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It's eight bells aboard the Charlotte Rhodes


Peter Gilmore (James Onedin) and Anne Stallybrass (his screen wife Anne) prepare for
an
Onedin Line scene in Bayards Cove, Dartmouth. "We are surprised by the number of
seamen who watch the series," says Miss Stallybrass. "It seems they really enjoy it."

James Onedin goes back to sea in a hired clipper in the new series of The Onedin Line, starting this week. Tim Heald went to Dartmouth to meet the stars and local residents who make up the cast ....

THE STORIES in The Onedin Line, despite an essential rugged saltiness, are full of strong and emotional human interest.

There is the basic of young, tough, go-getting James Onedin trying to establish his own shipping line in the second half of the 19th-century. Producer Peter Graham Scott says it's a natural for us, like cowboys and Indians for the Americans. The British love boats and messing about in them, and they like costume drama. Combine the two and you have a winner.

SUNDAY. Down on the quayside at Dartmouth it's 8.0 am (or eight bells of the morning watch) and we are joined by members of the production unit, all suitably attired in waterproof suiting and sea-boots, James and Anne Onedin (Peter Gilmore and Anne Stallybrass) and a large quantity of sandwiches.

On the far side of the Dart is our location for the day - the Charlotte Rhodes, the three-masted schooner which is the real hero(ine) of the series. She is 105 tons gross, 120 feet long and carries a crew of five. Her captain is Jim Mackreth, and he bought the boat four years ago, when he retired as a senior captain fly≠ing Tridents with BEA.

He'd always wanted a big boat and he reckons she was a bargain at £2,400. She was still working when he found her in Denmark, shuttling cargoes of wood around Scandinavia.

This morning, despite a chill wind and an overcast sky, we are pretending to be in the Virgin Islands. Although a lot of film is shot in exotic foreign locations, there are times when a little subterfuge is involved, and today is one of them.

 

 

 

 

Actor Philip Bond plays Albert
Fraser. "When we're filming the
hours are long and very hard."

About half a mile out in the estuary Captain Mackreth lowers the anchor - a proper  old-fashioned rusty job which really looks like an anchor - and we start to shoot film. For the next hour or so shivering bumboat men cruise round the boat while Chief Mate Baines (Howard Lang) shouts abuse at them.


Bearded John Mitchell aboard the
Charlotte Rhodes, looking across at Dartmouth, where
he works as a boat repairer. He's the ship's Safety Officer. "The crew are a great bunch.
 They realise that I'm responsible for their safety and always do as they are told."

On the other side of the boat they are rehearsing a scene of high drama in which a dead man's clothes are being auctioned. We are beginning to roll. Over the walkie-talkie one of the production assistants radios: “Did John Fabian put a skeleton on board when he put the lunch in?”

   

 

 

 

Actress Jessica Benton plays
Elizabeth Frazer. "We do get
problems with the tourists."

After lunch it starts to drip with rain and there is a minor diversion as we are buzzed by speedboats from the Royal Naval College. They are obviously enjoying themselves and Peter Gilmore, greatly enraged, shouts at them: “Taxpayers' money! Where are your guns? What use would you be if the Russians came?”

The rain comes down harder now and we shelter under black umbrellas with “BBC Costumes Department” written across them in yellow. Anne Stallybrass is wrapped up in a blanket looking miserable. Howard Lang is trying to sleep. Lang calls Anne “daughter” sometimes, because he played her father when she was Jane Seymour in The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

By the time a halt is called it's after six and everyone is soggy and depressed. It takes a good dinner to restore humours, and during it we all agree that Peter Graham Scott looks insufficiently seadoggy. Peter Gilmore says Peter had better grow a beard, and that he will personally give him a pound for every day he doesn't shave.

MONDAY. Breakfast at the beginning of the forenoon watch. Peter Graham Scott has won his first pound by not shaving. The Charlotte Rhodes is putting to sea again. The sun is shining, the water is brightest blue and as she slowly threads down the estuary she looks splendid. Holiday couples breakfasting in the guest-houses peer out at her.

At Bayards Cove, on the waterfront, they are busily pushing the houses back into the 19th-century. Peter Graham Scott is harassed. “They've knocked the skull off the skeleton,” he says. “Would you believe it? We've got to find another.” After a quarter of an hour someone from props arrives with a skull acquired from the local doctor. So at midday I am lying on the deck of the lunch boat MV Wildarra, sun-bathing. With me on board is one skull and steak-and-kidney pie or veal cutlets for 40. Away in the distance the three masts of the Charlotte Rhodes are beginning to slip below the horizon. That means she's three miles out.

 

 

 

Captain Mackreth's son Pat,
who's in public relations, plays
a seaman. "We're very pleased
that our ship is being used."

I had come out for a chat with Peter Gilmore, but he's finished work for the day, so we return together on the Wildarra, eating lunch on deck. “Fancy some champers?” he asks. It's almost six bells in the afternoon watch, but why not? We take a bottle from the boot of his car and go to a park overlooking the river.

An old man with a check hat and a fat labrador stops and says: “Brought the good weather with you again.”

Peter smiles and nods and the old man says: “Enjoyed the last series. Everyone in Dartmouth liked it.” Peter smiles again and thanks him.

Later in the evening there are some new arrivals: Philip Bond, who plays Albert Frazer, the trendy, progressive, designer who believes in Steam as the successor to Sail; Jessica Benton, who plays James Onedin's beautiful young sister; a steam pinnace owned by John Player the cigarette company; and two stuntmen.

The first stuntman, Roy Scammell, comes across to script editor Barry Thomas to ask what stunts he has lined up for the new series. Barry embarks on a catalogue of falls, fights and escapes. At each one Roy grins and says with relish: “Very interesting.”

TUESDAY. The expected gale has arrived. The wind whips off the water and cuts through the heaviest sweater. Down at Bayards Cove, Peter Graham Scott is directing a crowd scene with enviable panache. “Action everyone!” he bawls through the megaphone. “ Action donkeys! Come on donkeys!” - at the same time gesticulating at two dozy donkeys and their mistresses.


Local residents Mrs Peggy Crowther (left) and Miss Judy Luthwaite,
with donkey Lucy, "I enjoy being in
The Onedin Line - and so do my
donkeys," says Mrs Crowther. "I use Lucy for shopping."

After the donkey scene the cast, James and Albert Frazer in elegant suiting, Anne and Elizabeth in crinolines, pile into the pinnace which has been working up steam for the past two hours. It looks most unsafe and is freezing cold. Twice it seems they are about to be mown down by the ferry. Eventually the two girls are able to adjourn to a hotel for a warming coffee-brandy.

“I'm frozen,” says Jessica, “and I was incredibly hungry and this wretched whalebone was cutting into me all the time. What about you?”

“Oh, I don't know.”  Miss Stallybrass kicks up her skirts to reveal blue corduroy trousers. “That's not all,” she says. “I've got petticoats and long johns and a thermal vest.” Miss Benton looks mildly jealous.

The sleet grows heavier after lunch. Upstairs in the Dartmouth Arms a director asks if anyone can play bridge. No one can. “Wretched cast≠ing,” he mutters. “They should always cast bridge players.”

16-22 September 1972
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