Over the weekend we received the very sad news that the actor Sam Kelly has died of cancer aged 70. Although most well known for his roles in Porridge and the situation comedy ‘Allo ‘Allo, those who love the adaptations of the Arthur Ransome books will remember him as The Captain of the Catchalot in the BBC dramatisation of ‘The Big Six’.
Sam Kelly playing Captain of the Catchalot with Jake Coppard as Pete in ‘The Big Six’
Sam Kelly was brilliant as the cheerful pike fisherman of the Norfolk Broads who trusted the local lads to look after his boat and fishing tackle, standing aside to let them take the credit for catching a ‘whoppa’ with his rod.
Jake Coppard, Mark Page, Nicholas Walpole and Sam Kelly officially weighing the great pike
Arthur Ransome did not actually give the Captain of the Catchalot a name. He was named Robin in the BBC credits although the whole point was that his character was nameless. This is unusual in a drama but Pete, of the Death and Glory, who caught bait and helped to catch the massive pike, only ever addressed him as ‘Sir’, and never knew his name. This was a point crucial to the plot as later in the story Pete is forced into a corner when questioned by the police as he had to admit he didn’t actually know the fisherman’s name.
The series ends when they all celebrate the great catch at the pub famously called The Roaring Donkey and drink to the stuffed pike that weighed in at over 30lbs, earning the three boys the huge sum of thirty-shillings and sixpence from the landlord.
Sam Kelly recently appeared in Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang , playing Maggie Smith’s husband Mr Docherty, and on stage in Mike Leigh comedies, until ill-health forced him to stand down. It could be tricky working with Sam as we only had to look his way and we’d all collapse laughing. The more serious the story line, the more we laughed. He was a very generous actor and will be very fondly remembered by us all.
I have received many questions via the internet asking if Sam Kelly ever married, but although often surrounded by pretty girls I think the opportunity passed him by. He once arrived at my house with a bottle of champagne and took me out to a very nice pub on the River Thames but I was seventeen years younger than him and had to explain I was already committed to another.
Costume designer Susannah Buxton on location with Sam Kelly and make-up artist Penny Fergusson
‘The Big Six’ was re-released with ‘Coot Club’ on DVD this summer by Revelation Films under the generic title Swallows and Amazons Forever.
Also starring Colin Baker, who was at drama school with Sam, as well as Patrick Troughton, John Woodvine and Henry Dimbelby it makes very good family viewing. To purchase a copy please click here.
The BBC have this lovely photo of Sam Kelly roaring with laughter that you can find inside the DVD:
Sam Kelly as the Captain of the Catchalot (c) BBCTV
To mark the 30th anniversary of its original broadcast on BBC One, Revelation Films have just re-released the DVD of Swallows And Amazons Forever! It has been one of their Top Ten bestselling DVDs.
Swallows and Amazons Forever! is the television adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s classic books Coot Club and The Big Six, an eight part drama serial that I worked on, behind-the-scenes, over a period of nine months back in 1983 when it was filmed on location on the Norfolk Broads.
As Revelation films say, ‘Set on the Norfolk Broads in the 1930s, the BAFTA-nominated BBC production is packed full of lively characters, beautifully authentic scenery and plenty of adventure.’
Jake, Mark and Nic with Sam Kelly playing Captain of the Catchalot
The new version of the DVD includes subtitles for the first time. The packaging and menus have been completely redesigned, and if you take a look at the DVD extras package you can see photographs that I took at the time that give an insight into the production.
The big thing is that the picture quality has been digitally restored, with amazing results. This short Youtube clip shows the amazing difference in the quality.
Release Date: 19 May 2014 | RRP: £15.99 | Certificate: U | Discs: 1 | Run Time: 202 Minutes
Whilst travelling to Norfolk to stay on a boat with family friend Mrs Barrable, Dick and Dot Callum meet Tom Dudgeon and the members of Coot Club. After being told that they won’t be learning to sail, their disappointment quickly turns to excitement as an adventure begins to unfold. Will they be able to protect a precious coot’s nest whilst hiding Tom from the awful Hullabaloos, who are hell bent on ruining everyone’s holiday? Creator of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, stars as Jerry the Hullabaloo in this delightful film.
