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
Unbelievably, thirty years have passed since we started filming the BBC adaptations of Coot Club and The Big Six on location in Norfolk. We drove up to Norwich on 17th June 1983 and by 3rd July would have been in full swing. It had been my job to cast the children who I was now looking after on location.
Amazingly, we were to able enjoy three months of almost solid sunshine and had the most wonderful time. The eight-part serial, produced by Joe Waters, was first broadcast in 1984 under the generic title of Swallows and Amazons Forever! This was because Joe was hoping to dramatise other Arthur Ransome books, but sadly they proved too expensive.
I gave an illustrated talk about how the series was made at the Royal Harwich Yacht Club on the River Orwell for the Nancy Blackett Trust Annual Meeting, explaining how Rosemary Leach and I had both appeared in the BBC drama Cider with Rosie back in 1971. Having starred as Laurie Lee’s mother, she had the lead part of Mrs Barrable, the Admiral in Coot Club.
The drama, set in the early 1930’s, was nominated for a BAFTA. It had an exceptionally talented cast including Rosemary Leach, John Woodvine, Sam Kelly and Henry Dimbleby. I’m not sure if you can spot him that easily on the cover of the DVD, but one of the characters in the story soon became a household name. It was William, Mrs Barrable’s fawn pug dog. He was soon known nationally – if not internationally – as Little Willie, Ethel’s pet dog in the soap opera Eastenders.
While Jack Watson was at the helm of the Sir Garnet, Julian Fellowes played Jerry, self-appointed skipper of the Margoletta and the leader of the Hullabaloos. Whilst with us on the Norfolk Broads he forged a creative partnership with our director Andrew Morgan that launched his career as a writer. They were soon working together on adaptations of classic books such as The Prince and the Pauper and Little Lord Fauntleroy.
Looking back, I can see a number of connections between Coot Club and Doctor Who. You will see we had not one but two Time Lords with us in the guise of The Eel Man, who was played by Patrick Troughton, and Dr Dudgeon, played by Colin Baker, who went on to become a later incarnation of the Doctor.
A number of the crew worked behind the scenes on Doctor Who including our Visual Effects Designer, Andy Lazell and the writer Mervyn Haismen. I found myself working on Vengeance on Varos a year later when Colin Baker swapped his Norfolk tweeds for the multi-coloured coat he wore in the TARDIS.
However, I expect the members of the Nancy Blackett Trust will want to know most about the beautiful period boats that appeared in the series, some of which members of the Arthur Ransome Society have been tracking down. Sadly some, such as the Catchalot seem to have deteriorated but the Janca, who played the Margoletta has been restored, and the Death & Glory is still on the Broads.
The wonderful thing is that you can still hire the yacht we used to play the Teasel and take the same route through the Broads as Arthur Ransome took with his wife in the 1930’s when he was absorbing experience from which to write. What I did not know until recently was that Titty Altounyan ~ the real Titty portrayed in Swallows and Amazons ~ accompanied them one year, but I will leave that story for a future post.
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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.
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.
What is the best way to entertain someone who enjoys acting?
Even when we had very little space or were waiting around for hours out on the water during the filming of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’, one thing that kept everyone amused was the game of charades. Simply imitating each other also proved hilarious and kept up moral whatever the weather. Since the children who appeared in the drama all enjoyed acting, they proved natural entertainers both on and off-screen.
The experienced actors entered into the spirit of this in a trice.
The great thing about miming is that it is silent, which was just as well, when we had to keep quiet on set.
The film crew were wonderful, ever inventive and terribly good at charades.
No one was limited by taking themselves too seriously.
Some members of the production team made a tremendous effort to keep up our spirits.
Julian Fellowes, who played Jerry, told me recently that he so admired Henry Dimbleby for taking part in Swallows and Amazons Forever purely because it was fun, rather than because he wanted to be an actor. I appreciated his indestructible good nature and the fact that he made the three months we spent on location enjoyable, in many ways leading the team, even though he was only thirteen years old.
Of course, what is most amusing, is when the unexpected happens. That is what I will attempt to relate in the next post.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Teasel was played by Lullaby. Roger Wardale tells me she isa 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.
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 ~