It could only happen to them. My parents decided to take a holiday looking at castles in Northumberland and came across this scene:
They ended up appearing in a Walt Disney movie called Unidentified Flying Oddball. Here is the evidence:
The film’s original title had been The Spaceship and King Arthur, billed as a family adventure. It was an adaptation of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and was shot at Alnwick Castle, the seat of the Duke of Northumberland where the Harry Potter films were later made.
It was released on an unsuspecting public in 1979, but was shot in the summer of 1978. I’m not sure how advanced Visual Effects were at the time but there were no Computer Generated Images. It looks to me as if this little airbourne stunt was for real.
Life before the advent of CGI
Absolutely terrifying. While Kenneth Moore played King Arthur, Dad’s distant cousin John le Mesurier was Sir Gawain. Ron Moody played Merlin and Jim Dale starred as Sir Mordred with Dennis Dugan who played Tom Trimble. Rodney Bewes, who we knew as one of the Likely Lads had the role of Clarence. My father was hired for five days as a weapon bearer. This was simply so Mum had license to watch the filming.
Dennis Dugan on location in Northumberland
Pat Roach, 6’5″ tall British actor, later in all three Indiana Jones films, was Oaf. Mum hadn’t seen Jim Dale with permed hair before. She was used the lovable innocent he tended to play in Carry On films, but there he was looking fashionable on location in Northumberland, in the Duchess’s garden at that.
Jim Dale at Alnwick Castle
Jim Dale is known for the Harry Potter audiobooks in the USA, winning several high-profile awards for them, and for narrating the Harry Potter video games such as the Hogwart’s Challenge and Wizarding World. I wonder if they transported him back to Alnwick Castle?
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!
It is with some bemusement that I see myself described as a child star in newspapers. I only appeared in two feature films before I grew too tall to do more. It was the little girl here seen eating ice-cream in a pink dress, appearing as a film extra in Swallows & Amazons, who became a brighter starlet than I.
My sister Tamzin enchanted directors who cast her in one role after another. Her career started in 1972 when she was given the lead role of Elka in an episode of Arthur of the Britons opposite Oliver Tobias who played King Arthur. He later introduced her as his co-star. By this time he was known as The Stud, having starred opposite Joan Collins in the movie of her sister Jackie Collins’ racy novel.
No one asked Tamzin if she could ride. It was a good thing that she was proficient as she was soon cantering up and down the hills on a massive horse, whilst clutching that medieval doll. You can watch a bit on Youtube.
Arthur of the Britons had the most prestigious cast: Brian Blessed, Martin Jarvis, Tom Baker, Catherine Schell, Iain Cuthbertson, Peter Firth, Heather Wright, Michael Gambon and Peter Bowles all appeared in the drama series, some of which was filmed on our parents’ farm. I remember Jack Watson leaping down the bank above our house. Tamzin played most of her scenes opposite Michael Gothard, who became famous for playing the villain Locque in the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only.
Tamzin was then cast as Anthea in the 1976 BBC adaptation of of E Nesbit’s classic story The Phoenix and the Carpet. I’ve just read that it was a story much admired by Arthur Ransome.
While Mum enjoyed playing the part of Mother, Tamzin’s brother Cyril was played by Gary Russell, who after appearing as Dick in the BBC series of Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five, grew up to become a writer and script editor on Doctor Who. I last saw him at a book launch at the Imperial War Museum.
Here he is with Tamzin in the 1970s:
As she was used to appearing on television, Tamzin wrote in to Blue Peter and soon appeared on the show. She was also featured on Animal Magic and a number of other magazine programmes.
Tamzin soon had another lead role, that of the young Linda in the ITV production of Nancy Mitford’s semi-autobiographical novel Love in a Cold Climate. While Judi Dench and Michael Aldridge starred as her parents, her brother Matt was played by Max Harris who had the role of her brother Robert in The Phoenix and the Carpet. Tamzin can been seen on the trailer wearing a red dressing-gown in the Hons’ cupboard, looking dreamy in a tam o’shanter and jumping a white Arab over a Cotswold stone wall, whilst riding side-saddle.
She went on to take leading roles in episodes of APlay for Today, Crown Court and Screen Two. Ironically she was expelled from Drama College after Mum persuaded her to work professionally one summer vacation. At that, she tossed her head and went on to occupy time more gainfully.
She won’t believe me, but Tamzin is a most amusing writer. You can see for yourself. Her letters are featured in Ride the Wings of Morning.