The Big Six
When Dick and Dot return to Norfolk to stay with Tom, they find themselves caught up in a brand new adventure. The Death And Glories are being accused of setting moored boats adrift but the three boys maintain their innocence. With the whole town against them, it’s up to Coot Club to gather evidence and prove that someone else is responsible for these crimes. The Big Six is born. Dr Who’s Colin Baker and Patrick Troughton star in this fitting adaptation of the classic story.
The yacht Lullaby playing the Teasel in ‘Coot Club’, seen here being delivered to location on South Walsham Broad
If you want to see what Sophie Neville, who played Titty Walker has been doing, please click here.
If you are interested in the BBC serial of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’, originally titled ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever’ please read on.
It is almost thirty years since we made the BBC adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s books Coot Club and The Big Six on the Norfolk Broads. The eight-part drama serial was filmed over three months during long hot summer of 1983. You can see from our faces how everyone made the whole experience enjoyable. It was ten years after we had made the movie ‘Swallow & Amazons’ but the atmosphere and the camaraderie felt similar.
Caroline Downer, who played Dorothea Callum so professionally, finally took out her plaits for good and returned to school – her real school rather than the boat where she had received lessons whist we were filming. She had done so well, holding her own with a cast made up predominantly of boys by the time we started filming The Big Six. A year or so after the series was broadcast she wrote to me of her plans for the future. I am ashamed to say that I was so busy working on Doctor Who that I didn’t reply. I can’t think why I tarried. She was far more important to me than Doctor Who. Caroline now teaches drama, is an LRAM examiner and puts on the most wonderful musicals. Hopefully she can draw on something of what she learnt during those months in East Anglia spent working with so many great British actors.
Despite the pressures and stress of filming, nothing flustered Henry Dimbelby. He was easy-going and optimistic – great fun to have around. He had no ambition to act but did such a good job. His parents were wonderful. Instead of going to Devon, where they kept a gaff-rigged boat, they rented a house on the North Coast of Norfolk for their summer holiday in 1983 so as to be near our locations. I remember driving Caroline and Henry up on a unit day off only to find Jonathan Dimbelby there too, with his wife Bel Mooney who I chatted to when we went for a walk before lunch. On the kitchen table back at the house was a huge colourful sausage and pasta salad made by Josceline Dimbelby, Henry’s mother. It was the first home-cooked meal I’d had for weeks, and was hugely appreciated. I was mesmerised by the colours and textures, the whole inventiveness of a salad made for a large family.
While Henry’s grandfather, Richard Dimbelby the World War II correspondent, went into newspapers and his father, David Dimbelby, worked for the BBC as a News reporter, presenter and commentator, you could say that Henry followed his mother. He trained as a chef – and became an innovative one, producing books on food and appearing on the occasional cookery program. In 2004 he opened Leon, the restaurant in Carnaby Street in central London that specialises in serving seasonal fast-food that is both delicious and good for you. Founded with Allegra McEvedy and John Vincent, Leon soon became popular. It was awarded ‘Best New Restaurant’ at the Observer Food Monthly Awards six months after opening. I believe Henry and his partners now have a chain of ten outlets and that their recipe books are an inspiration to many.
Claire and Sarah Matthews, the twins who played Port and Starboard in Coot Club, went on to play Eve and Alexandra in the 1984 TV mini series Master of the Game , which starred Angharad Rees, David Suchet and Fernando Allende. They still live in Sussex and are very close. Claire has taken up running in all weathers.
The Walpoles have written in! It was so good to hear from them. Nicholas Walpole, who played Joe, joined the Royal Navy and served on HMS Roebuck from 1989-90 as a survey recorder. A friend of his said he was teased mercilessly on board about his acting background. Many-a-time a chorus of ‘Swallows and Amazons forever’ would ring out when he walked into the Mess. Nik is now married, lives in Coventry and has three grown up children, one of whom wants to act. His mother still enjoys living in rural Norfolk. You can read their comments at the bottom of previous posts.
I am afraid that I haven’t seen Simon Hawes, who played George Owden, or the other boys from Norfolk since we finished filming. They did so well. Playing a baddie isn’t easy even with Make-up and Hair Department straining to help.
Richard Walton, who played Dick Callum, now lives in Los Angeles – he has written in, below. Mark Page, who played Bill, now lives on the coast of Turkey. I wonder if taking part in the BBC serial influenced their decisions to emigrate.
