
‘Arthur of the Britons’ being shot on two 16mm cameras at my parents’ farm in 1972

Around this time the BBC made an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, shot on location in Bath. We went down to be film extras in this and in a BBC drama called Song of Songs.

Sophie with the Panavision
Sophie Neville in 1973 with a 35mm Panavision camera

By the time I was cast as Titty in Swallows & Amazons I was relatively experienced. Later that summer I was in a Weetabix commercial and the next year I was invited to appear on a number of magazine programmes to publicise the movie. I remember being interviewed on Nationwide and profiled at home on Animal Magic.

Watching a television commercial being made in 1973
Watching a television commercial being made in 1973

Inevitably one thing leads to another and I was soon asked to audition for a number of subsequent films. Inflation was roaring at 17% in the mid-1970s and I don’t think any of these were ever made but it was good interview experience. I ended up at Shepperton Studios doing a screen test for a musical version of The Old Curiosity Shop. This was serious stuff, shot on a film stage in Victorian costume. My music teacher spent ages teaching me to sing All I Want is a Room Somewhere but despite endless discussions nothing more came of it. However looking around Shepperton had been amazing. At some stage I had also auditioned at Pinewood Studios. I had been shown around the set of the latest James Bond and even had a go on the swing featured in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Mum wouldn’t let me tell anyone at school about it, as I might had come across as swanky. But as film studios were not open to the public then it did add to my education.

Sophie and Vic Armstrong in Copter Kids
Jonathan Scott-Taylor, Sophie Neville, Sophie Ward, Vic Armstrong and Michael Balfour in ‘The Copter Kids’ – a movie for CFF shot on location in 1975

Although lanky, and focused on GCSEs, I managed to gain a leading role in an adventure film when I was fifteen. This proved interesting it involved working with stunt men including Vic Armstrong, who later became Harrison Ford’s double. We got to shoot from helicopters. At times the camera literally showed me shooting from a helicopter with a bow and arrow.

Sophie Neville in Crossroads for ATV
Playing Kevin’s sister, Glenda Brownlow’s bridesmaid, in a couple of episodes of ‘Crossroads’, the ATV soap opera that ran for 24 years

And then there was an opportunity to be in Crossroads. What an experience! I was various wedding scenes and the crowds who turned out to watch were unexpected. I was eighteen by then and did it purely for the money. I’ll see if I can find the article I wrote about it for my university magazine. Please let me know the name of the actor playing Kevin. I was meant to be his sister.

To see more about Mum’s career please see her website

Captain Flint’s Houseboat revisited

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SY Gondola on Coniston Water today

When people see the Steam Yacht Gondola on Coniston today, in all her re-built glory, she seems rather plush to have been cast by Arthur Ransome as Captain Flint’s houseboat. The main reason for assuming that she was used as the model for the illustrations is because Arthur Ransome grabbed a post card of the Gondola and drew on it to give the first illustrators of Swallows and Amazons some idea of his vision. However Ransome’s biographer Roger Wardale tells me it was a former steamer on Windermere that he had in mind: the S.L Esperance. Ransome was known to have been spotted looking through her cabin windows and much admired her distinctive bow, designed to cut through cat ice as she went daily up the the Lakeside Railway station.  

Houseboat  bay in 1963
Esperance in Rayrigg Bay, Windemere ~ photographed by Martin Neville in about 1963

When I was first taken up to the Lake District in 1963 my father found what he thought was houseboat bay on Windermere and took this shot of a vessel that must be SL Esperance. She does look very like the first professional drawing submitted to illustrate Swallows and Amazons.

Stephen Spurrier's unused illustration of Swallow sailing past Captain Flint's houseboat
Stephen Spurrier’s unused illustration of Swallow sailing past Captain Flint’s houseboat

Arthur Ransome’s terse note reads: ‘The ass has forgotten the mast’. Today the Esperance is lying at the Steamboat Museum on Windermere, where we went to visit her in 2011. Built at Rutherglen in 1869 she is nearly 65 foot long with a 10 foot beam.

Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum
SL Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in 2011

She did not always have such a traditional appearance. Roger Wardale kindly sent me this photograph showing what she looked like in the 1930s.

'Esperance' in the 1930s when she was owned by Sir Oliver Scott.
‘Esperance’ in the 1930s when she was owned by Sir Oliver Scott.

