Tag Archives: TV drama serial

Adaptations of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ discussed in the Independent on Sunday by Jonathan Brown

Author Arthur Ransome loathed BBC’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’, his diaries reveal

A new adaptation of the classic is coming, but its author called the 1960s version ‘a ghastly mess’

Sunday 16 February 2014

When the BBC announced plans to recreate the classic outdoor children’s sailing adventure Swallows and Amazons it was hailed as a blockbusting antidote to the health and safety culture of the mollycoddled video-game generation. Filming of the new version of the 1930s Lake District adventure is due to begin later this summer with big stars including Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens already linked to the project.

However, previously unread diaries of its creator, Arthur Ransome, reveal that the author considered the corporation’s last attempt to bring his much-loved story to life to be a “ghastly mess” marred by “dreadful ham” acting. The diaries reveal how Ransome clashed repeatedly with BBC executives in the early 1960s when the BBC commissioned a six-part dramatisation for television, starring Susan George, then aged 12, as Kitty (changed from the original Titty) Walker.

Ransome, then in declining health, was living in virtual retirement in his remote Cumbrian cottage Hill Top overlooking the spectacular Rusland valley with his wife Evgenia – the former secretary to Leon Trotsky, whom he met while working as a foreign correspondent and spying for Britain in revolutionary Russia. It was a spartan existence, often with no electricity or running water.

In a series of brusque entries at odds with his generally affable demeanour, he describes how he repeatedly fought with BBC executives over attempts to introduce two new characters – Ernie and Sam – to the story. Both he and his wife attempted to rewrite the script after concluding that one episode was “bad beyond belief”.

At his home Hill Top with his wife, Evgenia

At his home Hill Top with his wife, Evgenia

“I have agreed to Genia’s proposal that we shall wash our hands of the film leaving it to Mr Walls [of the BBC] to play the farceur as much as he likes. They may be right in thinking that vulgar ham acting is what the T.V. gapers want,” he wrote in July 1962.

Ransome was particularly unimpressed with the performance of popular British actor John Paul as Captain Flint – the character linked this time to Dan Stevens, and said to be based on Ransome himself – describing it as “dreadful HAM”.

On attending a screening at the Hammer Theatre in Wardour Street, central London in October 1962, he concluded: “Saw the ghastly mess they have made of poor old Swallows and Amazons … MacCullogh [his friend Derek MacCullogh, former head of children’s broadcasting at the BBC who was also known as the presenter Uncle Mac] did not come possibly to avoid trouble with his employers.” It was eventually broadcast the following year.

Stephen Sykes now owns Hill Top and has restored the Ransomes’ former home. He is also helping transcribe the author’s sparsely detailed diaries from his years at Hill Top, which are kept at Leeds University’s Brotherton Library. Sykes said the writer received £3,500 for agreeing to the BBC broadcast – a considerable amount of money. “He was clearly making a very good living out of the rights to Swallows and Amazons. This was his baby and he had obviously pored over it. It is a very leanly written story and it was pretty clear it was written by a journalist because of its clarity, because there is nothing extraneous,” he said.

“He is extremely protective of his own work. He felt he didn’t want a word changing, and that he had honed the story down and it was what it was,” he added.

Susan George, who played Kitty

Susan George, who played Kitty

Swallows and Amazons was first published in 1930. It recounts the adventures of the children from two families who while away an idyllic summer getting into scrapes sailing their dinghies across Coniston Water and Lake Windermere. As well as the television series, many theatrical and musical adaptations have been staged, and the story was made into a film in 1974 staring Ronald Fraser and Sophie Neville.

When the latest project was announced in 2011, head of BBC Films Christine Langan said it would seek to encapsulate a forgotten era of childhood adventure “from the pre-health and safety generation”.

Producer Nick Barton of Harbour Pictures, which is collaborating on the film with the BBC, the Arthur Ransome Society and the author’s literary estate, said it had not been decided yet whether the children would be shown sailing without their life jackets.

But he said viewers could expect to experience the full majesty of the book’s setting. “The lakes and the mountains are very big and we are keen to recreate that grandeur of the scenery in the film,” he said. A spokeswoman for BBC Films said: “The film is still in development.”

To see a copy of the original article online, please click here

To contact Stephen Sykes at Hill Top, the Ransome’s last home, please click here

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Filed under Acting, Arthur Ransome, Biography, Cinema, Cumbria, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Movie, Movie stories, News, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized

What viewers thought of the BBC serial ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’

Coot Club - The Teasel sailed by a double

William the Hero – who later appeared as Little Willie in ‘Eastenders’

The BBC drama series Swallows and Amazons Forever! was first broadcast at a very odd time. Instead of being mainstream BBC One  Saturday night viewing in the run up to Christmas as we expected, it was moored in a by-water,  shown on BBC Two at 6.30pm on Tuesday evenings. Very few people saw it. This was odd, especially since it was a big budget production with a strong cast.  Perhaps it was because Colin Baker who played Dr Dudgeon had just been cast as Doctor Who.

