Revelation Films have just contacted me, saying that they are thinking of producing new packaging for a 30th Anniversary release of ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’ This is the BBC Drama adaptation of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ that starred Rosemary Leach, Julian Fellowes, Colin Baker, John Woodvine and Henry Dimbelby not to mention William the pug dog, who became a national treasure when he took on the role of Ethel’s Little Willie in Eastenders. I worked on the television series that was shot on 16mm film entirely on location in East Anglia. We spent an idyllic summer, mainly afloat on the Norfolk Broads.
They tell me that this DVD is one of their top ten bestsellers along with LA Law, Highway to Heaven and Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman starring Jane Seymour.
What wording would you use on the new cover? I want to suggest they have the book titles in larger letters: ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ by Arthur Ransome. Neither the Swallows or the Amazons appear in it after all. However, interesting actors such as Patrick Troughton and Sam Kelly do. I thought that including photos of them might appeal to those who appreciate Classic TV.
It was thought that my shot of Julian Fellowes playing Jerry the Hullabaloo showed him looking too young to be recognised these days. I am sure he’d agree with me that it is just the mustache that is somewhat distracting. I don’t remember it being a real one.
The production manager at Revelation Films told me she liked the photograph used on the cover of the Puffin Book, which I explained depicted The Big Six. The publishers are currently searching their archives for the original shot, which I remember setting up at Gay Staithe. Sadly this abridged version of the books lacks Ransome’s own illustrations.
What would you like to see inside the packaging?
Would you like an illustrated book talking about how the series was made?
I suggested they edit the episodes together into two films. I understand some parents like being able to show each 28 minute episode at a time. We loved the opening titles graphic and music at the time but they seem rather dated now.
DVDs now offer Extras, of course. We could put together a slide-show using my behind the scenes photos voiced with a commentary explaining how the serial was made. Would this spoil the magic?
I’d love to go searching for the locations we used. I wonder if Countryfile would be interested in this?
Do add any other ideas or requests to the Comments below.
Sadly Revelation Films only own the UK rights but I’ve noticed you can buy it on Amazon.com . There are other outlets but you want to be able to guarantee the quality.
I am currently reading Roger Wardale’s new book Arthur Ransome on the Broads, which is also available from Amazon It is illustrated with photographs of some of the boats that we used when we were filming. This was the Teasel’s costume:
I loved seeing Roger’s photographs of the Fairway yachts in full sail. Perhaps one of Lullaby should be on the new cover of the DVD.
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.
For more information on Saturday’s talk please click here
If you are interested in the BBC serial of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’, originally titled ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever’ please read on.
It is almost thirty years since we made the BBC adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s books Coot Club and The Big Six on the Norfolk Broads. The eight-part drama serial was filmed over three months during long hot summer of 1983. You can see from our faces how everyone made the whole experience enjoyable. It was ten years after we had made the movie ‘Swallow & Amazons’ but the atmosphere and the camaraderie felt similar.
Caroline Downer, who played Dorothea Callum so professionally, finally took out her plaits for good and returned to school – her real school rather than the boat where she had received lessons whist we were filming. She had done so well, holding her own with a cast made up predominantly of boys by the time we started filming The Big Six. A year or so after the series was broadcast she wrote to me of her plans for the future. I am ashamed to say that I was so busy working on Doctor Who that I didn’t reply. I can’t think why I tarried. She was far more important to me than Doctor Who. Caroline now teaches drama, is an LRAM examiner and puts on the most wonderful musicals. Hopefully she can draw on something of what she learnt during those months in East Anglia spent working with so many great British actors.
Despite the pressures and stress of filming, nothing flustered Henry Dimbelby. He was easy-going and optimistic – great fun to have around. He had no ambition to act but did such a good job. His parents were wonderful. Instead of going to Devon, where they kept a gaff-rigged boat, they rented a house on the North Coast of Norfolk for their summer holiday in 1983 so as to be near our locations. I remember driving Caroline and Henry up on a unit day off only to find Jonathan Dimbelby there too, with his wife Bel Mooney who I chatted to when we went for a walk before lunch. On the kitchen table back at the house was a huge colourful sausage and pasta salad made by Josceline Dimbelby, Henry’s mother. It was the first home-cooked meal I’d had for weeks, and was hugely appreciated. I was mesmerised by the colours and textures, the whole inventiveness of a salad made for a large family.
While Henry’s grandfather, Richard Dimbelby the World War II correspondent, went into newspapers and his father, David Dimbelby, worked for the BBC as a News reporter, presenter and commentator, you could say that Henry followed his mother. He trained as a chef – and became an innovative one, producing books on food and appearing on the occasional cookery program. In 2004 he opened Leon, the restaurant in Carnaby Street in central London that specialises in serving seasonal fast-food that is both delicious and good for you. Founded with Allegra McEvedy and John Vincent, Leon soon became popular. It was awarded ‘Best New Restaurant’ at the Observer Food Monthly Awards six months after opening. I believe Henry and his partners now have a chain of ten outlets and that their recipe books are an inspiration to many.
