After graduating from Durham University with a degree in Anthropology, Sophie had a career in television working on dramas such as ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Eastenders’, ‘My Family and Other Animals’ and the vet series ‘One by One’, before directing educational programmes for BBC Schools. After producing an ‘INSET’ series she emigrated to southern Africa where she worked freelance for the BBC Natural History Unit whilst working as a safari guide. Disaster stuck when she fell off a horse breaking her pelvis but she used her time on crutches to turn professional as a wildlife artist and has since exhibited widely in both the UK and South Africa where she was based for twelve years.
‘When I joined the BBC as a graduate trainee I found myself working on ‘The Book Show’, a magazine programme presented by Ned Sherrin. It was my job to look after authors. I remember taking Willie Rushton to be interviewed aboard the Orient Express and rather wishing we could travel all the way to Venice.
I soon found myself working as a researcher on The Russell Harty Show taking care of writers such as James Herriott and Sir Arthur C Clarke. It was the nation’s chat show. I hosted celebrities from Joanna Lumley, Peter O’Tool and Richard Branson to a convicted murderer and the leaders of the Salvation Army. Though young and naive, I was given responsibility for putting together the Christmas Show, Russell Harty’s Christmas Party, choosing pantomime as a theme. It was a good excuse to get the stars to come along in costume. I had Peter Davison, then Doctor Who, who sang a duet with his wife Sandra Dickenson as they were both in Cinderella. Nicholas Parsons was the wicked baddie, Matthew Kelly came on as Aladdin and Shelly Winters flew in from Hollywood as Mother Christmas. Esther Rantzen arrived in full pantomime costume as Dick Whittington. She has terrific legs and everyone was captivated. I’ve never been able to thank her for holding the evening together. She managed to get the whole audience singing along to some wretched song, which is not easy on Live television. Although I enjoyed working with the actors, I wasn’t sure that producing chat shows was for me.
‘I was wondering what to do next when I was told that the BBC had bought the rights to Arthur Ransome’s books and went to see a producer called Joe Waters. A brilliant man, he was probably most well known for directing Dixon of Dock Green and Z-Cars, although he also produced such classics as Warship and The Enigma Files. When I told him that I had acted in the feature film of Swallows and Amazons as I child, he invited me out to lunch, interested to know how they had filmed the dinghy sailing sequences. Before I knew it I’d been taken on to cast the children in Coot Club and The Big Six, finding David Dimbley’s thirteen-year-old son Henry to take the lead. We spent three months filming on the Norfolk Broads. It was idyllic. Julian Fellowes played Jerry the Hullabaloo. It has just struck me that he looks rather like Arthur Ransome. Rosemary Leach was iconic as The Admiral and Colin Baker played Dr Dudgeon, Henry Dimbleby’s father.
Amongst other things I was on the second unit, which was directed by our film editor Tariq Anwar. He went on to edit The Kings’s Speech for Tom Hooper and and Great Expectations for Mike Newell. Joe and I also set up photographs to be used on the front cover of a new edition of the novels for Puffin and for what became a well loved DVD, for which I eventually provided copy for the DVD Extras.
‘I’d started looking for children to appear in the Swallowdale and Picts and Martyrs when Joe returned from a recce to the Lake District having sadly decided that they were simply too expensive to make. My department manager said that if I wanted to remain in BBC Drama, with a view to becoming a director, I needed to start all over again and formally work my way up the ladder.
I became a runner on the spy series Cold Warrior, starring Lucy Fleming and then what would be the equivalent of Third Assistant Director on Charters and Caldicott, featuring the grand old men of the stage Michael Aldridge and Robin Bailey. Never have I been more embarrassed as in the company of those two. They took me to lunch – that is we took the lift up to the BBC rehearsal rooms’ canteen – and chose a small round table next to one at which Omar Sharif was sitting. They had their back to him. He sat alone.
‘Shame about Omar,’ Robin Bailey declared in his loud, clear theatrical voice.’Terrible gap between his front teeth.’ Dr Zhivago stared, not at the old boys but at me, sitting opposite him. Their banter was ceaseless. As we took the lift down it would be, ‘Afternoon, Joan, darling.’ Kiss, kiss, then,’That extraordinary Collins woman again. Tiny isn’t she? And wearing wig.’ They were terribly nice to me, but then I was the girl providing the tea.
Michael Aldridge played Uncle Matthew in an adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s autobiographical novel Love in a Cold Climate when my sister Tamzin played his charismatic daughter, the Hon Linda Radlett. Tamzin loved the child-hunting scenes. She was given an Arab horse that was so skittish that one of its feet had to be held off the ground to shoot her close-ups, but she jumped it over a five-barred gate. I looked after the composer, Julian Slade, driving him to location. We found Mum at Swinbrook Church, in hideous make-up. She was playing Anthony Head’s mother the hated Lady Kroesig. I don’t think she has worn a fur since.
Gaining experience in television ~
‘I was a very good runner. The equivalent of being a third assistant director in movies it is an interesting job as you are on the pulse of each day’s filming. I was very, very nice to the supporting artists – I’d been one so many times myself.
Back in the late 1970s I’d been in the pretty unique position of possessing an Equity card when you had to have one to work as an Extra or Walk-on in film or television. It was extremely well paid back then. I was nineteen and needing ad hoc income. HTV made quite a few TV movies that were shot near my parents’ house such as, The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb, which starred Eva Marie Saint, with Robin Ellis as Howard Carter and Harry Andrews as Lord Carnarvon . I’d drive over in my Citroen-deux-cheveaux, climb into the most fabulous costume and walk down a staircase. Then I’d have a very nice lunch with Wendy Hiller before going home to swot for my A’levels.
