Tag Archives: life jackets

Sailing the Nancy Blackett

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If you have ever wondered what Nancy Blackett is doing now – here she is. Built by Hillyards of Littlehampton in 1931 she was bought by Arthur Ransome with royalties from Swallows and Amazons and became both the inspiration and model for his book about the Swallows’ unplanned voyage to Holland ~  We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea, in which she was known as the Goblin. She also appears in Secret Water.

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I was at the Royal Harwich Yacht Club to give a talk on making the BBC adaptations of two other Arthur Ransome books set in East Anglia, Coot Club and The Big Six.

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I thought that people would rather be out in the sunshine or watching the Wimbledon finals but it was well attended.

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After watching a clip of Ginger and Rosa, the BFI/BBC feature film directed by Sally Potter that Nancy Blackett starred in last year, we wandered down to the jetty in front of the new club house, and grabbed a chance to go out on the Orwell.

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Soon sails were being hoisted and we were underway, sailing down river in the evening light.

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Conditions were perfect for Nancy, a 28 foot Bermurdan cutter.

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I took the helm, whilst the others did the hard work.

Pin Mill in Suffolk

We were soon sailing past Pin Mill, which also features in the book.

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Some members of the crew were experienced sailors,

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others had previously managed to avoid spending much time on the water, but we all had a wonderful experience and were sad when the sails were stowed for the night.

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We saw a couple of Thames barges also coming in, as Nancy settled down after a successful day.

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For more photos please click here

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Auditioning for parts in ‘Swallows & Amazons’ back in 1973

The final audition for 'Swallows & Amazons' in March 1973

The final audition for ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in March 1973 ~ a wet weekend sailing in Burnham-on-Crouch without parents.

This summer thousands of children aged between six and fourteen have been auditioning for parts in the new adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s inspirational book ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I have been introduced to quite a few of the girls interested in playing Titty. Their parents often ask what the audition process was like for us, back in 1973, long before the advent of email and Youtube when casting directors only ever worked in Hollywood.

For me, the process was pretty quick. I had worked for the Director, Claude Whatham before, when I had a small part in the BBC film of Laurie Lee’s book, ‘Cider with Rosie’. After meeting Claude again at an interview held at Richard Pilbrow’s  Theatre Project’s offices in Long Acre on a sunny day in March 1973, I was invited to go to Burnham-on-Crouch for a sailing weekend that was to constitute the final audition. This proved something of an endurance test. It was miles from where we lived. The weather was awful with driving rain and rough seas. The only warm piece of clothing I had was a knitted hat. We slept in cabins aboard a permanently moored Scout Boat with flowery orange curtains. There were no parents around to boost our moral. The sailing was challenging and I felt bitterly cold.

Our producer Richard Pilbrow bought his two children, Abigail and Fred. With him was Neville Thompson, director Claude Whatham, and David Blagden who was to be the sailing director. He told us that he had read ‘Swallows and Amazons’ forty-two times, which sounded daunting. I had read all the books but could not see myself as Titty. She had thick dark hair in all the pictures and I was bossy – far more like Mate Susan. We didn’t read from a script. We weren’t asked to improvise or act out a scene.  There was no film-test, but 8mm movie footage was taken.  I wonder if it still exists.

Out of an initial 1,800 who applied, twenty-two children were short-listed for the six parts of the Swallows and the Amazons. While there were only two or three boys up for the role of Roger there were five girls auditioning to play Titty. At one stage Claude had a chat with all five of us in our cabin, all the Tittys. The others were all so sweet that I didn’t think I stood a chance. I was undeniably gangly and felt that I kept saying the wrong thing.

‘Did you take the helm?’

‘Oh, we all helmed like any-thing.’

One of the other girls auditioning for Titty looked incredibly together. She had pretty, fashionable clothes and would make a point of brushing her hair and wearing jewelry, just as Mummy would have liked me to have done. While I was used to boats my sailing wasn’t up to much. I was completely in awe of Kit Seymour’s seamanship and how the fast she got the dinghies to whizz through the driving rain.

