Tag Archives: Cider with Rosie

Behind-the-scenes in television and film

BW Filming on Peel Island

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

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

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

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

‘But how did the basket come down?’

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

Daphne Neville making a radio commercial

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

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

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

Sophie Neville on the set of Cider with Rosie

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

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

Filming Arthur of the Britons

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

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

Sophie with the Panavision

Sophie Neville in 1973 with a 35mm Panavision camera

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

Watching a television commercial being made in 1973

Watching a television commercial being made in 1973

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

Sophie and Vic Armstrong in Copter Kids

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

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

Sophie Neville in Crossroads for ATV

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

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

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

8 Comments

Filed under 1973, 1983, Acting, Autobiography, Biography, Film, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized

Claude Whatham, the film director whose work never dated

Claude and Virginia at the railway station

Claude Whatham & Virginia McKenna

I had no idea how prolific Claude Whatham was until I read his obituary. But can the facts in this be correct? It states that he had been commissioned to paint murals by the young Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret in their rooms at Windsor Castle in 1940 after their pictures had been removed for safe-keeping during the Blitz. They couldn’t bear the idea of bare walls and asked if he could paint something cheerful. As Claude was  born in 1927 I thought he must have been to young but he was in his first year at art college. You can see images of the murals and read his own version of how this came to pass if you click here.

Claude Whatham at Egham

Claude Whatham in 1973

All I can tell you is that Claude Whatham simply had the self-confidence to succeed.  After working for a short time as a production designer he became a director at the age of about thirty – evolving his craft in the early years of television. Single minded and determined, yet usually coming across as relaxed, he moved into directing movies in 1972 with That’ll Be The Day starring David Essex, Ringo Starr and Robert Lindsay, followed by Swallows & Amazons in 1973 when he was forty-six.

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

Claude in my hat in Egham 1

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

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

Claude Whatham directing a commercial

Claude Whatham directing a TV commercial

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

Claude Whatham in 1973

Claude’s period films are marked by their enduring quality, they have not dated. I was glad to read that he had happy memories of filming Swallows & Amazons:

Claude Whatham profiled by Tom E Parkinson

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

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

6 Comments

Filed under 1973, Acting, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Film, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized, Zanna Hamilton

Desperation, music and laughter ~ the filming of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, 12th July 1973

Director Claude Whatham

Our director, Claude Whatham had a problem. Despite two attempts he had failed to shoot the key scene when the Swallows, who had just arrived at Holly Howe, discover the Peak at Darien and look out over the lake to spot Wild Cat Island for the very first time. He saw it as crucial to the motivation of the story.

Claude had shot the sequence of us running down the field at Bank Ground Farm in the evening light. He had what would technically be called our POV (point of view) of the island. He had nothing in between. There was no dialogue but without the right light the sequence would not cut together. And now it was raining, endlessly. We waited around all day, yet again,  hoping for the weather to clear. It did not.

12th July ~ my revised diary

I can’t believe that we went, what would now be termed, wild swimming in the Lake District after making such a fuss about recording the swimming scenes at Peel Island.  Even if it was raining the water must have been fairly warm. I don’t suppose we were in for that long. I’m now rather shocked that we dried our hair by sticking our heads out of the windows of the mini-bus. We could have all been decapitated.

While Claude was busy looking at the sky I spent the rest of the day industriously sticking small photographs into my scrap-book. Mum had her camera films developed by Triple Print so that she had some to give away.  This was the result:

Photographs in a child's scrapbook

Two of these tiny photographs show us sitting in the Grizedale Forest with Wilfred Josephs who composed the music for Swallows and Amazons.  He had visited us on location when we were shooting the charcoal burners scenes. If I blow up this tiny photograph you can see a little more of him.

Film Composer Wilfred Joseph

Composer Wilfred Josephs sitting next to Sophie Neville, Lesley Bennet and Claude Whatham. Stephen Grendon sits to his right ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Wilfred had written a canon with the idea that he could do something musical with our voices. Our efforts were being recorded by Robin and his assistant when Mum took these snap shots. The words went in a round, like this:

Swallows:  ‘Swallows sail the ocean-wide, Natives we can not abide.’  (Sung in a high register)

Amazons:  ‘We are the Amazons.’ (Sung beneath us in a low register)

What Wilfred soon discovered was that, apart from Lesley Bennett, we were all pretty useless at holding a tune.  Whatever was recorded on that day near the charcoal burners’ hut never made it to the final sound track – or even the LP that EMI brought out to accompany the movie.

