~ Behind-the-scenes in film and television, continued ~
Much of Arthur of the Britonswas shot at Woodchester Mansion, a vast house built of cut stone yet left half-finished and eventually sold for £1 to Stroud District Council. My father became a Trustee of the Board that decided its future.
It was on the property below the half-finished building, that HTV constructed the huge lathe and wattle hall which comprised King Arthur’s seat.
We went to watch the filming soon after the fire scene, which opens the episode entitled ‘The Gift of Life’. My sister Tamzin was cast as Elka, the little Saxon girl who arrived with her brother Krist unexpectedly by longboat. This was spotted drifting down the river – which is in reality the lake at Woodchester. In the story Arthur insists they should be returned to their own people by Kai, portrayed by Michael Gothard, who rode some distance with them on his horse.
We were also able to watch. The episode was a beautifully shot.
‘I want to feed the squirrels,’ Tamzin declared after they had been riding for a while. It was a line few have forgotten.
‘Why couldn’t you feed the squirrels before you left?’
‘I did, but now I want to feed them again.’
I was fascinated in her costume, including her shoes which were made of hessian sacking.
I am not sure whether Michael Gothard had worked with children before but he seemed able to cope. It was a good thing Tamzin could ride. Her hessian dress was not exactly ideal riding wear.
‘I couldn’t even whistle when I had all my teeth.’
Shaun Fleming was excellent as her brother and managed to cling on behind the saddle as they charged across the hills, which can’t have been easy. The secret was that he acted under his mother’s maiden name instead of his real surname.
I appeared as the Saxon girl with blonde curly hair seen working in the fields with Heather Wright when the children returned to the Saxon village. While Heather was in lime green, I wore a gold-ish coloured top and plum skirt with no shoes. You can see me hobbling across the end of the field which was full of thistles.
My other sister, Perry, was barefoot too. My mother, as a Saxon woman with short fair hair, (photographed above) virtually carryied her into the village after Tamzin and Shaun.
There were a number of weapons on set that intrigued us as children. We all wanted to learn how to use them. Oliver Tobias began to teach us sword fighting, however there was an accident on set which put a stop to this. One of the actors was having his boots sorted out by a wardrobe assistant when he casually swung his axe. Although it was just a blunt prop, with no edge to the blade, it went into her head, resulting in a four inch gash across her scalp. He was devastated. It was a complete accident. The wardrobe assistant recovered but it was a sobering incident and great care was taken when handling the props afterwards, even though they seemed blunt and harmless.
Forty two years later this series is still treasured by many. It had such a strong cast. Heather Wright went on to star in The Bellstone Fox with Bill Travers and Dennis Waterman and in the 1976 movie Shout at the Devil with Lee Marvin, Roger Moore and Ian Holm.
Geoffrey Adams was terribly well known at the time, as for years he’d played the part of Detective Constable Lauderdale in the long-running BBC Police series Dixon of Dock Green appearing with Jack Warner in nearly 300 episodes.
Shaun (Fleming) Dromgoole went to work in film production on a number of well known movies including American Gothic and The Woman He Loved, about which starred Anthony Andrews and Olivia de Havilland and Jane Seymour as Wallis Simpson.
Shaun Fleming, Tamzin Neville, Sophie Neville , Jenny Fleming, Kerig the doll and Daphne Neville in 1972
The producer, Patrick Dromgoole was absolutely prolific, producing a huge number of classic television dram serials including The She Wolf of London and The Clifton House Mystery, which my mother appeared in as well as Robin of Sherwood . Her drama pupil Robert Addie played Sir Guy of Gisbourne so convincingly in that series he became hated throughout the UK. For more photographs of Mum please see flick down though various posts on my blog for Funnily Enough.
Do please add additional information or memories in the comments below.
I have been writing about my experiences behind-the-scenes in film and television for some time. There is one series in particular that still has a strong following, particularly those interested in British medieval history.
As children, back in 1971, we were all excited to hear that HTV was planning to film a series about King Arthur near where we lived in Gloucestershire. We were keen on dressing up and I was already interested in medieval history.
