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.
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.
Claude had a cottage near Sten 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 including Percy Baxter, Ruth Shields, my younger sisters, Perry and Tamzin, and my father, Martin Neville. I can’t remember Sten being on the set but I have a photograph of our erst-while chaperone Jane Grendon in period costume.
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.
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.
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.
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.