Tag Archives: David Dimbleby

The ‘Doctor Who’ connection ~

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.

Patrick Troughton as the eel man

Patrick Troughton playing The Eel Man in ‘The Big Six’, 1983

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.

Coot Club - Jake Coppard - playing Pete

Jake Coppard playing Pete at the eel man’s hut

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.

Colin Baker as Dr Dudgeon in 'Coot Club' and 'The Big Six'

Colin Baker as Dr Dudgeon amusing us by smoking grass

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.

David Dimbelby with us on location in Norfolk, 1983

David Dimbelby with us on location in Norfolk, 1983

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.

Diana Brookes in Beccles with Richard Walton who played Dick in 'Coot Club'

Di Brookes in Beccles with Richard Walton who played Dick in ‘Coot Club’

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.

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How Julian Fellowes and Andrew Morgan launched a creative partnership in 1983 ~

Julian Fellowes as Jerry in the BBC TV Movie of Arthur Ransome's 'Coot Club', 1983 ~ photo: Sophie Neville

Julian Fellowes playing Jerry in the BBC adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Coot Club’

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.

John Harding with Sarah Crowden ~ photo: Sophie Neville

John Harding as Ronald and Sarah Crowden as Livy, Hullabaloos in ‘Coot Club’

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.

Coot Club - a Hullabaloo

David Timson resting whilst playing James, the Hullabaloo in ‘Coot Club’

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.

David Dimbleby and Henry Dimbleby with one of the Matthews twins

David Dimbleby with his son Henry Dimbleby and one of the Matthews twins, lying on the river bank next to the Margoletta up near Horsey Mere in 1983

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!’.

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Casting children for the BBC adaptations of Arthur Ransome’s books ‘Coot Club’ & ‘The Big Six’ in 1983 ~

Sophie Neville with Port and Starboard in 'Coot Club'

Sophie Neville with Port and Starboard in ‘Coot Club’

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.

Swallows and Amazons Forever! Coot Club children cast by Sophie Neville

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 Harty team, 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.

Coot Club - Death and Glories

~Jake Coppard, Mark Page and Nicholas Walpole as the Death and Glory boys ~ photo: Sophie Neville 1983

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.

Coot Club Baddies

Boys virtually cast for me by the teachers of Norfolk ~ Dean Harkness who played Brian and Sy Rainsbury who played 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.

Coot Club - Richard Walton

Richard Walton, who was cast as Dick Callum, in Norfolk in 1983

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.

Henry Dimbleby in 1983

Henry Dimbleby who played Tom Dudgeon in 1983 ~ photo: Sophie Neville

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.

Caroline Downer as Dot Callum

Caroline Downer as Dorothea Callum in ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’, 1983

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.

Coot Club Audition

Children who were short-listed for parts in ‘Coot Club’ having lunch at a final audition held in Norwich in 1983. The boys who played Joe and Pete are in the foreground.

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?

Coot Club - Joe Waters with Henry DimbJleby

Producer Joe Waters with Henry Dimbleby who played Tom Dudgeon in ‘Coot Club’ & ‘the Big Six’ ~ photo: Sophie Neville

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.

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Filed under Acting, Arthur Ransome, Biography, Claude Whatham, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story