Tag Archives: Thinkabout Science

A steam roller in Horning for the 1983 BBC drama serial of ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’

 
Mary Soan, Susannah Buxton, Sam Kelly and Penny Fergusson in 1983
 
Assistant director Mary Soan, Costume designer Susannah Buxton, Actor Sam Kelly and Make-up artist Penny Fergusson when filming on location in Norfolk in 1983
 
“I had a telephone call one day from a man working for the B.B.C. he said he had heard I had a steam roller, if so could I take it to Horning to appear in  a film they were about to shoot in the broads area.”

I have just been sent this extract, copied word-for-word from Jimmy Nicholson’s autobiography I kept a Troshin’ originally published in 1989 (by S.J. Nicholson).

“The title was ‘Swallows and Amazons’ which was shown on B.B.C.2.  So on the appointed day I loaded the roll onto our low loader and Geoffrey, our lorry driver, took it to Horning.  I unloaded it near the Swan Hotel about eight thirty, some of the people were already there, the people in charge rolled up about nine.  Then a coach load came, there was also a coach full of costumes. The young lady who was helping to organise things said I had better change some of my things into old time dress, as the film was supposed to have been in older times.  So I went in the bus where all these costumes hung. The young lady in there said I had better change my shirt and boots and wear another hat, an old fashioned cap. So I pulled my shirt off she handed me one of these old ones. I said, ‘What about my trousers, do you want me to take them off!’
She laughed and said, ‘No I think yours will do.’
I thought what a shame.
Another young lady said she thought I should have my hair cut. So I sat on a chair on the Swan car park and had a hair do. The next thing they were queueing up for breakfast from a mobile canteen. The lady in charge said, ‘Come on Jimmy.’ she had learned my name by now. I said, ‘I’ve had mine.’
She said, ‘Never mind have another one. ‘Which I did and had a full English breakfast.
By the time they wanted me to start operating it was time to stop for coffee and other drinks. When I did start I had to drive the roll up the road passed the cameras. I did this about a dozen times, I had to time this with some children running down a side road to see me go passed. By now it was lunch time so I joined the queue again and had another cooked meal.
After having a pint in the Swan the lady in charge said, ‘I think we’ve finished with you now.’
I thought what a shame,  I could put up with this for a week.”

Jimmy was obviously very much taken by all the girls working for BBC television on the drama serial of Arthur Ransome’s books ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’. When we made the EMI movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 the only female member of the actual film crew had been the ‘Continuity Girl’ or script supervisor. In ten years things had changed. Joe Waters, our producer, aimed at having a 50/50 ratio of men and women on his production team and crew. This was a good policy and created an atmosphere that was so full of fun the children thrived.

The young lady ‘who was helping to organise things’ would have been our incredibly efficient AFM, or Assistant Floor Manager, Mary Soan. She would have been known as a ‘Second Assistant Director’ on a feature film. I should explain that in BBC Drama, stage management roles had evolved from equivalent in the theatre, so her job also involved being responsible for the ‘action props’ and action vehicles – in this case a 1930’s steam roller. I am sure Jimmy would have been quite taken by Mary – she was very pretty, with thick blonde hair, an ever radiant smile on her face, a Motorola on her hip. Whilst I went on to direct television programmes for the BBC in the late ’80s, Mary became a Production Manager. It wasn’t long before she went  freelance as a First Assistant Director and started working on the most incredible movies ~ Pearl Harbor (2001), Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), The Chronicles of Narnia (2005), Stardust (2007) and Skin (2008) as well as TV mini-series such as Place of Execution(2008).

Coot Club - Helena

Helena on the Norfolk Boards in 1983

‘The young lady’ in the costume bus, who was happy for Jimmy to keep his own trousers on, must have been Helena,  the assistant costume designer, while the young lady who thought he should have a 1930’s short-back and sides, would have been our ever laughing Make-up Assistant Penny Fergusson.

Assistant Make-up Designer Penny Fergusson with John Woodvine who played PC Tedder in 'Coot Club', 1983

Assistant Make-up Designer Penny Fergusson with John Woodvine who played PC Tedder in ‘Coot Club’, 1983

Penny Fergusson originally trained at the Royal Ballet School. What would Jimmy have said had he known he was having his hair cut by a girl who had performed at the Royal Opera House and the Venice Film Festival before dancing her way across Europe with Pan’s People?

‘The lady in charge’, who gave Jimmy permission to go was probably Liz Mace, our senior Production Manager. Sadly I don’t have a photograph of her, but she was certainly in charge of our film schedule, logistics and locations as well as Health and Safety on set.  You will have seen her name on the end-credits of BBC drama serials such as The Ondein Line, When the Boat Comes In, Secret Army, on Doctor Who, the Police series  Juliet Bravo and All Creatures Great and Small. She worked with me in Ealing on a series of Thinkabout Science before returning to work at Elstree Studios making numerous episodes of the soap opera Eastenders.

