To mark the 30th anniversary of its original broadcast on BBC One, Revelation Films have just re-released the DVD of Swallows And Amazons Forever! It has been one of their Top Ten bestselling DVDs.
Swallows and Amazons Forever! is the television adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s classic books Coot Club and The Big Six, an eight part drama serial that I worked on, behind-the-scenes, over a period of nine months back in 1983 when it was filmed on location on the Norfolk Broads.
As Revelation films say, ‘Set on the Norfolk Broads in the 1930s, the BAFTA-nominated BBC production is packed full of lively characters, beautifully authentic scenery and plenty of adventure.’
Jake, Mark and Nic with Sam Kelly playing Captain of the Catchalot
The new version of the DVD includes subtitles for the first time. The packaging and menus have been completely redesigned, and if you take a look at the DVD extras package you can see photographs that I took at the time that give an insight into the production.
The big thing is that the picture quality has been digitally restored, with amazing results. This short Youtube clip shows the amazing difference in the quality.
Release Date: 19 May 2014 | RRP: £15.99 | Certificate: U | Discs: 1 | Run Time: 202 Minutes
Whilst travelling to Norfolk to stay on a boat with family friend Mrs Barrable, Dick and Dot Callum meet Tom Dudgeon and the members of Coot Club. After being told that they won’t be learning to sail, their disappointment quickly turns to excitement as an adventure begins to unfold. Will they be able to protect a precious coot’s nest whilst hiding Tom from the awful Hullabaloos, who are hell bent on ruining everyone’s holiday? Creator of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, stars as Jerry the Hullabaloo in this delightful film.
The Big Six
When Dick and Dot return to Norfolk to stay with Tom, they find themselves caught up in a brand new adventure. The Death And Glories are being accused of setting moored boats adrift but the three boys maintain their innocence. With the whole town against them, it’s up to Coot Club to gather evidence and prove that someone else is responsible for these crimes. The Big Six is born. Dr Who’s Colin Baker and Patrick Troughton star in this fitting adaptation of the classic story.
The yacht Lullaby playing the Teasel in ‘Coot Club’, seen here being delivered to location on South Walsham Broad
If you are interested in the BBC serial of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’, originally titled ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever’ please read on.
It is almost thirty years since we made the BBC adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s books Coot Club and The Big Six on the Norfolk Broads. The eight-part drama serial was filmed over three months during long hot summer of 1983. You can see from our faces how everyone made the whole experience enjoyable. It was ten years after we had made the movie ‘Swallow & Amazons’ but the atmosphere and the camaraderie felt similar.
Caroline Downer, who played Dorothea Callum so professionally, finally took out her plaits for good and returned to school – her real school rather than the boat where she had received lessons whist we were filming. She had done so well, holding her own with a cast made up predominantly of boys by the time we started filming The Big Six. A year or so after the series was broadcast she wrote to me of her plans for the future. I am ashamed to say that I was so busy working on Doctor Who that I didn’t reply. I can’t think why I tarried. She was far more important to me than Doctor Who. Caroline now teaches drama, is an LRAM examiner and puts on the most wonderful musicals. Hopefully she can draw on something of what she learnt during those months in East Anglia spent working with so many great British actors.
Despite the pressures and stress of filming, nothing flustered Henry Dimbelby. He was easy-going and optimistic – great fun to have around. He had no ambition to act but did such a good job. His parents were wonderful. Instead of going to Devon, where they kept a gaff-rigged boat, they rented a house on the North Coast of Norfolk for their summer holiday in 1983 so as to be near our locations. I remember driving Caroline and Henry up on a unit day off only to find Jonathan Dimbelby there too, with his wife Bel Mooney who I chatted to when we went for a walk before lunch. On the kitchen table back at the house was a huge colourful sausage and pasta salad made by Josceline Dimbelby, Henry’s mother. It was the first home-cooked meal I’d had for weeks, and was hugely appreciated. I was mesmerised by the colours and textures, the whole inventiveness of a salad made for a large family.
