In 1978, Southern Television produced the first of two series dramatising 18 of the adventures of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. The settings were adapted for the era of the time but the adventures and excitement remained. Now over 30 years later Sunshine Hospital Radio meets up with the actor who played Julian in that well-loved series.
In “Famous Five revisited” Sunshine Radio’s Andrew Read A is in conversation with Marcus Harris M.
A: Marcus, welcome to “Famous Five revisited”. What a superb opportunity for you at such a young age....
M: Thank you, Andrew, it was just amazing, there were somewhere in the region of 4000 children that initially went up for the audition so to’ve been one of the four that was lucky enough to actually come through and have, what was an amazing adventure, not quite the same as the adventures that we had on-screen but a fabulous adventure for four children.
A: Was there any history of acting in your family to that point or was it something you suddenly decided, actually I’d quite like to’ve a go at that?
M: When I was age four, I remember watching my parents up on stage doing some productions on Musical Variety Talkshow and I said mum, dad, can I do something? And I was sort of dragged up on stage and I forget what I did now but I got the bug for it so from there I got myself involved with other things, I played the parts of Moth in Shakespeare’s “Son et Lumière” (this is a night-time show with lights) at Windsor Castle and then I started doing festivals and was successful, I was sort of winning the medals. There was myself and one other chap who always used to sort of share the gold medals between us and so I knew I loved acting. And then I moved to this area, Wallingford, and I joined the Kenton Theatre School in Henley and this was just a Saturday morning thing but, the lady there knew an agent in London, so she said to me at one state, would I like to be introduced to Wendy Whisby who was the agent. I said, “Yes please, that would be fantastic!”, so I got introduced and this was at age ten I suppose, eleven maybe...through that I started going to auditions for adverts and all sorts of different bits and pieces...a bit like I do today – doing the jobbing auditions and I was getting nothing and I got to the Famous Five and I’d loved the Famous Five...from as soon as I could read I was reading Famous Five books and when I heard I had an audition for a part in the Famous Five it was like a dream come true and I thought, surely this is what I’ve been waiting for, that’s why I haven’t got any parts and any adverts...this is, you know, this is the one, that’s what I thought.
But when I got there and I sat down for the first audition with one of the directors, or later realised it was one of the directors, Don, and he was running this audition and somebody, one of the kids in the audition was really boisterous and there was me being polite and thinking that I speak when I’m spoken to as a well brought up boy that I was...how things change, eh?...but we had this audition and afterwards I followed him out and I said, “Excuse me, Mr Leaver,” I said, “hope you don’t mind me asking, but is that how I’ve got to behave in order to get a part in this? Do I need to be boisterous...?”, and he laughed and he said, “Oh no, I know that lad from a different production and that’s why he was being a little bit sort of cheeky and all this sort of thing.” And I’m sure, because I was stuck in his mind from having sort of tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, Mr Leaver, what about this?”, I’m sure that’s what helped me get through the cattle market phase, if you like, of clearing out the large numbers of children to get down to the stage of “Can they act?”, and then through the stage of “Can they act?” to “Do they look like a family?” and I’m sure it was just because I was sort of like “I’m so determined, I really want to be in this”, that I got remembered and got through to that stages.
A: How were you told that you’d got the part?
M: Well, that’s quite interesting because there were something like six recalls which was amazing and of course everytime you get a recall being a very positive, optimistic person I thought to myself, “Yeah, that’s it, I’m almost there!”, and it was just going on and it took an age or it felt like an age to a sort of a twelve year old at the time. But I knew when we were getting down to the family selections, because I think I’d met Jennifer at that stage and I’d met Gary at that stage and as Gary will tell you, he was originally slated for the part of Julian, then they saw me next to Gary and they thought, “No, that guy’s Julian and Gary is Dick”...so we got to these final stages so I knew we were close and I remember I had a dream one night... this will make me sound weird...but I had this dream that I was in this huge old Victorian school room with a big old clock and lots of windows and loads and loads of desks all lined up in a sort of a...one in front of the other, and then I’d heard that I’d got the part I thought, “Well, that dream can’t come true because we don’t have a school room like this at my school, it was a modern comprehensive school. At the end of lessons that day we had sports in the sports hall and I didn’t think anything about it, didn’t remember my dream but it was exam time and all the exams used to be done in the sports hall, so when we finished our lesson the teacher said, “Right, can everybody get the desks and put them all back into their lines?”, and I sat behind this desk and I looked down the ranks of children in front of me, looked up at the clock on the wall and suddenly it was my dream and I literally got up from there, ran home and as I got home my agent was just arriving at the garden path coming to tell me the news.