Jimmy concluded his tale by adding:

“When the film was shown on television you could just see the roll go passed and that was it, but I did enjoy myself and I enjoyed it even more when I received a cheque for the job.”
Coot Club - the cycle shop

Mark Page, Jake Coppard, Richard Walton & Henry Dimbleby filming at Itteringham Village Shop in Norfolk in 1983. Click on the photo to see the location today.

 Where was this bike shop location?  Was it in Horning? I remember it being a set, rather than a real shop but the boys were deeply interested in the window display.

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Filed under 1983, Arthur Ransome, Biography, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, truelife story

‘But we never touched his horrible houseboat…’ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island 30th May 1973

Peel Island on Coniston Water in the English Lake District whilst we were filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the summer of 1973 ~ photo: Martin Neville

An extract from the journal I kept aged twelve:

Stephen Grendon, Suzannah Hamilton and Sophie Neville on the cover of the LP of the film ‘Swallows and Amazons’

I must have lost my pen on this wet day in May 1973, for the diary on the making of the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ is written in pencil. I don’t know if Claude Whatham, the Director, ever remembered me writing but when the film ended he kindly sent me an engraved  Parker pen and propelling pencil. I loved the pen and wrote all my essays at university with it. Sadly I lost it just before my Finals but I still have the pencil. Somewhere. Although we had a late start it was a good day, a day when Claude encouraged us to improvise. The dialogue in the little scene when we were gutting fish is our own. I’ve always thought improvisation can be magical. When I started to direct at the BBC we were very conscious of the cost of film stock – the footage – so were reticient about taking chances, but I made a drama on school bullies that turned out to be very powerful, purely because I let the children improvise. The only problem was that it came across as almost too frighteningly real. I found that although short scenes always worked well, I had to write the story as a whole as I went along, which was a bit daunting. When I went on a BBC Studio Director’s Course I tried improvising a scene where a couple go camping in true Mike Leigh style. I asked the actors to erect a tent in the studio, and left them at it while I spoke to the Cameramen from the galley, as normal, via inter-com with the Vision-Mixer at my side. She also improvised.  The scene was to end with the couple going inside the tent, which then collapses on top of them. I used a dome tent of my own and I showed them just how easy it was for them to collapse it. It was quite fun, and worked surprisingly well. Up to a point. The problem was that I was working with actors and the actors, being actors, enjoyed themselves so much they didn’t want the scene to end. It nearly didn’t end at all. And I ended up with the longest studio show reel of all time. Suzanna Hamilton was very good at gutting fish. She is not a remotely squeamish person, in fact she loves snakes and other reptiles. A stoic, who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster, she is probably the most gutsy film actress there is. No fuss or over long scenes for her. I was more interested in examining the the high dorsal fin of the perch and could have spent all morning standing on the rock. I seem wired to illustrate stories. I am sure Arthur Ransome used a line drawing of one of the perch he caught. Is it in Swallows and Amazons?

Claude Whatham, the Director of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, on the shore of Coniston Water ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Claude did not shoot many ‘takes’. His aim was to get fresh performances. By this time he had started to film the rehearsal, and then one ‘take’ as a back-up, to give the Film Editor an option. Then he would change the camera angle. It is probably a good policy when filming with children – as charm is difficult to replicate. When I started to direct on Beta-cam I attempted to shoot quite long scenes on one shot by using ‘jib-arms’, small cranes or camera track to move the camera. This was all the rage in the late 1980s. I remember using one long shot for the opening scene of a comedy drama called Thinkabout Science that starred Patsy Bryne ~ she who had become known to the nation as Nursie in the BBC sitcom Blackadder . Patsy played a grandmother collecting two sisters and their friends from school. The children poured out of the front door, down some steps, met their granny and chatted to her as they skipped along the pavement. I had about 120 metres of camera track laid down the street, far more than any scene on Swallows and Amazons. We had a  rehearsal and shot the three minute scene. It worked perfectly. It was fresh and funny and active. I was all set to move the whole crew to the next location when my producer descended from the Scanner, the truck where she was watching on three monitors, to tell me that one of the Extras had waved at the camera. I should have recorded the rehearsal. It took us twelve more takes to get the scene right after that. Luckily Beta tape costs were negligible – certainly in comparison with the 35mm Technicolor stock that Claude was using. Richard Pilbrow must have been pleased to hear that we gained a reputation as ‘One take Wonders’ on Swallows. When it came to the scene when we returned to the camp to find the abrupt note from Captain Flint, Claude took me to one side and suggested I added a line of dialogue at the end when it came to the take, without letting the others know. He told me to say, ‘And he used my crayons too.’  I wish he had edited it out. I didn’t deliver the line well. I think Suzanna would have said it perfectly but the secret made me too self conscious.

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Stephen Grendon and Sophie Neville in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ filmed on location in the English Lake District in 1973

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Dinghy sailing, e-publication, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story