Coot Club - The Bike Shop

Jake Coppard as Pete, Mark Page as Bill and Henry Dimbleby as Tom Dudgeon outside Itteringham Shop ~ click on the photo to see what it looks like today

However, when the series was released on video it was treasured by many:

‘This video is a delight!’ wrote Dr Duncan Hall from North Yorkshire. ‘…the animated credit sequence and the music are both a delight and you won’t get tired of them! The stories themselves are amongst the best ever written for young people and they are brought to life with relish by the director and excellent cast. The locations are all spot-on; anybody who has ever had a magical holiday on the broads will love this video for that alone! And the wildlife photography is fantastic as well. A last point: it is true there are no Swallows and Amazons in the programme – but the two books were part of Ransome’s famous ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series of books, so the title does not seem TOO inappropriate to me.  Buy it!!! 

Weighing the fish

Jake Coppard, Mark Page and Nicholas Walpole as the Death and Glory boys with Sam Kelly of the Catchalot, weighing the fish in ‘the Big Six’

The drama serial was soon released on DVD ~ which was hugely appreciated:

This is a beautiful adaptation of Ransome’s ‘Coot Club’ & ‘The Big Six’. The child actors/actresses are excellent. There is almost an historical element as the DVD charts childhood without mobile phones and electronic games. Simply gentle and innocent yet a good degree of drama. 5 out of 5 stars Excellent

Coot Club - Henry and Sarah

Mike Souter said, ‘ So pleased I bought this. I interviewed Henry Dimbleby on location in the 1980’s and seeing the episodes again brought back many happy memories. Charming series.’  Some viewers wrote to say they thought the twins playing Port and Starboard should have been aged eleven. They, in fact, were (both) eleven-years-old.

Coot Club - PC Tedder's garden

The Death and Glory boys weeding PC Tedder’s garden with Colin March, the sound recordist, setting up the microphones.

‘If you like nature, sailing, kids and bad plots this fits the bill. I have sailed on the Norfolk Broads and this series captures the atmosphere perfectly. The sailing is technically accurate too. I’m old enough to remember England in earlier times. Once again the atmosphere has been captured nicely. The unusual Norfolk regional accent is evident and sometimes realistic. This is a classic and fully in the spirit of the Swallows and Amazons books.’ 5 out of 5 stars -Wonderful ~ C Bauers, Suffolk

‘We really enjoyed this adventure it has inspired my kids to do a sailing course!!’ ~ David Francis, France

‘Watched the series as a child and have loved it my whole life. A family favourite, simply charming! Very indulging to sit back with a cup of tea and lose myself in the antics of some wonderful characters. I love it.’

‘Highly recommended entertainment for the whole family. Good old fashioned fun that children use to have before computer games were invented.’ J.Kennedy ~ Sydney,  Australia

Lullaby

The Broads cruiser Lullaby in her starring role as the Teasel

‘Just spent a week on a Broads cruiser with three granddaughters and played the DVD on the third night. It was quite magical that we had cruised to all the places mentioned in the films, and the girls were able to identify the filming locations, including the swing railway bridge at Reedham. We tried very hard not to have the radio too loud the next day for fear of becoming Hullaballoos, and kept well clear of coots nests. As with all films, these do not copy the books word for word, but I think Arthur Ransome would have been pleased with the result. Pity the TV companies don’t produce more films from the other books in the Swallows and Amazons series.’

291-8

We were hoping to keep going and adapt all the Arthur Ransome books. While I started casting children for Swallowdale and Picts and Martyrs, our Producer Joe Waters went up to Cumbria on a recce to find the main locations and to estimate a budget the next series. He returned looking crest-fallen. Filming on National Trust property in the Lake Distinct, when he was quoted fees of £1,000 a day – back then, even for open moorland –  was simply going to be too expensive.  Plans to adapt the Arthur Ransome books were put on hold. Indefinitely.

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Filed under 1983, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Cumbria, Film Cast, Film History, Lake District, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, Uncategorized

The Costumes for the BBC serialisation of Arthur Ransome’s books ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Bix Six’

Sophie Neville in 1983, during the filming of 'Swallows and Amazons Forever!'

Sophie Neville in 1983, during the filming of ‘Coot Club’

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.’

Coot Club Susannah BNuxton and Henry Dimbelby

Susannah Buxton and Henry Dimbleby on location in Norfolk in 1983

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.

Rosemary Leach as Mrs Barrable in a hat suitable for an Admiral

Rosemary Leach as Mrs Barrable in a hat suitable for an Admiral

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.

Nicholas Walpole as Joe with Sam Kelly in 'The Big Six' ~ photo Sophie Neville

Nicholas Walpole as Joe with Sam Kelly in ‘The Big Six’

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.

Coot Club - Lesley Bowling

Lesley Bowling on location in 1983. The hand belongs to Paul Higton.

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.

Coot Club - the hay wagon

A hot day in Norfolk on the set of ‘Coot Club’

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.

Jake Coppard receiving a soaking from Paul Higton while Nicholas Walpole and Make Page escape getting wet.

Jake Coppard receiving a soaking from Paul Higton while Nicholas Walpole and Mark Page escape getting wet.

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.

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