Acting many more parts than you’d think on the Norfolk Broads ~

Coot Club - Jake Coppard imitating me
Jake Coppard, as Pete, after he fell in the water, enacting Arthur Ransome’s story of ‘The Big Six’

What is the best way to entertain someone who enjoys acting?

Jake Coppard wearing my coat and hat in our support boat on the Norfolk Broads
Jake Coppard wearing my coat and hat in our support boat on the Norfolk Broads

Even when we had very little space or were waiting around for hours out on the water during the filming of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’,  one thing that kept everyone amused was the game of charades. Simply imitating each other also proved hilarious and kept up moral whatever the weather. Since the children who appeared in the drama all enjoyed acting, they proved natural entertainers both on and off-screen.

Coot Club - Mark Page being Blackadder
Mark Page, who played Bill, as ‘Blackadder’.

The experienced actors entered into the spirit of this in a trice.

Coot Club - June Ellis
June Ellis finding a way of being a green parrot whilst in her 1934 costume

 The great thing about miming is that it is silent, which was just as well, when we had to keep quiet on set.

Coot Club - Colin Baker as Doctor Dudgeon
Colin Baker as Dr Dudgeon on location in Norfolk

The film crew were wonderful, ever inventive and terribly good at charades.

Coot Club - Sue bide and Paul Higton
Make-up designer Sue Bide being a swallow with the help of Paul Higton from the Wardrobe Department

 No one was limited by taking themselves too seriously.

Coot Club - the sound crew
Sound Recordist Colin March wearing my hat over his ear phones

Some members of the production team made a tremendous effort to keep up our spirits.

Coot Club - Henry Dimbleby T-Shirt
Script Supervisor Di Brooks towards the end of our three month shoot in Norfolk with Henry Dimbleby who played Tom Dudgeon in the 1984 BBC serial of ‘Coot Club’

Julian Fellowes, who played Jerry, told me recently that he so admired Henry Dimbleby for taking part in Swallows and Amazons Forever purely because it was fun, rather than because he wanted to be an actor. I appreciated his indestructible good nature and the fact that he made the three months we spent on location enjoyable, in many ways leading the team, even though he was only thirteen years old.

Of course, what is most amusing, is when the unexpected happens. That is what I will attempt to relate in the next post.

The boats used for filming the BBC drama ‘Coot Club’ on the Norfolk Broads in 1983 ~

Norfolk County Sailing Base, Ludham
The ‘Titmouse’ under sail in 1983

I think Jim Searle might have given me this lovely photograph of  Titmouse, and that was taken when the boys from Norfolk who played the Death and Glorys were given sailing lessons prior to filming in the summer of 1983.

Henry Dimbleby resting between takes in the 'Dreadnaught'
Henry Dimbleby resting between takes in the ‘Dreadnaught’.

The Dreadnaught was a useful punt. Henry Dimbleby is 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.

Coot Club - Bruce McCaddie the designer
Bruce McCaddie, our Designer with Prop Master Ricky King in the ‘Cachalot’

Am I right in thinking that 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 after pike.

The Death and Glory at Gay Staithe
The Death and Glory at Gay Staithe

One of the jobs Bruce 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.

Bruce Mackadie
Our Set Designer, Bruce McCaddie using a dressing boat to approach the ‘Death and Glory’ complete with her cabin. Is the ‘Titmouse’ moored alongside?

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.

Coot Club - the  camera boat
Norfolk teacher Angela Scott with the ‘Catchalot’

This is one of the only shots 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.

Coot Club - Lullaby as the Teasel undersail
Lullaby undersail, playing the Teasel with her stage name painted on a false transome

The Teasel was played by Lullaby. Roger Wardale tells me she is  a mahogany hulled crusier, a gunter-rigged, 4-berth ‘Lustre’ class yacht built in 1932 and kept at Hunter’s Yard in Ludham, where I believe 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.

The Teasel towing the Titmouse
The Teasel towing the Titmouse – click on this photo to see a close-up of the cockpit

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 is still working. He edited 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.