While Henry’s grandfather, Richard Dimbelby the World War II correspondent, went into newspapers and his father, David Dimbelby, worked for the BBC as a News reporter, presenter and commentator, you could say that Henry followed his mother. He trained as a chef – and became an innovative one, producing books on food and appearing on the occasional cookery program. In 2004 he opened Leon, the restaurant in Carnaby Street in central London that specialises in serving seasonal fast-food that is both delicious and good for you. Founded with Allegra McEvedy and John Vincent, Leon soon became popular. It was awarded ‘Best New Restaurant’ at the Observer Food Monthly Awards six months after opening. I believe Henry and his partners now have a chain of ten outlets and that their recipe books are an inspiration to many.
Claire and Sarah Matthews, the twins who played Port and Starboard in Coot Club, went on to play Eve and Alexandra in the 1984 TV mini series Master of the Game , which starred Angharad Rees, David Suchet and Fernando Allende. They still live in Sussex and are very close. Claire has taken up running in all weathers.
The Walpoles have written in! It was so good to hear from them. Nicholas Walpole, who played Joe, joined the Royal Navy and served on HMS Roebuck from 1989-90 as a survey recorder. A friend of his said he was teased mercilessly on board about his acting background. Many-a-time a chorus of ‘Swallows and Amazons forever’ would ring out when he walked into the Mess. Nik is now married, lives in Coventry and has three grown up children, one of whom wants to act. His mother still enjoys living in rural Norfolk. You can read their comments at the bottom of previous posts.
I am afraid that I haven’t seen Simon Hawes, who played George Owden, or the other boys from Norfolk since we finished filming. They did so well. Playing a baddie isn’t easy even with Make-up and Hair Department straining to help.
Richard Walton, who played Dick Callum, now lives in Los Angeles – he has written in, below. Mark Page, who played Bill, now lives on the coast of Turkey. I wonder if taking part in the BBC serial influenced their decisions to emigrate.
We spent long days together, often out on the water. Someone once explained to me that when you are camping and gadding about in boats, generally leading an Arthur Ramsome style life, you tend to laugh more. As a result more endocrines get released into your system, relationships are forged and bonds made. It has to be said that the boy who made us laugh more than anyone else on the film crew was Jake Coppard, who played Pete, the shortest of the Death and Glory boys. Although the character he played could be serious Jake was always finding something amusing or someone to imitate. Sam Kelly got on with him particularly well, helping him through the scene when Pete falls in.
Jake was such a talented actor. I gather he went on to appear as Charlie in a television drama directed by Tony Virgo called Travellers by Night (1985) , which featured Neil Morrissey who became so well known when the comedy series Men Behaving Badly proved a success. The lead role of Mrs Baker in Travellers of the Night was played by Jo Rowbottom who, by coincidence, had played Katie Leigh, Simon West’s mother in Sam and the River back in 1975.
Jim and Jill Searle of the Norfolk Country Sailing Base in Ludham helped us find traditional boats for the BBC adaptation of Coot Club and The Big Six set on the Norfolk Broads. Jill kindly sent me a copy of this photo taken of Lullaby just after she was chosen to play the Teasel. Her costume consisted of a false transom, which is still at Hunter’s Yard in Ludham today.
Roger Wardale took this photograph included in his book, Arthur Ransome on the Broads , which Amberley Publishing brought out in full colour. He tells of Arthur Ransome’s half-dozen or so holidays on hired yachts and of the young people who sailed in the fleet, including Titty and Taqui Altounyan.
Roger found out that the Ransomes hired a 23′ Fairway’ yacht from Jack Powles of Wroxham. This had a Primus stove with a special cooking locker in the well. It sounds well kitted out with a wash-basin and self-emptying WC in a separate compartment. The three Somnus spring-berths had drawers underneath and there was even a wardrobe. Like the Teasel, she was built of mahogany with a ‘bright varnish finish’ and, given a fair wind, would have zipped along at quite a speed.
