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
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.
If there was a sequence we all enjoyed putting together more than any other, whilst filming Arthur Ransome’s ‘Coot Club’, it was the scene when Williams the pug dog is weighted on the scales outside Beccles Post Office. This was shot on dry land in the market place of a village in Norfolk, whose name I am afraid I don’t remember – you will have to remind me in the comments below.
In the story, Port and Starboard surprise the crew of the Teasle by arriving unexpectedly on the back of a motorbike, having hitched rides across Norfolk on a series of historic craft including the Albion. Andrew Morgan, our Director was keen to end the scene with a high shot of the bustling market town, portraying East Anglian life as it was in the early 1930’s.
Apart from creating the Post Office so beautifully that we were convinced it had always been there, Bruce McCaddie our designer had television ariels taken off houses and yellow lines on the roads obliterated. He also commissioned his Prop Buyer, Dave Privett, to find a number of period vehicles that could be driven through the town.
Our Producer Joe Waters was keen on what was refered to in television as production value. ‘Always put your money in front of the camera’, he told me. David Privet did that for him, going to endless trouble to source steam rollers and hay wagons, charabangs and river cruisers to bring life and colour to a period drama. I learnt later when we all worked together on ‘My Family and Other Animals’ shot on location in Corfu what a complete perfectionist Dave was.
Busy crowd scenes are rewarding and look wonderful on screen, but they do take a while to set up. All the drivers had to have short back-and-sides haircuts and change into period costumes. On top of the motor-cycle and side car, which Port and Starboard arrived in, Dave had found a 1929 delivery lorry and several bicycles aswell as vintage motorcars. We also had various passers-by and towns people dressed in costume, armed as you’d expect with shopping baskets or prams. This was all pretty much as you’d expect. I’m not sure who decided that we should add a herd of sheep, but we also had sheep. Black-faced sheep to add a bit of rural life. The idea was they they would be driven through the market square at the end of the scene. Bruce sensibly had portable wooden fencing out-of-vision between the houses so they couldn’t escape.
Our leading lady, Rosemary Leach, took up her position outside the Post Office with the children, and we set up to go for a take with all the vehicles in their start positions. As you can see from the low light in my photographs we were getting to the end of a long day. Everyone on the crew was tired, tempers were getting short and the twins were the only ones left with any energy. But the camera turned over and the Director shouted, ‘Action!’ The vehicles set off. There was then the curious sound of heavy rain. Sheep came not walking but galloping into the market square.
‘Cut!’ yelled the Director. The vehicles came to a halt. Bruce and his prop men sprung up, ready with the hurdles. The sheep took one look at them and panicked further. The Dave Privett rushed in to help. There was no where for the sheep to go. They ended up following each other, running round and around a large black motor in the middle of the square. Dave was pinned against the rear bumper. He couldn’t move. The sheep kept on running, round and round. Alec Curtis, having a dry sense of humour, kept the camera running too. The whole sequence was caught on film.
I think Jim Searle must have given me this lovely photograph of Titmouse, taken when the boys from Norfolk who played the Death and Glorys were given sailing lessons prior to filming in the summer of 1983.
Titmouse has recently been renovated by Hunter’s Yard at Ludham in Norfolk, which was used as a film location in the series and restored to her sea-worthy condition.
Tom Dudgeon’s punt, Dreadnaught can also be found at Hunter’s Yard. Henry Dimbleby can be seen here, 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, above? It looks as if our designer, Bruce McCaddie, is sorting out a fishing rod used by the actor Sam Kelly, who was fishing for pike.
This is the only other shot 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.
Pat Simpson of Stalham Yacht Services said that during the filming they one had to take a boat from Regan to Horning overnight when the film schedule changed. I have a feeling it was the Catchalot.
One of the jobs Bruce McCaddie 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.
An old German Lifeboat found by Pat Simpson washed up on the beach at Southwold was used for the Death and Glory. After the filming, Pat kept it for his sons until 1989 when Professor John Farrington from the School of Geo-Science at Aberdeen University came across it. He took his two children, a boy and a girl aged ten and eleven, down to the yard one half-term as the loved the books and television serial.
‘Get on,’ he said.
‘But what about the owners?’ they asked.
‘You are the owners.’ He’d bought it for them. One New Year they rowed from Stalham to Sutton and back. John Farrington first visited the Broads on a family holiday in 1956 and wanted his children to have the same experience. They now have children of their own and still treasure the Death and Glory.
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 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.
