Tag Archives: Percy Baxter

The secrets of filming ‘Arthur of the Britons’

I have been writing about my experiences behind-the-scenes in film and television for some time. There is one series in particular that still has a strong following, particularly those interested in British medieval history. 

Dressing up in medieval garb as children

Dressing up in medieval garb as children at Sudley Castle in about 1970

As children, back in 1971, we were all excited to hear that HTV was planning to film a series about King Arthur near where we lived in Gloucestershire. We were keen on dressing up and I was already interested in medieval history.

Filming 'King Arthur and the Spaceship'

The Arthurian legend had always been portrayed with ladies in pointy conical hats and knights in chain mail riding around with lances, however expectations of turreted castles were soon to be dashed.

Instead, we woke up one morning to find this tent in the field beyond our house, with a full English breakfast being served by location caterers from the back of a two-tone bus. The final scenes of Episode One of the series Arthur of the Britons, entitled Arthur is Dead, starring Oliver Tobias in the title role, was to be filmed on our farm.

A unit base for HTV's drama serial 'Arthur of the Britons' in 1972

The unit base for HTV’s drama serial ‘Arthur of the Britons’ being shot on our farm in the Cotswolds in 1972

We learnt that the drama series, Arthur of the Britions was to be quite different from traditional renditions of the well-loved stories. Apart from anything else the actors had long hair and wore rough hessian garments or sheepskins to reflect the culture of Iron Age England. Everyone was excited about the idea, which seemed more authentic and certainly held more sex-appeal than the Hollywood idyl lodged in our consciousness.

While the lane below the wood that ran along the sides of our valley was closed to traffic, HTV ran cables and moved in with their lights, camera equipment and props amounting to bundles of swords, spears, shields and other weaponry.

Filming 'Arthur of the Britons' on our farm

Here you can see the Gulliver’s Prop lorry as well as costume and make-up artists with their kit-bags attending to the actors and supporting artistes. Please remind me of the name of the character to the left of shot and who played him. ***

Filming 'Arthur of the Britons' on our farm2

It must have been dark under the trees, as there would have been have been  a large 2K light on this tripod. The crew  set up carefully and were finally ready to go for a take, recording the battle in the woods on 16mm.

Filming 'Arthur of the Britons' on our farm1

After a short skirmish, Arthur pretends to retreat, leading his men downhill. They are soon followed by the Saxon hordes. The reality was that the wood was much steeper than it came across on television. The actors ended up tumbling down the bank.

The actors come leaping out of the wood

We were waiting in the open field in the valley floor. Although naturally marshy, this had been made much wetter by damming the stream that flowed down from the woods. Our local road engineer Percy Baxter dug pits that filled with water and acted as a trap for the Saxons who did not know the secret way through the marshes.

Filming 'Arthur of the Britons' on our farm6

My sisters and our sheepdog with Percy Baxter who dug great holes in the field before allowing them to fill up with spring water. Members of the crew work beyond.

We knew the ledgend and were fascinated to see how the sequence would come together.

Filming 'Arthur of the Britons' on our farm5

As the scene was difficult to replicate it was shot with two cameras, seen here set on wooden tripods. The result was exciting.

Filming Arthur of the Britons

For photos of the location on the Arthur of the Britons website please click here.

Scroll to 19.50 towards the end of the episode to watch the scene here on Youtube:

***Post script: This email arrived recently. I have been given permission to feature it:

“Browsing the web the other day, I came across your website and photos relating to filming ‘Arthur of the Britons’. One photo in particular interested me, the one in which the request, ‘Please remind me of the name of the character to the left of shot and who played him’ appears.

Looking at that photo stirred many memories…

Back in 60’s Bristol, my old chum Bob Baker was trying his hand at script-writing for the media, somehow he got involved with a BBC Children’s series entitled ‘Pegasus’: of which meager entries appear online and actual footage seems non existent.

Bob and I enlisted as extras for a shoot at Berkeley Castle, much fun, beautifully authentic Napoleonic Infantry costumes, several closeups, a hard in-character slap on the face for Bob and a shot of me firing a rifle at an imaginary ‘Pegasus’, the eponymous hot air balloon, as it took off from the castle courtyard carrying the escapee heroes of the plot. An excellent tight closeup only marred by myself who, having fired and watched the imaginary effect of my bullet, lowered the rifle and stared up intently, for what seemed minutes (at nothing) finally relaxed… as my eye was drawn inexorably towards the huge camera lens inches from my face. ‘Christ! He just looked straight into the camera! Cut!’ I was particularly stung by a co-extras unconcealed schadenfreude as he muttered, ‘Shame about that Rog, they liked the look of you, blown your chances now.’ But it was too good to waste and, edited, made it into the final cut: it was however the last close-up I got.