We got involved in all sorts of things as a family. Dramas seemed to come to us naturally. When the Director Moira Armstrong made an adaptation of Winifred Foley’s A Child of the Forest under the screen title of Abide with Me she chose our village church as a location. Of course we were all there, singing the hymn. For some reason she needed to start editing the film straight away, so Tony Woolard, the film editor, came down to work on it at the top of our old mill. His assistant got frightened, working in the country, and ran away so I took over, becoming an Assistant Film Editor for a couple of weeks. I reminded Moira how I had slaved for her when I became her Film Researcher about ten years later but she couldn’t remember a thing about it. Tony could. His Assistant had been re-winding 16mm film on the Steinbeck one night when something about the frequency of the sound reeling backwards set off the sound of the mill workings that must have some how become recorded in the stone. He interpreted it as a haunting and ran for his life.
‘Although not that many movies were made in England in the late 1970’s there was a surge in television production. I supported myself through university by regularly working on dramas such as the detective series Shoestring which starred Trevor Eve, Poldark with Robin Ellis, the hospital drama Angels with Fiona Fullerton and Sherlock Holmes with Tom Baker as the lead.
‘I played a messenger boy in a star-spangled version of Kidnapped. Why they couldn’t find a real boy I’ve no idea. I was in Good Companions for Yorkshire Television and appeared in all sorts of things for the BBC – Jasper Carrott, A Cotswold Death, Long Distance Information, The Recruiting Officer, Choir Practice, Lloyd George – when we were suffragettes, Persuasion, John Wesley and The Odendin Line, which was fun. I can’t remember working on many movies but wore my great-grandmother’s coat to appear in Agatha (1979) I played a messenger boy in a star-spangled version of Kidnapped. Why they couldn’t find a real boy I’ve no idea.
We were in Nanny with Wendy Craig, Murder at the Wedding with Christopher Biggins and Body in Question with Jonathan Miller. The only commercial I ever made was for Wheetabix. Claude Whatham directed a series of advertisements set in 1920’s England with me in a cornfield and my sisters in a sequence about a traditional village produce show.
‘Much to the delight of the dinner ladies at my college, I had a small part in the ATV soap opera Crossroads. They couldn’t work out how I could have been on the telly at 5.30pm and back in the queue for dinner at 6.30pm.
‘When I was about nineteen a two-part Saturday Night Thriller was shot at my parents’ house called Dark Secret. I actually worked for the Prop-buyer, ‘Can you get me five freshly killed rabbits for tomorrow morning?’ We were all persuaded to appear in the final scene, as visitors to our own house. I wore another ridiculous pink costume. It does not look good as a credit on my Imdb page – but never mind.
‘The next summer I appeared in The Two Ronnies, which was so exciting as I got to rub Ronnie Barker’s big fat tummy in their popular spoof detective series Charley Farley and Piggy Malone – Band of Slaves. If you write to the BBC and ask for more of Charley Farley you might get to see me an a yashmak. This was ideal work for a student as it was shot in the summer vacation. Since I had a proper part with scripted dialogue I went on to receive residuals. A repeat free for £50 arrived forty years later. The story ends with a crane lowering a wooden crate onto Southampton docks. The front bursts open and I march out playing ‘For All the Saints’ on a trombone, followed by eleven other ladies in pink dresses making up the band. My grandmother once worked at the same dockyard. She was driving an ambulance there after the D-day landings, anxiously searching for her own son.
Please note that I am not standing on anything in this photograph taken with Ronnie Corbett.
‘My sisters and I were skinny enough to gain long running contacts on the hugely popular drama serial Tenko about female internees of the Japanese during World War II, which starred Stephanie Beauchamp, Ann Bell and Stephanie Cole.
Tenko was based on the true-life experiences of a former internee and was incredibly popular, attracting audiences of 14 million. Like The Two Ronnies, it was filmed near Bournemouth. We were treated exactly like prisoners of war but had time to observe how sequences were shot, which made it was good work experience. What impacted us all was the fact that the series was based on a true story. Years later I provided behind-the-scenes photos for the Kindle version of the book on how the series was made.
The most surreal experience was playing a real person – Diana, Princess of Wales. It was for a BBC sit-com called L for Lester. I didn’t have to say anything, just smile and wave graciously. It was the summer of 1982. We were driven, my husband and I, in a Rolls Royce into a small town in Gloucestershire. The street was decked in bunting and lined with crowds waving flags including as primary school children, Cub Scouts and Brownies. I’m sure the children believed the real Princess was on her way. I absorbed the full flare of their passionate if not fanatical adoration, which was quite daunting. It gave me a brief glimpse of what life must have been like a newly married girl a few months younger than me.
‘I needed all this experience in my full-time job at the BBC once I started working as the Third Assistant Director on the long-running series One by One. This followed the life story of a vet called David Taylor who specialised in exotic animals. It starred an Indian elephant, a baboon and Jimmy Ellis – darling of the nation, since being in Z-Cars but a difficult chap to get out of the pub. It also featured a tiger cub belonging to Billy Chipperfield, to which I was so allergic that I thought my eyes would never open again. If you have an allergy to cats do not go near big ones.
The Production Associate and I climbed into costumes so that we could direct the Extras in one sequence. The story was about a leopard that had escaped from a zoo and was wreaking havoc in the Peak District. There is a wide-angle shot of a line of men coming over the snowy horizon, combing the hillside in search of it. Even though I was wearing workmen’s overalls and a balaclava helmet you can recognise me. Luckily I was behind the camera when they found the leopard. His trainer slipped on the snowy ground. Although hand-reared, the leopard pounced and sank his teeth into the handler’s thigh.
Doctor Who ~
‘I then ‘flew solo’, becoming the equivalent of a Second Assistant Director, or Assistant Floor Manager, on Doctor Who, and what fun that was. Colin Baker, who had played a doctor in Coot Club was now The Doctor, with Martin Jarvis as the Governor and Jason Connery, Sean Connery’s son, in the role of Jondar the hero. Nicolas Chagrin was a baddie called Qulliam and Stephen Yardley – well known at the time for staring in Howards Way – had a comic role alongside Geraldine Alexander. She seemed to be half his height. We were meant to be on the planet Varos, but I’m afraid it was shot entirely in Studio 8 at BBC Television Centre in Wood Lane. I am amazed to find great chunks of Philip Martin’s script are pasted up on IMDb.
