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Filming the Great and the Good - 06/11/16

friend and colleague during the filming of 'Catching the Impossible' Martin Bowler snapped this great pic of me on the Wye

One of the greatest joys in life is to venture into the countryside with a rod and line and follow an adventure that lasts a lifetime. I consider myself lucky that when I was very young I was shown how inspiring it can be by my grandfather … and even luckier that it has remained such an enjoyable passion ever since.

where it all started for me and many of my lifelong friends - Bernard's iconic creation that inspired thousands of anglers

I was equally fortunate that I grew up in an era when my angling hero was Mr. Crabtree, so my essential reading each week was that of Dick Walker, Fred J Taylor and of course, Peter Stone. Like all of us I guess, I was inspired by Bernard Venables and his imaginary fishing stories … and still am … and as a result tried to emulate the stars of the day in my fishing adventures.

Bernard's wonderfully evocative paintings in 'Mr. Crabtree Goes Fishing' ensured I became a fisherman for life

suitably inspired by Bernard, I visited Hickling Broad when still a boy and caught dozens of big rudd over two pounds

It is said that we can’t escape growing older by the day but never have to be ‘old’. It’s an attitude to life principle that I try to uphold but however determined, it’s only a matter time before we all fall off our perches. Sadly, many of my childhood heroes have done just that so I thought it might be interesting to recount the privileges I’ve been lucky enough to experience when filming some of these great anglers.

what a fabulous buiding in which to sing for my supper - an incomparable home for ten formative years

I grew up in a musical family and was lucky to win a choral scholarship to Ely Cathedral. This gave me virtually free schooling but more importantly, gave me access to the inspiring ‘land of skies’, the Fens. Ten years living in all that space meant I soon became passionate about wildlife and with the Great Ouse flowing not far from the school, fishing became almost as important.

the Fens - the 'land of skies' that inspired me to become a passionate wildlife film-maker, conservationist and fisherman

In-between reluctant acceptance that education was part of the reason for being there, myself and friends would escape into this watery world, pre-baiting swims to create jacuzzis of bubbling bream. Roach became a favourite quarry … and still are … and during this time, Fred J started to write about dead-baiting for pike, so that had to be tried too. Lobbing a herring as far as we could into the iconic depths of Roswell Pits produced pike to 18lbs but we also pre-baited swims with fish scraps from school. We hadn’t ever read anything about this technique but it seemed like a good idea at the time [1957] and it was. On one memorable day I got taken apart by an absolute monster and even to this day, the loss of that huge pike still haunts me.

an eighteen pounder from my school days in the Fens at Ely

Fishing apart, I was destined to become a professional French horn player but at the crucial moment when a decision had to be made, the BBC started to show wildlife on television, including Peter Scott and the “Look” series, along with the “World About Us". One of the programmes showed the legendary Eric Ashby stalking deer, badgers and foxes in the New Forest. He became my hero and from that moment my die was cast – I would try to become a wildlife film-maker.

my boyhood hero and legendary wildlife film-making pioneer Eric Ashby with one of his foxes rescued from the hunt

A degree in film-making was going to be necessary if I stood any chance of joining the BBC Film Unit, so luckily I won a place on a three year course at the Guildford College of Art.  Making films was what I wanted to learn and what better subject is there than fishing!

the star of the show - the legendary pike I named 'Old Tom' that featured in my very first fishing film

My first film was to be a story about the catching of a legendary pike on Hickling Broad. I had found an old beaten up stuffed pike abandoned in the college which weighed 26lbs. so having re-painted it and built a case, it was mounted above the bar of a local pub, the fictional story being that this scourge of the broad had finally been caught on Christmas eve. by the famous local angler, Dennis Pye. All I had to do was convince Dennis that a college kid was worth going out fishing for and then try to catch a 26lb pike to order!

Heigham Sounds - I can see the exact spot even now
On the appointed February day we ventured out onto Heigham Sounds and explored all Dennis’s favourite hot-spots - but they were all cold as ice. We too were frozen by an evil easterly and nothing seemed to be moving apart from the 1lb live roach on the end of Dennis’s famous dumb-bell rig. With a greased line he was able to skilfully steer the roach over the spot where he thought the pike would be lying in wait - but nothing stirred.

I should add that Dennis had given me the task of catching his live-baits before the filming could start, with nothing much under a pound acceptable! Luckily I had learned how to catch my favourite fish quite well and trotting a caster behind a stick float down the centre of the Thurne for two days produced a net-full of bait. I cringe to think of those roach as bait now … and also wish I knew of somewhere today that I could catch one pound roach to order!