BW the cast at Euston Station May 1973

A photograph taken for the Evening Standard of the cast at Euston Station on their way to the Lake District, before haircuts. Suzanna said, ‘We all felt right twits.’

A decision must have been made pretty quickly as all local education authorities demanded at least six weeks to process our licences to work on a film. It was 1973, casting time must have been scarce and I’m afraid the children finally cast all ended up coming from the south of England: Middlesex, Berkshire, Gloucestershire and London. None of us went to stage schools or had theatrical agents, apart from Suzanna Hamilton who went to the Anna Scher after-school Drama Club in Islington.  But before we knew it our hair was cut, transporting us back to 1929 and we were out on Lake Windermere realising the dream.

BW Wearing Life Jackets in the Safety Boat - trimmed

The Swallows, wearing ex-BOAC buoyancy aids, on Coniston Water

‘Did you have a pushy Mum?’ I am asked.

‘Oh, yes!’ She was brought up reading Noel Streatfield’s  ‘Ballet Shoes’, longed to act herself and so was keen for me to be in ‘Cider with Rosie’. She made the effort to take me along to a drama club and to a huge audition in the Stroud Subscription Rooms, however I only got the little part of Elieen Brown was because I could play the piano. My mother did force me to take my music to the third audition, which of course enabled me to out-shine the others. I was not a hugely talented pianist and ended up having to practice for eight hours a day before I could master the accompaniment to ‘Oh, Danny Boy’ featured in the film. It was shear hard work that won through in the end.

We were all lucky to be the right age at the right time. I was perhaps the most fortunate because at twelve I was really too tall for the part of Titty. I was a year older and a good two inches taller than Simon West who played my elder brother, but Claude must have known that he could cheat this on-screen.

Oxford Mail Wednesday June 20th 1973

‘Are you glad you did it?’

Yes, it was fun – wonderful to spend a summer in the Lake District. A chance grabbed. I had not been yearning to act but took a great interest in how the movie was made. In the end the experience set me up for something of a career in television behind the camera and gave me the confidence to a number of things that might otherwise have remained a dream.

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Aboard the ‘Nancy Blackett’

Sophie Neville aboard the Nancy Blackett at Buckler's HardA few days ago I was able to grab a chance and sail a yacht once owned by Arthur Ransome called the Nancy Blackett, ‘The best little ship I ever owned.’

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Nancy had been brought up from her birth at Woolverstone on the River Orwell in Suffolk to Buckler’s Hard on the edge of the New Forest in Hampshire for The Arthur Ransome Society International Annual General Meeting held at Brockenhurst College near by.

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Apart from being Arthur Ranomse’s model for the Goblin in two of his books in the Swallows and Amazons series ~ We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea and Secret Water ~ the Nancy Blackett has recently appeared in Sally Potter’s feature film Ginger and Rosa.

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I went to visit her when she was open to visitors at the Boat yard at Bucklers Hard on Sunday 26th May.

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We emerged having wondered how Arthur Ransome managed to fit himself into the heads, which are right in the bows. Apparently he used to sit there smoking his pipe. How his wife squeezed herself in I do not know – she was 6’3″ tall.

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On the morning of 27th May we had a quick look around the historic village of Bucklers Hard,

Sophie Neville at the Mast Builder's Hotel at Buckler's Hard

including the Master Builder’s Hotel,

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before finding Nancy at the marina.

Sophie Neville aboard the Nancy Blackett

After climbing into our life-jackets, we left the mooring and motored down the Beaulieu River.

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Once we reached the Solent, our sails were hoisted and we were sailing towards the Isle of Wight.

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Peter Willis, Chairman of the Nancy Blackett Trust was with us.

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It was exciting to take the helm as we made our way up to Lymington on a broad reach at about 4 knots, at first against, then with the tide.