The great thing is that you can still find some of these vessels today –
Teasel – owned and kept at Hunter’s Yard, Ludham on the Norfolk Broads
Titmouse – owned and kept at Hunter’s Yard, Ludham
Dreadnaught -owned and kept at Hunter’s Yard, Ludham
Death and Glory – owned by the Farringtons – kept at Gerry Hermer’s boat yard on the Norfolk Broads
Sir Gernet – a Norfolk Wherry The Albion
Other boats featured include:
Water Rail – Herbert Woods Delight Class B owned by Liz Goodyear
Joan B – a skiff set adrift at Horning owned by Pat Simpson
Pippa – yacht set adrift at Horning owned by Geoff Angell kept at the Norfolk Boards Yacht Club.
Goldfish 9 – a one-off yacht
Swallow 4 – a one-off river cruise yacht
Starlight Lady 322
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 ~
One viewer has observed that, in the BBC serialisation of Coot Club and The Big Six, we had not one but two Doctors in the cast, Time Lords at that. This is true. We arrived on location one morning to find that Patrick Troughton had transmogrified into Harry Bangate the Eel Man.
He had led the most fascinating life. A Naval Officer during World War II, and the first actor to play Robin Hood on television, Patrick Troughton played The Doctor in 128 episodes of Doctor Who. But would he be drawn? If we asked him about his life he just started talking about eels in a broad Norfolk accent. He’d worked for our Director Andrew Morgan on Kings Royal and for Joe Water’s on Z Cars, but for us, in the summer of 1983, he was the eel man.
Colin Baker first appeared in Doctor Who (a story entitled Arc of Infinity) in the role of Commander Maxil, when he actually shot the 5th Time Lord, who was being played by Peter Davison. It was not until after he arrived in Norfolk to play Arthur Ransome’s tweed-clad Dr Dudgeon, that he realised his full destiny and donned a multi-coloured dream coat to take on the 6th incarnation of The Doctor in the long-running BBC science fiction series. I went on to work as an Assistant Floor Manager on a two-part story called Vengeance on Varos when the Tardis had to make an emergency landing on a most unattractive planet. When we were in the North Acton rehearsal rooms I persuaded Colin to teach me all the correct jargon about transmogrifiers but it has since washed from my brain.
I can’t remember whether Colin Baker was cast as Dr Dudgeon in Coot Club before or after Henry Dimbleby was given the part of his son Tom Dudgeon, but he did not look unlike Henry’s real father back then.
There were various other members of our film crew who were also familiar with the Tardis. (I think we were meant to refer to it as ‘T.A.R.D.I.S.’ ~ Time And Relative Dimension In Space). John Woodvine ,who played PC Tedder, had preciously taken the role of the Marshall in ‘The Armageddon Factor’, opposite Tom Baker and Mary Tamm in 1979.
John Gill who we knew as Old Bob of the Comealong had the part of Oak in Fury from the Deep, made in Patrick Troughton’s time. Alan Lake played Herrick in four episodes entitled Underworld first broadcast in 1978. Andrew Burt played Valgard in Terminus during Peter Davison’s era and Tim Barlow, the distinctive looking actor who played the old man at the Roaring Donkey was Tyssan in Destiny of the Daleks. Sam Kelly, our Captain of the Catchalot appeared in the audio dramas of Doctor Who titled The Holy Terror and Return to the Web Planet.
Andrew Morgan directed both Time and the Rani and Remembrance of the Daleks. Tariq Anwar our film editor on Coot Club, worked on two stories while Andy Lazell, the visual effects designer responsible for creating so much fake fog on Breydon Water had worked on ‘The Leisure Hive’ and ‘Snakedance’, eight episodes of Doctor Who first broadcast in the early 1980s. Colin March, our sound recordist worked on the film sound or ‘Planet of Evil’ in 1975 and ‘The Two Doctors’, with both Colin Baker and Patrick Troughton. It was broadcast in 1985. Liz Mace, had been the production manager on ‘Time-Flight’. Diana Brookes, our script supervisor – or production assistant as the job was then known – had worked with Colin Baker on the four-part Doctor Who story ‘Arc of Infinity’ in 1982/3. Perhaps it was she who thought of him for Dr Dudgeon.
The part of the tall and elegant Hullabaloo, Livy, was played by Sarah Crowden. Her father, the actor Graham Crowden who I always think of as Tom Ballard in his Sit-com Waiting For God, was offered the part of the fourth Doctor Who , after Jon Pertwee but he turned down the opportunity as it was such a committment. Instead he played Soldeed in The Horns of Nimon in 1980 after Tom Baker had being playing the fourth Doctor for some time.
The person working on our series who had had a huge input on Doctor Who was Mervyn Haisman, our Script Editor. He’d written at least seventeen episodes including the series entitled The Dominators, writing under the name Norman Ashby. Mervyn never appeared on location but it was he who steered the adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s novels, breaking them down into four episodes each, whilst remaining faithful to the original stories.
