Tag Archives: Film Production Manager

A steam roller in Horning for the 1983 BBC drama serial of ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’

 
Mary Soan, Susannah Buxton, Sam Kelly and Penny Fergusson in 1983
 
Assistant director Mary Soan, Costume designer Susannah Buxton, Actor Sam Kelly and Make-up artist Penny Fergusson when filming on location in Norfolk in 1983
 
“I had a telephone call one day from a man working for the B.B.C. he said he had heard I had a steam roller, if so could I take it to Horning to appear in  a film they were about to shoot in the broads area.”

I have just been sent this extract, copied word-for-word from Jimmy Nicholson’s autobiography I kept a Troshin’ originally published in 1989 (by S.J. Nicholson).

“The title was ‘Swallows and Amazons’ which was shown on B.B.C.2.  So on the appointed day I loaded the roll onto our low loader and Geoffrey, our lorry driver, took it to Horning.  I unloaded it near the Swan Hotel about eight thirty, some of the people were already there, the people in charge rolled up about nine.  Then a coach load came, there was also a coach full of costumes. The young lady who was helping to organise things said I had better change some of my things into old time dress, as the film was supposed to have been in older times.  So I went in the bus where all these costumes hung. The young lady in there said I had better change my shirt and boots and wear another hat, an old fashioned cap. So I pulled my shirt off she handed me one of these old ones. I said, ‘What about my trousers, do you want me to take them off!’
She laughed and said, ‘No I think yours will do.’
I thought what a shame.
Another young lady said she thought I should have my hair cut. So I sat on a chair on the Swan car park and had a hair do. The next thing they were queueing up for breakfast from a mobile canteen. The lady in charge said, ‘Come on Jimmy.’ she had learned my name by now. I said, ‘I’ve had mine.’
She said, ‘Never mind have another one. ‘Which I did and had a full English breakfast.
By the time they wanted me to start operating it was time to stop for coffee and other drinks. When I did start I had to drive the roll up the road passed the cameras. I did this about a dozen times, I had to time this with some children running down a side road to see me go passed. By now it was lunch time so I joined the queue again and had another cooked meal.
After having a pint in the Swan the lady in charge said, ‘I think we’ve finished with you now.’
I thought what a shame,  I could put up with this for a week.”

Jimmy was obviously very much taken by all the girls working for BBC television on the drama serial of Arthur Ransome’s books ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’. When we made the EMI movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 the only female member of the actual film crew had been the ‘Continuity Girl’ or script supervisor. In ten years things had changed. Joe Waters, our producer, aimed at having a 50/50 ratio of men and women on his production team and crew. This was a good policy and created an atmosphere that was so full of fun the children thrived.

The young lady ‘who was helping to organise things’ would have been our incredibly efficient AFM, or Assistant Floor Manager, Mary Soan. She would have been known as a ‘Second Assistant Director’ on a feature film. I should explain that in BBC Drama, stage management roles had evolved from equivalent in the theatre, so her job also involved being responsible for the ‘action props’ and action vehicles – in this case a 1930’s steam roller. I am sure Jimmy would have been quite taken by Mary – she was very pretty, with thick blonde hair, an ever radiant smile on her face, a Motorola on her hip. Whilst I went on to direct television programmes for the BBC in the late ’80s, Mary became a Production Manager. It wasn’t long before she went  freelance as a First Assistant Director and started working on the most incredible movies ~ Pearl Harbor (2001), Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), The Chronicles of Narnia (2005), Stardust (2007) and Skin (2008) as well as TV mini-series such as Place of Execution(2008).

Coot Club - Helena

Helena on the Norfolk Boards in 1983

‘The young lady’ in the costume bus, who was happy for Jimmy to keep his own trousers on, must have been Helena,  the assistant costume designer, while the young lady who thought he should have a 1930’s short-back and sides, would have been our ever laughing Make-up Assistant Penny Fergusson.

Assistant Make-up Designer Penny Fergusson with John Woodvine who played PC Tedder in 'Coot Club', 1983

Assistant Make-up Designer Penny Fergusson with John Woodvine who played PC Tedder in ‘Coot Club’, 1983

Penny Fergusson originally trained at the Royal Ballet School. What would Jimmy have said had he known he was having his hair cut by a girl who had performed at the Royal Opera House and the Venice Film Festival before dancing her way across Europe with Pan’s People?