The cabin has since been removed from her rear end.

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SY Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in 2011

SY Esperance now looks more like this illustration – or could do. Although she has a setting for a mast the reality is that she has seven windows, whereas Clifford Webb’s illustration shows her with only six.

Clifford Webb's illustration of Captain Flint's houseboat
Clifford Webb’s illustration of Captain Flint’s houseboat

I have no idea if anyone could film aboard her today when safety regulations are so strict.

Claude Whatham discussing plans with sailing director David Blagden (in the white hat) and Richard Pilbrow on the aft deck of the houseboat with Molly Pilbrow looking on ~ photo: Daphne Neville
Claude Whatham took advantage of the larger cabin windows in the Lady Derwentwater whilst filming ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Back in 1973 Richard Pilbrow was obliged to use the Lady Derwentwater, still owned by the Keswick Launch Co. She has quite a different stern from the illustrations but was licensed to carry 90 passengers, which must have allowed him to take a seventy-strong film crew on board. At least she was given a mast. You can envisage Ronald Fraser, as Captain Flint, angrily stamping out the firework on the roof.

One advantage of the Lady Derwentwater was that the windows of her cabin enabled the director to get a good view of the lake, which he made use of when Captain John rowed over from Peel Island to visit Captain Flint and pass on the charcoal burners’ warning.  She couldn’t be moved to another lake, but Derwentwater is surrounded by such dramatic fells that the director, Claude Whatham used this to his advantage. A postcard of Friar’s Crag near Keswick was used by Ransome to give his illustrator an idea of what the Peak of Darien was like, even though he had originally based this on the rocky promontory at Waterhead on Windermere. Roger Wardale tells me the Ransomes would sail there in Swallow and stop for tea before heading back south.

Sophie Neville at the Windermere Steamboat Museum
Sophie Neville at the Windermere Steamboat Museum

Was the Gondola so very different? Ransome had known her since spending his own childhood holidays on Coniston, when she was in service.  While staying at Nibthwaite he became a good friend of the Captain, or so the story goes. Back in 1973 the Gondola looked like this – her roof too curved to run along, her bow rising up a little too dramatically to accommodate the foredeck of a retired pirate busy writing up his devilish crimes while his a cannon lies glinting in the sunlight, ready to fire.

Was this the houseboat Arthur Ransome had in mind? ~ photograph taken by Martin Neville in 1973
Photograph of the Gondola on Coniston Water taken by Martin Neville in 1973

To read more about Esperance, please click here

For more about the Steamboat Museum with a photograph of Esperance, please click here

To read more, from another perspective please click here

Adaptations of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ discussed in the Independent on Sunday by Jonathan Brown

Author Arthur Ransome loathed BBC’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’, his diaries reveal

A new adaptation of the classic is coming, but its author called the 1960s version ‘a ghastly mess’

Sunday 16 February 2014

When the BBC announced plans to recreate the classic outdoor children’s sailing adventure Swallows and Amazons it was hailed as a blockbusting antidote to the health and safety culture of the mollycoddled video-game generation. Filming of the new version of the 1930s Lake District adventure is due to begin later this summer with big stars including Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens already linked to the project.

However, previously unread diaries of its creator, Arthur Ransome, reveal that the author considered the corporation’s last attempt to bring his much-loved story to life to be a “ghastly mess” marred by “dreadful ham” acting. The diaries reveal how Ransome clashed repeatedly with BBC executives in the early 1960s when the BBC commissioned a six-part dramatisation for television, starring Susan George, then aged 12, as Kitty (changed from the original Titty) Walker.

Ransome, then in declining health, was living in virtual retirement in his remote Cumbrian cottage Hill Top overlooking the spectacular Rusland valley with his wife Evgenia – the former secretary to Leon Trotsky, whom he met while working as a foreign correspondent and spying for Britain in revolutionary Russia. It was a spartan existence, often with no electricity or running water.

In a series of brusque entries at odds with his generally affable demeanour, he describes how he repeatedly fought with BBC executives over attempts to introduce two new characters – Ernie and Sam – to the story. Both he and his wife attempted to rewrite the script after concluding that one episode was “bad beyond belief”.

At his home Hill Top with his wife, Evgenia

At his home Hill Top with his wife, Evgenia

“I have agreed to Genia’s proposal that we shall wash our hands of the film leaving it to Mr Walls [of the BBC] to play the farceur as much as he likes. They may be right in thinking that vulgar ham acting is what the T.V. gapers want,” he wrote in July 1962.