A: So, the Famous Five as cast were yourself as Julian, Gary Russell as Dick, Jennifer Thanisch as Anne and Michele Gallagher as George and of course not forgetting Toddy as Timmy.
M: That’s right, Toddy Woodgate who was Timmy, that was us.
A: You had the part. Did you know at that point who else had been cast alongside you?
M: No, and you know, that’s a very interesting question, I can’t remember the time I first met everybody, as I said, I’d met Gary and I’d met Jennifer. Michele was a later casting so I think probably the first time that I met them all was one of our very first preliminary publicity things where we met near the Serpentine in London and we did some photographs with balloons and different things and I’m pretty certain that’s the first time that I met everybody together. All of us were extremely excited, I mean this was amazing. When I was told that I’d got the part my agent took me to one side and very seriously said to me, “You do realise this is gonna change you life, don’t you?”. And as a thirteen-year-old you think, “Yeah, bring it on! Who cares? This is great!”. And who would’ve thought that 33 years later or whatever we’d be sitting here doing an interview about it or I’d be going to Germany to publicize the new DVD or you know, that sort of thing. It really did change lifes and I think all four of us children recognised that. I can’t speak for Toddy, he seemed excited most of the time, but certainly us children, we were all very excited about it. Over the following two years of course we just lived together for most of the year. In a hotel in the first year and in a big old farm house in the second year and we were brothers and sisters. And we fought like brothers and sisters and we played like brothers and sisters and we lived like a family so you know, Gary and I would have a squabble and then Michele and Gary would fall out and Jennifer and I would and then we’d all come back together again and it was exactly like that, we lived like a family. I would say that Michele and Jennifer were very much a unit right from day one and they were always very very best of friends but the dynamics in the place were just those of a family, it was just fabulous, a great, great life with them.
A: Living together as a family must have helped the chemistry when you’re on-screen, when you’re filming?
M: Well, I certainly hope so, that’s I guess for viewers to judge whether the chemistry is there but we did feel like a family and I remember, every morning we’d get picked up from, certainly in the second year, we’d get picked up from this beautiful farm house that we lived in, an eight-bedroom farm house with acres of land and we’d get picked up by the mini bus with John the driver who’s lovely. We all used to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the way, cause we then used to go and collect the adult actors, which whoever was with us for that particular week. So we’d be singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” or other songs and things and as I’m rumoured not to have the greatest singing voice I used to get the mickey taken out of me a a little bit but you know that’s all that sorts of things you do as a family we just did and I hope that came across in the chemistry in the actual series.
A: Four children, two years living together, filming together, working together. What about education? I bet you thought you won’t gonna have any, did you?
M: Yes and I pretty much didn’t. I wouldn’t say that education was optional. We were provided with a tutor and a caravan that used to travel around from site to site. And when you really couldn’t think of anything better to do, you would...or I would...I’m not speaking for the others. I’m sure they were very attentive in their studies...but certainly when I really couldn’t find anything more exciting to do I would slink back to the caravan and I would get on and do a little bit more work and whatever. But when there’s sort of filming going on on set and you’ve got all these fabulous, fabulous actors, Patrick Troughton and you know, all of these amazing names to actually watch working and to be involved with it, it was far more interesting than go and try to learn my ‘timetables’ so when I’m honest I took about two years out of education which I don’t regret and wouldn’t change for the life of me. But any kids listen to this you really should work hard and get good education! I know that now.
A: You did really work with the best of the best actors. This series really attracted the top names of their generation, didn’t they? You’ve mentioned Patrick Troughton, I’m thinking of Peter Jeffrey, these are names that have gone down in legend in the legend of television.