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 ~

Coot Club - My Address Book

The ‘Doctor Who’ connection ~

One viewer has observed that, in the BBC serialisation of Coot Club and The Big Six, we had not one but two Doctors in the cast, Time Lords at that. This is true. We arrived on location one morning to find that Patrick Troughton had  transmogrified into Harry Bangate the Eel Man.

Patrick Troughton as the eel man
Patrick Troughton playing The Eel Man in ‘The Big Six’, 1983

He had led the most fascinating life. A Naval Officer during World War II, and the first actor to play Robin Hood on television, Patrick Troughton played The Doctor in 128 episodes of Doctor Who. But would he be drawn? If we asked him about his life he just started talking about eels in a broad Norfolk accent. He’d worked for our Director Andrew Morgan on Kings Royal and for Joe Water’s on Z Cars, but for us, in the summer of 1983, he was the eel man.

Coot Club - Jake Coppard - playing Pete
Jake Coppard playing Pete at the eel man’s hut

Colin Baker first appeared in Doctor Who (a story entitled Arc of Infinity) in the role of Commander Maxil, when he actually shot the 5th Time Lord, who was being played by Peter Davison. It was not until after he arrived in Norfolk to play Arthur Ransome’s tweed-clad Dr Dudgeon, that he realised his full destiny and donned a multi-coloured dream coat to take on the 6th incarnation of The Doctor in the long-running BBC science fiction series.  I went on to work as an Assistant Floor Manager on a two-part story called Vengeance on Varos when the Tardis had to make an emergency landing on a most unattractive planet. When we were in the North Acton rehearsal rooms I persuaded Colin to teach me all the correct jargon about transmogrifiers but it has since washed from my brain.

Colin Baker as Dr Dudgeon in 'Coot Club' and 'The Big Six'
Colin Baker as Dr Dudgeon amusing us by smoking grass

I can’t remember whether Colin Baker was cast as Dr Dudgeon in Coot Club before or after Henry Dimbleby was given the part of his son Tom Dudgeon, but he did not look unlike Henry’s real father back then.

David Dimbelby with us on location in Norfolk, 1983
David Dimbelby with us on location in Norfolk, 1983

There were various other members of our film crew who were also familiar with the Tardis. (I think we were meant to refer to it as  ‘T.A.R.D.I.S.’ ~ Time And Relative Dimension In Space).   John Woodvine ,who played PC Tedder, had preciously taken the role of the Marshall in ‘The Armageddon Factor’, opposite Tom Baker and Mary Tamm in 1979.

John Gill who we knew as Old Bob of the Comealong had the part of Oak in Fury from the Deep, made in Patrick Troughton’s time. Alan Lake played Herrick in four episodes entitled Underworld first broadcast in 1978. Andrew Burt played Valgard in Terminus during Peter Davison’s era and Tim Barlow, the distinctive looking actor who played the old man at the Roaring Donkey was Tyssan in Destiny of the Daleks. Sam Kelly, our Captain of the Catchalot appeared in the audio dramas of Doctor Who titled The Holy Terror and Return to the Web Planet.

Andrew Morgan directed both Time and the Rani and Remembrance of the Daleks. Tariq Anwar our film editor on Coot Club, worked on two stories while  Andy Lazell, the visual effects designer responsible for creating so much fake fog on Breydon Water had worked on ‘The Leisure Hive’ and ‘Snakedance’, eight episodes of Doctor Who first broadcast in the early 1980s. Colin March, our sound recordist worked on the film sound or ‘Planet of Evil’ in 1975 and ‘The Two Doctors’, with both Colin Baker and Patrick Troughton. It was broadcast in 1985. Liz Mace, had been the production manager on ‘Time-Flight’.  Diana Brookes, our script supervisor – or production assistant as the job was then known – had worked with Colin Baker on the four-part Doctor Who story ‘Arc of Infinity’ in 1982/3. Perhaps it was she who thought of him for Dr Dudgeon.