The final location work called for a night shoot, it was raining intermittently and shooting was sporadic, Bob and I spent most of the night in the canteen, drinking wine with our old mate Keith Floyd who had managed to land the catering job – in many ways, the start of his career and of course he went on to considerable success, fame and several television series of his own. Bob and I ran out of cigarettes so, fully accoutred and armed with cocked hats, swords, rifles and bayonets, we strolled down into Berkeley village and went into The Boar’s Head just at closing time, startling the small group of locals, and ordered two pints and some fags. A stunned silence descended as without a word, Bob and I drained our pints and left as suddenly as we had appeared. I wonder if the legend of the two thirsty apparitions from La Grande Armée is told there still?

Bob and co-writer Dave Martin had written a well-researched film script about King Arthur. They knocked on many doors, Hollywood was mentioned; even Charlton Heston was reported to be interested, but finally, in 1973, it was HTV who eventually picked it up, though I see Bob actually gets credit only for the first episode ‘People of the Plough’.Of course, he went on to write many of the scripts for ‘Dr Who’ and ‘Wallace and Grommit’ but this was his first, if modest, success.

I was on my summer vacation and Bob mentioned HTV were looking for extras for ‘Arthur’ if I was interested. When I arrived on set it seemed that half of Bristol was there including many of my drinking mates from Clifton, most of whom had arrived equipped with cider and beer and it became fairly apparent the direction things would take. A few years ago I was reminiscing about those days with one of them, Mike Dauncey, who went on to become a respected BBC Cameraman, but who sadly, recently died. He told me he spent most of his time in the actors tent, along with a few other reprobates, smoking pot. I recall seeing him at the time but had no idea what was going on, though I remember enjoying plenty of the extraordinary amounts of alcohol that seemed to be around. I’m pretty sure Mike is the guy in the patterned doublet with his back to the camera, extreme right.

Vaguely, I recall lots of nonsense, involving charging down hills waving swords and yelling, mock fighting in in the river and defending a primitive ‘Saxon Village’ that had been constructed on a river bank. As always, shooting was a bit piecemeal, scenes being shot out of sequence and us extras standing around as background whilst Oliver Tobias, Jack Watson and, by the end of the shoot, the Celts, had taken the village. Not terribly dramatic at the time, presumably any attendant pillage and rapine was the subject of a different shoot, though I recall a fair amount of fake blood waiting in readiness. Finally the script called for the Celts to set fire to the village. And thus I got my big starring role, as employing all my acting skills, dressed in a ‘bloody’ sheepskin and in closeup, I was required to play a dead Saxon.

Unfortunately it had been steadily raining all day and the ‘village’, built largely from straw and dummy plastic wickerwork, refused to ignite. I was lying very close to the ‘village’ and began to get a bit concerned as, from my worms eye view, I watched the crew enthusiastically chucking gallons of petrol over the village to get things going. It all seemed to take a long time and as I lay there in the rain, I remember hoping they hadn’t forgotten that the dead Saxon was actually an extra and not a prop. More time went by setting up the shots but eventually the scene was in readiness. Action! shouted the director and with cameras rolling, three ‘Celtic horsemen’ with flaming torches galloped down on the village, narrowly avoiding trampling me, threw the torches at the ‘buildings’ and galloped off. For several seconds nothing happened, then suddenly with a huge WHOOMPH! all that petrol just went off, The heat where I was lying was incredible, the grass between me and the village began to steam then turn yellow and smoke, I began to smell wet, then burning wool, as my sheepskin began to smoulder, fortunately too sodden and thick to actually catch fire, but lying there, I discovered an earnest empathy for those Guy Fawkes dummies I had chucked on bonfires as a kid. The crew were oblivious to my plight as the director called for several takes and the scene took over an hour to shoot until eventually the flames died down and a wrap was called.

Months later the series appeared on TV, I saw very little of it but did see that scene; by modern standards it looked fairly amateurish, obviously phoney as you could see the plastic ‘wickerwork’ melting, but my closeup was excellent, I looked just like a corpse, very realistic, despite gently steaming.

Bob and Dave Martin always referred to the series as ‘Arthur in The Stinging Nettles’ but what struck me about that photo is that it looks more like the set for some fey setting of Lothlórien. What a bunch of fairies!

So back to that plea, who was the character on the left? Well, if it’s the guy having his face touched-up on the extreme left, I’m afraid it was no actor, just an extra that played a corpse. Me.

I seem to have banged on a bit, strange how a photograph brings it all back, apologies if it just seems like some old blokes boring memories – but then again, that’s exactly what it is!

