A British film starring Talulah Riley, Martin Compston, and Joe Thomas of In Betweeners fame, has come out on DVD. It also features our tame otters. I travelled up to Dunoon in Scotland to help with the scenes that, in the story, entail an injured otter brought into a wildlife conservation centre set in a beautiful location outside Glasgow.
Belinda the Otter with Sophie and Daphne Neville
The romcom is written and directed by Talulah Riley who was keen to use our very energetic young male otter Rudi in a scene where the otter is released back into the wild. To achieve this on film, without losing him altogether, was quite a feat but he enjoyed himself and the result looks endearing.
When one of the producers asked if I had worked on any other films featuring animals, I had to admit there have been quite a few. We once had a baboon in the studio and I became quite used to filming with trained elephants. I worked with a whole variety of exotic animals on the vet series ‘One by One’ from a pelican to a full grown leopard. In the mid 1980’s I was lucky enough to spend four months on Corfu making the first BBC adaptation of Gerald Durrell’s autobiography ‘My Family and Other Animals’ with Brian Blessed and a huge number of tortoises. As it happens, Rudi appeared in the second series of The Durrells, playing both the male and female otters.
Actors are warned: ‘Never work with children or animals’. This was originally coined because they can come across so well that an actor’s performance won’t be noticed.
Sophie spent years at the BBC specialising in drama productions that featured children and animals. She directed her first documentary in Kenya at the age of 25. By the age of 27 she was directing improvised dramas in a tough London Comprehensive school. After spending 13 weeks on the Ealing film stages as Director of FX sequences and animation on a 10-part drama she was asked to produce a series working with 4 to 6 year-olds. By the age of thirty she was directing a serial that featured an 8-year-old girl in almost every scene. ‘I cast identical twins to play the part, used two cameras operated by sports cameramen and finished by 4.30pm each day.’
‘I’d acted in feature films as a child and knew what would work. And what could cause havoc. You need to check children’s teeth well before filming. They tend to lose them just when it is most likely to wreck your continuity. The BBC never used casting directors, so I’d look for kids myself finding a large cast of children able to sail for two Arthur Ransome book adaptations and the right boy to play Gerald Durrell in My family and Other Animals.’
‘I’d grown up with animals and love working with them. My family keep tame otters and filming wildlife sequences – handling creatures from adders to elephants – has always been part of my life. Making the zoo vet drama series with grat apes and big cats was fascinating . The best ting about working on Eastenders was that I was re-united with Little Willie, the pug dog that we had bought to play William, the hero of Coot Club.’
In 1992 Sophie emigrated to southern Africa where she worked freelance for the BBC setting up wildlife films and documentaries in Botswana,Namibia and throughout South Africa. ‘One highlight was setting up the Blue Petervisit to South Africa when Diane Jordan interviewed Archbishop Tutu.’
Breaking her pelvis in a riding accident Sophie was immobilized for a while but took up painting and established herself as a wildlife artist.
After meeting her husband at an archery match Sophie settled down to concentrate on writing, looking for true stories that could be adapted for the screen. She has published Funnily Enoughabout her life in Gloucestershire and Ride the Wings of Morningset in Southern Africa. She is currently writing a pair of historical novels. Her filmography, The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ is published by the Lutterworth Press and available here.