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 boat shed 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, not in Beccles, but in the market square called Church Plain in Worstead, near North Walsham, a village in Norfolk.
The shop was a family home belonging to the Howard family, which the design team dressed to look like a Post Office, with jars of sweets installed in the two front windows. It had once been a Post Office, a building with a rounded end between Back Street and Front Street boasting the New Inn, now called The White Lady.
Rebecca Howard, who was 16 at the time, wrote in to say: ‘Our house was called ‘The Old Post Office’. It was a post office in a previous life before we moved there. At the time of filming the post office was on Back Street – part of the house at the other end of the island between Front and Back Street, which also used to be a garage/service station on the Front Street side. The crew were modeling our house on my mum’s birthday – 12 August – they bought her a box of chocolates.’
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.
Rebecca says, ‘The pink house in the photo (with crew pictured) was the village shop, known as ‘Top Shop’ by locals. It closed years ago, but would have been trading at that time.’
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 16mm film.
One viewer has observed that, in the BBC serialisation of Coot Club and The Big Six, we had not one but two Doctors in the cast, Time Lords at that. This is true. We arrived on location one morning to find that Patrick Troughton had transmogrified into Harry Bangate the Eel Man.
He had led the most fascinating life. A Naval Officer during World War II, and the first actor to play Robin Hood on television, Patrick Troughton played The Doctor in 128 episodes of Doctor Who. But would he be drawn? If we asked him about his life he just started talking about eels in a broad Norfolk accent. He’d worked for our Director Andrew Morgan on Kings Royal and for Joe Water’s on Z Cars, but for us, in the summer of 1983, he was the eel man.
Colin Baker first appeared in Doctor Who (a story entitled Arc of Infinity) in the role of Commander Maxil, when he actually shot the 5th Time Lord, who was being played by Peter Davison. It was not until after he arrived in Norfolk to play Arthur Ransome’s tweed-clad Dr Dudgeon, that he realised his full destiny and donned a multi-coloured dream coat to take on the 6th incarnation of The Doctor in the long-running BBC science fiction series. I went on to work as an Assistant Floor Manager on a two-part story called Vengeance on Varos when the Tardis had to make an emergency landing on a most unattractive planet. When we were in the North Acton rehearsal rooms I persuaded Colin to teach me all the correct jargon about transmogrifiers but it has since washed from my brain.
I can’t remember whether Colin Baker was cast as Dr Dudgeon in Coot Club before or after Henry Dimbleby was given the part of his son Tom Dudgeon, but he did not look unlike Henry’s real father back then.
There were various other members of our film crew who were also familiar with the Tardis. (I think we were meant to refer to it as ‘T.A.R.D.I.S.’ ~ Time And Relative Dimension In Space). John Woodvine ,who played PC Tedder, had preciously taken the role of the Marshall in ‘The Armageddon Factor’, opposite Tom Baker and Mary Tamm in 1979.
John Gill who we knew as Old Bob of the Comealong had the part of Oak in Fury from the Deep, made in Patrick Troughton’s time. Alan Lake played Herrick in four episodes entitled Underworld first broadcast in 1978. Andrew Burt played Valgard in Terminus during Peter Davison’s era and Tim Barlow, the distinctive looking actor who played the old man at the Roaring Donkey was Tyssan in Destiny of the Daleks. Sam Kelly, our Captain of the Catchalot appeared in the audio dramas of Doctor Who titled The Holy Terror and Return to the Web Planet.
Andrew Morgan directed both Time and the Rani and Remembrance of the Daleks. Tariq Anwar our film editor on Coot Club, worked on two stories while Andy Lazell, the visual effects designer responsible for creating so much fake fog on Breydon Water had worked on ‘The Leisure Hive’ and ‘Snakedance’, eight episodes of Doctor Who first broadcast in the early 1980s. Colin March, our sound recordist worked on the film sound or ‘Planet of Evil’ in 1975 and ‘The Two Doctors’, with both Colin Baker and Patrick Troughton. It was broadcast in 1985. Liz Mace, had been the production manager on ‘Time-Flight’. Diana Brookes, our script supervisor – or production assistant as the job was then known – had worked with Colin Baker on the four-part Doctor Who story ‘Arc of Infinity’ in 1982/3. Perhaps it was she who thought of him for Dr Dudgeon.