Diana Brookes in Beccles with Richard Walton who played Dick in 'Coot Club'
Di Brookes in Beccles with Richard Walton who played Dick in ‘Coot Club’

The part of the tall and elegant Hullabaloo, Livy, was played by Sarah Crowden. Her father, the actor Graham Crowden who I always think of as Tom Ballard in his Sit-com Waiting For God, was offered the part of the fourth Doctor Who , after Jon Pertwee but he turned down the opportunity as it was such a committment. Instead he played Soldeed in The Horns of Nimon in 1980 after Tom Baker had being playing the fourth Doctor for some time.

The person working on our series who had had a huge input on Doctor Who was Mervyn Haisman, our Script Editor. He’d written at least seventeen episodes including the series entitled The Dominators, writing under the name Norman Ashby. Mervyn never appeared on location but it was he who steered the adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s novels, breaking them down into four episodes each, whilst remaining faithful to the original stories.

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.

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

 

Casting children for the BBC adaptations of Arthur Ransome’s books ‘Coot Club’ & ‘The Big Six’ in 1983 ~

Sophie Neville with Port and Starboard in 'Coot Club'
Sophie Neville with Port and Starboard in ‘Coot Club’

Looking back, it was a complete miracle that I able to work on the BBC adaptations of the Arthur Ransome books, but in 1983 I spent nine months working on Coot Club and The Big Six, released in 1984 as an eight-part drama serial under the generic title ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever’ . Awarded a BAFTA nomination, it is available on DVD today.

Swallows and Amazons Forever! Coot Club children cast by Sophie Neville

In 1982 I graduated from university and entered the BBC as a researcher on the General Traineee Scheme. I had so enjoyed working for Ronnie Barker on The Two Ronnies that my initial aim was to go into the Department of Light Entertainment.  I joined the Russell Harty team, which had a series of thirty-minute shows broadcast live from a studio at London Bridge. I actually invited Susan George on the show without realising she had played Kitty Walker (Titty) in the black and white BBC drama serial of Swallows and Amazons in 1963.  Since The Russell Harty Show ended at the same time as my contract, I started looking around for a programme strand that was right for me.

The Unit Manager on our team heard that BBC Drama Series and Serials had acquired the rights to the Arthur Ransome books and suggested I went to see the  Producer, Joe Waters.  I knew we’d get on well as soon as I spoke to him on the phone.  Joe was always laughing. Although he’d made numerous episodes of The Enigma Files and Squadron, as well as Police series such as Z-Cars and Dixon of Dock Green, Joe had never filmed with boats and was interested to see the photographs of the camera pontoon devised for Claude Whatham in the Lake District. Joe explained that he had plans to film a number of the Arthur Ransome books but decided to start with the pair set in Norfolk and already had scripts adapted by Michael Robson.

The first miracle was that, although he had a full production team booked, Joe needed someone to help find children who could handle boats confidently on the Norfolk Broads. In the 1980’s drama directors at the BBC were expected to do their own casting, but Joe’s director, Andrew Morgan, was still editing another series and wasn’t going to have enough time to cast the children’s parts.  This had to be settled at least seven weeks before filming as Education Authorities request six weeks to process licenses required for children to work as actors. The second miracle was that Marcia Wheeler, the BBC Department Manager would not have given the job to me had I not been able to point out that the Graduate Trainee Scheme was paying my salary.  It was January and she had a choice of permanent staff available.

Coot Club - Death and Glories
~Jake Coppard, Mark Page and Nicholas Walpole as the Death and Glory boys ~ photo: Sophie Neville 1983

I set to work, scouring the schools of Norfolk, as we needed boys with local accents to play Pete, Joe and Bill – the Death and Glory boys, as well Roger, little Malcomb and youths who could take on the roles of George Owden and his side-kick Ralph as well as Brian and Rob.

Coot Club Baddies
Boys virtually cast for me by the teachers of Norfolk ~ Dean Harkness who played Brian and Sy Rainsbury who played Rob

I must have written to the Head teachers of every single secondary school in the country, and visited most of them. I managed to find really bright boy to play Dick Callum up in Norfolk, but although I auditioned a number of girls in Norwich, Caroline Downer, who played Dot Callum, and the Farland twins were represented by a London agent.