‘The lady in charge’, who gave Jimmy permission to go was probably Liz Mace, our senior Production Manager. Sadly I don’t have a photograph of her, but she was certainly in charge of our film schedule, logistics and locations as well as Health and Safety on set.  You will have seen her name on the end-credits of BBC drama serials such as The Ondein Line, When the Boat Comes In, Secret Army, on Doctor Who, the Police series  Juliet Bravo and All Creatures Great and Small. She worked with me in Ealing on a series of Thinkabout Science before returning to work at Elstree Studios making numerous episodes of the soap opera Eastenders.

Jimmy concluded his tale by adding:

“When the film was shown on television you could just see the roll go passed and that was it, but I did enjoy myself and I enjoyed it even more when I received a cheque for the job.”
Coot Club - the cycle shop

Mark Page, Jake Coppard, Richard Walton & Henry Dimbleby filming at Itteringham Village Shop in Norfolk in 1983. Click on the photo to see the location today.

 Where was this bike shop location?  Was it in Horning? I remember it being a set, rather than a real shop but the boys were deeply interested in the window display.

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

Octopus Lagoon ~ the trials of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Coniston Water in the rain

‘The rain poured down.’ Cumbria was covered in cloud, the Lake District dark and dismal. What a nightmare for Richard Pilbrow and his production team. We were behind schedule, Lesley Bennett who played Peggy was ill in bed and we had run out of ‘rain cover’.

A dull weather call: Rain clouds over Windermere in the Lake District, Cumbria

There was one sequence left that could be recorded in dull weather. Today was the day Claude Whatham shot the haunting scenes of Octopus Lagoon. After finishing our school work Kit Seymour and I sat watching the filming from the sloping field above the beautiful but rather smelly lily pond.

Sophie's diary about filming 'Swallows and Amazons' in 1973

I do not have the Call Sheet for 29th June 1973 but have an extract from this earlier one detailing the ‘Alternative Dull Weather Call’:

Call Sheet for Octopus Lagoon filming Swallows and Amazons in 1973

I can’t say whether the weather allowed for the scene set on the Amazon River to be shot. Lesley had ‘flu so they would have had to somehow manage without her. I think Claude devoted his time to capture the conundrum and challenges faced by Captain John in the lagoon. The location chosen for this was on private property near Skelwith Fold Caravan Park. Those who are interested in finding the film locations used might find this old hand-typed ‘Movement Order’ useful:

Addresses of rural locations used for the film of 'Swallows and Amazons'

Roger Wardale sites Octopus Lagoon as being Allan Tarn a short distance up the River Crake at the Southern end of Coniston Water, near High Nibthwaite. This is the place Arthur Ransome had in mind. He spent time there with is brother and sisters as a child when they spent their summers on Swainson’s Farm at Nibthwaite nearby. His father went there to fish for pike. It you have a shallow bottomed boat you can get there but it is not exactly on a footpath. The lily pond we used was in a high sided dip, which made it appropriately dark and gloomy. It was also more accessible for the film crew.

Graham Ford, who signed the Movement Order was our Production Manager. I only have a photograph of him taken on a sunnier day.

The Production Team on 'Swallows and Amazons' in 1973

Second Assistant Terry Needham, Associate Producer Neville C Thompson and Production Manager Graham Ford with the unit radio on a sunny day in June 1973

Graham Ford would have been responsible for the film schedule, putting together the whole logistical jigsaw puzzle posed by factors such as the availability of leading actors and locations with the movement of vehicles and boats, including the massive camera pontoon. It was Graham who took the stress of problems caused by wet weather.  I guess that he also took on the responsibilities of managing the locations, negotiating with owners and the Lake District National Park, something that authors such as Arthur Ransome would not have had to face.

Although young, Graham was pretty experienced. He had previously worked as an assistant director on such classic films as Steptoe and Son and had been the Unit Manager on The Devils, a film that starred Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed. After Swallows he went on to work as Production Manager on S.O.S Titanic, The Honorary Consul and Princess Daisy as well as Time Bandits and Brazil directed by Terry Gilliam starring Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist and Robert de Niro. Imagine being Terry Gilliam’s right hand man. He was a Location Manager for David Lynch on The Elephant Man and for Richard Attenborough on Ghandi in 1982. Graham’s career progressed. He produced The Nightmare Years and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in the late 1980s before working on Gettysburg, the massive four hour long movie about the American civil war, in 1993. A life in film. He died in Ontario in 1994 aged only 48.

Waterfall above Windermere in the Lake District

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Landscape Photographs, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Photography, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story