Roger said that he spent six days trying to find places Arthur Ransome visited that had not changed since the 1930’s but found it difficult. What he did discover was the dinghy used to play Titmouse in the BBC TV series. She can still be visited at Hunter’s Yard.
It is still possible to hire the mahogany hulled, gunter-rigged yachts much as Arthur Ransome and his wife did in the 1930’s, together with a sailing dinghy or rowing boat. There are fourteen sailing cruisers in the Hunter’s fleet and none have an engine. They have lifting cabin tops so you have more headroom when you moor up. Lullaby, built in 1932, is 28ft long with four berths. Her mast can be lowered with counter weights so she can be taken under bridges with a clearance of six foot.
Roger Wardale says that in the 1930’s, many of the yachts had a ‘self-acting’ jib but Ransome considered it too large. There were times when he lowered it, only to find ‘he sailed better without it!’ They still have self-acting jibs but the size may have been altered.
Roger also found a cruiser similar to Janca, the 1930’s cruiser who played the part of the Margoletta. She was skippered by Julian Fellowes in his glorious role as a Hullabaloo, the spiteful, arch-baddie of Coot Club.
Back in 1983 we were hugely helped by a number of Norfolk boatmen who knew the broads well.
You will have to let me know the name of these gentlemen who spent long hours helping us in the summer of 1983.
Filming from one boat to another is tricky and much patience was need. In many ways the easiest boat to film with was the Death and Glory. She can still be found moored somewhere on the Broads.
I well remember setting up this shot for the cover of the abridged version of the two stories, which was brought out by Puffin to accompany the series. It shows the Death and Glory complete with her green chimney. The big secret was that the interior of the cabin was larger than the exterior. we puzzled over Ransome’s drawings only to decide that he had cheated the measurements too.
Bruce McCaddy and his team built the set inside a modern boatshed where it was kept for ‘rain cover’, since the interior scenes could always be shot if it was wet. It included ‘camera traps’ or sections that could be removed so the scenes could be shot. I never went inside but the boys loved it. In fact the weather was glorious. We enjoyed such constant sunshine in the later part of the shoot that we filmed the interiors when it was dry and so warm the boys got quite over-heated.
The BBC drama series Swallows and Amazons Forever! was first broadcast at a very odd time. Instead of being mainstream BBC One Saturday night viewing in the run up to Christmas as we expected, it was moored in a by-water, shown on BBC Two at 6.30pm on Tuesday evenings. Very few people saw it. This was odd, especially since it was a big budget production with a strong cast. Perhaps it was because Colin Baker who played Dr Dudgeon had just been cast as Doctor Who.
However, when the series was released on video it was treasured by many:
‘This video is a delight!’ wrote Dr Duncan Hall from North Yorkshire. ‘…the animated credit sequence and the music are both a delight and you won’t get tired of them! The stories themselves are amongst the best ever written for young people and they are brought to life with relish by the director and excellent cast. The locations are all spot-on; anybody who has ever had a magical holiday on the broads will love this video for that alone! And the wildlife photography is fantastic as well. A last point: it is true there are no Swallows and Amazons in the programme – but the two books were part of Ransome’s famous ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series of books, so the title does not seem TOO inappropriate to me. Buy it!!!
This is a beautiful adaptation of Ransome’s ‘Coot Club’ & ‘The Big Six’. The child actors/actresses are excellent. There is almost an historical element as the DVD charts childhood without mobile phones and electronic games. Simply gentle and innocent yet a good degree of drama. 5 out of 5 stars Excellent
Mike Souter said, ‘ So pleased I bought this. I interviewed Henry Dimbleby on location in the 1980’s and seeing the episodes again brought back many happy memories. Charming series.’ Some viewers wrote to say they thought the twins playing Port and Starboard should have been aged eleven. They, in fact, were (both) eleven-years-old.
