Tag Archives: Mike Leigh

On the set of ‘Coot Club’ ~

Coot Club - Sophie Neville with Port and Starboard

All the children who appeared in the BBC serial of  Arthur Ransome’s books ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ were delightful. They were committed to the project and focused on their roles in the drama that was released in 1984 under the strand title Swallows and Amazons Forever!

Coot Club - boys playing

Jake Coppard, Mark Page and Nicholas Walpole who played Pete, Bill and Joe – The crew of the Death and Glory

They enjoyed the process of putting the story together but we were filming on location in Norfolk for three months, which is a long stretch for anyone. It is a very long time when you are aged thirteen.

Coot Club - Jake Coppard reading

Jake Coppard in the role of Pete

It can be difficult hanging around on set, waiting for the crew to set up, especially when you have to keep quiet and reasonably still, avoiding the perils of sunburn and scratches. In many ways it’s the most challenging aspect of being an actor, especially when you are constricted by your costume that has to be kept clean and dry.

Coot Club - the camera crew watched by Richard

Filming the Death and Glory at Gay Staithe in Norfolk. Peter Markham, Bruce McCaddie, Alec Curtis and his assistant with the 16mm camera, are being observed by Richard Walton, who played Dick Callum

Watching the film crew record a scene was interesting, and in many ways good work experience, but it was not always possible as they were often out on the water.

Coot Club - Henry Dimbleby reading to the others

Claire Matthews, Henry Dimbleby & Richard Walton whilst filming of ‘Coot Club’

Once the school summer holidays started, we bid farewell to Angela Scott who had given the children lessons while they were on location. She’d been teaching them on a boat most of the time – the blue fibre glass cruiser in the photograph above.  It was part of my job to make sure the children rested and were quietly entertained when they weren’t in front of the camera. I thought it important to let them be themselves and build friendships.

Coot Club - boys playing boule

Mark Page, Nicholas Walpole and others during the filming

I was very strict – I had to be when we were near water or traffic, but the girls were naturally self-disciplined and boys team spirited.

Coot Club - boys playing in Norfolk

Joe Waters, who was producing the drama, said that the sun always shone for him. It certainly did. The summer of 1983 was scorching. We had a few rainy days, but the actors where wonderful at helping to keep up moral. The boys adored Sam Kelly, Captain of the Catchalot, who the British public knew so well from his role as Bunny Warren in Porridge and the German Officer in the WWII sit-com ‘Allo ‘Allo. We only had to look his way and we’d all collapse laughing. Sam Kelly is probably now best known for his recent roles in Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang , in which he played Maggie Smith’s husband Mr Docherty, and for taking the role of Grandad in the new Mike Leigh comedy  A Running Jump, 2012 but on that far off summer on the Norfolk Broads there were quite a few terrible take-offs of  Captain Geering’s German accent. One of his later episodes of ‘Allo ‘Allo was titled ‘Up the Crick Without a Piddle’   which aptly described that particular day in East Anglia.

Coot Club - Sam Kelly and Jake Coppard

Sam Kelly with Jake Coppard either in the Catchalot or our support boat

Sam Kelly playing Captain of the Catchalot with Jake Coppard

In the end it was the boys who kept us amused. They were inventive and used whatever they could find and whatever opportunity came along to make me laugh.

Coot Club - boys in the rain1

Jake Coppard, Nicholas Walpole and Mark page under my umbrella on one of the few rainy days, whilst filming in Norfolk.

