Tag Archives: Ronnie Barker

Casting children for the BBC adaptations of Arthur Ransome’s books ‘Coot Club’ & ‘The Big Six’ in 1983 ~

Sophie Neville with Port and Starboard in 'Coot Club'

Sophie Neville with Port and Starboard in ‘Coot Club’

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.

Swallows and Amazons Forever! Coot Club children cast by Sophie Neville

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 Harty team, 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.

Coot Club - Death and Glories

~Jake Coppard, Mark Page and Nicholas Walpole as the Death and Glory boys ~ photo: Sophie Neville 1983

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.

Coot Club Baddies

Boys virtually cast for me by the teachers of Norfolk ~ Dean Harkness who played Brian and Sy Rainsbury who played 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.

Coot Club - Richard Walton

Richard Walton, who was cast as Dick Callum, in Norfolk in 1983

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.

Henry Dimbleby in 1983

Henry Dimbleby who played Tom Dudgeon in 1983 ~ photo: Sophie Neville

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.

Caroline Downer as Dot Callum

Caroline Downer as Dorothea Callum in ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’, 1983

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.

Coot Club Audition

Children who were short-listed for parts in ‘Coot Club’ having lunch at a final audition held in Norwich in 1983. The boys who played Joe and Pete are in the foreground.

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?

Coot Club - Joe Waters with Henry DimbJleby

Producer Joe Waters with Henry Dimbleby who played Tom Dudgeon in ‘Coot Club’ & ‘the Big Six’ ~ photo: Sophie Neville

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.

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Filed under Acting, Arthur Ransome, Biography, Claude Whatham, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

Beyond, but because of, ‘Swallows and Amazons’ ~

Jan Leeming, Sophie Neville and Daphne Neville

Jan Leeming, Sophie Neville and Daphne Neville at a charity event in about 1975.

One of the reasons why I did not continue acting as a child was that it seemed rather more important to concentrate on my education. Another reason was that I simply grew too tall. I was all legs, like a foal.

Crossroads

Appearing as Kevin’s sister in the wedding episodes of the ATV Soap opera ‘Crossroads’. This continuity photograph shows how tall I’d grown. I wasn’t wearing high heels.

After a few years, the fact that I had leading parts in both Swallows and Amazons and The Copter Kids meant surprisingly little professionally, except that I was able to gain a much coveted Equity card. In the late 1970’s Trade Unions were very strong in Britain, holding the film and television industry under a ‘closed shop’ policy. If you were not a Union member you could not work, but you could not gain a Union card without having worked professionally. Even though I had taken starred in two movies and had appeared in a number of television dramas, I had only just worked for enough days to get a ‘Provisional Equity membership’ – although another reason for this might have been because I was still only sixteen. Virginia McKenna’s lovely daughter Louise, who I had met at the premiere, was working as a dancer in Spain to gain an Equity card. Meanwhile, directors in the UK could not find young actors in Equity to cast in their dramas. Not being fussy about how I looked, I volunteered to play the part of a boy in the HTV movie Kidnapped. 

Sophie Neville in the HTV movie 'Kidnapped'

Sophie Neville on location at Bisley in Gloucestershire, appearing as a messenger boy in the HTV movie ‘Kidnapped’ in about 1977.

Although the snow was not real, I nearly froze to death.  I must have appeared a more than twenty television dramas, wearing ever more uncomfortable costumes.  Wearing wigs was the worst thing. They can be terribly itchy.

Sherlock Holmes

Sophie Neville in a corset for ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’

Concentrating on academic work was certainly a warmer way to spend the day. I ploughed on with my studies only accepting work that I was offered close to where we lived. The exception was the Two Ronnies, which was recorded on the south coast but it was an opportunity not to be missed. I was about nineteen and had an amusing part in their long running story of Charley Farley and Piggy Malone – The Band of Slaves.

The Two Ronnies - Charley Farley and Piggy Malone

Sophie Neville, second from left, on location at Southampton Docks, appearing in The Two Ronnies for the BBC in about 1979

Since I was cast by Paul Jackson, the Producer, I hadn’t realised that Ronnie Barker would be directing the drama. It was the first time that I had acted with an actor/director, which was slightly tricky when I had my arms around him. The whole experience was surreal – and good fun. Ronnie had a wonderful costume designer who amused Ronnie by pouring us into outrageous outfits, including commodious Yashmaks.  She gave me little round spectacles.  Since I put on a Southern American accent I thought, ‘No one will ever recognise me in this part,’ – but they did.The series ended with a large wooden crate being lowered by a crane from a ship on Southampton docks. One side of the crate fell open and I marched out playing For all the Saints on a trombone, followed by all these ladies dress in pink. I’m holding a tuba in this shot but it was swapped for a trombone. My heel got stuck in one of the tram lines on the dockside but I kept marching on.

Sophie Neville in The Two Ronnies

Sophie Neville playing a trombone for Ronnie Barker in the Two Ronnies

My mother would have loved me to have followed her dream and try for RADA, where she was a student in the late 1950’s. Instead I was accepted by the University of Durham where I read Anthropology and made a number of very good friends.