‘If you like nature, sailing, kids and bad plots this fits the bill. I have sailed on the Norfolk Broads and this series captures the atmosphere perfectly. The sailing is technically accurate too. I’m old enough to remember England in earlier times. Once again the atmosphere has been captured nicely. The unusual Norfolk regional accent is evident and sometimes realistic. This is a classic and fully in the spirit of the Swallows and Amazons books.’ 5 out of 5 stars -Wonderful ~ C Bauers, Suffolk
‘We really enjoyed this adventure it has inspired my kids to do a sailing course!!’ ~ David Francis, France
‘Watched the series as a child and have loved it my whole life. A family favourite, simply charming! Very indulging to sit back with a cup of tea and lose myself in the antics of some wonderful characters. I love it.’
‘Highly recommended entertainment for the whole family. Good old fashioned fun that children use to have before computer games were invented.’ J.Kennedy ~ Sydney, Australia
‘Just spent a week on a Broads cruiser with three granddaughters and played the DVD on the third night. It was quite magical that we had cruised to all the places mentioned in the films, and the girls were able to identify the filming locations, including the swing railway bridge at Reedham. We tried very hard not to have the radio too loud the next day for fear of becoming Hullaballoos, and kept well clear of coots nests. As with all films, these do not copy the books word for word, but I think Arthur Ransome would have been pleased with the result. Pity the TV companies don’t produce more films from the other books in the Swallows and Amazons series.’
We were hoping to keep going and adapt all the Arthur Ransome books. While I started casting children for Swallowdale and Picts and Martyrs, our Producer Joe Waters went up to Cumbria on a recce to find the main locations and to estimate a budget the next series. He returned looking crest-fallen. Filming on National Trust property in the Lake Distinct, when he was quoted fees of £1,000 a day – back then, even for open moorland – was simply going to be too expensive. Plans to adapt the Arthur Ransome books were put on hold. Indefinitely.
If there was a sequence we all enjoyed putting together more than any other, whilst filming Arthur Ransome’s ‘Coot Club’, it was the scene when Williams the pug dog is weighted on the scales outside Beccles Post Office. This was shot on dry land in the market place of a village in Norfolk, whose name I am afraid I don’t remember – you will have to remind me in the comments below.
In the story, Port and Starboard surprise the crew of the Teasle by arriving unexpectedly on the back of a motorbike, having hitched rides across Norfolk on a series of historic craft including the Albion. Andrew Morgan, our Director was keen to end the scene with a high shot of the bustling market town, portraying East Anglian life as it was in the early 1930’s.
Apart from creating the Post Office so beautifully that we were convinced it had always been there, Bruce McCaddie our designer had television ariels taken off houses and yellow lines on the roads obliterated. He also commissioned his Prop Buyer, Dave Privett, to find a number of period vehicles that could be driven through the town.
Our Producer Joe Waters was keen on what was refered to in television as production value. ‘Always put your money in front of the camera’, he told me. David Privet did that for him, going to endless trouble to source steam rollers and hay wagons, charabangs and river cruisers to bring life and colour to a period drama. I learnt later when we all worked together on ‘My Family and Other Animals’ shot on location in Corfu what a complete perfectionist Dave was.
Busy crowd scenes are rewarding and look wonderful on screen, but they do take a while to set up. All the drivers had to have short back-and-sides haircuts and change into period costumes. On top of the motor-cycle and side car, which Port and Starboard arrived in, Dave had found a 1929 delivery lorry and several bicycles aswell as vintage motorcars. We also had various passers-by and towns people dressed in costume, armed as you’d expect with shopping baskets or prams. This was all pretty much as you’d expect. I’m not sure who decided that we should add a herd of sheep, but we also had sheep. Black-faced sheep to add a bit of rural life. The idea was they they would be driven through the market square at the end of the scene. Bruce sensibly had portable wooden fencing out-of-vision between the houses so they couldn’t escape.