M: Absolutely and I guess I wasn’t that aware of it at sort of twelve and thirteen years old, these were people I knew to be on TV and after the first week when you sort of get used to the fact that you got this amazing role call (list of great actors) of people coming through, I’d never say you’d get blasé and it was always impressive to watch them work but it was overkill, you did literally every week meet another fantastic name in TV and I look back now and I think how privileged I was to have an opportunity to work with some of these fantastic people. But as I said at the time you don’t think about it you just take it in your stride and everything is so amazing and everything is so overwhelming that it was just part of the whole experience.
A: As children, were you expected to keep yourselves away from these famous actors or were you able to mix, were you able to pick up tips from them? Were they supportive of what you were doing?
M: That’s a very good question and there are two answers to that. One that Gary, I’m sure, will be able to tell you a little bit more about but my response really is that we were treated as adults from day one. It was the first time I’d ever heard an adult use any form of mild expletive (mild swearing/cursing) but we were expected to work like adults, to behave like adults and I don’t mean this detrimentally. This was not a negative experience at all, it gave me huge confidence that at that age I was there with adults, being an adult, if the crew went down the pub we went with them. We weren’t aloud to drink alcohol but we went down and had our orange juices and it was very much a team and certainly the adult actors were always very considerate and understanding. I do remember, however, that Gary of course, as you know is part of the whole Doctor Who thing now and has been for many years, he’s been a great Doctor Who fan for years, when Patrick Troughton showed up on our cast list you just couldn’t contain him, he was so excited, but because everybody knew how excited he was, someone took him to one side and said, “Don’t bother Patrick Troughton, he’s very busy etc.”, so poor Gary sat on his hands for a whole week and hardly even spoke to Patrick and didn’t have any...right at the end he plucked up the courage and thought, “This is my one opportunity.” And he went up and said, “Excuse me, Mr Troughton but...”, and Patrick Troughton was lovely, he just said, “Yeah, come on, let me talk to you about it and tell you.”, and he just spent ages with Gary and I think that was the only time I’ve ever heard of anybody trying to shield any of the actors, they were part of our team and we worked with them in just the same way as we worked with anybody.
A: You mentioned earlier on that you were living together in a hotel to start with but then actually in one of the houses on the estate within which you were filming. That’s the Exbury Estate in Hampshire on the edge of the New Forest owned buy the Rothschild family. Everything was done within that Estate, more or less, wasn’t it?
M: Lots of it was done within the Estate. We had some exciting times when we went up to Swanage once and Corfe Castle I think. So we did travel around a little bit but generally speaking it was all done in and around the Exbury Estate so when you see, and I hate to shatter anybody’s illusions, but when you see the caves and we’re battling our way from the village out to Kirrin Island through these wetted and stoney things and trying to move boulders out of the way of a blocked fall...this was all done in the cellars of Exbury House. When you see us camping and eating our breakfast in camping, that was done in one of the main ball rooms in Exbury House. When you see us coming into the main front door of one of the London Embassies on one scene with George opening the door, who was one of the crew who used to double as a police driver, and a doorman and this sort of thing, that was all done at Exbury so the answer to your question is, predominantly it was all done in and around the whole Exbury area but certainly very tightly within the New Forest which was amazing and the sun seemed to shine for the whole two years so, there I was falling into lakes and sailing boats and riding horses and riding bikes and fighting baddies and playing with dogs and monkeys and elephants and vintage cars and reversing on buses, all done in the sunshine in the Hampshire countryside, how could anybody not have a fabulous time?
A: You’ve touched on a point I was going to raise later on. There were an awful lot of animals in those series, weren’t there?
M: And the scary thing now at 46 is how my memory fails me because if you asked me, have I ever met an elephant up close I’d probably say, “Don’t think so.” If you said, “Have you ever held a monkey?”, I’d have said, “Nah, I don’t think so.” But then I watch back and I see myself stroking an elephant, I see myself holding a monkey, I see myself with a snake and all these amazing creatures that were all part and parcel including of course don’t forget the pantomime horse that Gary and I peopled on one of the episodes.
A: We’ve reached Exbury then let’s take a listen to a part of “Five go to Billycock Hill”. The scene:You’re in a tent, there’s rain threatening and the Five have already been mystified by a nearby military airfield and a local butterfly farm. Could the latter provide the answer to the mysterious disappearance of a secret hightech military aircraft?
A: And Julian leaves the tent with Timmy. To find out what happens next you’ll have to wait for the DVD release because that is what’s next, isn’t it?