In the summer of 1980 we went to see Virginia McKenna who was staring opposite Yule Brynner in the musical of The King and I in the West End. We would never have gone backstage if we hadn’t known her so well, if I hadn’t played her daughter in Swallows and Amazons. Virginia needed someone to look after her family in the country, while she was on the London stage. She wrote to ask my mother if she could recommend a cook-housekeeper. It was this domestic role I took on for the long university vacation, armed with a my school cookery book. It was just the Susan-ish job I needed to ground me. Bill Travers, Ginny’s husband, was working at home for much of the time, developing a screenplay for a film set in Africa.  Her son Will Travers had just returned from working on the crew of a movie made in the Nongorogro Crater in Tanzania, and, while her daughter Louise was still dancing in Spain, her second son was at boarding school, her youngest at day school. My feet did not touch the ground.

I couldn’t complain. Virginia hardly slept, and yet due to her obscure hours she could only ever see her youngest son when he was sleeping. She spent sixteen months at the London Palladium, with numerous other demands on her time such as performing at the Royal Variety Performance at the Theatre Royal in Dury Lane. While Yule Brynner had a bodyguard she would drive back though the night in her little blue car.

In her autobiography  The Life in my Years Virginia describes how The King and I  proved one of the highlights of her career. Yul Brynner was a complete perfectionist, which could make life hard, but she welcomed the discipline he bought to the theatre.  You don’t need to watch much of this clip to see  how demanding he could be ~

Almost as soon as I gained my Full Equity Union Membership, I decided that I really didn’t want to devote my life to acting.  After I finished working for Virginia McKenna, London Weekend Television came to make a drama called Dark Secret,  a two-part Sunday Night Thriller, shot at my parents’ house in the Cotswolds. Christopher Hodson, the director, thought it would be amusing if we turned up and knocked on the front door in the final scene, so I am regrettably credited is ‘Member of family party’ along with my mother.

Sophie Neville in 'Dark Secret'

Sophie Neville looking scary in The Sunday Night Thriller ‘Dark Secret’ for London Weekend Television in 1980

I’d actually been employed to help the Designer and his assistant modify our house in line with the story. I remember running errands for the Prop-buyer, who had no idea how to acquire action props of a rural nature such as dead rabbits. I got on so well with the LWT technicians that I decided that working on the crew was far more fulfilling that standing in front of the camera with an itchy hair-do. In 1982 I made a decision to opt for a career in television production. What I did not know is how soon Arthur Ransome would come back into my life.

For further details on the dramas I appeared in at this time, please scroll down on my About page.

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Filed under Acting, Autobiography, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, truelife story

Filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island, Coniston Water ~ in 1973

We had another rather wet day in the Lake District, but what they did shoot was excellent. It was the day John and I discovered the Secret Harbour and rowed Swallow around from the Landing Place. It mst have been worth waiting for the weather to clear in oder to capture those limpid, watery scenes.

The Secret Harbour looks very different over the course of a year.  It is at its most dramatic when the water levels are low and more rocks are exposed, but one thing is certain, it is always a safe haven for a dinghy. I was sad that the sequence in the book where Titty watches a dipper from her rock was never included in the film, but then I have never seen a dipper there. I rather think they prefer shallow, fast flowing streams were caddis fly lavae can be found but if Arthur Ransome wrote about a dipper there must have been one there in 1929.

Simon West playing John Walker and Sophie Neville as Titty Walker bring Swallow into Secret Harbour on Wildcat Island. Photography by Albert Clarke for Theatre Projects and Anglo EMI’s film ‘Swallows and Amazons’

I’m not sure Albert Clarke achieved horizontality with this particular photograph but it somehow gives one an idea of Titty’s tippy task. Albert was a sweet man. His task was to take stills of the film and for the film.  This must have been tricky as his large format camera clicked. He had to grab shots while not intruding on the sound track. He was later the Stills Photographer on The Hound of the Baskervilles when Ian Richardson played Sherlock Holmes, Return of the Jedi, and Porridge. Porridge, which starred my all-time hero Ronnie Barker who inspired me to go into television production. When I was a nineteen-year-old student I appeared in Charlie Farley and Piggy Malone, a sort of serial within The Two Ronnies, which he directed and appeared in as both anti-hero and baddie. To my great delight, and his surprise, I put on round glasses, a yash-mak, a Southern American accent borrowed from Molly Friedel and learnt that anything was possible if you really wanted it to happen.

But then some things happen anyway. I never knew that bringing small boat neatly into shore would result in being on the cover of an LP. You can still buy it all these years later from Amazon.  The only question is – Do you have a gramophone or turn-table to play it on?

The mfp Vinyl LP of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ with Sophie Neville and Simon West bringing Swallow into her harbour

I can’t believe Terry let me travel in the front on his white Range Rover, let alone change the gears.  I can only think that Simon and I were taken back after the other children had gone home, and can just imagine us swinging around the lanes on that beautiful road back to Ambleside.

Terry Smith was our Wardrobe Master who must have had an annoying day if gas had been leaking into his bus.  He was the distinctive man with curly red hair and strong, freckled arms in charge of our costumes. Goodness knows where he laundered them. Terry went on to work on some amazing costume dramas, movies that included Chariots of Fire, Lady Jane, Willow and Restoration. Mum’s tame otter Bee was auditioned to be in Willow. I’ve written about it in my book Funnily Enough. Mum was most indignant becasue they wanted her otter to wear a tutu. She didn’t know that Terry Smith was to be the Wardrobe Assistant. It might have made a difference. Instead they featured Val Kilmer in dialogue with a possum.

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