Our leading lady, Rosemary Leach, took up her position outside the Post Office with the children, and we set up to go for a take with all the vehicles in their start positions. As you can see from the low light in my photographs we were getting to the end of a long day. Everyone on the crew was tired, tempers were getting short and the twins were the only ones left with any energy. But the camera turned over and the Director shouted, ‘Action!’ The vehicles set off. There was then the curious sound of heavy rain. Sheep came not walking but galloping into the market square.
‘Cut!’ yelled the Director. The vehicles came to a halt. Bruce and his prop men sprung up, ready with the hurdles. The sheep took one look at them and panicked further. The Dave Privett rushed in to help. There was no where for the sheep to go. They ended up following each other, running round and around a large black motor in the middle of the square. Dave was pinned against the rear bumper. He couldn’t move. The sheep kept on running, round and round. Alec Curtis, having a dry sense of humour, kept the camera running too. The whole sequence was caught on film.
I think Jim Searle must have given me this lovely photograph of Titmouse, taken when the boys from Norfolk who played the Death and Glorys were given sailing lessons prior to filming in the summer of 1983.
Titmouse has recently been renovated by Hunter’s Yard at Ludham in Norfolk, which was used as a film location in the series and restored to her sea-worthy condition.
Tom Dudgeon’s punt, Dreadnaught can also be found at Hunter’s Yard. Henry Dimbleby can be seen here, sitting on the life jacket he was obliged to wear during rehearsals, despite the fact that he jumped into the water in the action to avoid being spotted by the Hullabaloos, the holiday makers who had hired the Margoletta, in reality the Norfolk cruiser Janca.
Am I right in thinking that this must be the Catchalot, above? It looks as if our designer, Bruce McCaddie, is sorting out a fishing rod used by the actor Sam Kelly, who was fishing for pike.
This is the only other shot I have of the Catchalot, which looks as if it might have been taken up near Horsey Mere. It shows Angela Scott, the children’s tutor making a funny face at the end of the day. You can just see the make-up artist, Penny Fergusson, and what could be Mary Soan on board. Jill Searle may have been there too. She became a great friend of Liz Mace, our Production Manager who had always been keen on sailing.
Pat Simpson of Stalham Yacht Services said that during the filming they one had to take a boat from Regan to Horning overnight when the film schedule changed. I have a feeling it was the Catchalot.
One of the jobs Bruce McCaddie gave to his construction team was to build the cabin on the Death and Glory, with its flower pot of a chimney. He transformed the look by adding rigging from the mast.
In terms of set design ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ were rather unusual productions to work on but Bruce loved boats. Instead of being an extra person on the vessel used by the film crew, he would take a period dinghy to gain access to his sets – which of course were often other boats. This run-around boat could then but used in the back to shot, especially if he needed to hide something modern.
An old German Lifeboat found by Pat Simpson washed up on the beach at Southwold was used for the Death and Glory. After the filming, Pat kept it for his sons until 1989 when Professor John Farrington from the School of Geo-Science at Aberdeen University came across it. He took his two children, a boy and a girl aged ten and eleven, down to the yard one half-term as the loved the books and television serial.
‘Get on,’ he said.
‘But what about the owners?’ they asked.
‘You are the owners.’ He’d bought it for them. One New Year they rowed from Stalham to Sutton and back. John Farrington first visited the Broads on a family holiday in 1956 and wanted his children to have the same experience. They now have children of their own and still treasure the Death and Glory.
The Teasel was played by Lullaby. Roger Wardale tells me she isa mahogany hulled crusier, a gunter-rigged, 4-berth ‘Lustre’ class yacht built in 1932 and kept at Hunter’s Yard in Ludham, where she is still available for hire.
She is similar to the 3-berthed ‘Fairway’ yachts that Arthur Ransome and his wife would hire for holidays on the Broads in the 1930’s.
One of the secrets of filming ‘Coot Club’ is that although this looks as if Mrs Barrable is sailing the Teasel, it is not Rosemary Leach but a young man from Hunter’s Yard wearing her costume. Caroline Downer, who played Dorothea Callum, Richard Walton, who played Dick, and Henry Dimbleby who played Tom Dudgeon are in the cockpit, but we also used ‘doubles’ on that day to play Port and Starboard. I found girls two girls from Norwich, Julia Cawdron and Claire Dixon, who played the twins for a day.