Recce in the rainforest ~
‘When working in television production it is pretty near impossible to take any holiday during a series. We were granted leave once a show went on to the editing stage. I took five weeks after completing Doctor Who to accompany my boyfriend, Alastair Fothergill, on a trip to Uganda and Zaire. It was a partly recce for a possible Wildlife on One about giraffe-like creatures called Okapi who live in the Ituri Rainforest. We spent seven days living with the pygmies trying to find them before giving up. We were, however successful in finding chimpanzees and gorillas, as well as a number of species of monkeys such as red colobus that have interesting social behaviour. I’d read primatology at university so was thrilled to be able to observe them in the wild. Having made land-mark series for the BBC such as The Frozen Planet and The Hunt with Sir David Attenborough, Alastair made a number of feature films for Disney Nature before producing Our Planet for Netflixs.
I worked on an eight-part series about the Bluebell Girls directed by Moira Armstrong. Carolyn Pickles played Margaret Kelly – known as ‘Miss Bluebell’, while Annie Lambert and Miranda Coe, Sebastian Coe’s sister, played a couple of her lovely tall dancers. It was my launch into the field of wartime romance and I loved it.
I helped the writer, Paul Wheeler, with the historical research, flying to Paris to meet Margaret Kelly, who was still working at the age of 72. At the age of 22, she put together a troupe of tall dancers who appeared on stage at the Folies Bergere and still dance today at the Lido in Paris, hiding her husband, a Romanian Jew, in Paris throughout the occupation despite being interned in Besancon and interrogated by the Gestapo herself.
I managed to track down a number of former Bluebell Girls and produced files of photographs for the designers to work from. There was a sizable amount of film research, which included viewing the black and white Nazi footage on 35mm nitrate film at the British Film Institute. When I turned up at the BFI, I gave them my name, and was astonished to find myself being treated like absolute royalty. Later I discovered they understood I’d introduced myself as ‘Safety Level’ rather than ‘Sophie Neville’. They thought I had come to inspect the conditions under which the highly combustible nitrate film was being viewed.
I went on to work on the series as an Assistant Floor Manager or Second Assistant alongside Lawrence Wilson who became a director on Eastenders and the Australian soap opera Neighbours. We had up to 450 extras in 1930’s evening dress, sixteen dancers, a dozen leading actors and a full orchestra, not to mention six ‘nudes’ who would be needed ‘ready on set’ to begin recording at 9.00am at the huge theatres of Halifax and Harrogate. I remember Lawrence allocating 32 musical instruments and 24 enormous ostrich feather fans.
In production terms we had it all – a Nazi internment camp near Liverpool, the interior and exterior of a Parisian Cafe built on the lot at Elstree and eight studio sessions at Television Centre before the entire crew, with a scanner for a two-camera Outside Broadcast, took the ferry to France. Things went wrong continuously. The WWII lorries collided on the set of the Nazi camp, a random child was sick on my head during the ferry crossing and the unit coach containing twenty-five extras became impaled on a stone wall. I had to ask them to walk half-a-mile along the coast to the beach where the scene was being shot. At one stage the BBC Armourer disappeared leaving me with a crate of WWII rifles in the Place de la Concord. We couldn’t leave them there. They were too heavy to move. I had no option but to hand them out to my Extras and organise the Liberation of Paris in my halting French.
The hard work paid off. Bluebell gained five BAFTA nominations and the award for best costume design, which went to Verity Lewis and Janet Powell. George Perry used my research notes to write the official biography of the dancer from Liverpool who outwitted the Nazis and impacted France.
‘I next worked on the new BBC signature Police series, Rockliffe’s Babies starring Joe McGann, on a two-camera Outside Broadcast recorded in west London. I was also an Assistant Floor Manager on The Diary of Anne Frank featuring Katharine Schlesinger, which was shot in Bristol. For a while I went on attachment to BBC Plays to work on Titus Andronicus, part of the BBC Shakespeare Collection, in which Sean Bean had a small part as The Clown. Trevor Peacock and Eileen Atkins played the king and queen in this gruelling production directed by Jane Carr. Phillida Lloyd was my senior AFM. After going on to direct the first movie of Mama Mia, she directed The Iron Lady that also starred Meryl Streep.
Young Europe Africa ~
‘With three months paid leave owed to me, I took a sabbatical from the BBC to join Young Europe Africa, an expedition consisting of 32 young people, led by Charles Mayhew, now CEO of TUSK, a charity with Prince William as Patron. We drove from London to Johannesburg in eight 4WD vehicles – a long way on dirt roads. It was when the team were working on aid projects in Kenya that I had the chance to direct my first 30 minute documentary, shot with a crew from Nairobi on 16mm film and broadcast on Channel 4 under the title Out of Europe into Africa. I was 25, young enough to drive through the bush all night and spend all day filming despite stifling heat and a difficult local cameraman. We pulled it off, despite the odds and it was screened to some acclaim.
‘I flew back from South Africa to work on Eastenders. The soap opera was just starting up but was already drawing huge audience figures. Had I returned to direct it? Sadly no. More ladder climbing for me – which entailed training others in true BBC tradition. But I enjoyed running the rehearsals and stage-managing sequences shot on the famous Albert Square lot at Elstree Studios. It was good to be involved in such an iconic drama as it became established, working with actors possessing considerable experience such as Wendy Richards who had previously appeared in Dad’s Army and Are you being Served? I got on well Leslie Grantham who played Dirty Den and with June Brown, who played Dot Cotton. I did received rather strange looks from Anita Dobson when I was showing around a visitor – until she melted under his charm. The visitor was Alastair Bruce, now advisor on Downton Abbey and Sky commentator for Royal Weddings. Before long, another visitor turned up without warning melting the hearts of the entire cast. It was Diana, Princess of Wales – or Princess Diana, as all the Eastenders loved to call her. I have a feeling that Alastair suggested she might enjoy seeing around.