Wilfred Josephs on location in Cumbria

Composer Wilfred Josephs with Sophie Neville, Lesley Bennett, Claude Whatham, Kit Seymour, Simon West and sound recordist Robin Gregory ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Mum was thrilled to meet Wilfred Josephs. He was fantastically talented, with a huge list of credits to his name. Born in 1927, he qualified as a dentist at the Universtity of Durham ~ where I also studied ~ before becoming a full-time composer in the early 1960s. His career was launched when his Requiem in memory of the Jews who were lost to the Holocaust won La Scala. He went on to compose 12 symphonies, 22 concertos and was  commissioned to write a number of overtures, ballets, operas and other vocal works.  In the field of television he is perhaps most well know for producing the theme music for I,Claudius, Enemy at the Door, The Prisoner and Pollyanna. He worked for Claude Whatham on the movie score for All Creatures Great and Small that starred Anthony Hopkins and Simon Ward, as well as the television drama W.Somerset Maugham and the serial Disraeli, which Suzanna Hamilton appeared in.

In the early 1970s Wilfred had also composed the theme music for Claude’s BBC play of Laurie Lee’s auto-biography Cider with Rosie, which Sten and I had acted in. Wilfred Josephs sadly died at the age of seventy, but I found that someone has put his haunting composition for Cider with Rosie onto YouTube. It was so good to hear it again. It comes with colourful cider-making images but – unless passionate about cider – you can have a look at more of my scrapbook while you listen to it. Like the film-score to Swallows and Amazons the orchestra was conducted by Marcus Dods.

Some of these tiny photographs from the contact sheets that Richard Pilbrow gave us are fascinating.

Leave a comment

Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

Secrets of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island, Coniston Water ~ in 1973

Arthur Ransome’s description of Wildcat Island is based on two real islands. The landing place and open grassy camp site illustrated in the books can be found at Blake Holme on Windermere but when Richard Pilbrow went there in 1972 he was so disappointed by the sight of caravans, and the fact it was so near the shore, that he decided to make the film almost entirely on Peel Island where you find Ransome’s Secret Harbour. We never went to Blake Holme.

It was Peel Island on Coniston Water where the real Swallows, the Altounyan children, camped. Roger Altounyan told Bill Frankland that he secretly spent the first three nights of his honeymoon camping there. It must have been magical. We loved going there – it was hugely exciting, even in the rain. There is something about the steep sides, which makes it like a fortress, the ancient Viking settlement WD Collingwood believed it to be.

Had I been producing Swallows and Amazons I would have used Peel island for the unique Secret Harbour but used the peninsular nearby on the mainland for the landing place, if at all possible. There is a nice open beach there and one wouldn’t have had to lug all the heavy paraphernalia of filming over the water – you can imagine time and effort  involved in taking a 35mm Panavision camera across with its mountings and track. I don’t know how they powered the arc lamps we needed to light the campsite, which was quite dark beneath the trees.  They must have run the cables under water. We loved crossing over there but getting us back for lessons and lunch wasn’t easy. There was no loo.

Sophie Neville, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Stephen Grendon on Wildcat Island in the scene where the Swallows find a place to camp

But – the wonderful thing is that now, when children reach the island, nearly all the places from the film are there. The Landing Place has nearly washed away.  We never knew it at the time but one great secret is that it was created for the film. They must have dumped a huge amount of shingle there.  The other secret is that there weren’t actually enough trees for the Swallows to erect the tents their mother had made for them. Two had to be added by the construction team. Arthur Ransome’s tents are not as easy to put up as you’d imagine. It is difficult for children to get the rope taut enough between the trees to take the weight of the canvas. You need to use wagon knots or twist it with a stick. If you tie the rope too high the tents ruck up. The reality was that Suzanna had Bobby-the-prop-man to help her.

One thing that is not a secret, but can take you unawares, is that there never seems to be any firewood on Wildcat Island.  It is the reason why the Swallows went to the mainland in the book. Roger really did struggle to find sticks to pick up on that wet day in May. Mine were carefully set out for me to find by the Designer.  Poor Roger did fall over and he did get quite badly scratched by thorns. Claude gave him a bit of  ‘Danger Money’ for being brave about it and not complaining.

Stephen Grendon playing young Laurie in the BBC Play ‘Cider with Rosie’

I’m not sure if Sten had ever received Danger Money when he played Laurie Lee in Cider with Rosie, which Claude had made two years before. We watched it that night when it was broadcast on television. It must have been shown quite late as it was was labelled as avant garde.  We had to stay up as of course VHS machines hd not been heard of.

Rosemary Leach played Laurie’s long-suffering mother, Mrs Lee, quite beautifully. She was later to take the role of Mrs Barrable, the Admiral, in the BBC series Coot Club. Mike Pratt, who played Mr Dixon in Swallows and Amazonswas Uncle Ray, and Young Billy – John Franklin-Robbins was The Stranger.  Claude cast me as a little girl from Slad called Eileen Brown, who Laurie Lee always said was the first person he ever fell in love with. He was a friend of Mum’s and was around during the filming, since he still had a cottage in Slad. I’d been to a village school in the Cotswolds myself and enjoyed being in the classroom scenes, despite have to wear a drab and rather itchy green dress.