We spent long days together, often out on the water. Someone once explained to me that when you are camping and gadding about in boats, generally leading an Arthur Ramsome style life, you tend to laugh more. As a result more endocrines get released into your system, relationships are forged and bonds made. It has to be said that the boy who made us laugh more than anyone else on the film crew was Jake Coppard, who played Pete, the shortest of the Death and Glory boys. Although the character he played could be serious Jake was always finding something amusing or someone to imitate. Sam Kelly got on with him particularly well, helping him through the scene when Pete falls in.
Jake was such a talented actor. I gather he went on to appear as Charlie in a television drama directed by Tony Virgo called Travellers by Night (1985) , which featured Neil Morrissey who became so well known when the comedy series Men Behaving Badly proved a success. The lead role of Mrs Baker in Travellers of the Night was played by Jo Rowbottom who, by coincidence, had played Katie Leigh, Simon West’s mother in Sam and the River back in 1975.
Jim and Jill Searle of the Norfolk Country Sailing Base in Ludham helped us find traditional boats for the BBC adaptation of Coot Club and The Big Six set on the Norfolk Broads. Jill kindly sent me a copy of this photo taken of Lullaby just after she was chosen to play the Teasel. Her costume consisted of a false transom, which is still at Hunter’s Yard in Ludham today.
Roger Wardale took this photograph included in his book, Arthur Ransome on the Broads , which Amberley Publishing brought out in full colour. He tells of Arthur Ransome’s half-dozen or so holidays on hired yachts and of the young people who sailed in the fleet, including Titty and Taqui Altounyan.
Roger found out that the Ransomes hired a 23′ Fairway’ yacht from Jack Powles of Wroxham. This had a Primus stove with a special cooking locker in the well. It sounds well kitted out with a wash-basin and self-emptying WC in a separate compartment. The three Somnus spring-berths had drawers underneath and there was even a wardrobe. Like the Teasel, she was built of mahogany with a ‘bright varnish finish’ and, given a fair wind, would have zipped along at quite a speed.
Roger said that he spent six days trying to find places Arthur Ransome visited that had not changed since the 1930’s but found it difficult. What he did discover was the dinghy used to play Titmouse in the BBC TV series. She can still be visited at Hunter’s Yard.
It is still possible to hire the mahogany hulled, gunter-rigged yachts much as Arthur Ransome and his wife did in the 1930’s, together with a sailing dinghy or rowing boat. There are fourteen sailing cruisers in the Hunter’s fleet and none have an engine. They have lifting cabin tops so you have more headroom when you moor up. Lullaby, built in 1932, is 28ft long with four berths. Her mast can be lowered with counter weights so she can be taken under bridges with a clearance of six foot.
Roger Wardale says that in the 1930’s, many of the yachts had a ‘self-acting’ jib but Ransome considered it too large. There were times when he lowered it, only to find ‘he sailed better without it!’ They still have self-acting jibs but the size may have been altered.
Roger also found a cruiser similar to Janca, the 1930’s cruiser who played the part of the Margoletta. She was skippered by Julian Fellowes in his glorious role as a Hullabaloo, the spiteful, arch-baddie of Coot Club.
Back in 1983 we were hugely helped by a number of Norfolk boatmen who knew the broads well.
You will have to let me know the name of these gentlemen who spent long hours helping us in the summer of 1983.
Filming from one boat to another is tricky and much patience was need. In many ways the easiest boat to film with was the Death and Glory. She can still be found moored somewhere on the Broads.
I well remember setting up this shot for the cover of the abridged version of the two stories, which was brought out by Puffin to accompany the series. It shows the Death and Glory complete with her green chimney. The big secret was that the interior of the cabin was larger than the exterior. we puzzled over Ransome’s drawings only to decide that he had cheated the measurements too.
Bruce McCaddy and his team built the set inside a modern boatshed where it was kept for ‘rain cover’, since the interior scenes could always be shot if it was wet. It included ‘camera traps’ or sections that could be removed so the scenes could be shot. I never went inside but the boys loved it. In fact the weather was glorious. We enjoyed such constant sunshine in the later part of the shoot that we filmed the interiors when it was dry and so warm the boys got quite over-heated.
The BBC drama series Swallows and Amazons Forever! was first broadcast at a very odd time. Instead of being mainstream BBC One Saturday night viewing in the run up to Christmas as we expected, it was moored in a by-water, shown on BBC Two at 6.30pm on Tuesday evenings. Very few people saw it. This was odd, especially since it was a big budget production with a strong cast. Perhaps it was because Colin Baker who played Dr Dudgeon had just been cast as Doctor Who.
