Tag Archives: Filmmaker

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

Filming The Swallow and The Amazon from a pontoon out on Coniston Water ~ 31st May 1973

The dinghies Swallow and Amazon with the camera pontoon at Peel Island on Coniston Water ~ photo: Martin Neville

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.

The camera pontoon on Coniston Water with Amazon attached to it and Swallow sailing to the other side of Peel Island during the filming of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973~ photo: Martin Neville

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.

Molly Pilbrow and her dog with my sister, watching the camera pontoon from the shore of Coniston Water ~ photo: Martin Neville

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.

Capturing the Amazon ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow

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.

The Swallows and The Amazons in the Capri ~ Suzannah Hamilton, Kit Seymour, Daphne Neville, Stephen Grendon, Simon West, Sophie Neville and Lesley Bennett ~ photo: Martin Neville

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 Safety Officer and me, with Dennis Lewiston and Claude Whatham still standing in the Amazon ~ photo: Martin Neville

The question is – Did the DOP and the director get carried ashore too?

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‘But we never touched his horrible houseboat…’ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island 30th May 1973

Peel Island on Coniston Water in the English Lake District whilst we were filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the summer of 1973 ~ photo: Martin Neville

An extract from the journal I kept aged twelve:

Stephen Grendon, Suzannah Hamilton and Sophie Neville on the cover of the LP of the film ‘Swallows and Amazons’

I must have lost my pen on this wet day in May 1973, for the diary on the making of the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ is written in pencil. I don’t know if Claude Whatham, the Director, ever remembered me writing but when the film ended he kindly sent me an engraved  Parker pen and propelling pencil. I loved the pen and wrote all my essays at university with it. Sadly I lost it just before my Finals but I still have the pencil. Somewhere. Although we had a late start it was a good day, a day when Claude encouraged us to improvise. The dialogue in the little scene when we were gutting fish is our own. I’ve always thought improvisation can be magical. When I started to direct at the BBC we were very conscious of the cost of film stock – the footage – so were reticient about taking chances, but I made a drama on school bullies that turned out to be very powerful, purely because I let the children improvise. The only problem was that it came across as almost too frighteningly real. I found that although short scenes always worked well, I had to write the story as a whole as I went along, which was a bit daunting. When I went on a BBC Studio Director’s Course I tried improvising a scene where a couple go camping in true Mike Leigh style. I asked the actors to erect a tent in the studio, and left them at it while I spoke to the Cameramen from the galley, as normal, via inter-com with the Vision-Mixer at my side. She also improvised.  The scene was to end with the couple going inside the tent, which then collapses on top of them. I used a dome tent of my own and I showed them just how easy it was for them to collapse it. It was quite fun, and worked surprisingly well. Up to a point. The problem was that I was working with actors and the actors, being actors, enjoyed themselves so much they didn’t want the scene to end. It nearly didn’t end at all. And I ended up with the longest studio show reel of all time. Suzanna Hamilton was very good at gutting fish. She is not a remotely squeamish person, in fact she loves snakes and other reptiles. A stoic, who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster, she is probably the most gutsy film actress there is. No fuss or over long scenes for her. I was more interested in examining the the high dorsal fin of the perch and could have spent all morning standing on the rock. I seem wired to illustrate stories. I am sure Arthur Ransome used a line drawing of one of the perch he caught. Is it in Swallows and Amazons?

Claude Whatham, the Director of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, on the shore of Coniston Water ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Claude did not shoot many ‘takes’. His aim was to get fresh performances. By this time he had started to film the rehearsal, and then one ‘take’ as a back-up, to give the Film Editor an option. Then he would change the camera angle. It is probably a good policy when filming with children – as charm is difficult to replicate. When I started to direct on Beta-cam I attempted to shoot quite long scenes on one shot by using ‘jib-arms’, small cranes or camera track to move the camera. This was all the rage in the late 1980s. I remember using one long shot for the opening scene of a comedy drama called Thinkabout Science that starred Patsy Bryne ~ she who had become known to the nation as Nursie in the BBC sitcom Blackadder . Patsy played a grandmother collecting two sisters and their friends from school. The children poured out of the front door, down some steps, met their granny and chatted to her as they skipped along the pavement. I had about 120 metres of camera track laid down the street, far more than any scene on Swallows and Amazons. We had a  rehearsal and shot the three minute scene. It worked perfectly. It was fresh and funny and active. I was all set to move the whole crew to the next location when my producer descended from the Scanner, the truck where she was watching on three monitors, to tell me that one of the Extras had waved at the camera. I should have recorded the rehearsal. It took us twelve more takes to get the scene right after that. Luckily Beta tape costs were negligible – certainly in comparison with the 35mm Technicolor stock that Claude was using. Richard Pilbrow must have been pleased to hear that we gained a reputation as ‘One take Wonders’ on Swallows. When it came to the scene when we returned to the camp to find the abrupt note from Captain Flint, Claude took me to one side and suggested I added a line of dialogue at the end when it came to the take, without letting the others know. He told me to say, ‘And he used my crayons too.’  I wish he had edited it out. I didn’t deliver the line well. I think Suzanna would have said it perfectly but the secret made me too self conscious.