The reason for this was that sailing scenes are time-consuming to film and quite tricky to edit together. While our Director, Andrew Morgan, was busy filming the scenes at the Farland’s house with the actor Andrew Burt and the twins, Sarah and Claire Matthews, accompanied by their mother, I was on a second unit headed up by the Producer Joe Waters. Although Joe had directed a huge number of dramas he asked his film editor, Tariq Anwar, up to direct the sequences, knowing that he would be cutting the shots together. He came up to the location with his wife and we took most shots from the camera boat, Camelot.
Tariq Anwar is still working. He edited Vivaldi, based on Antiono Vivaldi’s early life, starring Elle Fanning, Neve Campbell and Brian Cox. His latest credits include Great Expectations and The King’s Speech as well Down the River featuring Joe Henry, Tom Jones and Hugh Laurie. I haven’t seen the documentary but presume it must include the odd boat.
While giving a talk at the Norfolk Broads Yacht Club, I was given a list of the boats that they know appeared in the series:
Teasel – owned and kept at Hunter’s Yard, Ludham on the Norfolk Broads
Titmouse – owned and kept at Hunter’s Yard, Ludham
Dreadnaught -owned and kept at Hunter’s Yard, Ludham
Death and Glory – owned by the Farringtons – kept at Gerry Hermer’s boat yard on the Norfolk Broads
Other boats featured include:
Water Rail – Herbert Woods Delight Class B owned by Liz Goodyear
Joan B – a skiff set adrift at Horning owned by Pat Simpson
Pippa – yacht set adrift at Horning owned by Geoff Angell kept at the Norfolk Boards Yacht Club.
Goldfish 9 – a one-off yacht
Swallow 4 – a one-off river cruise yacht
Starlight Lady 322
Do write in the comments below if you can fill me in on the names of those who helped us with the boats for the series. My address book lists: Jim and Jill Searle, Rupert Latham, Pat Simpson of Stalham Yacht Services, Richardson’s of Stalham, Lawrence Monkhouse, Keith King of Feny Boatyard and the Steam boat Association. I still have a certain sticker on the front of my BBC address book ~
I saw so many children when I was casting Coot Club and The Big Six that I could have left the BBC and set myself up as an independent casting director, but I was twenty-two and all I wanted to do was to join the film crew on location in Norfolk. I was just not sure how.
Andrew Morgan was a lovely director with two children the same age as those in our cast. To my surprise, I met him with his family one weekend on Port Meadow near Oxford. They had a narrow-boat moored at Bossom’s Boatyard where my father kept his steamboat Daffodil. Arthur Ransome would have approved.
Andrew had previously directed action dramas such as Secret Army, Blakes 7, Buccaneer, Triangle, Kings Royal and two episodes of Squadron, which Joe Waters had produced. Andrew, who was good at delegating, later declared himself, as he cued the steam train on the North Norfolk Railway, to be a director who specialised in films about different forms of transport. He very graciously asked me if I would work on location in the formal role of chaperone to the children whilst preparing their performances for the scenes ahead. He anticipated being out on the water in a boat without enough time to go through the children’s lines with them.
Once the casting was complete and licenses for each child safely lodged with various education authorities I took a weeks’ leave before returning to the production office on Shepherd’s Bush Green, where I helped book transport and accommodation. Filming on the Norfolk Broads for three months took quite a bit of preparation. While Joe and Andrew were casting the adult parts, we had to find a local tutor, buy life jackets and make numerous arrangements idiosyncratic to our particular production. The most exciting of these was commissioning the animal handler, Jan Gray of Janimals, to find a pug dog to play William. She bought a puppy so that he could be accustomed to his character name, travelling by boat, working with children and specifically trained to walk across mud. William had no idea of the stardom that awaited him. He ended up spending a great deal of his life in Gretchen Franklin’s arms playing Willy in Eastenders.
