When Sten Grendon was given the part of Roger in Swallows & Amazons (1974), his mother Jane Grendon came up to the Lake District with him to work as a chaperone, looking after all the children appearing in the movie.
Jane said that before filming began,
‘…one of the very first things we were asked was, ‘can Sten swim?”
‘I know he could doggy paddle. Neville organised swimming lessons at Pitville Pool, Cheltenham which included jumping off the diving boards. At the time I didn’t know why and I don’t think Sten is a natural in the water and the swimming lessons didn’t prove very successful. Claude told me – at the end of filming I think, when he gave me a copy of he original script – these lessons were because in the original script Roger was to jump in the water after Uncle Jim walked the plank.’
Jane sent me a copy of the page in question. I had not seen it before:
‘There are some personal memories. An aunt gave me the book for my birthday and I tried reading it but I hated all the technical boating details and I thought the children rather priggish so I didn’t enjoy it one bit and so was rather downhearted for Sten to be part of a story I hadn’t liked.’
Jane and her husband lived deep in the Cotswold countryside, at the rural Whiteway community, near Stroud in Gloucestershire. As I recollect, they had both qualified as teachers.
‘At the time of casting and during all the arrangements we had no phone at home and had to rely on a neighbour and the production team used to hold on while Ros came and fetched me! They must have really been fed up as it must have taken 10 minutes or so sometimes for me to get to the phone!’
Jane hadn’t imagined that she would end up in costume herself, if only for a day. She looked wonderful.
‘…. so there I was – a naïve, country girl flung into this alien world of a film unit. I was like a fish out of water! But I think it came out in your account that I related to you children better than I did to the adults around.’
Jane’s husband Michael was able to bring Sten’s sister, their little daughter Jo, up to watch the filming over half-term.
That summer Jane appeared in costume once more when Claude Whatham asked if Sten Grendon could also appear in a commercial he was directing for Weetabix, back in Gloucestershire at harvest time. This time she found herself on location not far from her own home and was always smiling.
Jane still lives the same house. Her husband Michael has retired from teaching and they have just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
Thanks to the support of readers and reviewers I was brave enough to share my story, ‘Funnily Enough’ with the panel of judges at The International Rubery Book Award. I now have a cut glass trophy, which has its own silk-lined box.
When I look back on our lives as they were forty years ago I can’t help smiling. Whilst one is impacted by fashions that were too unfortunate to be revived – those collars we thought so groovy – other things haven’t changed at all. I don’t think sailing shoes or jean jackets have ever been out of circulation.
In July 1973 Claude Whatham, pictured above in his Levis, had my sisters and I in a series of three Weetabix commercials that depicted life in 1933, forty years before, when the Great British breakfast cereal was first launched on the market. There seemed to have been a wider difference between the thirties and children’s lives in the seventies than in the last forty years. But am I right?
Whilst we had never seen stocks of corn until we went on the set especially constructed for the advertisement, Percy Baxter had made them himself back in 1933 when he lived and worked on the Cotswold hills.
The Land Rover in this behind-the-scenes shot could the same vehicle used on a film set today.
Meanwhile, my mother was presenting her afternoon television programme for HTV West called ‘Women Only’ – dressed in her Donny Osmond hat. I would happily wear her suede coat today and can often be seen in the hat. The lace-up boots looked good recently with a Wonder Woman fancy dress outfit but were terribly uncomfortable. My sister still hasn’t forgiven me for giving them away.
As always, well made things of quality have endured, and those faithful goods from Land Rovers to Levi jeans, Puffin Books and Weetabix are, thankfully, still being produced.
One of the reasons why I did not continue acting as a child was that it seemed rather more important to concentrate on my education. Another reason was that I simply grew too tall. I was all legs, like a foal.
After a few years, the fact that I had leading parts inboth Swallows and Amazons and The Copter Kids meant surprisingly little professionally, except that I was able to gain a much coveted Equity card. In the late 1970’s Trade Unions were very strong in Britain, holding the film and television industry under a ‘closed shop’ policy. If you were not a union member you could not work, but you could not gain a union card without having worked professionally.
Even though I had taken starred in two movies and had appeared in a number of television dramas, I had only just worked for enough days to get a ‘Provisional Equity membership’ – although another reason for this might have been because I was still only sixteen. Virginia McKenna’s lovely daughter Louise, who I had met at the premiere, was working as a dancer in Spain to gain an Equity card. Meanwhile, directors in the UK could not find young actors in Equity to cast in their dramas.