Ransome was particularly unimpressed with the performance of popular British actor John Paul as Captain Flint – the character linked this time to Dan Stevens, and said to be based on Ransome himself – describing it as “dreadful HAM”.

On attending a screening at the Hammer Theatre in Wardour Street, central London in October 1962, he concluded: “Saw the ghastly mess they have made of poor old Swallows and Amazons … MacCullogh [his friend Derek MacCullogh, former head of children’s broadcasting at the BBC who was also known as the presenter Uncle Mac] did not come possibly to avoid trouble with his employers.” It was eventually broadcast the following year.

Stephen Sykes now owns Hill Top and has restored the Ransomes’ former home. He is also helping transcribe the author’s sparsely detailed diaries from his years at Hill Top, which are kept at Leeds University’s Brotherton Library. Sykes said the writer received £3,500 for agreeing to the BBC broadcast – a considerable amount of money. “He was clearly making a very good living out of the rights to Swallows and Amazons. This was his baby and he had obviously pored over it. It is a very leanly written story and it was pretty clear it was written by a journalist because of its clarity, because there is nothing extraneous,” he said.

“He is extremely protective of his own work. He felt he didn’t want a word changing, and that he had honed the story down and it was what it was,” he added.

Susan George, who played Kitty

Susan George, who played Kitty

Swallows and Amazons was first published in 1930. It recounts the adventures of the children from two families who while away an idyllic summer getting into scrapes sailing their dinghies across Coniston Water and Lake Windermere. As well as the television series, many theatrical and musical adaptations have been staged, and the story was made into a film in 1974 staring Ronald Fraser and Sophie Neville.

When the latest project was announced in 2011, head of BBC Films Christine Langan said it would seek to encapsulate a forgotten era of childhood adventure “from the pre-health and safety generation”.

Producer Nick Barton of Harbour Pictures, which is collaborating on the film with the BBC, the Arthur Ransome Society and the author’s literary estate, said it had not been decided yet whether the children would be shown sailing without their life jackets.

But he said viewers could expect to experience the full majesty of the book’s setting. “The lakes and the mountains are very big and we are keen to recreate that grandeur of the scenery in the film,” he said. A spokeswoman for BBC Films said: “The film is still in development.”

To see a copy of the original article online, please click here

To contact Stephen Sykes at Hill Top, the Ransome’s last home, please click here

Claude Whatham, the film director whose work never dated

Director Claude Whatham (photo:StudioCanal)

Although I knew Claude Whatham well, I had no idea how prolific he was until I read his obituary. ‘Could this be correct?’ I wondered. In 1940, he had been commissioned to paint murals by the young Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret in their rooms at Windsor Castle after their paintings had been removed for safe-keeping during the Blitz. They couldn’t bear the idea of bare walls and asked if he could paint something cheerful.

-The pantomime pictures at Windsor Castle (The Royal Collection Trust)- 

As Claude was  born in 1927, I thought he must have been too young but he was an evacuee in his first year at art college. You can see more images of the murals and read his own version of how this came to pass if you click here.

Claude Whatham at Egham
Claude Whatham in 1973 (photo Daphne Neville)

All I can tell you is that Claude Whatham simply had the self-confidence to succeed.  After working for a short time as a production designer he became a television director at the age of about thirty – evolving his craft in the early years of Granada Television.

Single minded and determined, yet usually coming across as relaxed, he moved into directing movies in 1972 with That’ll Be The Day starring David Essex, Ringo Starr and Robert Lindsay, followed by Swallows & Amazons when he was forty-six.

The 1974 film Swallows and Amazons

I’d met him in 1971 when he directed the first BBC adaptation of Laurie Lee’s memoir, Cider with Rosie, for which he received a BAFTA nomination. It was made where the book is set at the village of Slad in the Cotswolds, about seven miles from where I grew up.

Sophie Neville with Claude Whatham in Slad in 1971

Claude had a cottage in the nearby hamlet of Camp, also near Stroud in Gloucestershire. After casting me as Eileen Brown, Laurie lee’s first love, he invited me to play Titty in Swallows and Amazons (1974) and appear as a girl in a Wheatbix advertisement.