The Arthurian legend had always been portrayed with ladies in pointy conical hats and knights in chain mail riding around with lances, however expectations of turreted castles were soon to be dashed.
Instead, we woke up one morning to find this tent in the field beyond our house, with a full English breakfast being served by location caterers from the back of a two-tone bus. The final scenes of Episode One of the series Arthur of the Britons, entitled Arthur is Dead,starring Oliver Tobias in the title role,was to be filmed on our farm.
We learnt that the drama series, Arthur of the Britions was to be quite different from traditional renditions of the well-loved stories. Apart from anything else the actors had long hair and wore rough hessian garments or sheepskins to reflect the culture of Iron Age England. Everyone was excited about the idea, which seemed more authentic and certainly held more sex-appeal than the Hollywood idyl lodged in our consciousness.
While the lane below the wood that ran along the sides of our valley was closed to traffic, HTV ran cables and moved in with their lights, camera equipment and props amounting to bundles of swords, spears, shields and other weaponry.
Here you can see the Gulliver’s Prop lorry as well as costume and make-up artists with their kit-bags attending to the actors and supporting artistes. Please remind me of the name of the character to the left of shot and who played him. ***
It must have been dark under the trees, as there would have been have been a large 2K light on this tripod. The crew set up carefully and were finally ready to go for a take, recording the battle in the woods on 16mm.
After a short skirmish, Arthur pretends to retreat, leading his men downhill. They are soon followed by the Saxon hordes. The reality was that the wood was much steeper than it came across on television. The actors ended up tumbling down the bank.
We were waiting in the open field in the valley floor. Although naturally marshy, this had been made much wetter by damming the stream that flowed down from the woods. Our local road engineer Percy Baxter dug pits that filled with water and acted as a trap for the Saxons who did not know the secret way through the marshes.
We knew the ledgend and were fascinated to see how the sequence would come together.
As the scene was difficult to replicate it was shot with two cameras, seen here set on wooden tripods. The result was exciting.
Scroll to 19.50 towards the end of the episode to watch the scene here on Youtube:
***Post script: This email arrived recently. I have been given permission to feature it:
“Browsing the web the other day, I came across your website and photos relating to filming ‘Arthur of the Britons’. One photo in particular interested me, the one in which the request, ‘Please remind me of the name of the character to the left of shot and who played him’ appears.
Looking at that photo stirred many memories…
Back in 60’s Bristol, my old chum Bob Baker was trying his hand at script-writing for the media, somehow he got involved with a BBC Children’s series entitled ‘Pegasus’: of which meager entries appear online and actual footage seems non existent.
Bob and I enlisted as extras for a shoot at Berkeley Castle, much fun, beautifully authentic Napoleonic Infantry costumes, several closeups, a hard in-character slap on the face for Bob and a shot of me firing a rifle at an imaginary ‘Pegasus’, the eponymous hot air balloon, as it took off from the castle courtyard carrying the escapee heroes of the plot. An excellent tight closeup only marred by myself who, having fired and watched the imaginary effect of my bullet, lowered the rifle and stared up intently, for what seemed minutes (at nothing) finally relaxed… as my eye was drawn inexorably towards the huge camera lens inches from my face. ‘Christ! He just looked straight into the camera! Cut!’ I was particularly stung by a co-extras unconcealed schadenfreude as he muttered, ‘Shame about that Rog, they liked the look of you, blown your chances now.’ But it was too good to waste and, edited, made it into the final cut: it was however the last close-up I got.
The final location work called for a night shoot, it was raining intermittently and shooting was sporadic, Bob and I spent most of the night in the canteen, drinking wine with our old mate Keith Floyd who had managed to land the catering job – in many ways, the start of his career and of course he went on to considerable success, fame and several television series of his own. Bob and I ran out of cigarettes so, fully accoutred and armed with cocked hats, swords, rifles and bayonets, we strolled down into Berkeley village and went into The Boar’s Head just at closing time, startling the small group of locals, and ordered two pints and some fags. A stunned silence descended as without a word, Bob and I drained our pints and left as suddenly as we had appeared. I wonder if the legend of the two thirsty apparitions from La Grande Armée is told there still?
Bob and co-writer Dave Martin had written a well-researched film script about King Arthur. They knocked on many doors, Hollywood was mentioned; even Charlton Heston was reported to be interested, but finally, in 1973, it was HTV who eventually picked it up, though I see Bob actually gets credit only for the first episode ‘People of the Plough’.Of course, he went on to write many of the scripts for ‘Dr Who’ and ‘Wallace and Grommit’ but this was his first, if modest, success.
I was on my summer vacation and Bob mentioned HTV were looking for extras for ‘Arthur’ if I was interested. When I arrived on set it seemed that half of Bristol was there including many of my drinking mates from Clifton, most of whom had arrived equipped with cider and beer and it became fairly apparent the direction things would take. A few years ago I was reminiscing about those days with one of them, Mike Dauncey, who went on to become a respected BBC Cameraman, but who sadly, recently died. He told me he spent most of his time in the actors tent, along with a few other reprobates, smoking pot. I recall seeing him at the time but had no idea what was going on, though I remember enjoying plenty of the extraordinary amounts of alcohol that seemed to be around. I’m pretty sure Mike is the guy in the patterned doublet with his back to the camera, extreme right.
Vaguely, I recall lots of nonsense, involving charging down hills waving swords and yelling, mock fighting in in the river and defending a primitive ‘Saxon Village’ that had been constructed on a river bank. As always, shooting was a bit piecemeal, scenes being shot out of sequence and us extras standing around as background whilst Oliver Tobias, Jack Watson and, by the end of the shoot, the Celts, had taken the village. Not terribly dramatic at the time, presumably any attendant pillage and rapine was the subject of a different shoot, though I recall a fair amount of fake blood waiting in readiness. Finally the script called for the Celts to set fire to the village. And thus I got my big starring role, as employing all my acting skills, dressed in a ‘bloody’ sheepskin and in closeup, I was required to play a dead Saxon.
Unfortunately it had been steadily raining all day and the ‘village’, built largely from straw and dummy plastic wickerwork, refused to ignite. I was lying very close to the ‘village’ and began to get a bit concerned as, from my worms eye view, I watched the crew enthusiastically chucking gallons of petrol over the village to get things going. It all seemed to take a long time and as I lay there in the rain, I remember hoping they hadn’t forgotten that the dead Saxon was actually an extra and not a prop. More time went by setting up the shots but eventually the scene was in readiness. Action! shouted the director and with cameras rolling, three ‘Celtic horsemen’ with flaming torches galloped down on the village, narrowly avoiding trampling me, threw the torches at the ‘buildings’ and galloped off. For several seconds nothing happened, then suddenly with a huge WHOOMPH! all that petrol just went off, The heat where I was lying was incredible, the grass between me and the village began to steam then turn yellow and smoke, I began to smell wet, then burning wool, as my sheepskin began to smoulder, fortunately too sodden and thick to actually catch fire, but lying there, I discovered an earnest empathy for those Guy Fawkes dummies I had chucked on bonfires as a kid. The crew were oblivious to my plight as the director called for several takes and the scene took over an hour to shoot until eventually the flames died down and a wrap was called.
Months later the series appeared on TV, I saw very little of it but did see that scene; by modern standards it looked fairly amateurish, obviously phoney as you could see the plastic ‘wickerwork’ melting, but my closeup was excellent, I looked just like a corpse, very realistic, despite gently steaming.
Bob and Dave Martin always referred to the series as ‘Arthur in The Stinging Nettles’ but what struck me about that photo is that it looks more like the set for some fey setting of Lothlórien. What a bunch of fairies!
So back to that plea, who was the character on the left? Well, if it’s the guy having his face touched-up on the extreme left, I’m afraid it was no actor, just an extra that played a corpse. Me.
I seem to have banged on a bit, strange how a photograph brings it all back, apologies if it just seems like some old blokes boring memories – but then again, that’s exactly what it is!
When I was a little girl, I was an avid viewer of Blue Peter, BBC Television’s flagship series for children. My favorite items would be profiles that were run from time to time about life behind the scenes at Television Centre. It was only later, whilst working for the BBC as a researcher, that I was told the terrible truth. The set designer Bruce Macadie said that such items were produced when the editor of Blue Peter was unexpectedly let down by a guest or couldn’t think of anything more newsworthy. I didn’t care a hoot. I was interested in how films were made from the age of about nine.
‘What a peculiar girl!’ I hear my friend Nac saying.
The reason was that I had rather a peculiar upbringing. I once described myself in an application for a job as a television director as a ‘Child of the studio floor’. The reason was that in 1969, when I was about eight years old, my mother became an in-vision announcer, reading the regional News and appearing on our crackly black and white set to brightly declare what would be shown that evening. She worked at the Harlech Television Studios in Cardiff, alongside Martyn Lewis and Liz Carse. She would also descend in an oval wicker basket chair from which she would present a one-woman Children’s programme on called It’s Time For Me. This looked liked magic, and I wanted to know how it was achieved.
‘I was paid the same amount as a short-hand typist.’ The men were paid more than the women and her schedule was gruelling. On top of this she would drive 72 miles to the Cardiff studios in a rusty Mini van. Even though this was replaced she went part-time. Having become an expert on how long script bites took to read in different accents she would ‘whizz down to Bristol’ to read the letters on Any Answersfor the producer Carol Stone.
‘But how did the basket come down?’
‘Oh, the rope was attached to a pulley on the studio lighting rig and lowered by three prop men.’
I would often travel down with my mother to be shown around various studios. I remember sitting behind the Dalek-like cameras watching a live afternoon programme called Women Only being recorded at HTV Bristol. Mum presented it with Jan Leeming and a rotund TV cook called Tony. He had to wear a bright yellow chef’s hat and top so that they would come across as ‘chef’s whites’ rather than weirdo glowing garments on everyone’s black and white television sets. Mum spent ages looking for clothes to wear in vision as she was not allowed to wear either spots or stripes since they were liable to strobe. Dresses made from crimplene were all the rage but (luckily) she was banned from wearing this as TV screens would pick up on any static that it might exude. Sparkling garments were a no-no.
You wouldn’t think that Gloucestershire would be a hot spot for the film industry in the UK but in 1971 I was able to watch a film crew making a drama on location in Slad near Stroud, when I was chosen to play Eileen Brown in the BBC adaption of Laurie Lee’s memoir, Cider with Rosie directed by Claude Whatham. It had nothing to do with luck. I was the only little girl they could find with long hair who could play the piano.
In 1972 I was given a tiny non-speaking part of a ‘Woodchild’ in Arthur of the Britons that was made near Woodchester by HTV. I had forgotten all about this until I saw a Youtube clip. I gather the serial has become cult viewing in the States.
Around this time the BBC made an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, shot on location in Bath. We went down to be film extras in this and in a BBC drama called Song of Songs.
By the time I was cast as Titty in Swallows & Amazons I was relatively experienced. Later that summer I was in a Weetabix commercial and the next year I was invited to appear on a number of magazine programmes to publicise the movie. I remember being interviewed on Nationwide and profiled at home on Animal Magic.
Inevitably one thing leads to another and I was soon asked to audition for a number of subsequent films. Inflation was roaring at 17% in the mid-1970s and I don’t think any of these were ever made but it was good interview experience. I ended up at Shepperton Studios doing a screen test for a musical version of The Old Curiosity Shop. This was serious stuff, shot on a film stage in Victorian costume. My music teacher spent ages teaching me to sing All I Want is a Room Somewhere but despite endless discussions nothing more came of it. However looking around Shepperton had been amazing. At some stage I had also auditioned at Pinewood Studios. I had been shown around the set of the latest James Bond and even had a go on the swing featured in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Mum wouldn’t let me tell anyone at school about it, as I might had come across as swanky. But as film studios were not open to the public then it did add to my education.
Although lanky, and focused on GCSEs, I managed to gain a leading role in an adventure film when I was fifteen. This proved interesting it involved working with stunt men including Vic Armstrong, who later became Harrison Ford’s double. We got to shoot from helicopters. At times the camera literally showed me shooting from a helicopter with a bow and arrow.
And then there was an opportunity to be in Crossroads. What an experience! I was various wedding scenes and the crowds who turned out to watch were unexpected. I was eighteen by then and did it purely for the money. I’ll see if I can find the article I wrote about it for my university magazine. Please let me know the name of the actor playing Kevin. I was meant to be his sister.
My mother, Daphne, started working as a television presenter for Harlech Television in Cardiff. By 1973 Mum was working at the HTV studios in Bristol two days a week, presenting an afternoon programme called Women Only with Jan Leeming, and doing a bit of radio work for the BBC. Occasionally she appeared on other shows.
While my father’s life was influenced by Arthur Ransome, my mother drew inspiration from the author Noel Streatfield and her novel Ballet Shoes, the story of three little girls who went on the stage.Before her own three daughters were old enough to read she was dreaming dreams. Since she worked at the HTV studios in Bristol, it was natural enough for us to take part in their drama productions that were being made locally.
When I was offered the part of Titty in Swallows & Amazons, Mum somehow managed to take enough leave to come up to the Lake District and work on the film as a chaperone, although she had to return to Bristol for two HTV commitments. She missed some of the best scenes, and some of our worst moments.
‘You owed your life to Simon West, of course.’
‘Oh, yes. Simon was such a good sailor. He was totally reliable.’ She was thinking of the scene when Swallow was meant to narrowly avoid colliding with the Windermere steamer, the Tern, when we only just avoided a terrible accident.
‘You would have gone under the Tern if Simon hadn’t been so calm and controlled. He would never have got into the situation himself, he would have gone about much sooner but was waiting for Claude to give him the cue over the Motorola radio. Claude was too late. He had no idea about boats.’
My mother returned from working in Bristol to find my father, Martin, was not happy about how things were being handled when we were on the water. They stayed up, talking all night, making what must have been one of the first ever risk assessments.
‘Quite a few things changed after that.’ You can tell from studying old call sheets.
‘The ridiculous thing was having to strap the kids into life jackets to go to Peel Island, which was not risky at all. Martin and I then discovered they were BOAC rejects.’
Simon told me that he really couldn’t remember much about being in Swallows & Amazons. Looking back on it all, he reckoned that if I had talked through each day with Mum it would have reinforced memories. My diaries, which were certainly more detailed than those kept by the other Swallows, were supplemented by Mum’s photos, taken on a daily basis and looked at repeatedly. You have seen them all. They have that early Seventies tint to them.
Meanwhile my mother’s own memories are coloured by how things have changed over the last forty years, the other films she has been in the actors she has met.
‘Ronnie Fraser was perfectly nice. He was treated like a star and kept very much apart from us. He behaved like a star. Now stars have PAs, but he didn’t!’
Mum went on to appear in all sorts of movies. If you don’t blink, you can see her as a Victorian Lady in The Invisible Woman – Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of Charles Dickens, soon to be released in cinemas.
One of the reasons why I did not continue acting as a child was that it seemed rather more important to concentrate on my education. Another reason was that I simply grew too tall. I was all legs, like a foal.
After a few years, the fact that I had leading parts inboth Swallows and Amazons and The Copter Kids meant surprisingly little professionally, except that I was able to gain a much coveted Equity card. In the late 1970’s Trade Unions were very strong in Britain, holding the film and television industry under a ‘closed shop’ policy. If you were not a Union member you could not work, but you could not gain a Union card without having worked professionally. Even though I had taken starred in two movies and had appeared in a number of television dramas, I had only just worked for enough days to get a ‘Provisional Equity membership’ – although another reason for this might have been because I was still only sixteen. Virginia McKenna’s lovely daughter Louise, who I had met at the premiere, was working as a dancer in Spain to gain an Equity card. Meanwhile, directors in the UK could not find young actors in Equity to cast in their dramas. Not being fussy about how I looked, I volunteered to play the part of a boy in the HTV movie Kidnapped.
