I recently received an email from a fan in The Netherlands who wanted to know where the hollow tree was in the New Forest where I’d made a children’s television drama series based on “BB’s” famous book Brendon Chase. It was a story of three boys who’d run away from an uncongenial home and were befriended by a charcoal burner. The series was made in 1980 and I was sorry to tell him that I couldn’t help him.
However, his query touched off many memories of making the series the most interesting of which was of the tame Brown bear we used. This is how the bear is first described in the book. “Then Robin was aware that the room seemed to be darkening, as though something was eclipsing the window. He swung round. There looking in at them, its brutish breath fogging the cold glass, was a large grizzly BEAR!”
My problem was how to find a bear that was tame enough to be filmed. As it happened Granada had just finished a dramatisation of Charles Dickens Hard Times. John Irvine, the director, told me to get in touch with Coventry Zoo. I arrived there a few days later and was ushered into an office and told that the bear’s handler would be with me directly. I sat down in one of the arm chairs and waited. Presently the door opened and in strolled the bear which sat down in the armchair next to me. His handler followed, lit a pipe, well packed with tobacco, and handed it to the bear which proceeded to smoke it.
A contract was signed and over a six month period we filmed the bear on location in the New Forest. I’d been told my Executive Producer that the “money shot” would be of one of the boys in relation to the bear. I found a location where two rides came together to form a glade. We set up the camera and the boy – the youngest of three – set off towards us playing a tune on a home-made penny whistle. Converging on him was the bear following a trail of polo mints. For a moment, they were almost side-by- side. Then there was call from within the wood. The boy turned and ran back the way he’d travelled. The bear continued on his journey. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
The bear was looked after by two young handlers, a boy and girl. They lived and slept in the bear’s van – cold in the winter, boiling in summer. They exercised the bear everyday which included swimming in the river and splashing around in a big pool.
The last day’s filming. A simple shot of the bear following a trail of polo mints up to the charcoal burner’s cabin. On some previous occasions we’d attached a multi-coloured nylon fishing line to the bear’s collar to exercise some control and that’s what we did now.
Off the bear went, trundling towards the cabin. The nylon line was invisible. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a bush suddenly bend over. The bear’s line was snagged. The bear took off and disappeared. The two handlers gave chase. At this critical moment one of the crew came up to me. He’d just been told that a group of boys were enjoying an orienteering exercise nearby, moving from point to point. I quickly despatched our two Landrovers to pick them up wherever they were and to ferry them to their next destination. There was still no sign of the bear – what would happen if it chanced on one of the boys?
I was just about to phone the police and alert them to the situation when one of the ‘walkie-talkies’ crackled into life. The bear had been found, asleep in a dried up stream. What a relief!
Brendon Chase is a wonderful chronicle of the three children’s adventures living off the land and how they come to appreciate the value of the natural world in the forest.
You can watch episode one below: