Tag Archives: Gays Staithe

30th Anniversary talk on filming ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’

Coot Club - Sophie Neville with Port and Starboard in Coot Club

Unbelievably, thirty years have passed since we started filming the BBC adaptations of Coot Club and The Big Six on location in Norfolk.  We drove up to Norwich on 17th June 1983 and by 3rd July would have been in full swing. It had been my job to cast the children who I was now looking after on location.

Coot Club - the hay wagon

Amazingly, we were to able enjoy three months of almost solid sunshine and had the most wonderful time. The eight-part serial, produced by Joe Waters, was first broadcast in 1984 under the generic title of Swallows and Amazons Forever! This was because Joe was hoping to dramatise other Arthur Ransome books, but sadly they proved too expensive.

The Big Six

The Death and Glory Boys weighing their great fish with Sam Kelly

I gave an illustrated talk about how the series was made at the Royal Harwich Yacht Club on the River Orwell for the Nancy Blackett Trust Annual Meeting, explaining how Rosemary Leach and I had both appeared in the BBC drama Cider with Rosie back in 1971. Having starred as Laurie Lee’s mother, she had the lead part of Mrs Barrable, the Admiral in Coot Club.

Henry Dimbleby and Rosemary Leach in 'Coot Club' and 'The Big Six'

BBC TV’s adapation of  ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’

Swallows and Amazons Forever! (1984) DVD

The drama, set in the early 1930’s, was nominated for a BAFTA.  It had an exceptionally talented cast including Rosemary Leach, John Woodvine, Sam Kelly and Henry Dimbleby.  I’m not sure if you can spot him that easily on the cover of the DVD, but one of the characters in the story soon became a household name. It was William, Mrs Barrable’s fawn pug dog. He was soon known nationally – if not internationally – as Little Willie, Ethel’s pet dog in the soap opera Eastenders.

Coot Club -

The puppy we chose to play Williams who later starred as Little Willie in ‘Eastenders’

While Jack Watson was at the helm of the Sir Garnet, Julian Fellowes played Jerry, self-appointed skipper of the Margoletta and the leader of the Hullabaloos. Whilst with us on the Norfolk Broads he forged a creative partnership with our director Andrew Morgan that launched his career as a writer.  They were soon working together on adaptations of classic books such as The Prince and the Pauper and Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Julian Fellowes as Jerry in Coot Club

Julian Fellowes as Jerry in ‘Coot Club’

Looking back, I can see a number of connections between Coot Club and Doctor Who. You will see we had not one but two Time Lords with us in the guise of The Eel Man, who was played by Patrick Troughton, and Dr Dudgeon, played by Colin Baker, who went on to become a later incarnation of the Doctor.

Patrick Troughton as the eel man

Patrick Troughton as The Eel Man in ‘The Big Six’

A number of the crew worked behind the scenes on Doctor Who including our Visual Effects Designer, Andy Lazell and the writer Mervyn Haismen. I found myself working on Vengeance on Varos a year later when Colin Baker swapped his Norfolk tweeds for the multi-coloured coat he wore in the TARDIS.

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

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

However,  I expect the members of the Nancy Blackett Trust will want to know most about the beautiful period boats that appeared in the series, some of which members of the Arthur Ransome Society have been tracking down. Sadly some, such as the Catchalot seem to have deteriorated but the Janca, who played the Margoletta has been restored, and the  Death & Glory is still on the Broads.

Lullaby undersail, playing the Teasel with her stage name painted on a false transome

Lullaby under sail, playing the Teasel with her stage name painted on a false transom

 The wonderful thing is that you can still hire the yacht we used to play the Teasel and take the same route through the Broads as Arthur Ransome took with his wife in the 1930’s when he was absorbing experience from which to write. What I did not know until recently was that Titty Altounyan ~ the real Titty portrayed in Swallows and Amazons ~ accompanied them one year, but I will leave that story for a future post.

Coot Club - book cover

I remember setting up this photograph for Puffin at Gay’s Staithe on the Broads

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

Filming ‘Coot Club’ & ‘The Big Six’ for BBC TV in 1983 ~

Coot Club

Caroline Downer, Henry Dimbleby, Richard Walton weighing William the pug dog

I saw so many children when I was casting Coot Club and The Big Six that I could have left the BBC and set myself up as an independent casting director, but I was twenty-two and all I wanted to do was to join the film crew on location in Norfolk. I was just not sure how.

