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The Costumes for the BBC serialisation of Arthur Ransome’s books ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Bix Six’

Sophie Neville in 1983, during the filming of 'Swallows and Amazons Forever!'

Sophie Neville in 1983, during the filming of ‘Coot Club’

Julian Fellowes recently introduced me to friends, explaining that we had worked together when I had been a Consultant on ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’ ~ the overall title given to the BBC serialisation of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’. This was very kind. Apart from a fact or two about Arthur Ransome, my consultant-ish-ness consisted mainly in suggesting the children wore warm clothes when they were out on the water. I need not have worried. Our Producer, Joe Waters, appointed the most wonderful costume designer, who knew all about thermal underwear and hats. ‘I love hats,’ she told me. ‘Everyone wore hats in the 1930s. They give the whole production a period feel.’

Coot Club Susannah BNuxton and Henry Dimbelby

Susannah Buxton and Henry Dimbleby on location in Norfolk in 1983

Everyone on the unit – certainly all the children in the cast, adored Susannah Buxton. She was only about thirty-three and had not been a costume designer long. A tall red-head, she admitted to often struggling to her feet on set when the Lighting-Camera man called for a certain light.

Rosemary Leach as Mrs Barrable in a hat suitable for an Admiral

Rosemary Leach as Mrs Barrable in a hat suitable for an Admiral

I’ve just read a review on Amazon.co.uk  about ‘Coot Club’, which said, ‘Wonderful attention to period detail. Even the film’s colours are right for the period.’ They certainly were. Susannah managed to source a huge number of original hand-knitted garments.

Nicholas Walpole as Joe with Sam Kelly in 'The Big Six' ~ photo Sophie Neville

Nicholas Walpole as Joe with Sam Kelly in ‘The Big Six’

While she was dressing the children, deciding what they should wear at the beginning of a new day in the story, Susannah explained that she was keen that they didn’t look too chocolate-boxy. The girls playing Dorothea and the Farland twins were all so pretty it would have been easy to go over the top. She carefully combined elements of school uniform with 1930’s clothes that children would have worn in their summer holidays. I can’t remember any member of the cast being uncomfortable – either two cold or two hot, even though we spent three months filming on the Norfolk Broads.

‘How did you become a designer?’ I asked her.

She explained that she loved clothes and it was what she always wanted to do. She’d been working freelance as an assistant in Bristol, thinking she wouldn’t get to design on a television production for years, when the phone rang. ‘I was asked if I could take on the role of costume designer, so I took a deep breath and said, “Yes.”‘  Here I have to explain that many members of the crew had come up from BBC Bristol, which then had a regional crews available to work on period dramas. Our Producer was very pleased about this. He used a crew from BBC Bristol again when we made ‘My Family and Other Animals’ on Corfu  a few years later. Susannah had a wonderful assistant called Helena and at least three dressers, including Paul Higton and Lesley Bowling, who were not only meticulous but great fun.

Coot Club - Lesley Bowling

Lesley Bowling on location in 1983. The hand belongs to Paul Higton.

The size of the costume department reflected the difference between the 1974 feature film of  ‘Swallows and Amazons’, which was shot in the Lake District with a small cast and very few crowd scenes – when the one Wardrobe Master was helped only by my mother – and our BBC TV adaptations of Arthur Ransome’s books set in Norfolk.  ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ had much bigger casts, with many more roles for adults and supporting artistes.

Coot Club - the hay wagon

A hot day in Norfolk on the set of ‘Coot Club’

I was looking after the eight children in the lead parts and another six or seven boys in supporting roles, not to mention children who appeared as extras in the village scenes.  It was Paul and Lesley’s humour that oiled the wheels that kept us running smoothly. ‘The Big Six’  had to be taken through costume and make-up almost every day for three months and these were costumes that had to stay clean all day. The children were obliged to wear life-jackets when they were near water, right up until the time when the director went for a take. Obviously, these had to go straight back on after each camera set-up. I can still see Paul Higton with an armful of colourful life-jackets he was handing back to five boys at a time.  He went on to become the costume designer on forty-eight episodes of Dangerfield and more than 825 episodes of the TV series Doctors.

Jake Coppard receiving a soaking from Paul Higton while Nicholas Walpole and Make Page escape getting wet.

Jake Coppard receiving a soaking from Paul Higton while Nicholas Walpole and Mark Page escape getting wet.

Susannah Buxton went on to have the most dazzling career. I last saw her when she was striding along the South Bank in London one evening. I didn’t know that she had worked on so many movies. These have included,  Millions, 2004, directed by Danny Boyle, ‘As you like it’, directed by Kenneth Branagh and ‘Death defying Acts’, which starred Catherine Zeta-Jones. She won a BAFTA award for ‘Mr Wroe’s Virgins’, directed by Danny Boyle, an RTS award for ‘Shooting the Past’, which was directed by Stephen Poliakoff, and a number of awards for ‘Downton Abbey’, including an Emmy for Outstanding Costume Design.  I’m not sure she imagined all this would be in store for her when she was busy loading costumes into a boat on Horning Staithe back in 1983.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coot Club - Helena

Helena on the Norfolk Boards in 1983

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

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

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

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

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

Jimmy concluded his tale by adding:

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

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

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

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