Claude in my hat in Egham 1
Claude Whatham directing the title sequence of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ on location in Surrey with Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West and his camera crew

Claude loved taking his clothes off. It was almost indicative of his style. He wasn’t shy. If you look at what he was wearing you will see that his clothes were both on trend at the time and would still be fashionable today. He would wear Levi jeans, deck shoes or sailing boots and a Parka coat with a fur-lined hood in wet weather. As for headgear, I only ever saw him wearing other people’s hats.

Claude Whatham directing a commercial
Claude Whatham directing a TV advert (photo: Daphne Neville)

Claude was always happy working outside. Problems did not seem to phase him. I worked with him on location in Gloucestershire, Surrey and Cumbria, visiting him on set in the Yorkshire Dales when he was filming the movie All Creatures Great and Small based on the life of the vet James Herriot and starring Anthony Hopkins and Simon Ward. I was sorry when I heard that he gained a reputation at the BBC for being too detailed and pernickety in the studio. I expect it frustrated him.

Claude Whatham in 1973

Claude’s period films are marked by their enduring quality, they have not dated. I was glad to read that he had happy memories of filming Swallows and Amazons. You can read more about this in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons, 1974’ 

Claude Whatham profiled by Tom E Parkinson
Claude Whatham profiled by Tom E Parkinson in the Oldham Evening Chronicle 18th April 1974

For a full list of Claude’s film and television credits please click here

Director Claude Whatham talking to Virginia McKenna at Haverthwaite Railway Station

The child star, once seen as the little girl eating an ice cream in ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

 Tamzin in pink and and Perry in yellow eating ice creams whilst appearing as film extras in 'Swallows & Amazons'. Kit Seymour and Jane Grendon stand behind them.
Tamzin eating ice cream in a pink dress whilst appearing as a film extra in ‘Swallows & Amazons’. Kit Seymour and Jane Grendon stand behind her.

It is with some bemusement that I see myself described as a child star in newspapers.  I only appeared in two feature films before I grew too tall to do more. It was the little girl here seen eating ice-cream in a pink dress, when she appeared as a film extra in Swallows & Amazons, who became a much brighter starlet than I.

Wheetabix Commercial with Tamzin Neville and Percy Baxter
Tamzin appearing with Percy Baxter in a Weetabix advert directed by Claude Whatham in 1973

My sister Tamzin enchanted directors who cast her in one role after another. Her career started in 1972 when she was given the lead role of Elka in an episode of Arthur of the Britons opposite Oliver Tobias who played King Arthur. He later introduced her as his co-star. By this time he was known as The Studhaving starred opposite Joan Collins in the movie of her sister Jackie Collins’ racy novel.

Tamzin in Arthur of the Britons

No one asked Tamzin if she could ride. It was a good thing that she could as she was soon cantering up and down the hills on a massive horse, whilst clutching that medieval  doll. You can watch a bit on Youtube.

Arthur of the Britons had the most prestigious cast: Brian Blessed, Martin Jarvis, Tom Baker, Catherine Schell, Iain Cuthbertson, Peter Firth, Heather Wright, Michael Gambon and Peter Bowles all appeared in the drama series, some of which was filmed on my parents’ farm. I remember Jack Watson leaping down the bank above our house. Tamzin played most of her scenes opposite  Michael Gothard, who became famous for playing the villain Locque  in the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only.

Daphne Neville in The Pheonix and the Carpet

Tamzin was then cast as Anthea in the 1976 BBC adaptation of of E Nesbit’s classic story The Phoenix and the Carpet. I’ve just read that it was a story much admired by Arthur Ransome.

While Mum enjoyed playing the part of Mother, Tamzin’s brother Cyril was played by Gary Russell, who after appearing as Dick in the BBC series of Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five,  grew up to become a writer and script editor on Doctor Who. I last saw him at a book launch at the Imperial War Museum.

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Sophie Neville with Gary Russell in London in 2012

Here he is with Tamzin in the 1970s:

As she was used to appearing on television, Tamzin wrote in to Blue Peter and soon appeared on the show. She was also featured on Animal Magic and a number of other magazine programmes.