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Having left at about 10.00am we reached the Royal Lymington Yacht Club soon after 3.00pm and moored up for the night.

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We had enjoyed perfect conditions and the most wonderful experience.

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Nancy’s crew then welcomed aboard sailors from the Royal Lymington Yacht Club who were keen to see around her.

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If you would like to sail the Nancy Blackett do visit her website and join the trust. The next meeting will be on Saturday 6th July when Sophie Neville has been asked to give a talk on ‘Filming ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ in Norfolk’.

The Nancy Blackett by Claudia Myatt

The Nancy Blackett was recently profiled on BBC 1 by Coutryfile when Matt Baker went out on her first sail of the season.

Here is a compilation of the programme made up by the Nancy Blackett Trust:

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For the forthcoming book ~

With thanks to Richard Pilbrow and Theatre Projects who produced SWALLOWS & AMAZONS (1974)

Copyright Sophie Neville

~ but please share with your friends ~

~~~~~~~~~

To read the filmography posts about the 1974 film please go to ~ https://sophieneville.net/category/autobiography/

The Gondola on Coniston Water in 1973 ~ photo: Martin Neville

The Gondola on Coniston Water in 1973 ~ photo: Martin Neville

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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

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Boats of the Norfolk Broads ~

Sailing on the Norfolk Broads

I recently found a family photograph album with pages illustrating holidays spent under sail in the 1930’s.

Breakfast on the Norfolk Broads ~ Easter 1939

Joan with her friends having breakfast on the Norfolk Broads ~ Easter 1939

Not all the black and white photographs are as horizontal or as sharply in focus as one might wish but they show the glorious boats available for hire

Sailing on the Norfolk Broads - Easter 1939

and reflect what fun was had out on the water.

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We were rather shocked by the cigarettes held in the mouths of the young men but Joan is ninety-nine now and still agile.

Martin Neville on the Norfolk Broads

Martin Neville sailing on the Norfolk Broads with friends in the early 1950s

Having sailed on the Broads with friends, my father hired a Hullabaloo boat to take us out when we were little.

Sophie Neville with her sisters on the Norfolk Broads

We went out of season, when boat hire was cheaper. As there was no one on the water my father let me take the helm mile after mile, despite the fact that I was only about seven years old.

Sophie Neville on the Norfolk Broads

Sophie Neville wearing a life jacket c. 1968

 We loved living aboard and were often surrounded by wild geese.

Sophie Neville on the Norfolk Broads

It seems Arthur Ransome, who had fished on the Broads with Titty’s father, Ernest Altounyan, in 1923, also enjoyed cruising in the spring. His biographer, Roger Wardale, said that ‘Both the Ransomes liked to visit the Broads just after Easter, before most of the motor cruisers had started the season and it was the best time of year for birdlife.’ He went on to describe how Arthur Ransome kept a log of his three weeks spent in a Fairway yacht, the essence of which he used to write Coot Club in 1933/34. ‘As well as visiting Roy’s of Wroxham, tying up at Horning Hall Farm and watching the racing boats go by, towing through bridges, mooring beside a Thames barge at Beccles and watching a fisherman catching eels with a bab, there are numerous details that combine to make Coot Club a valuable account of the social and natural history of the Broads as they were more than 70 years ago.’ 

Roger Wardale illustrated his book Arthur Ransome Master Stroyteller , using wonderful photographs and sketches by Arthur Ransome, including a very jolly one of the Hullabaloos that had not been published before. Do get hold of a copy of the book, to read the chapter on Coot Club for yourself.

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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.

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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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The dangers of filming ~ 10th July 1973

Claude Whatham showing the 16mm camera to Simon West and Sophie Neville. Sue Merry and Denis Lewiston.

Director Claude Whatham letting Simon West and Sophie Neville handle the 35mm Arriflex. Sue Merry and Denis Lewiston can be seen behind us.