The part of the tall and elegant Hullabaloo, Livy, was played by Sarah Crowden. Her father, the actor Graham Crowden who I always think of as Tom Ballard in his Sit-com Waiting For God, was offered the part of the fourth Doctor Who , after Jon Pertwee but he turned down the opportunity as it was such a committment. Instead he played Soldeed in The Horns of Nimon in 1980 after Tom Baker had being playing the fourth Doctor for some time.
The person working on our series who had had a huge input on Doctor Who was Mervyn Haisman, our Script Editor. He’d written at least seventeen episodes including the series entitled The Dominators, writing under the name Norman Ashby. Mervyn never appeared on location but it was he who steered the adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s novels, breaking them down into four episodes each, whilst remaining faithful to the original stories.
Julian Fellowes’ finest moment as an actor was playing Jerry, one of the hated Hullabaloos, in the BBC adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s book Coot Club, or that is how I’d cast my vote. He stood on the bows of the Margoletta, as she motored at speed towards the camera, relishing every moment as the leader of the callous and nouveau-riche baddies of the Norfolk Broads.He did so, wearing the most revolting mustache.
Julian was flanked on one side by the incredibly tall glamorous actors, John Harding and Sarah Crowden, and on the other by David Timson and Angela Curran who, it has to be said, are both on the short side.
Descending into the cabin of the Margoletta, and seeing them altogether in their fabulous 1930’s boating costumes was breathtaking and comic all at once. On the first day they were called, the Hullabaloos were all made-up and ready for a scene that we never had time to shoot. Andrew Morgan walked along the river bank at the end of the day, in his sweatshirt and jeans, to join us in the Margoletta, apologising deeply for putting them out. But nobody minded. We’d spent a lovely afternoon, moored in the reeds near Horsey Mere, just getting to know one another. David Dimbleby had come up to see how his son Henry was doing and everyone was full of chatter.
Julian Fellowes’ time spent bobbing about on the Norfolk Broads was pivotal, because, as I understand it, the working relationship forged with our director Andrew Morgan led to great things. In 1987 Andrew cast Julian as Brother Hugo in his Si-Fi adventure series Knights of God. John Woodvine and Patrick Troughton, who were with us on the Broads appearing in Swallows and Amazons Forever!, also had leading parts in this, but it was Julian who started to write.
In about 1990 Andrew and Julian began to work together as director and writer on a number of costume dramas for the BBC. Little Sir Nicholas was followed by an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1994/5. We had lunch with them when they were filming at Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire. I was mildly surprised to find a writer on location but it was clear Julian was adding more to the story than just typed pages of the script. When he held up an antique powder- compact and started telling Andrew about the cultural history of women applying make-up in public, I realised there was obviously a creative partnership in operation. They also collaborated on a similar BBC book adaptation, producing a six-part drama serial of Mark Twain’s book, The Prince and the Pauper, which was broadcast in 1996. For this, Andrew and Julian were nominated for a BAFTA Children’s Award. The success of these period dramas established Julian as a producer and screen writer. His next hit was the movie Gosford Park, 2001 for which he was rightly awarded an Oscar. Since then the screenplays have tumbled out: Vanity Fair, Piccadilly Jim, Separate Lies, The Young Victoria, From Time to Time, Romeo and Juliet, Crocked House and Titanic for television. Did it really all start on the Margoletta, up near Horsey Mere?
I have just learnt that Sarah Crowden appeared in Downton Abbey as Lady Manville in 2012. Isn’t it wonderful how things come round? If you go to see the film, Quartet, you’ll see quite a bit of Sarah sitting at various pianos. As the credits role they show pictures of the musicians in their heyday. A beautiful black and white photograph of Sarah comes up with the caption ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’.