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Filed under 1983, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Biography, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Humor, Humour, Memoir, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

‘But we never touched his horrible houseboat…’ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island 30th May 1973

Peel Island on Coniston Water in the English Lake District whilst we were filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the summer of 1973 ~ photo: Martin Neville

An extract from the journal I kept aged twelve:

Stephen Grendon, Suzannah Hamilton and Sophie Neville on the cover of the LP of the film ‘Swallows and Amazons’

I must have lost my pen on this wet day in May 1973, for the diary on the making of the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ is written in pencil. I don’t know if Claude Whatham, the Director, ever remembered me writing but when the film ended he kindly sent me an engraved  Parker pen and propelling pencil. I loved the pen and wrote all my essays at university with it. Sadly I lost it just before my Finals but I still have the pencil. Somewhere. Although we had a late start it was a good day, a day when Claude encouraged us to improvise. The dialogue in the little scene when we were gutting fish is our own. I’ve always thought improvisation can be magical. When I started to direct at the BBC we were very conscious of the cost of film stock – the footage – so were reticient about taking chances, but I made a drama on school bullies that turned out to be very powerful, purely because I let the children improvise. The only problem was that it came across as almost too frighteningly real. I found that although short scenes always worked well, I had to write the story as a whole as I went along, which was a bit daunting. When I went on a BBC Studio Director’s Course I tried improvising a scene where a couple go camping in true Mike Leigh style. I asked the actors to erect a tent in the studio, and left them at it while I spoke to the Cameramen from the galley, as normal, via inter-com with the Vision-Mixer at my side. She also improvised.  The scene was to end with the couple going inside the tent, which then collapses on top of them. I used a dome tent of my own and I showed them just how easy it was for them to collapse it. It was quite fun, and worked surprisingly well. Up to a point. The problem was that I was working with actors and the actors, being actors, enjoyed themselves so much they didn’t want the scene to end. It nearly didn’t end at all. And I ended up with the longest studio show reel of all time. Suzanna Hamilton was very good at gutting fish. She is not a remotely squeamish person, in fact she loves snakes and other reptiles. A stoic, who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster, she is probably the most gutsy film actress there is. No fuss or over long scenes for her. I was more interested in examining the the high dorsal fin of the perch and could have spent all morning standing on the rock. I seem wired to illustrate stories. I am sure Arthur Ransome used a line drawing of one of the perch he caught. Is it in Swallows and Amazons?

Claude Whatham, the Director of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, on the shore of Coniston Water ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Claude did not shoot many ‘takes’. His aim was to get fresh performances. By this time he had started to film the rehearsal, and then one ‘take’ as a back-up, to give the Film Editor an option. Then he would change the camera angle. It is probably a good policy when filming with children – as charm is difficult to replicate. When I started to direct on Beta-cam I attempted to shoot quite long scenes on one shot by using ‘jib-arms’, small cranes or camera track to move the camera. This was all the rage in the late 1980s. I remember using one long shot for the opening scene of a comedy drama called Thinkabout Science that starred Patsy Bryne ~ she who had become known to the nation as Nursie in the BBC sitcom Blackadder . Patsy played a grandmother collecting two sisters and their friends from school. The children poured out of the front door, down some steps, met their granny and chatted to her as they skipped along the pavement. I had about 120 metres of camera track laid down the street, far more than any scene on Swallows and Amazons. We had a  rehearsal and shot the three minute scene. It worked perfectly. It was fresh and funny and active. I was all set to move the whole crew to the next location when my producer descended from the Scanner, the truck where she was watching on three monitors, to tell me that one of the Extras had waved at the camera. I should have recorded the rehearsal. It took us twelve more takes to get the scene right after that. Luckily Beta tape costs were negligible – certainly in comparison with the 35mm Technicolor stock that Claude was using. Richard Pilbrow must have been pleased to hear that we gained a reputation as ‘One take Wonders’ on Swallows. When it came to the scene when we returned to the camp to find the abrupt note from Captain Flint, Claude took me to one side and suggested I added a line of dialogue at the end when it came to the take, without letting the others know. He told me to say, ‘And he used my crayons too.’  I wish he had edited it out. I didn’t deliver the line well. I think Suzanna would have said it perfectly but the secret made me too self conscious.

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Stephen Grendon and Sophie Neville in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ filmed on location in the English Lake District in 1973

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