Tag Archives: Downton Abbey

The Costumes for the BBC serialisation of Arthur Ransome’s books ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Bix Six’

Sophie Neville in 1983, during the filming of 'Swallows and Amazons Forever!'

Sophie Neville in 1983, during the filming of ‘Coot Club’

Julian Fellowes recently introduced me to friends, explaining that we had worked together when I had been a Consultant on ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’ ~ the overall title given to the BBC serialisation of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’. This was very kind. Apart from a fact or two about Arthur Ransome, my consultant-ish-ness consisted mainly in suggesting the children wore warm clothes when they were out on the water. I need not have worried. Our Producer, Joe Waters, appointed the most wonderful costume designer, who knew all about thermal underwear and hats. ‘I love hats,’ she told me. ‘Everyone wore hats in the 1930s. They give the whole production a period feel.’

Coot Club Susannah BNuxton and Henry Dimbelby

Susannah Buxton and Henry Dimbleby on location in Norfolk in 1983

Everyone on the unit – certainly all the children in the cast, adored Susannah Buxton. She was only about thirty-three and had not been a costume designer long. A tall red-head, she admitted to often struggling to her feet on set when the Lighting-Camera man called for a certain light.

Rosemary Leach as Mrs Barrable in a hat suitable for an Admiral

Rosemary Leach as Mrs Barrable in a hat suitable for an Admiral

I’ve just read a review on Amazon.co.uk  about ‘Coot Club’, which said, ‘Wonderful attention to period detail. Even the film’s colours are right for the period.’ They certainly were. Susannah managed to source a huge number of original hand-knitted garments.

Nicholas Walpole as Joe with Sam Kelly in 'The Big Six' ~ photo Sophie Neville

Nicholas Walpole as Joe with Sam Kelly in ‘The Big Six’

While she was dressing the children, deciding what they should wear at the beginning of a new day in the story, Susannah explained that she was keen that they didn’t look too chocolate-boxy. The girls playing Dorothea and the Farland twins were all so pretty it would have been easy to go over the top. She carefully combined elements of school uniform with 1930’s clothes that children would have worn in their summer holidays. I can’t remember any member of the cast being uncomfortable – either two cold or two hot, even though we spent three months filming on the Norfolk Broads.

‘How did you become a designer?’ I asked her.

She explained that she loved clothes and it was what she always wanted to do. She’d been working freelance as an assistant in Bristol, thinking she wouldn’t get to design on a television production for years, when the phone rang. ‘I was asked if I could take on the role of costume designer, so I took a deep breath and said, “Yes.”‘  Here I have to explain that many members of the crew had come up from BBC Bristol, which then had a regional crews available to work on period dramas. Our Producer was very pleased about this. He used a crew from BBC Bristol again when we made ‘My Family and Other Animals’ on Corfu  a few years later. Susannah had a wonderful assistant called Helena and at least three dressers, including Paul Higton and Lesley Bowling, who were not only meticulous but great fun.

Coot Club - Lesley Bowling

Lesley Bowling on location in 1983. The hand belongs to Paul Higton.

The size of the costume department reflected the difference between the 1974 feature film of  ‘Swallows and Amazons’, which was shot in the Lake District with a small cast and very few crowd scenes – when the one Wardrobe Master was helped only by my mother – and our BBC TV adaptations of Arthur Ransome’s books set in Norfolk.  ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ had much bigger casts, with many more roles for adults and supporting artistes.

Coot Club - the hay wagon

A hot day in Norfolk on the set of ‘Coot Club’

I was looking after the eight children in the lead parts and another six or seven boys in supporting roles, not to mention children who appeared as extras in the village scenes.  It was Paul and Lesley’s humour that oiled the wheels that kept us running smoothly. ‘The Big Six’  had to be taken through costume and make-up almost every day for three months and these were costumes that had to stay clean all day. The children were obliged to wear life-jackets when they were near water, right up until the time when the director went for a take. Obviously, these had to go straight back on after each camera set-up. I can still see Paul Higton with an armful of colourful life-jackets he was handing back to five boys at a time.  He went on to become the costume designer on forty-eight episodes of Dangerfield and more than 825 episodes of the TV series Doctors.

Jake Coppard receiving a soaking from Paul Higton while Nicholas Walpole and Make Page escape getting wet.

Jake Coppard receiving a soaking from Paul Higton while Nicholas Walpole and Mark Page escape getting wet.

Susannah Buxton went on to have the most dazzling career. I last saw her when she was striding along the South Bank in London one evening. I didn’t know that she had worked on so many movies. These have included,  Millions, 2004, directed by Danny Boyle, ‘As you like it’, directed by Kenneth Branagh and ‘Death defying Acts’, which starred Catherine Zeta-Jones. She won a BAFTA award for ‘Mr Wroe’s Virgins’, directed by Danny Boyle, an RTS award for ‘Shooting the Past’, which was directed by Stephen Poliakoff, and a number of awards for ‘Downton Abbey’, including an Emmy for Outstanding Costume Design.  I’m not sure she imagined all this would be in store for her when she was busy loading costumes into a boat on Horning Staithe back in 1983.

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Filed under 1983, Arthur Ransome, Biography, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

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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Filed under 1983, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Biography, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story