Claire and Sarah Matthews, the twins who played Port and Starboard in Coot Club, went on to play Eve and Alexandra in the 1984 TV mini series Master of the Game , which starred Angharad Rees, David Suchet and Fernando Allende. They still live in Sussex and are very close. Claire has taken up running in all weathers.
The Walpoles have written in! It was so good to hear from them. Nicholas Walpole, who played Joe, joined the Royal Navy and served on HMS Roebuck from 1989-90 as a survey recorder. A friend of his said he was teased mercilessly on board about his acting background. Many-a-time a chorus of ‘Swallows and Amazons forever’ would ring out when he walked into the Mess. Nik is now married, lives in Coventry and has three grown up children, one of whom wants to act. His mother still enjoys living in rural Norfolk. You can read their comments at the bottom of previous posts.
I am afraid that I haven’t seen Simon Hawes, who played George Owden, or the other boys from Norfolk since we finished filming. They did so well. Playing a baddie isn’t easy even with Make-up and Hair Department straining to help.
Richard Walton, who played Dick Callum, now lives in Los Angeles – he has written in, below. Mark Page, who played Bill, now lives on the coast of Turkey. I wonder if taking part in the BBC serial influenced their decisions to emigrate.
We spent long days together, often out on the water. Someone once explained to me that when you are camping and gadding about in boats, generally leading an Arthur Ramsome style life, you tend to laugh more. As a result more endocrines get released into your system, relationships are forged and bonds made. It has to be said that the boy who made us laugh more than anyone else on the film crew was Jake Coppard, who played Pete, the shortest of the Death and Glory boys. Although the character he played could be serious Jake was always finding something amusing or someone to imitate. Sam Kelly got on with him particularly well, helping him through the scene when Pete falls in.
Jake was such a talented actor. I gather he went on to appear as Charlie in a television drama directed by Tony Virgo called Travellers by Night (1985) , which featured Neil Morrissey who became so well known when the comedy series Men Behaving Badly proved a success. The lead role of Mrs Baker in Travellers of the Night was played by Jo Rowbottom who, by coincidence, had played Katie Leigh, Simon West’s mother in Sam and the River back in 1975.
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 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 ~
Julian Fellowes recently introduced me to friends, explaining that we had worked together when I had been a Consultant on ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’ ~ the overall title given to the BBC serialisation of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’. This was very kind. Apart from a fact or two about Arthur Ransome, my consultant-ish-ness consisted mainly in suggesting the children wore warm clothes when they were out on the water. I need not have worried. Our Producer, Joe Waters, appointed the most wonderful costume designer, who knew all about thermal underwear and hats. ‘I love hats,’ she told me. ‘Everyone wore hats in the 1930s. They give the whole production a period feel.’
Everyone on the unit – certainly all the children in the cast, adored Susannah Buxton. She was only about thirty-three and had not been a costume designer long. A tall red-head, she admitted to often struggling to her feet on set when the Lighting-Camera man called for a certain light.
I’ve just read a review on Amazon.co.uk about ‘Coot Club’, which said, ‘Wonderful attention to period detail. Even the film’s colours are right for the period.’ They certainly were. Susannah managed to source a huge number of original hand-knitted garments.
While she was dressing the children, deciding what they should wear at the beginning of a new day in the story, Susannah explained that she was keen that they didn’t look too chocolate-boxy. The girls playing Dorothea and the Farland twins were all so pretty it would have been easy to go over the top. She carefully combined elements of school uniform with 1930’s clothes that children would have worn in their summer holidays. I can’t remember any member of the cast being uncomfortable – either two cold or two hot, even though we spent three months filming on the Norfolk Broads.
‘How did you become a designer?’ I asked her.
She explained that she loved clothes and it was what she always wanted to do. She’d been working freelance as an assistant in Bristol, thinking she wouldn’t get to design on a television production for years, when the phone rang. ‘I was asked if I could take on the role of costume designer, so I took a deep breath and said, “Yes.”‘ Here I have to explain that many members of the crew had come up from BBC Bristol, which then had a regional crews available to work on period dramas. Our Producer was very pleased about this. He used a crew from BBC Bristol again when we made ‘My Family and Other Animals’ on Corfu a few years later. Susannah had a wonderful assistant called Helena and at least three dressers, including Paul Higton and Lesley Bowling, who were not only meticulous but great fun.
The size of the costume department reflected the difference between the 1974 feature film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, which was shot in the Lake District with a small cast and very few crowd scenes – when the one Wardrobe Master was helped only by my mother – and our BBC TV adaptations of Arthur Ransome’s books set in Norfolk. ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ had much bigger casts, with many more roles for adults and supporting artistes.
I was looking after the eight children in the lead parts and another six or seven boys in supporting roles, not to mention children who appeared as extras in the village scenes. It was Paul and Lesley’s humour that oiled the wheels that kept us running smoothly. ‘The Big Six’ had to be taken through costume and make-up almost every day for three months and these were costumes that had to stay clean all day. The children were obliged to wear life-jackets when they were near water, right up until the time when the director went for a take. Obviously, these had to go straight back on after each camera set-up. I can still see Paul Higton with an armful of colourful life-jackets he was handing back to five boys at a time. He went on to become the costume designer on forty-eight episodes of Dangerfield and more than 825 episodes of the TV series Doctors.