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.
A few years ago, on a wet but beautiful day in Cumbria we set off on a quest to find some of the locations used in Richard Pilbrow’s 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’.
To my delight our journey started with a drive down through the streets of Rio (Bowness) and along the east shore of Windermere to the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway Station at the southern end of the lake (or Antarctica as Titty labeled the region). It was here that we spent our very first day filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ back in 1973. I had not been there since.
We had a chat to the train driver who explained that they now run six journeys a day. From Haverthwaite the steam locomotives run alongside the River Leven to Lakeside Station. From here you can take a native steamer back up to Rio (the Bowness pier) or to the Far North (Ambleside, which is the town at the head of the lake where we lived whilst filming in that long distant summer when I was twelve years old.)
Whilst we used engine number 2073 in the movie, this steam locomotive 42085 was built in 1951. It uses about two tons of coal a day but it utterly magnificent. The driver probably uses rather a lot of steam oil too. It’s a smell I relish, familiar since childhood days spent on steamboats. I remember it from the SBA steamboat rally held on Windermere in 1991, which I describe in Funnily Enough.
Curiously, Haverthwaite Railway Station looked cleaner and shinier than when we used it as a film location in 1973. I can only suppose it was still in the process of being restored back then, when Simon Holland our set designer cluttered it up with push bikes and luggage trolleys. Much to our surprise, the yellow taxi we were transported in during the filming was actually driven along the platform.
We climbed aboard the train and I explored, as Titty would have done, discovering people seated inside from far distant lands.
David Wood’s screenplay for the film of Swallows and Amazons, directed by Claude Whatham, opens to find the Walker family cooped up in a railway carriage compartment as they travel north for their holidays.
We saw this distinctive carriage in a siding as we steamed down the valley. Funnily enough when I reached home, later the next day, I came across a photograph on the internet I had never seen before. It was of Virginia McKenna, playing Mrs Walker, reading a magazine inside the compartment. Strangely it turned up when I Googled my own name – Sophie Neville.
The train is not included in Arthur Ransome’s book of Swallows and Amazons, written in 1929, but he does feature locomotives in his later novels, notably Pigeon Post. I clearly remember filming the BBC adaptation of Coot Club at what must have been The Poppy Line, a steam railway in north Norfolk when Henry Dimbley, playing Tom Dudgeon, jumped aboard the moving train and met Dick and Dorothea.
I jumped off the train at the Lakeside Station to meet up with Peter Walker of Mountain Goat. Peter has carefully researched and put together a Swallows and Amazons tour, exploring ‘High Greenland’, the ‘Forest’ and ‘High Hills’ to discover the places where Arthur Ransome lived. We set off in search of the places where he fished, wrote, and drank beer. It was fascinating – and proved an excellent way to spend a day in the Lake District despite the rain.
You can read more about the locations used in the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) in the paperback ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ available from libraries, bookshops or online here.
There is also a similar ebook, entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons (1974)’ available from all ebook distributors including Amazon
How do you film two girls sailing a thirteen foot dinghy talking to their brothers sailing along in another small dinghy while calling out to two other girls in red bobble hats dancing about on a wooded island both the small boats are approaching?
The scene looks so simple on paper. It is the one when the Swallows sail back to Wildcat Island with the captured Amazon to find Nancy dancing with rage and Peggy anxious to get home. One page of script. Claude soon discovered that he was shooting the most complicated of sailing scenes. On a cold grey day in the Lake District. It is extreemly difficult to describe how he managed this, but I will attempt to do so.
There was no room in the dinghy Amazon to film Susan and Titty sailing. This had to be done from a boat or vessel lashed along side. The production had a pontoon especially built for this purpose. It was a 30 foot raft equipped with four outboard engines, surfaced with a number of flat ‘camera boards’. It was basically rectangular but with added arms on either side. The idea of this cross-shaped platform was to enable Claude to film us either side-on, from astern or across the bows of the dinghy, which was wired by its keel to the pontoon. The camera was normally on a tripod but could be mounted on a short section of track. Electric lighting was not something that could be used on this pontoon but two large reflector boards were used to light our faces instead.