Best regards,

Roger Harding”

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Filed under Acting, Biography, Film, Film Catering, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, truelife story, Uncategorized, Vintage Film

The child star, once seen as the little girl eating an ice cream in ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

 Tamzin in pink and and Perry in yellow eating ice creams whilst appearing as film extras in 'Swallows & Amazons'. Kit Seymour and Jane Grendon stand behind them.

Tamzin eating ice cream in a pink dress whilst appearing as a film extra in ‘Swallows & Amazons’. Kit Seymour and Jane Grendon stand behind her.

It is with some bemusement that I see myself described as a child star in newspapers.  I only appeared in two feature films before I grew too tall to do more. It was the little girl here seen eating ice-cream in a pink dress, when she appeared as a film extra in Swallows & Amazons, who became a much brighter starlet than I.

Wheetabix Commercial with Tamzin Neville and Percy Baxter

Tamzin appearing with Percy Baxter in a Weetabix advert directed by Claude Whatham in 1973

My sister Tamzin enchanted directors who cast her in one role after another. Her career started in 1972 when she was given the lead role of Elka in an episode of Arthur of the Britons opposite Oliver Tobias who played King Arthur. He later introduced her as his co-star. By this time he was known as The Studhaving starred opposite Joan Collins in the movie of her sister Jackie Collins’ racy novel.

Tamzin in Arthur of the Britons

No one asked Tamzin if she could ride. It was a good thing that she could as she was soon cantering up and down the hills on a massive horse, whilst clutching that medieval  doll. You can watch a bit on Youtube. Arthur of the Britons had the most prestigious cast: Brian Blessed, Martin Jarvis, Tom Baker, Catherine Schell, Iain Cuthbertson, Peter Firth, Heather Wright, Michael Gambon and Peter Bowles all appeared in the drama series, some of which was filmed on my parents’ farm. I remember Jack Watson leaping down the bank above our house. Tamzin played most of her scenes opposite  Michael Gothard, who became famous for playing the villain Locque  in the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only.

Daphne Neville in The Pheonix and the Carpet

Tamzin was then cast as Anthea in the 1976 BBC adaptation of of E Nesbit’s classic story The Phoenix and the Carpet. I’ve just read that it was a story much admired by Arthur Ransome.

While Mum enjoyed playing the part of Mother, Tamzin’s brother Cyril was played by Gary Russell, who after appearing as Dick in the BBC series of Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five,  grew up to become a writer and script editor on Doctor Who. I last saw him at a book launch at the Imperial War Museum.

DSCF0092-001

Sophie Neville with Gary Russell in London in 2012

Here he is with Tamzin in the 1970s:

As she was used to appearing on television, Tamzin wrote in to Blue Peter and soon appeared on the show. She was also featured on Animal Magic and a number of other magazine programmes.

Tamzin soon had another lead role, that of the young Linda in the ITV production of Nancy Mitford’s semi-autobiographical novel Love in a Cold Climate. While Judi Dench and Michael Aldridge starred as her parents, her brother Matt was played by Max Harris who had the role of her brother Robert in The Phoenix and the Carpet. Tamzin can been seen on the trailer wearing a red dressing-gown in the Hons’ cupboard, looking dreamy in a tam o’shanter and jumping a white Arab over a Cotswold stone wall, whilst riding side-saddle.

She went on to take leading roles in episodes of A Play for Today, Crown Court and Screen Two. Ironically she was expelled from Drama College after Mum persuaded her to work professionally one summer vacation. At that, she tossed her head and went on to occupy time more gainfully.

She won’t believe me, but Tamzin is a most amusing writer.  You can see for yourself. Her letters are  featured in Ride the Wings of Morning.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized

‘How did appearing in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ affect your life?’

Wheetabix commercial

Sophie Neville appearing in a Wheetabix commercial directed by Claude Whatham in 1973

I am often asked what impact Swallows and Amazons has had on my life. Because I had been given the lead in a feature film, it naturally lead to ‘more work’, as any actor would put it. I had not expected this but things seemed to come our way. Sadly not riches, as I was still paid as a child, but it was fun and I learnt a great deal.

Wheetabix Commercial with Claude Whatham looking through the camera

Claude Whatham looking down the 35mm camera, giving direction to Ruth Shields and Percy Baxter, while Perry and Tamzin Neville stand by in the foreground.

I think Claude Whatham must have accepted a contract to direct commercials for Wheetabix even before he finished editing the Arthur Ransome movie, because in the summer of 1973, my sisters and I appeared in three lovely period films – each about 3 minutes long – that he made in Gloucestershire at harvest time.

Wheetabix Commercial with Tamzin and Perry

Girls in a Cotswold cornfiled hearvesting stocks of wheat ~ Photo: Martin Neville

Claude had a cottage near Stephen Grendon’s house in the Cotswolds. The location can not have been far from where we all lived as I recognise some of the Extras, who my mother must have gathered together. I can’t remember Sten being on the set but I have a photograph of our erst-while chaperone Jane Grendon in period costume.