Not being fussy about how I looked, I volunteered to play the part of a boy in the HTV movie Kidnapped. Although the snow was not real, I nearly froze to death.
I must have appeared a more than twenty television dramas, dressed ever more uncomfortable costumes. Wearing wigs was the worst thing. They could be terribly itchy.
Concentrating on academic work was certainly a warmer way to spend the day. I ploughed on with my studies only accepting work that I was offered close to where we lived. The exception was the Two Ronnies, which was recorded on the south coast but it was an opportunity not to be missed. I was about nineteen and had an amusing part in their long running story of Charley Farley and Piggy Malone – The Band of Slaves.
Since I was cast by Paul Jackson, the Producer, I hadn’t realised that Ronnie Barker would be directing the drama. It was the first time that I had acted with an actor/director, which was slightly tricky when I had my arms around him. The whole experience was surreal – and good fun. Ronnie had a wonderful costume designer who amused Ronnie by pouring us into outrageous outfits, including commodious Yashmaks. She gave me little round spectacles. Since I put on a Southern American accent I thought, ‘No one will ever recognise me in this part,’ – but they did.The series ended with a large wooden crate being lowered by a crane from a ship on Southampton docks. One side of the crate fell open and I marched out playing For all the Saints on a trombone, followed by all these ladies dress in pink. I’m holding a tuba in this shot but it was swapped for a trombone. My heel got stuck in one of the tram lines on the dockside but I kept marching on.
My mother would have loved me to have followed her dream and try for RADA, where she was a student in the late 1950’s. Instead I was accepted by the University of Durham where I read Anthropology and made a number of very good friends.
In the summer of 1980 we went to see Virginia McKenna who was staring opposite Yule Brynner in the musical of The King and I in the West End. We would never have gone backstage if we hadn’t known her so well, if I hadn’t played her daughter in Swallows and Amazons. Virginia needed someone to look after her family in the country, while she was on the London stage. She wrote to ask my mother if she could recommend a cook-housekeeper. It was this domestic role I took on for the long university vacation, armed with a my school cookery book. It was just the Susan-ish job I needed to ground me. Bill Travers, Ginny’s husband, was working at home for much of the time, developing a screenplay for a film set in Africa. Her son Will Travers had just returned from working on the crew of a movie made in the Nongorogro Crater in Tanzania, and, while her daughter Louise was still dancing in Spain, her second son was at boarding school, her youngest at day school. My feet did not touch the ground.
I couldn’t complain. Virginia hardly slept, and yet due to her obscure hours she could only ever see her youngest son when he was sleeping. She spent sixteen months at the London Palladium, with numerous other demands on her time such as performing at the Royal Variety Performance at the Theatre Royal in Dury Lane. While Yule Brynner had a bodyguard she would drive back though the night in her little blue car.
In her autobiography The Life in my Years Virginia describes how The King and I proved one of the highlights of her career. Yul Brynner was a complete perfectionist, which could make life hard, but she welcomed the discipline he bought to the theatre. You don’t need to watch much of this clip to see how demanding he could be ~
Almost as soon as I gained my Full Equity Union Membership, I decided that I really didn’t want to devote my life to acting. After I finished working for Virginia McKenna, London Weekend Television came to make a drama called Dark Secret, a two-part Sunday Night Thriller, shot at my parents’ house in the Cotswolds. Christopher Hodson, the director, thought it would be amusing if we turned up and knocked on the front door in the final scene, so I am regrettably credited is ‘Member of family party’ along with my mother.
I’d actually been employed to help the Designer and his assistant modify our house in line with the story. I remember running errands for the Prop-buyer, who had no idea how to acquire action props of a rural nature such as dead rabbits. I got on so well with the LWT technicians that I decided that working on the crew was far more fulfilling that standing in front of the camera with an itchy hair-do. In 1982 I made a decision to opt for a career in television production. What I did not know is how soon Arthur Ransome would come back into my life.
Further details on the dramas I appeared in at this time, can be read about in ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, available as an ebook for £2.99
I am often asked what impact Swallows and Amazons has had on my life. Because I had been given the lead in a feature film, it naturally lead to ‘more work’, as any actor would put it. I had not expected this but things seemed to come our way. Sadly not riches, as I was still paid as a child, but it was fun and I learnt a great deal.
I think Claude Whatham must have accepted a contract to direct commercials for Wheetabix even before he finished editing the Arthur Ransome movie, because in the summer of 1973, my sisters and I appeared in three lovely period films – each about 3 minutes long – that he made in Gloucestershire at harvest time.