One of the most popular stars of Eastenders was Ethel’s Little Willie – the pug dog who we had chosen to play William, The Admiral’s dog, who saved the day in Coot Club. I spent an inordinate amount of time persuading Gretchen Franklin, who played his owner Ethel, to tell me stories from her long career in soaps. ‘In one show I had to open an oven and take out the turkey,’ she told me. This was on live, Christmas Day television. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I opened the oven and there was nothing there. Nothing at all. I couldn’t think what to do. The rest of episode, centered on the turkey. I had no choice to look straight into the camera and say, “The bird has FLOWN.” Someone had stolen it.’ ‘What did the director do?’ I asked. ‘Oh, it was a disaster. They cut to black – but what could I do?’ We all screeched with laughter. She said that someone later found the turkey hung up on a coat hook, hidden under an anorak.
Someone stole one of my props from the Eastenders set soon after Gretchen told me that story. It wasn’t funny. I was responsible for its safe keeping. The situation was dire because although it was only a plastic toy we could not finish recording the episode without it. The prop was worth £5. The cost and the havoc caused by having to re-mount the whole studio another day was mind-boggling. Julia Smith, the producer was furious. I faced getting a very bad report. The production manager stayed calm and gave the thief a caveat of grace to replace it by calling an early supper. I prayed. The prop was not replaced. Standing alone in the wide corridor at Elstree studios, and feeling devastated, I decided to check the litter bins. There, inside a blue flip-top rubbish bin standing at the studio door was the precious prop.
My Family and Other Animals ~
‘Despite this near fiasco, Joe Waters chose me to work on a the adaptation of Gerald Durrell’s best-selling autobiographical book My Family and Other Animals, which involved four months filming on the island of Corfu. What a joy it was. It was a great privilege to get to know Gerry and his wife Lee Durrell who flew out to watch the filming. ‘I can’t believe such a beautiful woman as Hannah Gordon is playing MY mother,’ he enthused. He adored Daren Redmayne who I had helped cast to play Gerry as a boy. Sarah-Jane Holme looked so like his sister Margo that when the two met at the premier they burst out laughing.
Since I was responsible for the research, I bullied Gerald Durrell into unearthing his old family photographs. These were so interesting that his publishers bought out a new, illustrated edition of his book to accompany the series.
I loved working with the tortoises and geckos, the piglets and hens Gerry grew up with. Nigel Marven shot the natural history sequences but I would drive over to his villa to pick up creatures such as Achilles the tortoise and various insects that appeared in scenes with the actors. I don’t think Nigel had anything to do with the piglet. Dave Privett the prop buyer asked the dog handlers to train him to walk on a lead. This was achieved in about ten minutes.
Because there were so much for the little boy playing Gerald Durrell to do, I started standing in for him more and more. As Assistant Floor Manager it was my job to read in his lines so that Darren Redmayne could get on with his school work while the other actors’ close-ups were shot. If you watch carefully you can see me dressed in his costume, in various long-shots. I managed to squeeze into his clothes but not his shoes.
Brian Blessed was always giving us bearded kisses. It must have been a reflection of how happy we all were. His wife Hildegarde was gracious about this. The only difficult bit about filming on Corfu was having to push Brian up a stony hillside and through an olive orchard to the camera set-up. ‘Don’t worry,’ he panted. ‘I’m planning on climbing Everest next. In historical costume.’ We all thought this balderdash, but Anthony Calf, who was playing Larry, assured me that he would do it. And he did. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a documentary with Brian plodding towards the summit in tweeds. He is the oldest man to have trekked on foot to the North Pole. There seems to be no stopping the man. He totally alludes aging. Brian Blessed was in the first television series I ever appeared in as a child: Arthur of the Britons. He has had the most amazing career appearing in movies such as Flash Gordon, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves when he played Kevin Costner’s father, Henry V and three other Shakespeare movies directed by Kenneth Branagh, as well as Katherine of Alexandria, which stars Peter O’Toole and Nicole Madjarov.
I appeared in vision quite a bit when I was a second assistant. It was much easier to direct crowd sequences in costume. I would put my Motorola in a basket and hide beneath a straw hat. When we were filming abroad it was a lot easier to get into costume and be a waitress than control the complex continuity involved in handling tea trays while communicating in a foreign language. We also got paid a little more. I was the one member of the crew with an Equity card.
Return to Rockcliffe’s Babies ~
‘I returned from the sunshine of Corfu to work as a location manager on Rockcliffe’s Babies, shot in and around the streets of Notting Hill. I was the girl organising car chases the wrong way around Harrow Roundabout at 6.30am on a Sunday morning. One location was in a house occupied by sex workers. The electricians were most amused by this. ‘You going to get us a 25% BBC discount Sophie?’ they’d shout loudly as they arrived at 7.00am. Nothing I could do or say would hush them until they inadvertently dropped an expensive cable into the back yard. They were far too embarrassed to knock on the door of the lady working in the basement to retrieve it and wanted me to ask for it.
We recorded a sequence for Rochcliffe’s Babies in an alley where there had just been a murder and another in a smart street where – unknown to the general public – there were armed hold-ups inside shops almost every week. It was so dangerous back then that I was told we had to have police protection most of the time. I was sure this was mainly because the police enjoyed watching the filming. When I recced the area, I was quite alone.
However, in those days a ‘Two-camera Outside Broadcast’ was made up of a so many expensive vehicles I had to engage two minders to help with the security. These men were so large they could literally pick up a parked car and carry it down the street. It was quite amusing watching a shopper’s reaction when they returned to find their vehicle had magically moved up the street.
BBC Schools Television ~
‘How did I become a film director by the age of 27? I went on attachment to BBC Education. They were looking for Assistant Producers with experience in drama to direct a number of programmes. My very kind department manager sent me to work on the BBC Drama Director’s course at Elstree Studios so that I was well prepared by the time I arrived.