When Suzanna Hamilton brought me the diary she kept during the filming of Swallows and Amazons we had time to reflect on the seven weeks we spent together in the Lake District during that far off summer of 1973.

‘We were beautifully looked after,’ she said. ‘I mean we were really well cared for. Look – Jane took me fell walking.’  Our diaries record that our local driver Jane McGill also went to endless lengths to make things fun for us – ever with safety afore-thought.

Jane Grendon, Sten’s mother and one of our two chaperones who took us fell walking.

She was right. My own mother and Jane Grendon, Sten’s mother, who had both been appointed our official chaperones, worked day and night with very little time to themselves. They had both left younger children at home in Gloucestershire with their husbands, which can’t have been easy. Mum told me that she wrote an article for Woman magazine saying that being a chaperone was ‘Fascinating, Fattening and Fun’ but it must have been exhausting. It would have been quite a trial preventing us from getting sunburnt let alone keeping us entertained.

Daphne Neville, having organised Sophie Neville and Simon West into track-suits, life jackets, sunhats and the safety boat on a cold day on Coniston Water in 1973

When we had to do anything scary or unpleasant during the filming of Swallows and Amazons, such as walk through scratchy brambles, Claude Whatham would assuage any moans by awarding us ‘Danger Money’.  It was a huge encouragement. He gave me £2.00 for being good about diving into the chilly water for the swimming scenes.  It was a lot of money back then. My mother would make a careful note of it whilst we were still in costume.

A list of who had earned Danger Money written by my mother on the back of a Script Revision page

We spent our gains in Ambleside buying presents to take back for the stay-at-homes. I think we might have received a little more after Swallow was nearly mown down by the Windermere Steamer, an incident which had actually been dangerous. I am not sure what Kit and Lesley had been doing to recieve £1 each. They may have just got wet and cold sailing.

After all the rushing about in boats, the risks taken clambouring from one vessel to another and inevitable dangers that we faced out on the water, it was the boredom involved in filming that proved most dangerous; children’s games that went terribly wrong ~

My diary on the filming of the moive 'Swallows and Amazaons' in the Lake District, Cumbria kept in 1973

My diary on the filming of the moive 'Swallows and Amazaons' in the Lake District, Cumbria kept in 1973

My diary on the filming of the moive 'Swallows and Amazaons' in the Lake District, Cumbria kept in 1973

This was the swing in question, strung from a tree on the shores of Coniston Water opposite Peel Island where a couple were living in a wooden caravan. The white Make-up caravan, that had previously been used as a dressing room for Virginia McKenna, and later Ronald Fraser, is parked beside it. It was there that I was sent to lie down.

A snap shot taken earlier in the year of my little sister on the swing at the Unit Base opposite Peel Island ~ photo: Martin Neville

It was a shame that the baseball game ended so abruptly. We really enjoying it and longed to keep playing but Molly realised that it could so easily have been one of us who ended up with a black-eye.

Stephen Grendon, longing to climb a tree whilst in costume

At one stage we all got into whittling wood. Bod Hedges, the property master, made a number of props on location. Different versions of the Amazons’ bows and arrows were carved from hazel on the banks of Coniston Water. He also made forked uprights for the fireplace and various stakes for the charcoal burners’ scene. Suzanna bought a penknife with her Danger Money and became quite a keen carver until the knife slipped. Jean treated the cut finger with such a massive bandage that Claude put a firm stop to any future whittling. It had been the one thing that kept us quite. We were active children yet not allowed to climb trees or get wet. Instead Lesley Bennet plucked away at a tapestry and I painted pictures.

A bad copy of Beatrix Potter’s Jeremy Fisher Frog, looking not unlike Arthur Ransome himself.

Possibly the biggest danger was getting too fond of the primary objective – catching the bug that is film-making. Richard and Claude still had a few vital scenes to record and yet the weather forecast was bleak.

Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham at The Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water

Producer Richard Pilbrow with Director Claude Whatham in their wet weather gear at The Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

‘Four out of six missed him and hit me’ ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’, 8th July 1973.