Andrew Morgan was a lovely director with two children the same age as those in our cast. To my surprise, I met him with his family one weekend on Port Meadow near Oxford. They had a narrow-boat moored at Bossom’s Boatyard where my father kept his steamboat Daffodil. Arthur Ransome would have approved.

Andrew had previously directed action dramas such as Secret Army, Blakes 7, Buccaneer, Triangle, Kings Royal and two episodes of Squadron, which Joe Waters had produced. Andrew, who was good at delegating, later declared himself, as he cued the steam train on the North Norfolk Railway, to be a director who specialised in films about different forms of transport. He very graciously asked me if I would work on location in the formal role of chaperone to the children whilst preparing their performances for the scenes ahead. He anticipated being out on the water in a boat without enough time to go through the children’s lines with them.

Coot Club -Sophie Neville with David Dimbleby

Sophie Neville with Henry’s father David Dimbleby in Norfolk, 1983

Once the casting was complete and licenses for each child safely lodged with various education authorities I took a weeks’ leave before returning to the production office on Shepherd’s Bush Green, where I helped book transport and accommodation. Filming on the Norfolk Broads for three months took quite a bit of preparation. While Joe and Andrew were casting the adult parts, we had to find a local tutor, buy life jackets and make numerous arrangements idiosyncratic to our particular production. The most exciting of these was commissioning the animal handler, Jan Gray of Janimals, to find a pug dog to play William. She bought a puppy so that he could be accustomed to his character name, travelling by boat, working with children and specifically trained to walk across mud. William had no idea of the stardom that awaited him. He ended up spending a great deal of his life in Gretchen Franklin’s arms playing Willy in Eastenders.

The day came when I packed up the little room I had been renting in Shepherd’s Bush from the actress Zelah Clarke  and drove to the Dimblebys’ house in Putney to collect Henry. As he had just passed his Common Entrance he’d been let off school earlier than most thirteen-year-olds and we motored up to Norwich in a jubilant mood, singing most of the way. Whilst most of the production team and crew had found holiday cottages, I was to live at Sprowston Manor, the unit hotel with Caroline Downer, Henry and the other actors including the Matthews twins who travelled up with their mother. It was terribly grand. We had small quiet rooms at the back.

Coot Club

One of the Matthews twins having her hair plaited by Make-up Artist Penny Fergusson

Liz Mace, our production manager, had taken my advice and scheduled ‘running around scenes’ for the first few days of filming, so that the children could get used to working with the film crew. The whole series was shot on 16mm by a wonderful, patient lighting-cameraman called Alec Curtis. We were very lucky to get him. He’d just finished The Kenny Everett Television Show and  had worked on a huge number of well known comedy dramas ~ The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin with Leonard Rossiter, Fawlty Towers for John Cleese, The Morecambe & Wise Show, Sorry!, To the Manor Born and a BBC thriller called Scorpion. Alec had made God’s Wonderful Railway and was more than happy working with Andrew on the Bluebell Line for the opening scenes of Coot Club. Filming from a boat presented many more challenges, not least simply keeping the camera horizontal, but Alec was ever patient and kind. And always wearing a sun hat.

'The Big Six' - The D&Gs with Andrew Morgan

Mark Page, Nicholas Walpole and Jake Coppard as the crew of the Death and Glory with director Andrew Morgan and Cameraman Alec Curtis, 1983

I had drawn Andrew endless diagrams of Claude Whatham’s camera pontoon, built with a flat surface to accommodate camera track, that used to make Swallows and Amazons in the Lake District. However a more normal and faster vessel was chosen as the camera boat for the Broads. It had to travel around quite a bit since a far greater variety of locations was required than we had in Cumbria. We also had a couple of glass fibre run-around boats which would sometimes be used for the camera, especially in backwaters too shallow for the larger boat.

The Big Six - showing the runaround boat ~ photo: Sophie Neville

Alec Curtis and Andrew Morgan filming theDeath and Glory , with Peter Markham as First Assistant ,and Jill Searle looking after the boats, on one of the few rainy days on location at Gays Staithe, 1983

 

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