In the end, I was so into shouting, ‘Action’ and ‘Cut!’ that when I was first asked to make a documentary I staged the whole thing. It was about a little boy who was so fascinated in reptiles that the subject matter out-shone my clonky filming by numbers so luckily my inexperience didn’t matter too much. I learnt to get a little looser in my technique. Working with children as actors is tricky because they are only allowed on set for part of the day and have to keep up their schooling. And the laws come with a caravan of drivers, chaperones, tutors and insurance policies. The easy way around this is to
film – for short periods – in schools, whereby the production can be an exercise in education much like a school play. My local London Comprehensive school was fantastic. I worked with a class of eleven-year-olds, making a pair of improvised dramas that proved so good, and the kids so amusing, that after being shown full length, twice, they were repeated every day as shorts on BBC2 at 9.30am for weeks on end. Well, one show was amusing; it was about what girls think about boys and what boys think about girls. The other programme was about bullying. It was both poignant and painful because it was true. Its success was entirely due to the very brave confession – and indeed repentance – of the biggest boy in the class who had been making fun of someone else for ‘talking posh.’ It was the children’s honesty that made The Way People Talk a great hit. Through the filming the boy who had been victimized gained hugely in confidence and popularity. He had been about to leave the school.
We used 16mm film, which was expensive, not just in stock but in lighting requirements. However it was like buying opulent silk to make curtains. It has a wonderful enduring quality. I also got to work with the most wonderful film editors at Lime Grove, including Dave Good, who really taught me how to direct. I was trying to be edgy and thought I could get away without an establishing shot once. He sent me back to get one.
Through the Dragon’s Eye ~
‘According to Wikepedia the next series I worked on became a cult viewing. I loathed it with a passion. I had always wanted to include animation and visual effects in a drama for children, with characters flying around and dragons breathing fire. The reality was frustrating. The only good sequences I shot were the opening titles – on rostrum camera – and various sequences with a mouse. It was a real, white mouse, so tame it did anything I wanted. We didn’t need to re-animate it at all. Carolyn Pickles took the lead part as a character called Doris who was purple from head to foot. She played opposite one chap who was entirely orange and another who was green. We thought this all quite fun. At first. The problem was that their faces had to be painted and they wore wigs which was all pretty unbearable. Everyone got terribly hot and itchy including the giant version of the white mouse
(a female mime artist) and thirteen actors of short stature (‘Please just call us Dwarfs, Sophie’) in thick fury skins playing characters called Widgets. I can remember everyone being assembled on the floor of the film stage, the cameraman on is crane and the Production Manager calling for ‘Red light and bell’ when the fire alarm went off. I was obliged to lead everyone out onto Ealing Green where they waited around in full costume to the amazement of passers by.
After spending 13 weeks on the Ealing film stages and Vis FX studios making this 10 part drama I was ready to leap into flames myself. The actors couldn’t wait for it to end. I was amazed to discover via Wikipedia that Through the Dragon’s Eye became so hugely popular it reached cult status with the illustrated story book I produced with BBC Books selling in excess of 200,000 copies.
‘I was then asked to produce a documentary series working with 4 to 6 year-olds. This I loved. Spurning a presenter I went for a verite documentary style, transposing teachers conversations onto the footage, using a very experienced film editor. He swore with impunity but the results were great. I was terribly proud of myself until I received feedback from the Controller of BBC Education. She said, ‘There’s a spelling mistake in the title.’ Fortunately we had good newspaper reviews, encouraging reports were returned to my Education Officer and the Teachers Notes that accompanied the INSET documentaries sold very well.
Thinkabout Science ~
‘My next serial was a fully scripted drama serial that featured a 7-year-old girl in almost every scene. At first I couldn’t see how we could schedule this successfully. In the end I cast identical 8-year-old twins to share the part, used two cameras and finished by 4.30pm each day. The serial starred Patsy Bryne who had just come from playing Nursie in Blackadder with Rowan Atkinson and was so experienced we usually only needed one take. I directed five episodes and was sent on the BBC Studio Director’s Course at Elstree in order to direct the second series – a fully fledged BBC Drama Director at last.
I’d acted enough as a child to know what would work. And what could cause havoc. Filming with small children and two otters. Can you imagine? Exhausting. I’d grown up with animals though and loved working with them. My family kept tame otters for 30 years so helping to film wildlife sequences had been part of my life, even when I wasn’t at work. It was into the world of wildlife films that I ventured next. Dawn to Dusk ~ a series originated by Sophie Neville, Produced by Alastair Fothergill.
Dawn to Dusk ~
‘How did I make the change? In 1991 I fell ill while I was filming my second big drama series. After endless hospital tests I went to stay in South Africa to be nursed, recovered in five days and started working as a horse safari guide for my friend Sarah-Jane Gullick. She sent me up to the Swaziland border to help sort out the horses for a Game Warden who had scouts mounted on horses. They were not only arresting arms dealers and drugs traffickers – which was terrifying – but poachers, including poachers who were after rare plants. I saw the potential for a natural history series about people working with animals in the bush and sent a proposal to Alastair Fothergill, then the Head of the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol.
In 1982, I’d acted as a field assistant for Alastair when he made a short film about wild goats in Scotland and another on egrets in the Camargue. I’d also done a bit of research for him at Lake Nakuru in Kenya where he wanted to make a Wildlife on One about white-fronted Bee-eaters. I knew what would appeal to him.
Alan Yentob, the Controller of BBC One, also saw the potential and before long I was setting up programmes in Namibia and Botswana.
The first episode featured Randall Moore’s Elephant Back Safaris in the Okavango Delta. It opened with Jonathan Scott, the presenter, being lifted up by the trunk of an African elephant and provided hugely popular, prime-time viewing. I set up a Dusk to Dawn night drive safari further north in Botswana at Mombo where there was a high density of predators and scientists had been watching a pack of wild dogs for some time. I was keen to feature nocturnal mammals rarely filmed such as aardwolf, Porcupine and Springhare – kangaroo-like rodents who graze on grasslands. I also suggested an episode about chimpanzees. I did not work on that one but it launched Dr Charlotte Uhlenbroek’s television career. As a result I have a very fine coffee table book full of Jonathan Scott’s fabulous photographs, Dawn to Dusk, about the series I originated.