As well as the Director and Camera crew, the Sound Recordist and ‘Boom Swinger’ were on board this pontoon along with Sue Continuity girl, Costume and Make-up, obviously the two boat men who drove it and David Blagen, the Sailing Director. He had to work with Claude, the wind and the boatmen so that we were sailing, while the pontoon travelled with us. This was tricky enough on open water. If we were near the shore it could become more difficult. As you can imagine the dinghy could easily start to sail away from the clumsy pontoon – or worse. Our mast socket broke that first day. They needed my father on that pontoon. He there, quietly was watching from the shore.
Although we had all read the book of Swallows and Amazons, and were devoted to adhering to every detail, no one remembered that John and Titty sailed the captured Amazon back to Wildcat Island. She had a centre board which was a new thing for the Walkers so John decided to let Susan helm their familiar boat. I wish this had been detailed in the script. In the film, John was with Roger in Swallow whilst Susan and I were in the Amazon, which was a pity. I can only imagine that Claude decided this because he was trying to achieve a very difficult ‘three shot’. He was relying on John – on Simon West, who was aged eleven – to keep sailing Swallow in the right position, whilst out on the water between Amazon and Wildcat Island. This wasn’t as easy as it looks. You can see from this photographs that Swallow kept racing ahead of the pontoon. It can be gusty around Peel Island and the rocks can be lethal. Roger was on lookout but he also had to deliver his lines. Having no centre board and a shallow 1920’s rudder Swallow can be difficult to turn or get going if the wind slacks. This wasn’t actually a problem; Simon had wind and he did brilliantly. Suzanna Hamilton did too. She had no previous experience of sailing the Amazon. No one had remembered this sequence when we practiced before the filming began.
Meanwhile Gareth Tandy, the third Assistant Director, was standing-by (probably for hours) on Peel Island with Nancy and Peggy. He had hide in the bushes and cue them at just the right time. They did so well. They had to deliver their lines while jumping from rock to slippery rock to keep up with both the Swallow, the camera and the story.
This picture was taken by Richard Pilbrow, the Producer of Swallows and Amazon, on a different, obviously warmer, sunnier day. It shows Susan climbing in to Amazon. I include it here to show the pontoon with its outboards and odd cross panels. Here there are at least twelve on board. I think that by this time costume, make-up and our chaperone would be in a separate safety boat, in this case a Capri. This would mill about with the life jackets, sunhats and warm clothes that we wore between set ups. The crew all started off wearing life jackets, but as you can see they were soon discarded. They were dangerous things, old BOAC ‘life vests’ with so many flappy straps that you were at risk of being trapped under water by them.
When we filmed two of Arthur Ransome’s other books, Coot Club and The Big Six, on the Norfolk Broads in 1983 the BBC Producer Joe Waters used a 35 foot river cruiser as camera boat. It could be difficult keeping it stable during a take, especially with so many people on board, but being a proper boat it was much easier to manoeuvre than the pontoon. And faster. Andrew Morgan, the Director still managed to get his camera angles and it had the advantage of a cabin where sensitive equipment such as film stock and lenses could be stored. I can remember the Camera Assistant changing the film on board. I don’t know if the boat had Heads. May be.
On both productions we had the inevitable problem of modern boats coming into shot. We had to have one of two men in zoomy motorboats that could zip across the open water to ask them to move clear of the shot. Even with this control you can imagine what happens. You line up your shot with all your boats in position, the sun comes out and a modern motorboat roars across the lake leaving you all rocking in its wake. Then it rains.
The good thing about having a Safety Officer in a frog-suit is that they can carry you to shore at the end of a long day. You don’t have to get your feet wet.
The question is – Did the DOP and the director get carried ashore too?
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.
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.
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.
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 ~