Coot Club - Richard Walton
Richard Walton, who was cast as Dick Callum, in Norfolk in 1983

You wouldn’t expect it to be difficult, but I couldn’t find a boy to taking the leading role of Tom Dudgeon. It was essential he was out-going and could sail well. I dredged school after school, meeting literally hundreds of children. Joe had found a very nice lad who went to a London stage school but he was fifteen and had never been in a boat. He rather wanted to give the part to Jason Lake, Diana Dor’s son, but he too, admitted that he couldn’t sail. We were getting very close to the deadline and I was almost in despair when I took my cousin to see a musical in the West End. During the interval I turned round and saw a boy, perfect for the part of Tom, sitting right behind me.

‘Do you by any chance sail?’ I asked.

‘Oh, yes,’ he replied, ‘We’ve got a cabin cruiser. I often take the helm.’

I went to meet his parents and found myself looking up at David Dimbleby, asking if his son would consider taking the lead in the Arthur Ransome series.

Henry Dimbleby in 1983
Henry Dimbleby who played Tom Dudgeon in 1983 ~ photo: Sophie Neville

Casting parts for book adaptations is never easy.  Arthur Ransome described Dot as having ‘straw-coloured plaits’ and portrayed Port and Starboard as being robust Tom-boys. Every detail may not have  fulfilled but in the end the right girls for the parts floated to the surface. Andrew Morgan was thrilled, appreciative of the fact that finding identical twins of the right age who could swim, sail and act convincingly was not easy. Caroline was the only girl I had met with hair long enough and thick enough to make into the plaits Ransome had drawn in his illustrations of Dorothea. She was dark and had no experience of boats but convinced us she was right in so many other ways that we offered her the part and sent her off to learn how to sail. She sailed across the Solent, single-handed and alone on her first lesson, gaining enough confidence to easily cope on the Norfolk Broads.

Caroline Downer as Dot Callum
Caroline Downer as Dorothea Callum in ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’, 1983

Since we were scheduled to make nearly four hours of television, we had three months of filming ahead of us. The six children who had leading parts in both books, legally had to be over the age of thirteen to work for such a long period of time. My job had been to find thirteen-year-olds who looked younger.  During the audition period, Andrew and Joe needed to see how well the children could act in the space of a few minutes. I had Anna Scher to thank for teaching me how to demonstrate this.

Anna Scher had been Suzanna Hamilton’s drama teacher and agent. In 1968 she’d started a wonderful after-school theatre for children, based in Islington, north London.  I knew Claude Whatham had respected her enormously and asked if I could sit in on some of her classes. Anna worked fast, getting her students to concentrate and giving them a number of improvisation exercises. I had directed plays at university, so was used to getting good performances out of young people, but she was an expert, explaining that conflict was the key, ‘Drama is conflict!’ she’d declare.

Coot Club Audition
Children who were short-listed for parts in ‘Coot Club’ having lunch at a final audition held in Norwich in 1983. The boys who played Joe and Pete are in the foreground.

When I auditioned children, I extended this by telling them they had to be able to list ten issues for the argument they were putting forward and that I wanted to see each point worked into the drama. For example,

‘You walk into your brother’s room and catch him smoking. I want you to try to persuade him it is stupid and give him ten reasons why he should quit.’

The boy playing the brother had to find ten reasons why he should be able to smoke if he wanted to. Joe Waters hadn’t seen this before but agreed that it worked much better than asking children to read scripts. It amused him. The kids who ended up playing Bill, Pete and Joe of the Death and Glory, responded well both to Joe’s laughter and exercises that required their own input. Despite never having had drama lessons they were able to prove themselves capable of delivering convincing performances.

But, would they be able to get the lines of a script out, whilst handling a boat on open water?