Dennis motoring through the reeds in search of more monsters, just as we had in 1963

the fish filled waters of Horsey Mere

Having failed in Heigham Sounds, Dennis wasn’t for giving up and we searched Hickling Broad without a single run before making the long motor up to the famous Horsey Mere, soon to be the sight of the record pike capture, though not for us. We didn’t get a sniff despite Dennis’s tireless efforts and un-rivalled knowledge of the water.

Dennis's largest pike - a 34 1/2 from Horsey Mere in 1965

Undeterred, he went back to the very spot we started and swam the live-bait over THE spot once again. Nothing. By now we were feeling like blocks of ice and I tried to convince Dennis that we should give up and try again another day but he wasn’t having any of it.

a 27lb pike for Dennis from the same spot ... maybe the same fish?
Steering a fresh bait over the spot once again it suddenly disappeared. There was hardly a ripple, the float and roach simply gone, the line peeling off his big wooden centre-pin. I’d like to say that the strike and fight were spectacular but I think the pike must have been almost as cold as us because it came in like a lamb. However, it was big … and carefully weighed in front of my camera, went exactly 26lbs. Our fish was returned safely in spite of the horrendous gaff. All these historic Broads pics are from Stephen Harper's wonderful  and evocative book 'The Pike of Broadland'. Thank you Stephen - what a great trip you've given me down memory lane.

There are those that try to pour cold water on Dennis’s achievements and suggest he didn’t catch all the fish he claimed or that he exagerated his success ... but he sure could fish and his ability and knowledge were impressive - and what a lovely, generous man, helping out a young student with his little college project. He delivered on cue and fans of John Wilson and Martin Bowler will be aware of how difficult that can be.

yet another thirty for Dennis - 33lbs from Hickling Broad
We hadn’t finished the filming either because the pike hadn’t fought at all. So a few days later, when we’d thawed out, we dramatised the event with great swirls created by the oars, bent rods and spinning reels, along with a few doubles that Dennis caught to build the drama. It was a good way to teach me editing, or ‘knitting’ as my wife Sue calls it!

I so wish I had a copy of the film but sadly the college binned it a few years back, though on reflection, the music I chose to dramatise the fight was so over the top that I cringe just to think about it. No wonder that many of my most successful wildlife films have no music at all. Lesson learned.

Bardsey Island off the Lleyn Peninsula - a place of pilgrimage for many birders
My next film was about lobster fishing on Bardsey Island off the Welsh coast, made with my childhood friend, Robin Pratt. Filmed during the college holidays, I was so determined to develop my skills that I ‘borrowed’ the film stock out of the college cabinet so that I could complete the project. Upon returning, the head of the film course, an industry professional called Stan Cubberley congratulated me on my commitment instead of bollocking me for steeling college property. He just nodded and said I’d make it in the profession because I was so determined. I was lucky to have him as a mentor for he was an excellent teacher.

Unbeknown to me during this filming, I was building a reputation as a competent film- maker and this came to the notice of Barry Welham of K.P.Morritt. [I still have one of his Intrepid reels].

He wanted to make a series of films that would help sell his fishing tackle and with a producer whose name I don’t remember … I don’t remember much any more [well, it was more than fifty years ago] … came up with the idea of famous anglers catching many of the most popular species and showing the tackle required to do so successfully.

It was to be called “Tackle and Tactics” and I was to be employed as the cameraman. I guess I got paid but as I’m not the least bit motivated by money it didn’t matter as I was going to go fishing with some of my boyhood heroes.

First up was Dennis Pye who was once again going to catch pike from the Broads for me. We went into the middle of Duck Broad one sunny autumn day and he promptly caught a couple of pike weighing 18lbs and 19lbs. They fought hard this time so no need for the ‘jiggery-pokery’.

David Carl-Forbes trotted maggots on the delightful River Eden and caught some cracking dace but filming with National Champion Alan Wrangles was trickier. He was intending to catch tench from a classic Crabtree pool but they proved elusive, so we had to put our heads together to complete the sequence. Little red worms below a small float close to the lilies did the trick, as they so often do, producing three feisty little males. I guess we filmed carp, roach and chub but the detail has faded away.

filming Peter Stone fishing for barbel on the Kennet

Last but not least was Peter Stone. What a delightful man … and what a privilege to
spend time on the river- bank with him. He was going to catch bream from the Thames and barbel from the Kennet and of course he didn’t fail, landing several good bream of four to five pounds from a Thames weirpool near Oxford on ledgered lobworms.