Tamzin soon had another lead role, that of the young Linda in the ITV production of Nancy Mitford’s semi-autobiographical novel Love in a Cold Climate. While Judi Dench and Michael Aldridge starred as her parents, her brother Matt was played by Max Harris who had the role of her brother Robert in The Phoenix and the Carpet. Tamzin can been seen on the trailer wearing a red dressing-gown in the Hons’ cupboard, looking dreamy in a tam o’shanter and jumping a white Arab over a Cotswold stone wall, whilst riding side-saddle.

She went on to take leading roles in episodes of A Play for Today, Crown Court and Screen Two. Ironically she was expelled from Drama College after Mum persuaded her to work professionally one summer vacation. At that, she tossed her head and went on to occupy time more gainfully.

She won’t believe me, but Tamzin is a most amusing writer.  You can see for yourself. Her letters are  featured in Ride the Wings of Morning.

From ‘Swallows & Amazons’ to ‘The Invisible Woman’

Daphne Neville in about 1973
Daphne Neville in about 1973

My mother, Daphne, started working as a television presenter for Harlech Television in Cardiff.  By 1973 Mum was working at the HTV studios in Bristol two days a week, presenting an afternoon programme called Women Only with Jan Leeming, and doing a bit of radio work for the BBC. Occasionally she appeared on other shows.

Mum appearing as a member of the Salvation Army on 'The Dick Emery Show'
Mum appearing as a member of the Salvation Army on ‘The Dick Emery Show’

While my father’s life was influenced by Arthur Ransome, my mother drew inspiration from the author Noel Streatfield and her novel Ballet Shoes, the story of three little girls who went on the stage. Before her own three daughters were old enough to read she was dreaming dreams. Since she worked at the HTV studios in Bristol, it was natural enough for us to take part in their drama productions that were being made locally.

Daphne Neville in 'Arthur of the Britons' HTV
Daphne Neville appearing with Tamzin Neville and Shaun Dromgoole in the HTV drama ‘Arthur of the Britons’ in 1972. I am not sure who the bearded man is.

When I was offered the part of Titty in Swallows & Amazons, Mum somehow managed to take enough leave to come up to the Lake District and work on the film as a chaperone, although she had to return to Bristol for two HTV commitments. She missed some of the best scenes, and some of our worst moments.

‘You owed your life to Simon West, of course.’

‘Did I?’

‘Oh, yes. Simon was such a good sailor. He was totally reliable.’ She was thinking of the scene when Swallow was meant to narrowly avoid colliding with the Windermere steamer, the Tern, when we only just avoided a terrible accident.

‘You would have gone under the Tern if Simon hadn’t been so calm and controlled. He would never have got into the situation himself, he would have gone about much sooner but was waiting for Claude to give him the cue over the Motorola radio. Claude was too late. He had no idea about boats.’

My mother returned from working in Bristol to find my father, Martin, was not happy about how things were being handled when we were on the water. They stayed up, talking all night, making what must have been one of the first ever risk assessments.

‘Quite a few things changed after that.’ You can tell from studying old call sheets.

‘The ridiculous thing was having to strap the kids into life jackets to go to Peel Island, which was not risky at all. Martin and I then discovered they were BOAC rejects.’

newspaper cutting of cast in life jackets
Lesley Bennett, Simon West, Kit Seymour, Sophie Neville, Sten Grendon and Suzanna Hamilton on Coniston Water 1973

Simon told me that he really couldn’t remember much about being in Swallows & Amazons. Looking back on it all, he reckoned that if I had talked through each day with Mum it would have reinforced memories. My diaries, which were certainly more detailed than those kept by the other Swallows, were supplemented by Mum’s photos, taken on a daily basis and looked at repeatedly. You have seen them all. They have that early Seventies tint to them.

Daphne Neville in 'Diagnosis Murder'
Daphne Neville in the 1975 film ‘Diagnosis Murder’ with Christopher Lee

Meanwhile my mother’s own memories are coloured by how things have changed over the last forty years, the other films she has been in the actors she has met.

‘Ronnie Fraser was perfectly nice. He was treated like a star and kept very much apart from us. He behaved like a star. Now stars have PAs, but he didn’t!’

Mum went on to appear in all sorts of movies. If you don’t blink, you can see her as a Victorian Lady in The Invisible Woman  – Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of Charles Dickens, soon to be released in cinemas.

For more photos of Daphne Neville in character roles, please click here

Daphne Neville in 'The Invisible Woman'
Daphne Neville in costume for ‘The Invisible Woman’ 2013