The day came when I packed up the little room I had been renting in Shepherd’s Bush from the actress Zelah Clarke and drove to the Dimblebys’ house in Putney to collect Henry. As he had just passed his Common Entrance he’d been let off school earlier than most thirteen-year-olds and we motored up to Norwich in a jubilant mood, singing most of the way. Whilst most of the production team and crew had found holiday cottages, I was to live at Sprowston Manor, the unit hotel with Caroline Downer, Henry and the other actors including the Matthews twins who travelled up with their mother. It was terribly grand. We had small quiet rooms at the back.
Liz Mace, our production manager, had taken my advice and scheduled ‘running around scenes’ for the first few days of filming, so that the children could get used to working with the film crew. The whole series was shot on 16mm by a wonderful, patient lighting-cameraman called Alec Curtis. We were very lucky to get him. He’d just finished The Kenny Everett Television Show and had worked on a huge number of well known comedy dramas ~ The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin with Leonard Rossiter, Fawlty Towers for John Cleese, The Morecambe & Wise Show, Sorry!, To the Manor Born and a BBC thriller called Scorpion. Alec had made God’s Wonderful Railway and was more than happy working with Andrew on the Bluebell Line for the opening scenes of Coot Club. Filming from a boat presented many more challenges, not least simply keeping the camera horizontal, but Alec was ever patient and kind. And always wearing a sun hat.
I had drawn Andrew endless diagrams of Claude Whatham’s camera pontoon, built with a flat surface to accommodate camera track, that used to make Swallows and Amazons in the Lake District. However a more normal and faster vessel was chosen as the camera boat for the Broads. It had to travel around quite a bit since a far greater variety of locations was required than we had in Cumbria. We also had a couple of glass fibre run-around boats which would sometimes be used for the camera, especially in backwaters too shallow for the larger boat.
Looking back, it was a complete miracle that I able to work on the BBC adaptations of the Arthur Ransome books, but in 1983 I spent nine months working on Coot Club and The Big Six, released in 1984 as an eight-part drama serial under the generic title ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever’ . Awarded a BAFTA nomination, it is available on DVD today.
In 1982 I graduated from university and entered the BBC as a researcher on the General Traineee Scheme. I had so enjoyed working for Ronnie Barker on The Two Ronnies that my initial aim was to go into the Department of Light Entertainment. I joined the Russell Hartyteam, which had a series of thirty-minute shows broadcast live from a studio at London Bridge. I actually invited Susan George on the show without realising she had played Kitty Walker (Titty) in the black and white BBC drama serial of Swallows and Amazons in 1963. Since The Russell Harty Show ended at the same time as my contract, I started looking around for a programme strand that was right for me.
The Unit Manager on our team heard that BBC Drama Series and Serials had acquired the rights to the Arthur Ransome books and suggested I went to see the Producer, Joe Waters. I knew we’d get on well as soon as I spoke to him on the phone. Joe was always laughing. Although he’d made numerous episodes of The Enigma Files and Squadron, as well as Police series such as Z-Cars and Dixon of Dock Green, Joe had never filmed with boats and was interested to see the photographs of the camera pontoon devised for Claude Whatham in the Lake District. Joe explained that he had plans to film a number of the Arthur Ransome books but decided to start with the pair set in Norfolk and already had scripts adapted by Michael Robson.
The first miracle was that, although he had a full production team booked, Joe needed someone to help find children who could handle boats confidently on the Norfolk Broads. In the 1980’s drama directors at the BBC were expected to do their own casting, but Joe’s director, Andrew Morgan, was still editing another series and wasn’t going to have enough time to cast the children’s parts. This had to be settled at least seven weeks before filming as Education Authorities request six weeks to process licenses required for children to work as actors. The second miracle was that Marcia Wheeler, the BBC Department Manager would not have given the job to me had I not been able to point out that the Graduate Trainee Scheme was paying my salary. It was January and she had a choice of permanent staff available.