Claude had a cottage near Sten Grendon’s house in the Cotswolds. The location can not have been far from where we all lived as I recognise some of the Extras, who my mother must have gathered together including Percy Baxter, Ruth Shields, my younger sisters, Perry and Tamzin, and my father, Martin Neville. I can’t remember Sten being on the set but I have a photograph of our erst-while chaperone Jane Grendon in period costume.
We didn’t actually have to eat breakfast cereal. In my film there was simply a shot of me climbing over a gate to discover a cornfield with the voice track, ‘When I was young…’ over a shot of me and my brother, played by Nicholas Newman, eating individual grains of corn. This was not in the script. We just did as children do.
Claude asked me just to stand in the crop and ended the film with a shot of me spinning around, enjoying the feel the ripe heads of corn as they hit my hands, captured against the low light of the setting sun. It was undirected action. Despite having endless lengths of track, the latest camera mounts and a massive 35mm Claude was letting us behave completely naturally – experimenting with improvised drama without even asking us to improvise.
My mother could not appear in the advertisement herself, as she had already been in a Television commercial for cereal and her agent did not want her to accept ‘Extra work’. She was with Bryan Drew, whose assistant Wendy found Mum featured roles in a wide range of television commercials, which paid very well as the repeat fees were good. I remember her taking me with her to the office in Shaftesbury Avenue when Brian Drew lent back in his chair, casually agreeing to represent me.
I went to a number of interviews – rather than auditions – to appear in feature films that I don’t think were ever made. Under Jim Callaghan Inflation was running at 17% in the mid 1970s and money for movies must have been tight in the UK. This was probably why Richard Pilbrow couldn’t get the financing for an adaptation of Great Northern?
When I was fifteen, I decided that the old black and white promotion photographs of me playing Titty wouldn’t do and arranged for my own Spotlight photograph to be taken by an old professional – the husband of rather an unpopular teacher at school. I decided exactly what I would wear and how I would sit. My friends and the teacher were amazed but it did the trick. On the strength of this one photograph, and obviously my experience gained on Swallows and Amazons, I was given the leading role of Liz Peters, an archery champion in a CFF adventure movie titled, The ‘Copter Kids alongside Sophie Ward and Jonathan Scott-Taylor.
This time my mother played our mother, wearing her red mac and rather tight jeans. Derek Fowlds played our father, an oil prospecting helicopter pilot. At the time he was only really well-known as ‘Mr Derek’, the straight guy for Basil Brush. I was actually asked at the audition whether I thought that girls my age would find him attractive. I was too polite to say that we all prefered Basil. Basil Brush was a fox puppet, but so enormously amusing and spontaneous, he was adored by the whole nation. What happened during the filming was that we all fell in love with the stunt men, Vic Armstrong and Marc Boyle, who were acting in their own right as the Baker Brother baddies. How could we not? Vic spent years playing Harrison Ford’s double. He was the real Indiana Jones. His numerous film credits include Thor, Robin Hood, The Golden Compass, Charlie’s Angels and Empire of the Sun. He is currently working as the stunt coordinator on Jack Ryan, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Chris Pine, Keira Knightley and Kevin Costner. Marc Boyle worked on Star Wars – return of the Jedi, Batman and Alien 3, as well assupervising the stunts on the Bond movie Licence to Kill.
Derek Fowlds went on to do incredibly well, famous for playing Bernard alongside (or under) the late Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne in the classic BBC TV comedies Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister that ran from 1980-1988 and are still adored. Sophie Ward, who played my sister Jill, was so very beautiful that she became a top model, the face of Laura Ashley, before she was sixteen and has never stopped working as an actress, starring in films such as The Young Sherlock Holmes and the TV movie of Joanna Trollop’s novel The Village Affair. Recently, she appeared as Lady Ellen Hoxley in Land Girls and as Rosie Miller in Secret State.
A star-studded cast, but should you rush off to order a DVD of The Copter Kids? Please don’t. It was a dreadful film. One of the stage school children who appeared in the crowd scenes floored me by asking, ‘What’s it like being a film star?’ I became self-conscious, which killed the sparkle and enthusiasm I needed for the role of teenage heroine. And I didn’t even shoot very well. You would be appalled. It was probably only made because being a charity, CFF – The Childrens Film Foundation, did have a bit of money in the coffers. A little bit. I was paid so meagerly that Bryan Drew waivered his agent’s commission.