If you have ever wondered what Nancy Blackett is doing now – here she is. Built by Hillyards of Littlehampton in 1931 she was bought by Arthur Ransome with royalties from Swallows and Amazons and became both the inspiration and model for his book about the Swallows’ unplanned voyage to Holland ~ We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea, in which she was known as the Goblin. She also appears in Secret Water.
I was at the Royal Harwich Yacht Club to give a talk on making the BBC adaptations of two other Arthur Ransome books set in East Anglia, Coot Club and The Big Six.
I thought that people would rather be out in the sunshine or watching the Wimbledon finals but it was well attended.
After watching a clip of Ginger and Rosa, the BFI/BBC feature film directed by Sally Potter that Nancy Blackett starred in last year, we wandered down to the jetty in front of the new club house, and grabbed a chance to go out on the Orwell.
Soon sails were being hoisted and we were underway, sailing down river in the evening light.
Conditions were perfect for Nancy, a 28 foot Bermurdan cutter.
I took the helm, whilst the others did the hard work.
We were soon sailing past Pin Mill, which also features in the book.
Some members of the crew were experienced sailors,
others had previously managed to avoid spending much time on the water, but we all had a wonderful experience and were sad when the sails were stowed for the night.
We saw a couple of Thames barges also coming in, as Nancy settled down after a successful day.
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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.
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I recently found a family photograph album with pages illustrating holidays spent under sail in the 1930’s.
Not all the black and white photographs are as horizontal or as sharply in focus as one might wish but they show the glorious boats available for hire
and reflect what fun was had out on the water.
We were rather shocked by the cigarettes held in the mouths of the young men but Joan is ninety-nine now and still agile.
Having sailed on the Broads with friends, my father hired a Hullabaloo boat to take us out when we were little.
We went out of season, when boat hire was cheaper. As there was no one on the water my father let me take the helm mile after mile, despite the fact that I was only about seven years old.
We loved living aboard and were often surrounded by wild geese.
It seems Arthur Ransome, who had fished on the Broads with Titty’s father, Ernest Altounyan, in 1923, also enjoyed cruising in the spring. His biographer, Roger Wardale, said that ‘Both the Ransomes liked to visit the Broads just after Easter, before most of the motor cruisers had started the season and it was the best time of year for birdlife.’ He went on to describe how Arthur Ransome kept a log of his three weeks spent in a Fairway yacht, the essence of which he used to write Coot Club in 1933/34. ‘As well as visiting Roy’s of Wroxham, tying up at Horning Hall Farm and watching the racing boats go by, towing through bridges, mooring beside a Thames barge at Beccles and watching a fisherman catching eels with a bab, there are numerous details that combine to make Coot Club a valuable account of the social and natural history of the Broads as they were more than 70 years ago.’
Roger Wardale illustrated his book Arthur Ransome Master Stroyteller , using wonderful photographs and sketches by Arthur Ransome, including a very jolly one of the Hullabaloos that had not been published before. Do get hold of a copy of the book, to read the chapter on Coot Club for yourself.