~ Behind-the-scenes in film and television, continued ~
Much of Arthur of the Britonswas shot at Woodchester Mansion, a vast house built of cut stone yet left half-finished and eventually sold for £1 to Stroud District Council. My father became a Trustee of the Board that decided its future.
It was on the property below the half-finished building, that HTV constructed the vast lathe and wattle hall which comprised King Arthur’s seat.
We went to watch the filming soon after the fire scene, which opens the episode entitled ‘The Gift of Life’. My sister Tamzin was cast as Elka, the little Saxon girl who arrived with her brother Krist unexpectedly by longboat. This was spotted drifting down the river – which is in reality the lake at Woodchester. In the story Arthur insists they should be returned to their own people by Kai, portrayed by Michael Gothard, who rode some distance with them on his horse.
We were also able to watch. The episode was a beautifully shot.
‘I want to feed the squirrels,’ Tamzin declared after they had been riding for a while. It was a line few have forgotten.
‘Why couldn’t you feed the squirrels before you left?’
‘I did, but now I want to feed them again.’
I was fascinated in her costume, including her shoes which were made of hessian sacking.
I am not sure whether Michael Gothard had worked with children before but he seemed able to cope. It was a good thing Tamzin could ride. Her hessian dress was not exactly ideal riding wear.
‘I couldn’t even whistle when I had all my teeth.’
Shaun Fleming was excellent as her brother and managed to cling on behind the saddle as they charged across the hills, which can’t have been easy. The secret was that he acted under his mother’s maiden name instead of his real surname.
I appeared as the Saxon girl with blonde curly hair seen working in the fields with Heather Wright when the children returned to the Saxon village. While Heather was in lime green, I wore a gold-ish coloured top and plum skirt with no shoes. You can see me hobbling across the end of the field which was full of thistles.
My other sister, Perry, was barefoot too. My mother, as a Saxon woman with short fair hair, (photographed above) virtually carryied her into the village after Tamzin and Shaun.
There were a number of weapons on set that intrigued us as children. We all wanted to learn how to use them. Oliver Tobias began to teach us sword fighting, however there was an accident on set which put a stop to this. One of the actors was having his boots sorted out by a wardrobe assistant when he casually swung his axe. Although it was just a blunt prop, with no edge to the blade, it went into her head, resulting in a four inch gash across her scalp. He was devastated. It was a complete accident. The wardrobe assistant recovered but it was a sobering incident and great care was taken when handling the props afterwards, even though they seemed blunt and harmless.
Forty two years later this series is still treasured by many. It had such a strong cast. Heather Wright went on to star in The Bellstone Fox with Bill Travers and Dennis Waterman and in the 1976 movie Shout at the Devil with Lee Marvin, Roger Moore and Ian Holm.
Geoffrey Adams was terribly well known at the time, as for years he’d played the part of Detective Constable Lauderdale in the long-running BBC Police series Dixon of Dock Green appearing with Jack Warner in nearly 300 episodes.
Shaun (Fleming) Dromgoole went to work in film production on a number of well known movies including American Gothic and The Woman He Loved, about which starred Anthony Andrews and Olivia de Havilland and Jane Seymour as Wallis Simpson.
Shaun Fleming, Tamzin Neville, Sophie Neville , Jenny Fleming, Kerig the doll and Daphne Neville in 1972
The producer, Patrick Dromgoole was absolutely prolific, producing a huge number of classic television dram serials including The She Wolf of London and The Clifton House Mystery, which my mother appeared in as well as Robin of Sherwood . Her drama pupil Robert Addie played Sir Guy of Gisbourne so convincingly in that series he became hated throughout the UK. For more photographs of Mum please see flick down though various posts on my blog for Funnily Enough.
Do please add additional information or memories in the comments below.
I have been writing about my experiences behind-the-scenes in film and television for some time. There is one series in particular that still has a strong following, particularly those interested in British medieval history.
As children, back in 1971, we were all excited to hear that HTV was planning to film a series about King Arthur near where we lived in Gloucestershire. We were keen on dressing up and I was already interested in medieval history.
The Arthurian legend had always been portrayed with ladies in pointy conical hats and knights in chain mail riding around with lances, however expectations of turreted castles were soon to be dashed.
Instead, we woke up one morning to find this tent in the field beyond our house, with a full English breakfast being served by location caterers from the back of a two-tone bus. The final scenes of Episode One of the series Arthur of the Britons, entitled Arthur is Dead,starring Oliver Tobias in the title role,was to be filmed on our farm.
We learnt that the drama series, Arthur of the Britions was to be quite different from traditional renditions of the well-loved stories. Apart from anything else the actors had long hair and wore rough hessian garments or sheepskins to reflect the culture of Iron Age England. Everyone was excited about the idea, which seemed more authentic and certainly held more sex-appeal than the Hollywood idyl lodged in our consciousness.