'Stoney' caught several barbel for me of course

me when a young man with clockwork Bolex and Richard Walker inspired hat
I think he rolled the same bait between the rafts of ranunculus to snare three small barbel from a stretch of the Kennet shared by the other greats of the day, Dick Walker, Fred J Taylor, Pete Thomas and no less than the young Peter Drennan. The pictures come from the day with Peter on the Kennet and I wonder how the films turned out so well when I was having to use a clockwork Bolex for the filming. I did have a tripod but was already developing the ‘hand-held style’ that served me so well when filming ‘A Passion for Angling’ and ‘Catching the Impossible’.

Dick Walker with a big haul shared with friend Peter Stone
Word got around that I’d done OK when filming fishing and when I decided to make my own series of fishing films it was obvious that they had to be made with no less than Richard Walker. I wrote to him and much to my delight received a positive reply. Yes, he was interested and would I join him on Grafham with Pete Thomas to discuss the content.

We motored out into the waves and chatted away while the two of them had a ‘friendly’ casting contest, throwing fly lines prodigious distances using double-hauling techniques while I looked on in admiration. Dick was going through his 'trouting' phase but was enthusiastic about making a series of films with me on all the ‘proper’ fish. We agreed on six half hour stories and to this day I regret never having made them. Wouldn’t they have been a wonderful archive of specimen angling in its formative years.

The films with Dick didn’t get made because I had managed to win a place in the BBC’s Film Unit in London and was consumed by the corporation for nine years, working on a their whole range of programmes, including a Beethoven trilogy, Alice in Wonderland, Dr. Who and Porridge. My ambition remained and I finally left to try to become a wildlife film-maker. I’d spent too long at the BBC and sadly, Dick passed away before I could pursue my dream fishing series with him.

Peter Drennan's classic tench lake in Oxfordshire, location for the first scene in 'Catching the Impossible'
Peter and Frances, Roy, Martin and Johny Ev. Ain't it good spending time on the bank with friends

The story doesn’t end quite there, for I’m privileged to say that Peter Stone and Peter Drennan became good friends and I shared several days with them on Peter’s iconic tench lake in Oxfordshire. Now Stoney has passed away we always give him a symbolic hug as we pass the massive Wellingtonia on the banks of the lake. He was the most delightful man in both word and deed.

I remember a special days barbel fishing on the upper Kennet with Stoney and Bernard Venables, accompanied by Chris Yates. We’d been invited there by Keith Elliott and though the swims looked delectable, I don’t remember actually fishing, preferring to sit with Bernard and Stoney for a good chat. I still regret not taking a film camera to record this unique day.

Bernard with a classic perch from the Avon
What does stick in the mind is the unsurprising fact that Peter was the only one to encourage a barbel to bite, even if he missed it and even more memorable was Bernard’s powers of concentration. He had found a particularly promising run tight under the near bank so lowered his bait in carefully, then knelt on the bank for fully two hours waiting for the line to tighten over his fingers. I think that most of us would have required A&E after kneeling on a damp bank for two hours … and Bernard was in his late eighties at the time. What a man and an inspiration to us all.

Chris and Bob admiring Bernard's Crabtree book
He was a star in ‘A Passion for Angling’ of course, catching perch to order, even a two-pounder when under pressure to deliver. He always had a special place for the perch and often described it as the 'totem' fish ... and boy, didn't he capture the essence of their character in the pages of Crabtree.

We took Bernard to Chew Valley Lake to do so, for Bob James and I had caught loads of big perch while doing a recce the previous week when if memory serves me right, I caught four perch over three pounds in as many casts.

two of several three pounders from Chew
We led Bernard to the same pontoon and I remember the horror when filming him walking out onto the wobbling platform and him nearly falling over into the water. Drowning Bernard Venables wouldn’t look good on your CV would it!

Sadly, the shoal of perch had moved on so we blanked, though Bernard finally did the business in a local lake by teasing a two plus stripy into taking a carefully wiggled lobworm. A star indeed.

No celebration of our greatest anglers would be complete without mentioning the delightful Bob Church.  Legend is an overused compliment but with Bob it fits, not only for the endless variety of success he’s had over the years but also for his sheer enthusiasm. When filming him for ‘Catching the Impossible’ he was tireless in his attempts to deliver for the cameras and though he isn’t as young as he used to be, he made me tired just watching him. When effort meets reward, he’s an example to us all.

the inspiring Bob Church with one of his smaller pike. He caught a lot of very big ones

I’ve been privileged to film many other notable anglers, not least Chris Yates who was described by Bob James as “a legend in his lunchtime”.