Sten Grendon irriating Ronnie Fraser

Stephen Grendon sitting on top of Ronald Fraser during a break in the filming of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

I am sure that as children we could be intensely irritating, especially when we were hanging around with not enough to do. Although we had found our lessons tiresome they’d kept us occupied and out of mischief. It was now a Sunday, right the end of the summer term and the red double-decker school bus was no longer with us. Neither was the large camera box that the crew put Sten in to keep him quiet.

Sten Grendon in the camera box

Stephen Grendon resting between set-ups in the Panavision camera box, wearing the Grip’s cap and eating a bun ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Although  the day was full of essential activity there was no major scene to focus on. It was the last day Ronald Fraser could be with us. Claude Whatham must have had vital shots to pick up so that the scenes set in the houseboat would cut together. It was probably just as well there was no dialogue to record. Ronnie, it has to be said, was a little the worse for wear. Although he managed to play the accordion as Swallow and Amazon sailed into the distance, Uncle Jim was still drunk from the Wrap party two days before.

Diary of a young girl on a film set kept in 1973

Then, as a twelve-year-old I wrote:

“…now and again Captain Flint played his accordion to camera. They told us to lie on the floor. Ronald Fraser started throwing books at Sten. Four out of six missed him and hit me. One hit me in the face and the cover fell off. The others he hit. Then he threw all the parrot’s food over us. Plus the tin. ”  Scandalous!

The diary of a young movie actress

Perhaps I ought to explain that when the parrot’s cage was lowered into Swallow there was no parrot inside. Instead there were four children finding parrot seed that had made its way inside their costumes.

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville in Swallow about to leave Captain Flint’s Houseboat. Property Master Bob Hedges is on deck approaching the cannon. Amazon’s white sail can be seen the other side ~ photo: Daphe Neville

My father was not pleased to hear that Ronnie Fraser had flung books around the cabin, htting me in the face. ‘They were valuable first editions!’

Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West with the parrot's cage

Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West with the parrot’s cage, standing-by to sail away from the Houseboat ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Our little ship still had much work to do. David Blagden was with us, making plans with Claude and Denis Lewiston to film more shots of us sailing in, what we hoped, would be sunny weather.

The Swallows about to lower sail having come alongside Captain Flint's Houseboat

The Swallows about to lower sail having come alongside Captain Flint’s Houseboat ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Claude was desperate to get the shot of us arriving for the first time at the Peak of Darien ~ Friar’s Craig on Derwent Water. He wanted to capture this just before the sun went down. Peter Robb-King, the Make-up Artist was insistent that the tans we had naturally gained over the summer be toned down.  He had no help and preparation time had not been scheduled. Dabbing the four of us with a tiny sponge took ages. I don’t know why he bothered with my legs, as I really hadn’t changed colour, but he was a perfectionist. Mum kept saying that it was getting so dark no one would ever notice. ‘Who’s going to be looking at your legs?’ as Nancy Mitford’s nanny would have said. By the time we were ready the sun had set. Claude missed the chance to film this vital scene. Again. It was the second time we had arrived too late for it to be captured.

Did we feel silly travelling back to Ambleside in full costume? We were cheeky and full of beans one minute, shy the next. It is difficult to reach the balance between becoming confident and being over confident when you are twelve years old. But, we were learning, and we learnt a great deal on those days spent out on the water in the Lake District.

This home-movie footage my mother shot shows the actors and crew relaxing after lunch on the shore of Derwent Water in Cumbria. Suzanna Hamilton, Kit Seymour, Simon West and Sophie Neville wait for Ronald Fraser, playing Captain Flint, who walks down the jetty and leaves for his houseboat with hair stylist Ronnie Cogan and Make-up Artist Peter Robb-King. Sophie Neville can be briefly seen sitting in the motoboat wearing the yellow Donny Osmond hat. Daphne Neville appears at the end presumably having handed her camera to someone else.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story