Sophie Neville with Claude Whatham on location at Slad in 1971

I was too shy to put myself forward when Claude asked if anyone knew the chants to playgound skipping games, but I did work hard to prepare for my big scene. I had to play quite a difficult piece on the piano, accompanying the ten-year-old Laurie Lee as he sawed away on his violin at the village concert, while his motherlooked on with tears in her eyes. I was only given the music three days before the filming and had to practice eight hours a day, for those three days, before I got it right. We plodded through Oh, Danny Boy but were so relieved to get it right that our smiles were real enough. At one point Claude took a deep breath and said, ‘Do you think you could play a little faster?’  I looked at him and replied, ‘They’re crochets. They don’t go any faster.’ He claimed that he didn’t know what a crotchet was.

Wilfred Josephs, who was familiar with crochets, wrote the most beautiful music for Cider with Rosie. You can listen to some of it on You Tube ~

Sophie Neville as Elieen Brown and Philip Hawkes as Laurie Lee in ‘Cider with Rosie’ directed by Claude Whatham in 1971.

4 Comments

Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Letters, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

‘Swallows and Amazons’ ~ preparations for the 1973 film

Swallows and Amazons the film diary

My diary entry ~ Friday 11th May 1973

My mother and I reached Ambleside in the Lake District in what must have been Mum’s Renault 5. I know it was packed to the gills. We found the Oaklands Guest House, a solid stone Edwadian house that the film company had booked us into, along with the other children in the cast.

Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker in the film Swallows and Amazons

Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker in the film Swallows and Amazons with her mother Daphne Neville

The cast ~A striking girl called Kit Seymour, who came from London, was playing Nancy Blackett, ‘Captain of the Amazon and terror of the seas.’  Her sister, Peggy Blackett, was played by Lesley Bennett.  Simon West, who was playing my brother John Walker, came from Abingdon. He held a National Optimist title and was an excellent sailor. Suzanna Hamilton, who came from Islington where she went to Anna Scher’s theatre group, took the role of  the very practical Susan. The part of our younger brother Roger had been given to  Sten Grendon, who had played the young Laurie Lee in the BBC Play Cider with Rosie, which I had also been in.  He came up from Gloucestershire with his mother Jane, who was to chaperone us with Mum.

The director ~As my diary relates, were were taken for tea at the Kirkstone Foot Hotel to meet Claude Whatham, who was directing the movie.  He was a small man, habitually clad in jeans, with a denim jacket.  He seemed young and trendy for an adult.  Sten and I had worked for him two years previously on Cider with Rosie  and the others already knew him from the weekend sailing audition.   Claude had just finished making his first feature film, That’ll be the Day, starring David Essex and Ringo Star. He went on to become a revered and prolific director with a long list of credits including the TV mini-series Disreali, Play for Today, Tales of the Unexpected, C.A.T.S. Eyes and the adaptation of  Mary Wesley’s book Jumping the Queue. Mum took me to Yorkshire to watch him making the moive of James Herriots’ vet story All Creatures Great and Small, starring Anthony Hopkins and Simon Ward. He went on to make the feature films Hoodwink (for which he was nominated for an AFI Award), Murder Made Easy and Buddy’s Song, but for all that, Cider with Rosie  (for which he received a BAFTA Nomination) and Swallows and Amazons remain his best known works, with terrific DVD sales. Somehow they never felt dated.

David Wood's screenplay of Swallows and Amazons

I can only think that we were thrilled to hear that we would not be learning lines, never realising it was Claude’s key to gaining natural performances out of us.  His other secret was that he never allowed us to see the ‘rushes’ – film that had just been recored – as  he thought it might make us self concious.  I learnt later in life that he was quite right.  We were also encouraged to start using our character names, which is something we enjoyed. I knew from my parents that Claude had wanted to cast children who didn’t go to stage schools.  I think he chose us for our spiritedness as much as anything else.

The producer had been keen that we could all sail and swim well and  Claude looked for children who were members of sailing clubs. I don’t think he realised until we were out on the lakes in gusty weather how deeply he valued the confidence in sailing dinghies held by the children playing John and Nancy.  They were so good that there were times when they told him what to do.  That amused him.

One thing that amused me intensly was watching the large colour television at the hotel. I’m not sure if I had seen one before.  They were hugely expensive in 1973 and considered a great luxury. The set, which had a wooden veneer, stood on legs and showed all three channels – BBC One, BBC Two and ITV.  We all thought it was amazing. That dates me and the period, doesn’t it?

Leave a comment

Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, David Wood, Diary, Dinghy sailing, e-publication, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story