I continued to work freelance for the BBC setting up wildlife films and documentaries throughout South Africa including the BBC Children’s TV’s flagship series Blue Peter and Global Sunrise, a Live Watch for the Natural History Unit. As soon as digital technology came in I bought my own camera and started making independent films. At first these were made for my neighbours who needed to advertise their game lodges, horse safaris or the work of their charity. I was very excited to be commissioned by the SABC ~ the South African Broadcasting Corporation ~ to film the sport of polocrosse. At this point I should have dropped everything else, bought some decent camera mounts and set up a company providing equine sports coverage. It is very popular and would have made me money but I was commissioned by Dashwood Productions to develop Makorogo’s War, a true story set in Tanzania and Burma, into a feature film, so I decided to start writing full-time, only playing polocrosse at the weekends.
‘Having made this decision I arrived back in England and immediately found myself intricately involved in filming the most complicated sequences. My parents’ tame otters were in demand and I was one of the few people who could handle them.
Sophie became the otter wrangler. What Russell Harty would have thought I do not know. Luckily it was only an occasional commitment.
‘And then I met my husband. We all learnt to shoot with bows and arrows during the filing of Swallows and Amazons as the Amazons were required to shoot arrows fletched with green parrot’s feathers. I’d played the part of an archery champion in the adventure film The Copter Kids when I was fifteen and had kept up my shooting as my parents were keen. They say that if you want to get married, join a society – which is how, quite incidentally, I ended up meeting the chairman of the Worcestershire Archery Society a few miles from the place where I was born. I then settled down on the south coast of England to concentrate on writing, looking for true stories that could be adapted for the screen.
‘I still travel widely, enjoying long journeys of exploration. Having driven through twenty different African countries the challenge was set to go by horse rather than vehicle. My friends and I have ridden across the Namib Desert, the Masai Mara and the Okavango Delta, and more recently, from Addis Ababa up to the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. In 2008 we rode across South America in 19 days and are planning a ride of 1000 miles through Patagonia.
Sophie is a founder and trustee of The Waterberg Welfare Society, a charity set up to address HIV/AIDS in rural South Africa . She has a BA Hons in Anthropology, is a fellow of the Endangered Wildlife Society, a recognised wildlife artist, a speaker for Bible Society, a Director of Witness Films Ltd and a member of The Drapers Company, which was used as a film location for The Kings Speech.
41 thoughts on “Career”
Please also see this website for Art by Sophie Neville
Thank you! I am just off to South Africa to work on a book about Charles Baber, who appears in ‘Ride the Wings of Morning’. His sense of humour took him through the most incredible problems in life. Have you had time to read ‘Funnily Enough’?
I am reading your book now on Kindle about your time in Africa and I love it! What a sense of humor you and your family have!
Hi Sophie, I just thought I would leave a message, I have been reading all about your adventures filming Swallows and Amazons on this blog and all about your amazing life – what a lot of great things you have done.
At the moment I am reading Swallows to my two girls – I homeschool them both and they are just starting to get into sailing and ‘mucking about ‘ in boats. I remember seeing you in the film when it came out and I think that somewhere along the line it inspired me to follow the life I live now (and also spurred me into giving my children an opportunity to ‘run free’ – swallows and amazons style),
I am so glad that your girls are starting to sail. They must write with any questions they would like to ask about the film.
Hi Sophie, just read about your childhood part in Swallows and Amazons. As I mentioned on the video about Roger Altounyan and Intal, I worked on that Asthma project at Fisons Pharmaceuticals where Roger was based
Thanks so much for letting me know. Did you ever work with Roger’s friend Dr Bill Frankland. They met at Ital. I’m hoping to see him tomorrow night. He celebrated his 100th birthday in March (scroll down on my News page) and is still working.
About me http://robertslinn.wordpress.com/about/
Hi Sophie, alas I did not meet him. As then young aspiring research chemists working with senior PhD organic chemists, we were based exclusively in the R & D labs at Homes Chapel in Cheshire. Roger et al only dealt with management in the art deco building, photo shown in my blog
That should of course be Holmes Chapel* 🙂
Thank you for your comment. Do you have any questions about the television programmes I worked on? Have you been able to see the film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in your country?
What an amazing life you’ve had and with more adventures to come
Hi Sophie. I’ve noticed the name Sophie Neville on various credits and wondered if it could be the same Sophie with whom I briefly worked on Bookshow an Russell Harty. While looking up a reference to Bookshow, I found your site – and indeed, it is you! Well done on building such an interesting mix of a career – you’ve clearly managed to do it your way – a real achievement.
A long, long time ago! What are you doing now, Chris?
Hi Sophie. I’ve been reading about your fascinating life & thought I’d say Hello & wish you well. Such fun we had filming the INSET programme in Endmoor School – memories of a happy (& exhausting!) week. I now live in Scotland, having retired many years ago.
How lovely to hear from you. Working on INSET was very special and you were wonderful. I have lost my VHS copies! But remember it all clearly.
I’m just finishing Funnily Enough, which I received for Christmas, and have enjoyed it immensely. I especially liked the tales of mishaps and incidents that have happened to your rather interesting family; your parents seemed to be incredible characters (the part about your father and the rotavator made me laugh out loud). I wonder if you have thought of publishing a biography of your family; I know the title “My Family and Other Animals” has been taken – but I’m sure there’s a catchy equivalent!
Now I can’t wait to read Ride the Wings of Morning.
With best wishes
I am so glad to hear you enjoyed ‘Funnily Enough’. It was a great encouragement to receive your feedback. I have indeed written more about my family – let me know what you think about ‘Ride the Wings of Morning’.