Coot Club - Joe Waters with Henry DimbJleby
Producer Joe Waters with Henry Dimbleby who played Tom Dudgeon in ‘Coot Club’ & ‘the Big Six’ ~ photo: Sophie Neville

One secret was that I asked all the children from Norfolk who were short-listed if they would like to work as Extras on the series even if they didn’t land a part. These children were issued with licences and could have been called upon if any of the cast had to back down at the last-minute.  If you look carefully you can see them  in some of the busier scenes.

In search of our old film locations

Peel Island on Coniston Water ~ photo: Sophie Neville 2012

On a wet but beautiful day in Cumbria we set off on a quest to find some of the locations used in Richard Pilbrow’s 1974 film of Swallows and Amazons.

To my delight our journey started with a drive down through the streets of Rio (Bowness) and along the east shore of Windermere to Haverthwaite Railway Station at the southern end of the lake (or Antarctica as Titty labeled the region). It was here that we spent our very first day filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ back in 1973. I had not been there since.

The driver of the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Steam locomotive

We had a chat to the train driver who explained that they now run six journeys a day. From Haverthwaite the steam locomotives run alongside the River Leven to Lakeside Station. From here you can take a native steamer back up to Rio (the Bowness pier) or to the Far North (Ambleside, which is the town at the head of the lake where we lived whilst filming in that long distant summer when I was twelve years old.)

Talking to the train driver just as we did in 1973

Whilst we used engine number 2073 in the movie, this steam locomotive 42085 was built in 1951. It uses about two tons of coal a day but it utterly magnificent.  The driver probably uses rather a lot of steam oil too.  It’s a smell I relish, familiar since childhood days spent on steamboats. I remember it from the SBA steamboat rally held on Windermere in 1991, which I describe in Funnily Enough.

Steam Locomotives Forever!

Curiously, Haverthwaite Railway Station looked cleaner and shinier than when we used it as a film location in 1973. I can only suppose it was still in the process of being restored back then, when Simon Holland our set designer cluttered it up with push bikes and luggage trolleys.  Much to our surprise, the yellow taxi we were transported in during the filming was actually driven along the platform.

Lakeside and Haverthwaite Steam Railway

We climbed aboard the train and I explored, as Titty would have done, discovering people seated inside from far distant lands.

Inside the carridge of the Lakeside and Haverthwaite train

David Wood’s screenplay for the film of Swallows and Amazons, directed by Claude Whatham, opens to find the Walker family cooped up in a railway carriage compartment as they travel north for their holidays.

With Virginia McKenna at the Haverwaite Railway Station
Viginia McKenna at the Haverthwaite Railway Station in Cumbria soon after it re-opened in May 1973. Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Lesley Bennet, Kit Seymour and Sophie Neville are with her. The carridge with compartments is in the background ~ photo: Daphne Neville

We saw this distinctive carriage in a siding as we steamed down the valley. Funnily enough when I reached home, later the next day, I came across a photograph on the internet I had never seen before. It was of Virginia McKenna, playing Mrs Walker, reading a magazine inside the compartment. Strangely it turned up when I Googled my own name – Sophie Neville.

Virginia McKenna playing Mary Walker, mother of the Swallows in the EMI feature film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ made in 1973

The train is not included in Arthur Ransome’s book of Swallows and Amazons, written in 1929, but he does feature locomotives in his later novels, notably Pigeon Post. I clearly remember filming the BBC adaptation of Coot Club at what must have been The Poppy Line, a steam railway in north Norfolk when Henry Dimbley, playing Tom Dudgeon, jumped aboard the moving train and met Dick and Dorothea.

Peter Walker of Mountain Goat with Sophie Neville at Lakeside Station, Windermere.

I jumped off the train at the Lakeside Station to meet up with Peter Walker of Mountain Goat. Peter has carefully researched and put together a Swallows and Amazons tour, exploring ‘High Greenland’, the ‘Forest’ and ‘High Hills’ to discover the places where Arthur Ransome lived. We set off in search of the places where he fished, wrote, and drank beer.  It was fascinating – and proved an excellent way to spend a day in the Lake District despite the rain.

'Native shipping'