All the children who appeared in the BBC serial of Arthur Ransome’s books ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ were delightful. They were committed to the project and focused on their roles in the drama that was released in 1984 under the strand title Swallows and Amazons Forever!
They enjoyed the process of putting the story together but we were filming on location in Norfolk for three months, which is a long stretch for anyone. It is a very long time when you are aged thirteen.
It can be difficult hanging around on set, waiting for the crew to set up, especially when you have to keep quiet and reasonably still, avoiding the perils of sunburn and scratches. In many ways it’s the most challenging aspect of being an actor, especially when you are constricted by your costume that has to be kept clean and dry.
Watching the film crew record a scene was interesting, and in many ways good work experience, but it was not always possible as they were often out on the water.
Once the school summer holidays started, we bid farewell to Angela Scott who had given the children lessons while they were on location. She’d been teaching them on a boat most of the time – the blue fibre glass cruiser in the photograph above. It was part of my job to make sure the children rested and were quietly entertained when they weren’t in front of the camera. I thought it important to let them be themselves and build friendships.
I was very strict – I had to be when we were near water or traffic, but the girls were naturally self-disciplined and boys team spirited.
Joe Waters, who was producing the drama, said that the sun always shone for him. It certainly did. The summer of 1983 was scorching. We had a few rainy days, but the actors where wonderful at helping to keep up moral. The boys adored Sam Kelly, Captain of the Catchalot, who the British public knew so well from his role as Bunny Warren in Porridge and the German Officer in the WWII sit-com ‘Allo ‘Allo. We only had to look his way and we’d all collapse laughing. Sam Kelly is probably now best known for his recent roles in Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang , in which he played Maggie Smith’s husband Mr Docherty, and for taking the role of Grandad in the new Mike Leigh comedy A Running Jump, 2012 but on that far off summer on the Norfolk Broads there were quite a few terrible take-offs of Captain Geering’s German accent. One of his later episodes of ‘Allo ‘Allo was titled ‘Up the Crick Without a Piddle’ which aptly described that particular day in East Anglia.
Sam Kelly playing Captain of the Catchalot with Jake Coppard
In the end it was the boys who kept us amused. They were inventive and used whatever they could find and whatever opportunity came along to make me laugh.
Jim Searle must have given me this lovely photograph of Titmouse, taken when the boys from Norfolk who played the Death and Glorys were given sailing lessons prior to filming in the summer of 1983.
Titmouse has recently been renovated by Hunter’s Yard at Ludham in Norfolk, which was used as a film location in the series and restored to her sea-worthy condition.
Tom Dudgeon’s punt, Dreadnaught can also be found at Hunter’s Yard. Henry Dimbleby can be seen here, sitting on the life jacket he was obliged to wear during rehearsals, despite the fact that he jumped into the water in the action to avoid being spotted by the Hullabaloos, the holiday makers who had hired the Margoletta, in reality the Norfolk cruiser Janca.
This must be the Catchalot. It looks as if our designer, Bruce McCaddie, is sorting out a fishing rod used by the actor Sam Kelly, who was fishing for pike.
This is the only other shot I have of the Catchalot, which looks as if it might have been taken up near Horsey Mere. It shows Angela Scott, the children’s tutor making a funny face at the end of the day. You can just see the make-up artist, Penny Fergusson, and what could be Mary Soan on board. Jill Searle may have been there too. She became a great friend of Liz Mace, our Production Manager who had always been keen on sailing.
Pat Simpson of Stalham Yacht Services said that during the filming they one had to take a boat from Regan to Horning overnight when the film schedule changed. I have a feeling it was the Catchalot.
One of the jobs Bruce McCaddie gave to his construction team was to build the cabin on the Death and Glory, with its flower pot of a chimney. He transformed the look by adding rigging from the mast.
In terms of set design ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ were rather unusual productions to work on but Bruce loved boats. Instead of being an extra person on the vessel used by the film crew, he would take a period dinghy to gain access to his sets – which of course were often other boats. This run-around boat could then but used in the back to shot, especially if he needed to hide something modern.
An old German Lifeboat found by Pat Simpson washed up on the beach at Southwold was used for the Death and Glory. After the filming, Pat kept it for his sons until 1989 when Professor John Farrington from the School of Geo-Science at Aberdeen University came across it. He took his two children, a boy and a girl aged ten and eleven, down to the yard one half-term as the loved the books and television serial.
‘Get on,’ he said.
‘But what about the owners?’ they asked.
‘You are the owners.’ He’d bought it for them. One New Year they rowed from Stalham to Sutton and back. John Farrington first visited the Broads on a family holiday in 1956 and wanted his children to have the same experience. They now have children of their own and still treasure the Death and Glory.
The Teasel was played by Lullaby. Roger Wardale tells me she isa mahogany hulled crusier, a gunter-rigged, 4-berth ‘Lustre’ class yacht built in 1932 and kept at Hunter’s Yard in Ludham, where she is still available for hire.
She is similar to the 3-berthed ‘Fairway’ yachts that Arthur Ransome and his wife would hire for holidays on the Broads in the 1930’s.
One of the secrets of filming ‘Coot Club’ is that although this looks as if Mrs Barrable is sailing the Teasel, it is not Rosemary Leach but a young man from Hunter’s Yard wearing her costume. Caroline Downer, who played Dorothea Callum, Richard Walton, who played Dick, and Henry Dimbleby who played Tom Dudgeon are in the cockpit, but we also used ‘doubles’ on that day to play Port and Starboard. I found girls two girls from Norwich, Julia Cawdron and Claire Dixon, who played the twins for a day.
The reason for this was that sailing scenes are time-consuming to film and quite tricky to edit together. While our Director, Andrew Morgan, was busy filming the scenes at the Farland’s house with the actor Andrew Burt and the twins, Sarah and Claire Matthews, accompanied by their mother, I was on a second unit headed up by the Producer Joe Waters. Although Joe had directed a huge number of dramas he asked his film editor, Tariq Anwar, up to direct the sequences, knowing that he would be cutting the shots together. He came up to the location with his wife and we took most shots from the camera boat, Camelot.
Tariq Anwar went on to edit Vivaldi, based on Antiono Vivaldi’s early life, starring Elle Fanning, Neve Campbell and Brian Cox. His latest credits include Great Expectations and The King’s Speech as well Down the River featuring Joe Henry, Tom Jones and Hugh Laurie. I haven’t seen the documentary but presume it must include the odd boat.
The great thing is that you can still find some of these vessels today –
Teasel – owned and kept at Hunter’s Yard, Ludham on the Norfolk Broads
Titmouse – owned and kept at Hunter’s Yard, Ludham
Dreadnaught -owned and kept at Hunter’s Yard, Ludham
Death and Glory – owned by the Farringtons – kept at Gerry Hermer’s boat yard on the Norfolk Broads
Sir Gernet – a Norfolk Wherry The Albion
Other boats featured include:
Water Rail – Herbert Woods Delight Class B owned by Liz Goodyear
Joan B – a skiff set adrift at Horning owned by Pat Simpson
Pippa – yacht set adrift at Horning owned by Geoff Angell kept at the Norfolk Boards Yacht Club.
Goldfish 9 – a one-off yacht
Swallow 4 – a one-off river cruise yacht
Starlight Lady 322
Do write in the comments below if you can fill me in on the names of those who helped us with the boats for the series. My address book lists: Jim and Jill Searle, Rupert Latham, Pat Simpson of Stalham Yacht Services, Richardson’s of Stalham, Lawrence Monkhouse, Keith King of Feny Boatyard and the Steam boat Association. I still have a certain sticker on the front of my BBC address book ~