Mum has now become ‘an internet sensation’ and has had a few more crazy adventures but bringing out another books depends whether I am commissioned to write more about her. She remains unoffendable, so happily gives me a free rein, which is a help but I think I need a few more reviews on Amazon to assure publishers that readers want more. Do leave a comment with any ideas or requests on the Goodreads ansd/or the Amazon page for ‘Funnily Enough’. These are always emensly helpful.
Thank you so much for taking the time to add a review on Amazon. It is so helpful. I am told that once a book is given 50 reviews Amazon will advertise it at a higher level. One more review and we’ll be there!
I have just been invited to discuss ‘Funnily Enough’ at a Book Group in Bristol on 14th Feb. It is such a great date!
I’ve just found My Family and Other Animals on Daily Motion. I deem it as the best film adaptation of the book. You have had an amazing life, able to follow so many interests and develop yourself in so many ways. I really admire you, and you bring with you a breath of English ways and culture that I often fear are lost. I arrived here as I am a fan of all things otter. Apparently the Marshes that Gavin Maxwell visited in Iraq are regenerating to some extent but damming of rivers has reduced the volumes of water previously available. The news that they had been destroyed affected me enormously. Habitat protection is all and estuarine environments are so sensitive and so valuable.
Thanks so much for writing in. Have you managed to aquire any of my books? The memoir, ‘Funnily Enough’ is about living with tame otters. The tame male otter we have at the moment is to star in the new series of ‘My Family and Other Animals’. I helped with the filming aa our house on 30th October.
I refer to this sentence from above:
‘Although tame and hand-reared, the leopard pounced and sunk his teeth into the poor chap’s thigh.’
Might I have the temerity to suggest this didn’t happen?
It could well be that the leopard SANK his teeth…..but I am sure he didn’t SUNK them.
A whole line of teachers stretching way back in my family history would be horrified if I didn’t mention this.
I first read Arthur Ransome books more than sixty years ago, and I did enjoy the 1974 movie. ^_^
Thank you so much for writing in. I hugely appreciate the help of proof-readers and accept all observations with gratitude. Do let me know of any other errors!
I am glad you enjoyed the film ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974). We made DVD Extras for re-mastered Blu-ray and DVD released in 2014 to celebrate the 40th Anniversary. Do, please, adda review to the Amazon site if you have a moment.
I brought out ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ to accompany this. It is available as an ebook under the title ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons (1974)’. Please let me know if you find any errors there-in. I hope to bring out a 3rd edition next year. A few odd exceptions are prefered by publishers eg: the word Acknowledgements.
Are you a member of The Arthur Ransome Society?
Yours, with best wishes,
Thank you for your reply Sophie.
I have a modest education, and do notice errors in text now and then, but also I notice news readers are prone to outrageous errors too.
Even on the BBC. (That might get me banned from the UK? (^_^)
It is all ok really, as I readily correct as I go along.
I am a bit too old to be joining ‘clubs’ or making any useful contribution to them I think.
The very first Arthur Ransome book I read was Coot Club.
Then I progressed to several others, notably ‘Swallows’.
In late adult years I purchased the books I had read, and discovered they were just as fresh and interesting as long ago.
I liked the ‘flavour’ of the 1974 movie. I think Ronald Fraser? was ‘somewhat under the weather’ on most days. Due both to the weather calling a halt to filming, and a convenient local ‘pub’?
I think he was ideal for the part anyway.
Not that anyone needs to know my impressions.
Thank you again for your reply.
I am glad you enjoyed the style of the 1974 film. I’m afraid Ronald Fraser was permenantly pickled throughout the filming. I’ve added more stories that were sent in from the people of the Lake District to the second edition of my ebook on how the film was made, which might amuse you: https://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Secrets-Filming-Swallows-Amazons-ebook/dp/B00GNFYZJS?tag=sophienevi-21
I am reminded of a saying from somewhere, something about ‘we never sleep’.
Such a prompt response deserves a ‘pithy’ reply?
Somewhere I must have that ‘making of swallows’ book, because I am sure that is where I read about ronald fraser. I will look for it when I have a moment.
Just for the record, most of my ancestry is centred in the uk.
Names like Plumstead and Portsea Island come to mind. Can’t remember much else right now.
More useless information that no one needs to know. ^_^
Thank you for the prompt response, and the link which I will follow with the greatest interest.
Dear Sophie, I enjoyed reading this blog. I don’t know whether your remember me? – I did arch and anth at the same time you did anth, and was across the road at Mildert. 40 years ago this Sept!! I happily came across this blog as I am going to Corfu this summer and just wanted to do a bit of research on the Durrells – I loved Gerald’s books when I was a child. I’m still an archaeologist! With all good wishes – Amanda Chadburn
Good to hear from you! I loved working on the first series ‘My Family and Other Animals’, especially since Gerald and Lee Durrell came out to Corfu. It is worth getting a DVD of this series for the sake of the locations. The ‘White Villa’ we used, became Daphne’s family house in ‘The Durrells’. It was rather damp. Sadly I don’t have my files from the production.