While the lane below the wood that ran along the sides of our valley was closed to traffic, HTV ran cables and moved in with their lights, camera equipment and props amounting to bundles of swords, spears, shields and other weaponry.
Here you can see the Gulliver’s Prop lorry as well as costume and make-up artists with their kit-bags attending to the actors and supporting artistes. Please remind me of the name of the character to the left of shot and who played him. ***
It must have been dark under the trees, as there would have been have been a large 2K light on this tripod. The crew set up carefully and were finally ready to go for a take, recording the battle in the woods on 16mm.
After a short skirmish, Arthur pretends to retreat, leading his men downhill. They are soon followed by the Saxon hordes. The reality was that the wood was much steeper than it came across on television. The actors ended up tumbling down the bank.
We were waiting in the open field in the valley floor. Although naturally marshy, this had been made much wetter by damming the stream that flowed down from the woods. Our local road engineer Percy Baxter dug pits that filled with water and acted as a trap for the Saxons who did not know the secret way through the marshes.
We knew the ledgend and were fascinated to see how the sequence would come together.
As the scene was difficult to replicate it was shot with two cameras, seen here set on wooden tripods. The result was exciting.
Scroll to 19.50 towards the end of the episode to watch the scene here on Youtube:
***Post script: This email arrived recently. I have been given permission to feature it:
“Browsing the web the other day, I came across your website and photos relating to filming ‘Arthur of the Britons’. One photo in particular interested me, the one in which the request, ‘Please remind me of the name of the character to the left of shot and who played him’ appears.
Looking at that photo stirred many memories…
Back in 60’s Bristol, my old chum Bob Baker was trying his hand at script-writing for the media, somehow he got involved with a BBC Children’s series entitled ‘Pegasus’: of which meager entries appear online and actual footage seems non existent.
Bob and I enlisted as extras for a shoot at Berkeley Castle, much fun, beautifully authentic Napoleonic Infantry costumes, several closeups, a hard in-character slap on the face for Bob and a shot of me firing a rifle at an imaginary ‘Pegasus’, the eponymous hot air balloon, as it took off from the castle courtyard carrying the escapee heroes of the plot. An excellent tight closeup only marred by myself who, having fired and watched the imaginary effect of my bullet, lowered the rifle and stared up intently, for what seemed minutes (at nothing) finally relaxed… as my eye was drawn inexorably towards the huge camera lens inches from my face. ‘Christ! He just looked straight into the camera! Cut!’ I was particularly stung by a co-extras unconcealed schadenfreude as he muttered, ‘Shame about that Rog, they liked the look of you, blown your chances now.’ But it was too good to waste and, edited, made it into the final cut: it was however the last close-up I got.
The final location work called for a night shoot, it was raining intermittently and shooting was sporadic, Bob and I spent most of the night in the canteen, drinking wine with our old mate Keith Floyd who had managed to land the catering job – in many ways, the start of his career and of course he went on to considerable success, fame and several television series of his own. Bob and I ran out of cigarettes so, fully accoutred and armed with cocked hats, swords, rifles and bayonets, we strolled down into Berkeley village and went into The Boar’s Head just at closing time, startling the small group of locals, and ordered two pints and some fags. A stunned silence descended as without a word, Bob and I drained our pints and left as suddenly as we had appeared. I wonder if the legend of the two thirsty apparitions from La Grande Armée is told there still?
Bob and co-writer Dave Martin had written a well-researched film script about King Arthur. They knocked on many doors, Hollywood was mentioned; even Charlton Heston was reported to be interested, but finally, in 1973, it was HTV who eventually picked it up, though I see Bob actually gets credit only for the first episode ‘People of the Plough’.Of course, he went on to write many of the scripts for ‘Dr Who’ and ‘Wallace and Grommit’ but this was his first, if modest, success.
I was on my summer vacation and Bob mentioned HTV were looking for extras for ‘Arthur’ if I was interested. When I arrived on set it seemed that half of Bristol was there including many of my drinking mates from Clifton, most of whom had arrived equipped with cider and beer and it became fairly apparent the direction things would take. A few years ago I was reminiscing about those days with one of them, Mike Dauncey, who went on to become a respected BBC Cameraman, but who sadly, recently died. He told me he spent most of his time in the actors tent, along with a few other reprobates, smoking pot. I recall seeing him at the time but had no idea what was going on, though I remember enjoying plenty of the extraordinary amounts of alcohol that seemed to be around. I’m pretty sure Mike is the guy in the patterned doublet with his back to the camera, extreme right.