Assistant director Mary Soan, Costume designer Susannah Buxton, Actor Sam Kelly and Make-up artist Penny Fergusson when filming on location in Norfolk in 1983 “I had a telephone call one day from a man working for the B.B.C. he said he had heard I had a steam roller, if so could I take it to Horning to appear in a film they were about to shoot in the broads area.”
I was sent this extract, copied word-for-word from Jimmy Nicholson’s autobiography I kept a Troshin’ – originally published in 1989 by S.J. Nicholson.
“The title was ‘Swallows and Amazons’ which was shown on B.B.C.2. So on the appointed day I loaded the roll onto our low loader and Geoffrey, our lorry driver, took it to Horning. I unloaded it near the Swan Hotel about eight thirty, some of the people were already there, the people in charge rolled up about nine. Then a coach load came, there was also a coach full of costumes. The young lady who was helping to organise things said I had better change some of my things into old time dress, as the film was supposed to have been in older times. So I went in the bus where all these costumes hung. The young lady in there said I had better change my shirt and boots and wear another hat, an old fashioned cap. So I pulled my shirt off she handed me one of these old ones. I said, ‘What about my trousers, do you want me to take them off!’She laughed and said, ‘No I think yours will do.’I thought what a shame.Another young lady said she thought I should have my hair cut. So I sat on a chair on the Swan car park and had a hair do. The next thing they were queueing up for breakfast from a mobile canteen. The lady in charge said, ‘Come on Jimmy.’ she had learned my name by now. I said, ‘I’ve had mine.’She said, ‘Never mind have another one. ‘Which I did and had a full English breakfast.By the time they wanted me to start operating it was time to stop for coffee and other drinks. When I did start I had to drive the roll up the road passed the cameras. I did this about a dozen times, I had to time this with some children running down a side road to see me go passed. By now it was lunch time so I joined the queue again and had another cooked meal.After having a pint in the Swan the lady in charge said, ‘I think we’ve finished with you now.’I thought what a shame, I could put up with this for a week.”
Jimmy was obviously very much taken by the girls working for BBC television on the drama serial of Arthur Ransome’s books ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’. When we made the EMI movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973, the only female member of the actual film crew had been the ‘Continuity Girl’ or script supervisor. In ten years things had changed. Joe Waters, our producer, aimed at having a 50/50 ratio of men and women on his production team and crew. This created an atmosphere that was full of fun and the children acting in the series thrived.
The young lady ‘who was helping to organise things’ would have been our efficient AFM, or Assistant Floor Manager, Mary Soan (known as a ‘Second Assistant Director’ on a feature film). I should explain that, in BBC Drama, stage management roles had evolved from equivalent in the theatre, so her job also involved being responsible for the ‘action props’ and action vehicles – in this case a 1930’s steam roller. I am sure Jimmy would have been quite taken by Mary – she was very pretty, with thick blonde hair, an ever radiant smile on her face. Whilst I went on to direct television programmes for the BBC in the late ’80s, Mary became a Production Manager. It wasn’t long before she went freelance as a First Assistant Director and started working on the most incredible movies ~ Pearl Harbor (2001), Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), The Chronicles of Narnia (2005), Stardust (2007) and Skin (2008) as well as TV mini-series such as Place of Execution(2008).
‘The young lady’ in the costume bus, who was happy for Jimmy to keep his own trousers on, must have been Helena, the assistant costume designer, while the young lady who thought he should have a 1930’s short-back and sides, would have been our ever laughing Make-up Assistant Penny Fergusson.
Penny Fergusson originally trained at the Royal Ballet School. What would Jimmy have said had he known he was having his hair cut by a girl who had performed at the Royal Opera House and the Venice Film Festival before dancing her way across Europe with Pan’s People?
‘The lady in charge’, who gave Jimmy permission to go was Liz Mace, our senior Production Manager. Sadly I don’t have a photograph of her, but she was in charge of our film schedule, logistics and locations as well as Health and Safety on set. You will have seen her name on the end-credits of BBC drama serials such as The Ondein Line, When the Boat Comes In, Secret Army, on Doctor Who, the Police series Juliet Bravo and All Creatures Great and Small. In 1991, I worked with her in Ealing on a series of Thinkabout Science before she returned to work at Elstree Studios making numerous episodes of the soap opera Eastenders.
Jimmy concluded his tale by adding:
“When the film was shown on television you could just see the roll go passed and that was it, but I did enjoy myself and I enjoyed it even more when I received a cheque for the job.”
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.