You might enjoy my book ‘Funnily Enough’ as it features quite a few of the people who were at Durham with us including Rose Colman and Diana Vernon who read Anthropology. You can order a copy from the library or find it online here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Funnily-Enough-Sophie-Neville/dp/1466213485?tag=sophnevi-21
Interesting that the only commercial you have done was for Weetabix..I have memories of you doing an ad for bread ? Mother’s Pride …clearly my memory has played me false all these years
Not I – my sister was in one for Mr Kiplings’s Cake. https://sophieneville.net/2014/02/07/the-child-star-once-seen-as-the-little-girl-eating-an-ice-cream-in-swallows-amazons-1974/
It might have been my mother. I’ll ask her. https://daphneneville.com/
Hi Sophie, Great to catch up with you after all this time. We did an anthropology module together in Durham back in 81/82, with the wonderful David Brooks, and though we never actually spoke, your fame as ‘Titty’ preceded you. I went on to do my PhD in Durham and worked in the Middle Eastern Studies department for over twenty years, before taking early retirement in 2017. S&A is one of my kids’ favourite films, and it was always great to be able to tell them that ‘I went to university with one of the stars!” Glad to learn about your varied and fascinating career! Best wishes, Colin (Turner)
Great to hear from you! Have you manged to get a copy of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’? It was commissioned by readers of my blog. You should be able to order a paperback from your library. If you enjoy ebooks, I have it on Kindle/Kobo etc under a different title of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’. You can read the first bit for free here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00GNFYZJS/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i2
Hi Sophie, I really enjoyed reading that! Our paths have crossed as I was in Drama Series/Serials same time as you. I worked with Bill Sellars although I think I had gone on attachment to be a props buyer when One by One got filming. I was there certainly for pre production. Oh, and some of the filming. I now know Gary Hodges – another wildlife artist and must have brushed shoulders with you at the Mall Galleries when I bid for Gary’s Joy and presented it back to him and Dave. I have just watched Swallows and Amazons again after years. I must have seen it when it first came out. And Virginia McKenna was one of my favorite actors and now is my hero as a wildlife campaigner. So – our paths have crossed! I might see you at Gary’s next exhibition in September I think. Or maybe it’s not quite an exhibition.
Great to hear from you.
I don’t know if Gary Hodges supports Virginia’s charity, Born Free, but I know he has done various things with my mother Daphne Neville who has been working in conservation for the last 35 years. I suppose we all have the same interests.
The 1974 film of Swallows and Amazons has become increasingly popular over the years. It was screened 3 times on BBC 2 last year and is currently on BBC iPlayer. In about 2015, the fans persuaded me to write about how it was made and I’m still unearthing bizarre stories. Never have so many things gone wrong. I now have enough for a third edition of the paperback. I never knew it at the time but the producer was nearly killed by a cow falling down a bank and hitting his car.
I am 58 and have only just viewed Swallows and Amazons for the first time (on Amazon Prime), so found myself seeking you out to see what you were up to these days. Such an interesting life!
I wish I had seen the film as a child, as it might have inspired me to learn to sail much earlier in life than I have (just two years ago). I was taken to see most of the children’s films, but never that one for some reason, and never read the books either, as I was more into fantasy stories than adventure at the time.
I just wanted to say what a lovely bunch of actors you all were in the film, and very authentic too. You must have had such fun making it!
Many thanks to all involved. Hopefully I will be able to pursue my own little adventure when the pandemic is over.
It’s so good to hear from you, Maria. I’m so glad you enjoyed watching the 1974 film. Claude Whatham was a director ahead of his time. You can see loads of behind-the-scenes photos and read about what it was like on location in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, available online here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Making-Swallows-Amazons-Sophie-Neville/dp/0718894960/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8
You can read the first section, for free in the similar ebook version here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Secrets-Filming-Swallows-Amazons-ebook/dp/B00GNFYZJS?tag=sophienevi-21
You must let me know what you think!
Hello Maria, I devoured the books. I went through everyone of the Swallows and Amazon series borrowed from our local library. The covers and illustratons charmed me. Although I grew up not so far from the sea in a sailing nation and loved the outdoors; hiking, swimming and cycling, I never got the chance to sail until in my late 20’s and I since then I’ve been hooked on all things maritime. I’ve done all kinds of sailing and windsurfing too but these days my body can’t cope with beating into the wind. Too many accidents while on land! Children are far too cosetted these days; risk is a dirty word. Perhaps along with The Cat in the Hat S & A will be censored soon for being racist, too white or whatever. There is no pandemic, only a plandemic; best to turn off the TV and radio go to non censored platforms for information and fight at every possible moment against the tyranny that is taking place all over the world. Sailing at the moment still remains a possible means of escape in some places but for how long? The Suez Canal blockage was intentional; to create more chaos in supply chains, to cause suffering to already ailing economies. All this disruption by control will only stop when we recognise it for what it is, call it out and refuse to accept the loss of our freedom and dignity. Marie
We should keep in mind that the stories came from the active mind of Arthur Mitchell Ransome.
We are indebted to him for thought stimulating, and heart warming, descriptions of intrepid children?
He wafts us easily in to a realm of pleasing and safe unreality, where imagination rules.
He gives us a pleasant and necessary break from an otherwise humdrum and predictable existence.
I think sometimes that writers do not fully understand how valuable a contribution their stories can be.
Making a ‘movie’ about a book brings that story to life.
It is no longer just an imaginary tale: it has visual impact as well.
Sadly, a movie can never have the wealth of detail which a book does, but it IS a useful and welcome addition to the mix.
I first read ‘Coot Club’ way back in about 1950.
I was fascinated.
I quickly moved on to the other stories.
In later life I purchased copies for my own library.
When I read them now, my perception of them is not the same as before.
Experience has given me greater awareness, so I ‘see’ the stories in a different way.
They evoke different emotions.
I think the movie Swallows and Amazons is more than a short visual feast.
It gives us snapshots of moments in time which would otherwise be gone forever.
It allows us to have a window in to the past.
We can look back, not only to enjoy the story, but to relive the wonder surrounding the lives of those who made the movie.
Movies can add remarkable pleasantness to one’s day, in many different ways.
Here I must ask you to forgive my verboseness.
I sat down to write only a few lines.
But somehow, like ‘topsy’, they ‘just growed’?
Thank you for writing in. It is so good to hear you have enjoyed watching the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. You might like to read about how it was made in the book I have written based on the diaries I kept on location. It is available online here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Making-Swallows-Amazons-Sophie-Neville/dp/0718894960/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8
Please let me know how you get on.
Dear Sophie, Wow! What a varied and fascinating career you have had. I knew some of it, of course, through reading your books. But I had no idea of the full extent of your years in TV and then in Africa. Litter picking on the Solent beaches must seem quite tame after all that’s gone before! A well-deserved respite, perhaps?!
The litter-picking is but a hobby although I do end up writing the odd article about it. There is one in the Herald this week.