Messing About in Boats

You might expect that television producers would be keen to discourage children from hanging out near the water, what with the inherent danger of drowning and so on; but nevertheless, British TV has a long tradition of children’s adventure and drama series set aboard boats, either at sea or on the rivers and canals of the country. Let’s not forget, Britain is essentially a maritime nation and the concept of adventure on the high seas is embedded in every bit of its literary tradition, including books aimed at children; from Robert Louis Stevenson to Enid Blyton, there’s always been a heady mixture of children and boats and that has carried on from the very earliest days of children’s telly. Unsupervised, unchaperoned, several generations of kids took to the water in a variety of vessels for the entertainment of kids at home, for whom their closest contact with water was often a mucky inner-city canal or a fishy quayside.

One of the first children’s boat-operas on television was the BBC’s 1963 adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s classic children’s novel Swallows and Amazons about two groups of children, the Walkers and the Blacketts, and their adventures on the large expanses of water that comprise the English Lake District. Starring a young Susan George as one of the children, this 6-part serial featured an uncommon amount of location filming at a time when studio-bound drama was the norm for children’s TV. The location footage was filmed at Coniston Water in the Lake District, not far from the home of the book’s author, who was by all accounts less than impressed with the finished product. Although it was popular at the time, this monochrome production was in subsequent years somewhat eclipsed by the 1974 film version.

In 1968, Granada Television tried out their new colour television equipment by making The Flower of Gloster [sic], a 13-part serial about a group of kids on a canal boat, liberally adapted from a 1911 novel by E. Temple Thurston. Like Thames TV’s more urban non-boat-related serial The Tyrant King made the same year, The Flower of Gloster was part adventure story, part travelogue, with the rambling narrative taking in many a historical place of interest along its route. Although the adults and teens were played by actors, the younger children were poached from local schools and were essentially playing themselves, even going so far as to use their own names. Although the series was filmed in colour, Britain did not have a colour broadcasting service until 1970, so the series was broadcast in black and white. The producer Bill Grundy went on to be a presenter and  is more famous these days for basically throwing away his TV career on live television when interviewing the Sex Pistols in 1977 and the writer of The Flower of Gloster was Chris McMaster, who went on to be involved in the creation of Freewheelers.

The Southern Television series Freewheelers ran for 8 series between 1968 and 1973, but has been decimated by the passage of time; only murky copies of the first and last series and broadcast quality prints of series 6 and 7 are still in existence. From what remains however, it’s clear to see that the sea water coursed through its veins. Southern was an ITV network that served the South East coast of Britain, so they used the resources that were open to them and in what remains of Freewheelers you can see submarines, sailing ships, yachts and powerboats. An attempt to make a kids’ series in the style of popular ITC adventure shows such as The Saint, Freewheelers was heavy on action but low on plot. The 6th and 7th series feel more like they were being made up as they went along than anything I’ve seen before or since; there’s a definite feeling that they looked at the resources they had available – a sailing ship, a lighthouse etc – and just wrote a script around that. Entertaining certainly, but perhaps just a little too freewheeling.

Bristolian writing duo Bob Baker and Dave Martin wrote a number of children’s serials for HTV in the 1970s. Follow Me… was a 1977 adventure story filmed almost entirely on location in the Bristol Docks, starring Ronald Fraser as the sea-faring estranged father of a city boy who comes down to visit him and becomes involved with a young girl who is one the run from some shady characters because she knows the secret to their gun-running operation. The docks are a fantastic location for the story and – typically of the 70s – look dirty and run-down, full of monolithic rusting cranes and damp abandoned warehouses. Later in the story, there’s an ambitious showdown with the gun-runners in the Arctic Circle, which sounds like it would be hard to achieve on a children’s TV budget, but actually turns out really effectively. And in case you were in any doubt we’re in the 70s, each episode is topped and tailed with a groovy them song by ‘First Reaction’… you can just picture the silk shirts and ‘taches, can’t you?

The following year, the producer of Follow Me…, Patrick Dromgoole produced another maritime drama for HTV – The Doombolt Chase was probably one of the most ambitious children’s series to date; made with the collaboration of the Royal Navy, it featured battleships, submarines and all manner of military paraphernalia! The 6-part serial follows the adventures of young Richard Wheeler and his friends Lucy and Pete; Richard’s father, a Commander in the Royal Navy, faces court martial for deliberately ramming an unmanned fishing vessel and he is desperate to clear his name. In doing so, he uncovers more and more about ‘Doombolt’, the Navy’s top secret guided missile system. The Doombolt Chase is beautifully shot on film and directed with breathless panache by Hammer veterans Robert Fuest and Peter Graham Scott, the latter of whom later co-created Into the Labyrinth for HTV.

In the late 80s, the BBC were really putting money into children’s television and turning out some seriously prestigious work. Novelist Leon Garfield wrote The December Rose in 1986 as his first script for television and then novelised it afterward. The story, set around the docks of Victorian London, tells of young orphaned chimney sweep Barnacle, who comes into possession of (i.e. steals) a locket that, unbeknownst to him, presents a threat to national security. The boat connection comes when Barnacle is taken under the wing of the captain of a commercial barge. It’s a gorgeous production, as handsome looking as any BBC period drama for grown-ups with some superb acting from Tony Haygarth, Ian Hogg and Courtney Roper-Knight as Barnacle. The December Rose was shown around the 5 o’clock mark on Children’s BBC, but somehow still managed to get away with having the phrase ‘horse shit’ in one of its episodes!

In the ‘nanny state’ 21st century, the fear that our kids would go off and drown themselves if we allowed them to go outside and get some fresh air has pretty much put a stop to the maritime kids’ serial, which is a shame because we really did have a strong tradition of this kind of thing here in Britain. What I’ve mentioned here are just a few memorable examples of a very long list of children’s series with maritime connections – and we didn’t even get started on Tales from the Riverbank or Rosie and Jim! Still, we can always look back at the serials of yesteryear and remember a time when kids were free to have adventures on their own that weren’t restricted to a computer screen… even if they did sometimes involve smugglers, spies and secret weapons!

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