Mr Yates with a splendid 24lb common from Redmire

the late great Terry Lampard with his biggest ever roach, all 3lbs 5ozs of it, caught while filming 'Catching the Impossible'

Terry Lampard and Tim Norman were memorable not just for the great big fish they caught but for the banter … and Des Taylor was as good company as you could ever wish to meet.

Des Taylor and Martin Bowler with a fiesty catfish from 'Catching the Impossible'

There are many stories I could tell about filming ‘A Passion for Angling’ and ‘Catching the Impossible’ and some of them are true. One in particular springs to mind, a remarkable turn of events while filming the winter episode of Passion on the River Kennet.

Bob James doing what he does best, trotting for roach on the Kennet

As we are both roach nuts, Bob bet me a vintage bottle of port that I couldn’t catch a two pound roach from the river on a float before he caught a three pounder on a leger. [This sounds simple but has rarely ever been achieved on the upper Kennet]. Anyway, being a foolish boy I rose to the challenge and at dawn the next morning was trotting a favourite glide with stick float and caster. It wasn’t long before I didn’t have just one two pound roach in the net but two. When Bob and Chris walked down to start filming I asked Bob what vintage port he was going to buy me. His expletives are unrepeatable but good as his word, he went to buy me the promised port at lunchtime.

the 'Passion for Angling' crew and a brace of two pound roach during filming

We wanted to film a large roach being caught for the programme, so at dusk Bob was legering bread flake just above the weed-rack with my camera focused on his isotope quiver tip. It eventually pulled down decisively and after a tense battle in the half-light with what was obviously a big fish, a giant roach appeared in the torch light wielded by Chris and eventually sank begrudgingly into the landing net.

What a wonderful fish it was, a real giant of the species and though weighing a fraction under three pounds, Bob obviously deserved a vintage bottle of port as well. Rising early the next day to film the frosty dawn was a painful struggle, even if we hadn’t quite empted both bottles with our curry and papadoms.

our star turn, ace angler, story teller and friend Bernard Cribbins
We were very fortunate that one of the true stars of stage and screen agreed to voice the ‘Passion for Angling’ narration, so the legendary Bernard Cribbins joined our team. The whole world knows what a great story-teller he is but few know just how good he is with a rod and line. His regular fishing pal was John Goddard and he used to give that legendary fly fisherman a run for his money in trout fishing contests when he wasn’t laughing.

Bernard doing the business during filming for 'Catching the Impossible'. The pike grew on to be over thirty pounds

He was busy filming a major part in Dr.Who when we were trying to film ‘Catching the Impossble’ so weren’t able to include him in every scene as we’d have liked to. He and co-star Martin Bowler got on like a house on fire, no surprise as they were two faultless professionals who worked so well together and though Bernard had little time to fish, he never failed to deliver the goods when in front of the camera.

On one notable day, memorable because for once Martin was unable to deliver a tench for the cameras, Bernard spotted a bubbler, flicked a lobworm into its path and landed a spirited four pounder. Sequence completed before the sun burnt the mist off the lilies – nice one. We still manage to go out and wet a line together when Bernard’s work allows and this scribble serves as a reminder that another trip is long overdue. We are so lucky to count him as a friend and it highlights the truth that the friends you fish with are far more important than the fish you catch.

a happy snap from our book of the series with Bernard delivering the tench to order

Time slips by at an alarming rate and I wish I had done more to record the legends of angling before they fell off their perches. Thankfully friends Keith and Sandy Armishaw are doing their best to record the great and the good of angling before our heroes have to dangle a maggot in that heavenly swim in the sky.

The invaluable heritage that they have already collected is most impressive - hundreds of letters, articles, films and photographs, along with recordings of some of the greats who have already moved swims. Conversations between the likes of Fred Buller and Fred J.Taylor, both MBE’s for services to angling, along with Barrie Rickards and Des Taylor [he’s still very much alive and kicking!] have been made into CD’s and then books created to celebrate their lives. There are other intriguing conversations too, John Goddard with Brian Clarke for instance, along with the irrepressible stars, Bob Church and Dave Stueart.  So we should always be grateful that Sandy and Keith are creating such a valuable record for us all to enjoy. Please visit for a fascinating look into our past … but beware. I used up hours of my day engrossed in what I saw and read and even then I had only dimpled the surface. You’ll love it!