Susannah Buxton went on to have the most dazzling career. I last saw her when she was striding along the South Bank in London one evening. I didn’t know that she had worked on so many movies. These have included, Millions, 2004, directed by Danny Boyle, ‘As you like it’, directed by Kenneth Branagh and ‘Death defying Acts’, which starred Catherine Zeta-Jones. She won a BAFTA award for ‘Mr Wroe’s Virgins’, directed by Danny Boyle, an RTS award for ‘Shooting the Past’, which was directed by Stephen Poliakoff, and a number of awards for ‘Downton Abbey’, including an Emmy for Outstanding Costume Design. I’m not sure she imagined all this would be in store for her when she was busy loading costumes into a boat on Horning Staithe back in 1983.
Arthur Ransome’s description of Wildcat Island is based on two real islands. The landing place and open grassy camp site illustrated in the books can be found at Blake Holme on Windermere but when Richard Pilbrow went there in 1972 he was so disappointed by the sight of caravans, and the fact it was so near the shore, that he decided to make the film almost entirely on Peel Island where you find Ransome’s Secret Harbour. We never went to Blake Holme.
It was Peel Island on Coniston Water where the real Swallows, the Altounyan children, camped. Roger Altounyan told Bill Frankland that he secretly spent the first three nights of his honeymoon camping there. It must have been magical. We loved going there – it was hugely exciting, even in the rain. There is something about the steep sides, which makes it like a fortress, the ancient Viking settlement WD Collingwood believed it to be.
Had I been producing Swallows and Amazons I would have used Peel island for the unique Secret Harbour but used the peninsular nearby on the mainland for the landing place, if at all possible. There is a nice open beach there and one wouldn’t have had to lug all the heavy paraphernalia of filming over the water – you can imagine time and effort involved in taking a 35mm Panavision camera across with its mountings and track. I don’t know how they powered the arc lamps we needed to light the campsite, which was quite dark beneath the trees. They must have run the cables under water. We loved crossing over there but getting us back for lessons and lunch wasn’t easy. There was no loo.
But – the wonderful thing is that now, when children reach the island, nearly all the places from the film are there. The Landing Place has nearly washed away. We never knew it at the time but one great secret is that it was created for the film. They must have dumped a huge amount of shingle there. The other secret is that there weren’t actually enough trees for the Swallows to erect the tents their mother had made for them. Two had to be added by the construction team. Arthur Ransome’s tents are not as easy to put up as you’d imagine. It is difficult for children to get the rope taut enough between the trees to take the weight of the canvas. You need to use wagon knots or twist it with a stick. If you tie the rope too high the tents ruck up. The reality was that Suzanna had Bobby-the-prop-man to help her.
One thing that is not a secret, but can take you unawares, is that there never seems to be any firewood on Wildcat Island. It is the reason why the Swallows went to the mainland in the book. Roger really did struggle to find sticks to pick up on that wet day in May. Mine were carefully set out for me to find by the Designer. Poor Roger did fall over and he did get quite badly scratched by thorns. Claude gave him a bit of ‘Danger Money’ for being brave about it and not complaining.
I’m not sure if Sten had ever received Danger Money when he played Laurie Lee in Cider with Rosie, which Claude had made two years before. We watched it that night when it was broadcast on television. It must have been shown quite late as it was was labelled as avant garde. We had to stay up as of course VHS machines hd not been heard of.
Rosemary Leach played Laurie’s long-suffering mother, Mrs Lee, quite beautifully. She was later to take the role of Mrs Barrable, the Admiral, in the BBC series Coot Club. Mike Pratt, who played Mr Dixon in Swallows and Amazonswas Uncle Ray, and Young Billy – John Franklin-Robbins was The Stranger. Claude cast me as a little girl from Slad called Eileen Brown, who Laurie Lee always said was the first person he ever fell in love with. He was a friend of Mum’s and was around during the filming, since he still had a cottage in Slad. I’d been to a village school in the Cotswolds myself and enjoyed being in the classroom scenes, despite have to wear a drab and rather itchy green dress.
I was too shy to put myself forward when Claude asked if anyone knew the chants to playgound skipping games, but I did work hard to prepare for my big scene. I had to play quite a difficult piece on the piano, accompanying the ten-year-old Laurie Lee as he sawed away on his violin at the village concert, while his motherlooked on with tears in her eyes. I was only given the music three days before the filming and had to practice eight hours a day, for those three days, before I got it right. We plodded through Oh, Danny Boy but were so relieved to get it right that our smiles were real enough. At one point Claude took a deep breath and said, ‘Do you think you could play a little faster?’ I looked at him and replied, ‘They’re crochets. They don’t go any faster.’ He claimed that he didn’t know what a crotchet was.
Wilfred Josephs, who was familiar with crochets, wrote the most beautiful music for Cider with Rosie. You can listen to some of it on You Tube ~