Wheetabix Commercial with Jane Grendon

An unknown gentleman with Daphne Neville and Jane Grendon in Gloucestershire while filming a commercial for Claude Whatham in August 1973

We didn’t actually have to eat breakfast cereal. In my film there was simply a shot of me climbing over a gate to discover a cornfield with the voice track, ‘When I was young…’ over a shot of me  and my brother, played by Nicholas Newman, eating individual grains of corn. This was not in the script. We just did as children do.

Wheetabix Commercial directed by Claude Whatham

Nicholas Newman and Sophie Neville eating grains of wheat.

Claude asked me just to stand in the crop and ended the film with a shot of me spinning around, enjoying the feel the ripe heads of corn as they hit my hands, captured against the low light of the setting sun. It was undirected action. Despite having endless lengths of track, the latest camera mounts and a massive 35mm Claude was letting us behave completely naturally – experimenting with improvised drama without even asking us to improvise.

My mother could not appear in the advertisement herself, as she had already been in a Television commercial for cereal and her agent did not want her to accept ‘Extra work’. She was with Bryan Drew, whose assistant Wendy found Mum featured roles in a wide range of television commercials, which paid very well as the repeat fees were good. I remember her taking me with her to the office in Shaftesbury Avenue when Brian Drew lent back in his chair, casually agreeing to represent me.

Sophie Neville in 1976

I went to a number of interviews – rather than auditions – to appear in feature films that I don’t think were ever made. Under Jim Callaghan Inflation was running at 17% in the mid 1970s and money for movies must have been tight in the UK.  This was probably why Richard Pilbrow couldn’t get the financing for an adaptation of Great Northern? 

When I was fifteen, I decided that the old black and white promotion photographs of me playing Titty wouldn’t do and arranged for my own Spotlight photograph to be taken by an old professional – the husband of rather an unpopular teacher at school. I decided exactly what I would wear and how I would sit. My friends and the teacher were amazed but it did the trick. On the strength of this one photograph, and obviously my experience gained on Swallows and Amazons, I was given the leading role of Liz Peters, an archery champion in a CFF adventure movie titled, The ‘Copter Kids alongside Sophie Ward and Jonathan Scott-Taylor.

Sophie Neville in The 'Copter Kids

Jonathan Scott-Taylor, Sophie Neville, Daphne Neville and Sophie Ward in a family adventure movie called ‘The Copter Kids’, 1976

This time my mother played our mother, wearing her red mac and rather tight jeans. Derek Fowlds played our father, an oil prospecting helicopter pilot. At the time he was only really well-known as ‘Mr Derek’, the straight guy for Basil Brush. I was actually asked at the audition whether I thought that girls my age would find him attractive. I was too polite to say that we all prefered Basil. Basil Brush was a fox puppet, but so enormously amusing and spontaneous, he was adored by the whole nation. What happened during the filming was that we all fell in love with the stunt men, Vic Armstrong and Marc Boyle, who were acting in their own right as the Baker Brother baddies. How could we not? Vic spent years playing Harrison Ford’s double. He was the real Indiana Jones. His numerous film credits include Thor, Robin Hood, The Golden Compass, Charlie’s Angels and Empire of the Sun. He is currently working as the stunt coordinator on Jack Ryan, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Chris Pine, Keira Knightley and Kevin Costner. Marc Boyle worked on Star Wars – return of the Jedi, Batman and Alien 3, as well as supervising the stunts on the Bond movie Licence to Kill.

Derek Fowlds went on to do incredibly well, famous for playing Bernard alongside (or under) the late Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne in the classic BBC TV comedies Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister that ran from 1980-1988 and are still adored. Sophie Ward, who played my sister Jill, was so very beautiful that she became a top model, the face of Laura Ashley, before she was sixteen and has never stopped working as an actress, starring in films such as The Young Sherlock Holmes and the TV movie of Joanna Trollop’s novel The Village Affair. Recently, she appeared as Lady Ellen Hoxley in Land Girls and as Rosie Miller in Secret State.

A star-studded cast, but should you rush off to order a DVD of The Copter Kids? Please don’t. It was a dreadful film. One of the stage school children who appeared in the crowd scenes floored me by asking, ‘What’s it like being a film star?’ I became self-conscious, which killed the sparkle and enthusiasm I needed for the role of teenage heroine. And I didn’t even shoot very well. You would be appalled. It was probably only made because being a charity, CFF  – The Childrens Film Foundation,  did have a bit of money in the coffers. A little bit. I was paid so meagerly that Bryan Drew waivered his agent’s commission.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Photography, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story