Tag Archives: Michael Robson

Other Arthur Ransome books adapted for film and television by David Wood

Sophie Neville in Secret Harbour

Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker in 1973

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David Wood, who wrote the screenplay for SWALLOWS & AMAZONS in 1973, has recently told me about his  work adapting other Arthur Ransome books – GREAT NORTHERN?, PIGEON POST, WE DIDN’T MEAN TO GO TO SEA and WINTER HOLIDAY – all for Richard Pilbrow of Theatre Project Films.
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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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‘It was decided that GREAT NORTHERN? should be the follow-up to the SWALLOWS film, because it was ‘different’, being the only book set in Scotland. Also, the villainous birds’ egg collector was a strong adult role – Peter Sellers was mentioned….. We had great fun looking for locations, swooping around in a helicopter over Harris, Lewis etc.
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‘Word got out that I was working on GREAT NORTHERN? and I had a very firm letter from Mrs Ransome saying that no permission had been granted to work on this title, and that it would not be granted!! No reason was given. Years later, the Ransome autobiography suggested that Mrs R didn’t like GREAT NORTHERN? and criticised it to Ransome’s face.  Also, he used sometimes to swan off to the Highlands with his friend, Quiller-Couch (I think) to fish, leaving Evgenia on her own back in the Lake District. The only communication from him would be the occasional delivery on a horse and cart from the railway station of a salmon, caught in Scotland the day before! Maybe she resented Scotland for luring him away! But she was determined that GREAT NORTHERN? the movie would never see the light of day!! But I still wrote a complete screenplay! I did a film treatment for WINTER HOLIDAY, that never got off the ground either.’
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PIGEON POST was to be a six-part serial,  a BBC-Theatre Projects co-production.  David remembers that they got as far as looking for locations in the Lake District. I started making preparations to cast the children for this drama which Joe Waters wanted to produce in 1983, directly after making COOT CLUB and THE BIG SIX under the generic title SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS FOREVER! that had been adapted for television by Michael Robson.
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‘WE DIDN’T MEAN TO GO TO SEA was also to be a serial. I did a treatment, visited Pin Mill and other locations, and met the man who built one of Ransome’s boats, or maybe worked on it with his father. All the materials and scripts still exist, but they are probably a bit too ‘straight’ for contemporary taste.’
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David Wood will soon be directing his adaptation of Judith Kerr’s classic book  THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA  at The Arts Depot in North London. It will run from 3rd December to 5th January. His numerous other forthcoming events and theatrical releases, including two different productions of his musical THE GINGERBREAD MAN, are listed on his website.
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Sophie Neville with Claude Whatham on Peel Island
Can you help us?  Was Quiller-Couch the friend who whisked Arthur Ransome off to fish in the Hebrides?  Does anyone know where they went?
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Filed under 1973, 1983, Arthur Ransome, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, David Wood, Film, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

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 ‘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 realizing 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 actually represented by London agents.

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 play Tom Dudgeon. He was the most important character. 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 Diana Dor’s son, but he too, admitted that he couldn’t sail either. 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 in 1983 ~ photo: Sophie Neville

Casting parts for book adaptations is never easy.  I’d always envisaged Dot as having straw-coloured plaits and Port and Starboard as being robust Tom-boys, but in the end the right girls seemed to float to the surface. Andrew Morgan was thrilled, appreciative of the fact that finding identical twins of the right age who can 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.

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. I also needed to show Andrew and Joe how well the children could act in the space of a few minutes. I had Anna Scher to thank for 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.  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 imput. 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.

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Filed under Acting, Arthur Ransome, Biography, Claude Whatham, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story