I set to work, scouring the schools of Norfolk, as we needed boys with local accents to play Pete, Joe and Bill – the Death and Glory boys, as well Roger, little Malcomb and youths who could take on the roles of George Owden and his side-kick Ralph as well as Brian and Rob.
I must have written to the Head teachers of every single secondary school in the country, and visited most of them. I managed to find really bright boy to play Dick Callum up in Norfolk, but although I auditioned a number of girls in Norwich, Caroline Downer, who played Dot Callum, and the Farland twins were represented by a London agent.
You wouldn’t expect it to be difficult, but I couldn’t find a boy to taking the leading role of Tom Dudgeon. It was essential he was out-going and could sail well. I dredged school after school, meeting literally hundreds of children. Joe had found a very nice lad who went to a London stage school but he was fifteen and had never been in a boat. He rather wanted to give the part to Jason Lake, Diana Dor’s son, but he too, admitted that he couldn’t sail. We were getting very close to the deadline and I was almost in despair when I took my cousin to see a musical in the West End. During the interval I turned round and saw a boy, perfect for the part of Tom, sitting right behind me.
‘Do you by any chance sail?’ I asked.
‘Oh, yes,’ he replied, ‘We’ve got a cabin cruiser. I often take the helm.’
I went to meet his parents and found myself looking up at David Dimbleby, asking if his son would consider taking the lead in the Arthur Ransome series.
Casting parts for book adaptations is never easy. Arthur Ransome described Dot as having ‘straw-coloured plaits’ and portrayed Port and Starboard as being robust Tom-boys. Every detail may not have fulfilled but in the end the right girls for the parts floated to the surface. Andrew Morgan was thrilled, appreciative of the fact that finding identical twins of the right age who could swim, sail and act convincingly was not easy. Caroline was the only girl I had met with hair long enough and thick enough to make into the plaits Ransome had drawn in his illustrations of Dorothea. She was dark and had no experience of boats but convinced us she was right in so many other ways that we offered her the part and sent her off to learn how to sail. She sailed across the Solent, single-handed and alone on her first lesson, gaining enough confidence to easily cope on the Norfolk Broads.
Since we were scheduled to make nearly four hours of television, we had three months of filming ahead of us. The six children who had leading parts in both books, legally had to be over the age of thirteen to work for such a long period of time. My job had been to find thirteen-year-olds who looked younger. During the audition period, Andrew and Joe needed to see how well the children could act in the space of a few minutes. I had Anna Scher to thank for teaching me how to demonstrate this.
Anna Scher had been Suzanna Hamilton’s drama teacher and agent. In 1968 she’d started a wonderful after-school theatre for children, based in Islington, north London. I knew Claude Whatham had respected her enormously and asked if I could sit in on some of her classes. Anna worked fast, getting her students to concentrate and giving them a number of improvisation exercises. I had directed plays at university, so was used to getting good performances out of young people, but she was an expert, explaining that conflict was the key, ‘Drama is conflict!’ she’d declare.
When I auditioned children, I extended this by telling them they had to be able to list ten issues for the argument they were putting forward and that I wanted to see each point worked into the drama. For example,
‘You walk into your brother’s room and catch him smoking. I want you to try to persuade him it is stupid and give him ten reasons why he should quit.’
The boy playing the brother had to find ten reasons why he should be able to smoke if he wanted to. Joe Waters hadn’t seen this before but agreed that it worked much better than asking children to read scripts. It amused him. The kids who ended up playing Bill, Pete and Joe of the Death and Glory, responded well both to Joe’s laughter and exercises that required their own input. Despite never having had drama lessons they were able to prove themselves capable of delivering convincing performances.
But, would they be able to get the lines of a script out, whilst handling a boat on open water?
One secret was that I asked all the children from Norfolk who were short-listed if they would like to work as Extras on the series even if they didn’t land a part. These children were issued with licences and could have been called upon if any of the cast had to back down at the last-minute. If you look carefully you can see them in some of the busier scenes.