Although the snow was not real, I nearly froze to death. I must have appeared a more than twenty television dramas, wearing ever more uncomfortable costumes. Wearing wigs was the worst thing. They can be terribly itchy.
Concentrating on academic work was certainly a warmer way to spend the day. I ploughed on with my studies only accepting work that I was offered close to where we lived. The exception was the Two Ronnies, which was recorded on the south coast but it was an opportunity not to be missed. I was about nineteen and had an amusing part in their long running story of Charley Farley and Piggy Malone – The Band of Slaves.
Since I was cast by Paul Jackson, the Producer, I hadn’t realised that Ronnie Barker would be directing the drama. It was the first time that I had acted with an actor/director, which was slightly tricky when I had my arms around him. The whole experience was surreal – and good fun. Ronnie had a wonderful costume designer who amused Ronnie by pouring us into outrageous outfits, including commodious Yashmaks. She gave me little round spectacles. Since I put on a Southern American accent I thought, ‘No one will ever recognise me in this part,’ – but they did.The series ended with a large wooden crate being lowered by a crane from a ship on Southampton docks. One side of the crate fell open and I marched out playing For all the Saints on a trombone, followed by all these ladies dress in pink. I’m holding a tuba in this shot but it was swapped for a trombone. My heel got stuck in one of the tram lines on the dockside but I kept marching on.
My mother would have loved me to have followed her dream and try for RADA, where she was a student in the late 1950’s. Instead I was accepted by the University of Durham where I read Anthropology and made a number of very good friends.
In the summer of 1980 we went to see Virginia McKenna who was staring opposite Yule Brynner in the musical of The King and I in the West End. We would never have gone backstage if we hadn’t known her so well, if I hadn’t played her daughter in Swallows and Amazons. Virginia needed someone to look after her family in the country, while she was on the London stage. She wrote to ask my mother if she could recommend a cook-housekeeper. It was this domestic role I took on for the long university vacation, armed with a my school cookery book. It was just the Susan-ish job I needed to ground me. Bill Travers, Ginny’s husband, was working at home for much of the time, developing a screenplay for a film set in Africa. Her son Will Travers had just returned from working on the crew of a movie made in the Nongorogro Crater in Tanzania, and, while her daughter Louise was still dancing in Spain, her second son was at boarding school, her youngest at day school. My feet did not touch the ground.
I couldn’t complain. Virginia hardly slept, and yet due to her obscure hours she could only ever see her youngest son when he was sleeping. She spent sixteen months at the London Palladium, with numerous other demands on her time such as performing at the Royal Variety Performance at the Theatre Royal in Dury Lane. While Yule Brynner had a bodyguard she would drive back though the night in her little blue car.
In her autobiography The Life in my Years Virginia describes how The King and I proved one of the highlights of her career. Yul Brynner was a complete perfectionist, which could make life hard, but she welcomed the discipline he bought to the theatre. You don’t need to watch much of this clip to see how demanding he could be ~
Almost as soon as I gained my Full Equity Union Membership, I decided that I really didn’t want to devote my life to acting. After I finished working for Virginia McKenna, London Weekend Television came to make a drama called Dark Secret, a two-part Sunday Night Thriller, shot at my parents’ house in the Cotswolds. Christopher Hodson, the director, thought it would be amusing if we turned up and knocked on the front door in the final scene, so I am regrettably credited is ‘Member of family party’ along with my mother.
I’d actually been employed to help the Designer and his assistant modify our house in line with the story. I remember running errands for the Prop-buyer, who had no idea how to acquire action props of a rural nature such as dead rabbits. I got on so well with the LWT technicians that I decided that working on the crew was far more fulfilling that standing in front of the camera with an itchy hair-do. In 1982 I made a decision to opt for a career in television production. What I did not know is how soon Arthur Ransome would come back into my life.
Further details on the dramas I appeared in at this time, can be read about in ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, available as an ebook for £2.99