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Stephen Grendon and Sophie Neville in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ filmed on location in the English Lake District in 1973

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The Amazons Attack ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island in 1973

My father said that his first impression of the film crew was, ‘What an awful mess of trucks and weird people!’  He’d just come from his office in the electronics industry where everybody wore suits and ties.  It’s true.  One of the Arthur Ransome Society members took one look at the footage Dad took of the making of Swallows and Amazons and said, ‘It looks like Woodstock.’ Woodstock on wheels. Dad couldn’t bear the notion of hanging around all day but he bought some paints with him to do what he never normally had time for while looking after us.

Painting with my father on the shore of Coniston Water ~ Martin Neville and Sophie Neville in 1973 during the filming of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on location in Cumbria

My mother had to leave that Tuesday to spend four days at the Bath and West Show ~ a long term commitment that could not be cancelled. By this time she had been working for Harlech Television or HTV, as the station became known, for about four years. She started with the company as an ‘In Vision Announcer’, reading the News with Martyn Lewis from the studio in Cardiff, before moving on to present her own children’s programmes such as It’s Time for Me. By 1973 she was presenting a women’s afternoon programme made in Bristol called Women Only, with Jan Leeming.  No doubt they had to host the HTV stand at the Bath and West agricultural show. These are big events in rural Britain. My parents still have stands at about ten or twelve of them every year.

I have a horrible feeling that in this Woodstock-like atmosphere, where my father was probably feeling out of place, I might have taken on my mother’s role and got a little bit too bossy in the school bus. The result was a head-on attack from Sten, who must have been so offended that he not only fought me but would not let go. Perhaps this was a good sign in that we had become like a real family. Perhaps it was because the balance had been tipped by our real families turning up. Sten’s father had arrived with his little sister, and my little sisters were playing outside. Perhaps it had something to do with the red and yellow sweets we had started eating on the bus. Mum said that Sten was always picking fights. He was a nine-year-old boy.

Sophie Neville in her BOAC life jacket with her sister Tamzin on the shore of Coniston Water about to leave for the set of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island. Stephen Gredon’s father and little sister are in the background ~ photo: Martin Neville

Luckily for Claude, the director, we were filming the scenes on Wildcat Island where the Amazons attack.  ‘When we fell flat on our faces and the Amazons’ arrows flew over our heads.’ We loved this scene and it was great that Nancy and Peggy had at last arrived on Wildcat Island.

I don’t know if Mum had still been around to oversee that particular act of aggression. She had taught the Amazons to shoot.  The only photographs I have of her doing so are on slides, and I am yet to get them transferred, but they show her giving Nancy and Peggy archery lessons in the field outside the bus. They were using the hazel bows made for them on site by Bobby the Prop Man, which can’t have been very flexible, but my parents did know how to use the long bow. When they were first married they joined the Worcestershire Archery Society and went on to win quite a few prizes. I know all about this because the Chairman of that society was to become my father-in-law. Or rather, I too learnt to shoot and ended up marrying his son, the Worcestershire Archery Society’s Chairman of the day.

It  looks pretty scary when those arrows, fletched with green parrot feathers, fly over us.  Much to Nancy’s disappointment, these were actually fired by two prop men. They strung up fishing line and attached nylon loops to the arrows to ensure that we would not actually get hit, but it was quite thrilling – and still quite risky. I never forgot the trick though. When I became a BBC director myself I took much joy in using totally inexpensive visual effects, such as extended use of fishing line. I learnt how to use reflections from a very skilled director called Moira Armstrong and picked up on just how much could be achieved by juddering the camera when I worked on Doctor Who.  All that dramatic and complicated-looking Tardis malfunction was achieved simply by vibrating a studio camera.  However, I think that that fishing line was the only visual effect in the 1973 version of Swallows and Amazons.

After being on location for more than two weeks this was only the second day that Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett had appeared in front of the camera. All the hanging around must have been pretty frustrating for them. In 1983, when we were planning to make adaptations of the Arthur Ransome books at the BBC, I was hoping to cast the Amazons – if not all the children – from schools up in the Lake District. I don’t expect Claude had had the time to do that.  Luckily for me.

Daphne Neville's publicity photograph c.1973

Daphne Neville ~ presenter on HTV

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Dinghy sailing, e-publication, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story