Vaguely, I recall lots of nonsense, involving charging down hills waving swords and yelling, mock fighting in in the river and defending a primitive ‘Saxon Village’ that had been constructed on a river bank. As always, shooting was a bit piecemeal, scenes being shot out of sequence and us extras standing around as background whilst Oliver Tobias, Jack Watson and, by the end of the shoot, the Celts, had taken the village. Not terribly dramatic at the time, presumably any attendant pillage and rapine was the subject of a different shoot, though I recall a fair amount of fake blood waiting in readiness. Finally the script called for the Celts to set fire to the village. And thus I got my big starring role, as employing all my acting skills, dressed in a ‘bloody’ sheepskin and in closeup, I was required to play a dead Saxon.
Unfortunately it had been steadily raining all day and the ‘village’, built largely from straw and dummy plastic wickerwork, refused to ignite. I was lying very close to the ‘village’ and began to get a bit concerned as, from my worms eye view, I watched the crew enthusiastically chucking gallons of petrol over the village to get things going. It all seemed to take a long time and as I lay there in the rain, I remember hoping they hadn’t forgotten that the dead Saxon was actually an extra and not a prop. More time went by setting up the shots but eventually the scene was in readiness. Action! shouted the director and with cameras rolling, three ‘Celtic horsemen’ with flaming torches galloped down on the village, narrowly avoiding trampling me, threw the torches at the ‘buildings’ and galloped off. For several seconds nothing happened, then suddenly with a huge WHOOMPH! all that petrol just went off, The heat where I was lying was incredible, the grass between me and the village began to steam then turn yellow and smoke, I began to smell wet, then burning wool, as my sheepskin began to smoulder, fortunately too sodden and thick to actually catch fire, but lying there, I discovered an earnest empathy for those Guy Fawkes dummies I had chucked on bonfires as a kid. The crew were oblivious to my plight as the director called for several takes and the scene took over an hour to shoot until eventually the flames died down and a wrap was called.
Months later the series appeared on TV, I saw very little of it but did see that scene; by modern standards it looked fairly amateurish, obviously phoney as you could see the plastic ‘wickerwork’ melting, but my closeup was excellent, I looked just like a corpse, very realistic, despite gently steaming.
Bob and Dave Martin always referred to the series as ‘Arthur in The Stinging Nettles’ but what struck me about that photo is that it looks more like the set for some fey setting of Lothlórien. What a bunch of fairies!
So back to that plea, who was the character on the left? Well, if it’s the guy having his face touched-up on the extreme left, I’m afraid it was no actor, just an extra that played a corpse. Me.
I seem to have banged on a bit, strange how a photograph brings it all back, apologies if it just seems like some old blokes boring memories – but then again, that’s exactly what it is!
Revelation Films have just contacted me, saying that they are thinking of producing new packaging for a 30th Anniversary release of ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’ This is the BBC Drama adaptation of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ that starred Rosemary Leach, Julian Fellowes, Colin Baker, John Woodvine and Henry Dimbelby not to mention William the pug dog, who became a national treasure when he took on the role of Ethel’s Little Willie in Eastenders. I worked on the television series that was shot on 16mm film entirely on location in East Anglia. We spent an idyllic summer, mainly afloat on the Norfolk Broads.
They tell me that this DVD is one of their top ten bestsellers along with LA Law, Highway to Heaven and Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman starring Jane Seymour.
What wording would you use on the new cover? I want to suggest they have the book titles in larger letters: ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ by Arthur Ransome. Neither the Swallows or the Amazons appear in it after all. However, interesting actors such as Patrick Troughton and Sam Kelly do. I thought that including photos of them might appeal to those who appreciate Classic TV.
It was thought that my shot of Julian Fellowes playing Jerry the Hullabaloo showed him looking too young to be recognised these days. I am sure he’d agree with me that it is just the mustache that is somewhat distracting. I don’t remember it being a real one.
The production manager at Revelation Films told me she liked the photograph used on the cover of the Puffin Book, which I explained depicted The Big Six. The publishers are currently searching their archives for the original shot, which I remember setting up at Gay Staithe. Sadly this abridged version of the books lacks Ransome’s own illustrations.
What would you like to see inside the packaging?
Would you like an illustrated book talking about how the series was made?
I suggested they edit the episodes together into two films. I understand some parents like being able to show each 28 minute episode at a time. We loved the opening titles graphic and music at the time but they seem rather dated now.
DVDs now offer Extras, of course. We could put together a slide-show using my behind the scenes photos voiced with a commentary explaining how the serial was made. Would this spoil the magic?
I’d love to go searching for the locations we used. I wonder if Countryfile would be interested in this?
Do add any other ideas or requests to the Comments below.
Sadly Revelation Films only own the UK rights but I’ve noticed you can buy it on Amazon.com . There are other outlets but you want to be able to guarantee the quality.
I am currently reading Roger Wardale’s new book Arthur Ransome on the Broads, which is also available from Amazon It is illustrated with photographs of some of the boats that we used when we were filming. This was the Teasel’s costume:
I loved seeing Roger’s photographs of the Fairway yachts in full sail. Perhaps one of Lullaby should be on the new cover of the DVD.