However, when the series was released on video it was treasured by many:
‘This video is a delight!’ wrote Dr Duncan Hall from North Yorkshire. ‘…the animated credit sequence and the music are both a delight and you won’t get tired of them! The stories themselves are amongst the best ever written for young people and they are brought to life with relish by the director and excellent cast. The locations are all spot-on; anybody who has ever had a magical holiday on the broads will love this video for that alone! And the wildlife photography is fantastic as well. A last point: it is true there are no Swallows and Amazons in the programme – but the two books were part of Ransome’s famous ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series of books, so the title does not seem TOO inappropriate to me. Buy it!!!
This is a beautiful adaptation of Ransome’s ‘Coot Club’ & ‘The Big Six’. The child actors/actresses are excellent. There is almost an historical element as the DVD charts childhood without mobile phones and electronic games. Simply gentle and innocent yet a good degree of drama. 5 out of 5 stars Excellent
Mike Souter said, ‘ So pleased I bought this. I interviewed Henry Dimbleby on location in the 1980’s and seeing the episodes again brought back many happy memories. Charming series.’ Some viewers wrote to say they thought the twins playing Port and Starboard should have been aged eleven. They, in fact, were (both) eleven-years-old.
‘If you like nature, sailing, kids and bad plots this fits the bill. I have sailed on the Norfolk Broads and this series captures the atmosphere perfectly. The sailing is technically accurate too. I’m old enough to remember England in earlier times. Once again the atmosphere has been captured nicely. The unusual Norfolk regional accent is evident and sometimes realistic. This is a classic and fully in the spirit of the Swallows and Amazons books.’ 5 out of 5 stars -Wonderful ~ C Bauers, Suffolk
‘We really enjoyed this adventure it has inspired my kids to do a sailing course!!’ ~ David Francis, France
‘Watched the series as a child and have loved it my whole life. A family favourite, simply charming! Very indulging to sit back with a cup of tea and lose myself in the antics of some wonderful characters. I love it.’
‘Highly recommended entertainment for the whole family. Good old fashioned fun that children use to have before computer games were invented.’ J.Kennedy ~ Sydney, Australia
‘Just spent a week on a Broads cruiser with three granddaughters and played the DVD on the third night. It was quite magical that we had cruised to all the places mentioned in the films, and the girls were able to identify the filming locations, including the swing railway bridge at Reedham. We tried very hard not to have the radio too loud the next day for fear of becoming Hullaballoos, and kept well clear of coots nests. As with all films, these do not copy the books word for word, but I think Arthur Ransome would have been pleased with the result. Pity the TV companies don’t produce more films from the other books in the Swallows and Amazons series.’
We were hoping to keep going and adapt all the Arthur Ransome books. While I started casting children for Swallowdale and Picts and Martyrs, our Producer Joe Waters went up to Cumbria on a recce to find the main locations and to estimate a budget the next series. He returned looking crest-fallen. Filming on National Trust property in the Lake Distinct, when he was quoted fees of £1,000 a day – back then, even for open moorland – was simply going to be too expensive. Plans to adapt the Arthur Ransome books were put on hold. Indefinitely.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 the Department of Light Entertainment. I joined the Russell Hartyteam, 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 realising 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.
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.
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 represented by a London agent.
You wouldn’t expect it to be difficult, but I couldn’t find a boy to taking the leading role of Tom Dudgeon. 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 Jason Lake, Diana Dor’s son, but he too, admitted that he couldn’t sail. 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.
Casting parts for book adaptations is never easy. Arthur Ransome described Dot as having ‘straw-coloured plaits’ and portrayed Port and Starboard as being robust Tom-boys. Every detail may not have fulfilled but in the end the right girls for the parts floated to the surface. Andrew Morgan was thrilled, appreciative of the fact that finding identical twins of the right age who could 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. She sailed across the Solent, single-handed and alone on her first lesson, gaining enough confidence to easily cope on the Norfolk Broads.
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. During the audition period, Andrew and Joe needed to see how well the children could act in the space of a few minutes. I had Anna Scher to thank for teaching me how to demonstrate 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, north London. 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.
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 input. 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?
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.