M: Well, it is already now happening in Germany. I was very lucky to go over to Berlin recently to do an interview with my voice double from German TV. So yes, we’ve released the new HD-DVDs in Germanic language and there are conversations about releasing in the UK and in Australia at the moment, which were two other very big markets of course for the Famous Five. Now what’s interesting is The Famous Five was produced by Southern Television almost immediately after Worzel Gummidge which was our follow on the series that sort of took our slots if you like, and took our crew thereafter. Almost after that finished, Southern TV started to go through its various metamorphosis that eventually became ITV. Somewhere along the way the rights got lost. Chorion had some of the rights and half a dozen people owned other rights and that has stopped the Famous Five being produced as a DVD and so we had the videos and that was it really so, it’s not been shown again on television because no one knew who the rights holder were and never got produced as a DVD so really nothing’s happened on it. A chap called Karl Kolar who runs the German and probably one of the biggest Famous Five fansites with a bunch of his colleagues really got the bit between the teeth to find out and pull together the rights ownership and they did that in a partnership with an organisation called moviemax and between them spending a lot of time and a lot of money they got the rights secured, they then painstakingly went through all of the footage to get it put together, cleaned up, cause some of it was in very bad condition being on tape it started to deteriorate, the whole process of bringing this together, tidying it up, cleaning it up and producing it as it is now on the DVD has been a massive undertaking but I’m so delighted that now 30 years on we’ve finally got a DVD box set of the Famous Five. There’s been illegal copies before but nothing that’s been formally recognised and selling and I understand that sales are somewhere in the region of 20’000 units across German-speaking countries so far so it’s obviously still got quite a following out there.
A: There is an incredible German-speaking fanbase for the Famous Five. What’s driven that do you think?
M: Well, the Famous Five was jointly funded by an organisation in Germany hence Michele was half German, of course Michael Hinz was a German actor who played the part of Uncle Quentin and Rogers the gardener of course was also German. So we had right from the very start, it was a very sort of Germanic-English production. I don’t know, it...I guess the German-speaking countries just loved the Famous Five but probably I would say on a par with the UK, Australia and you know it’s amazing, Indonesia, we’ve got an awful lot of fans who just loved the series who’re out of Indonesia.
A: How’s the arrival of the Internet and the WorldWideWeb had a positive impact? Fans now can speak to each other wherever they are around the world and form for example the international German Fansite. It’s run jointly from Austria, from Switzerland and from Germany. This would be unthought of ten years ago.
M: Yeah, that’s a really really interesting question. All I can say is from my point of view, when I finished the Famous Five, I just used to get sackloads of fanmail which my dad very kindly helped me to answer in those days so, apologies to anybody that didn’t actually get a response to any of those things. I tried to answer as many as possible but it went very quite then for about fifteen/twenty years I used to get the odd letter and this sort of thing and I just thought it was just sort of dying away. Then, because I’m a counsillor in South Oxfordshire my e-mail address is publicly available, I started to get a few e-mails and then started to corresponding on the various chat groups and things and gradually my e-mail, Gary’s e-mail to an extend and some others got more and more out there and I’m finding now that I get two or three e-mails a week from people who just loved the series from all those years ago and also from new fans. I mean there is a number of much younger people who still buy into the adventures and the excitement and all this sort of things so I guess that is fueled by the Internet because it’s far easier now to be able to send an e-mail to me and, for me to be able to send an e-mail back again rather than then having to write a letter, find my address, post the letter for me to get it to write a letter back, to post it back etc. so I think the answer to your question is that I feel, there is mood for the Famous Five, that whole freedom to adventure, kids going off on their own on holidays at thirteen/fourteen, stuff kids can’t do these days. There’s a lot of restrictions. Combined with the fact that it’s now accessible, all of the episodes have been on YouTube for ages, any interviews that any of us have done are all on YouTube so, people can see us a lot more and when they’re reminded I think they think, “Yeah, you know what? That was lovely and it’d be great to know more about it.” So, I think you’re right.
A: It was a very clever premise to modernise the Famous Five to the era that the children of the time were living in. It was very much a 1970s based story and not a back in the 1940s/1950s feel to the programme.
M: It was a very interesting angle at the time because it made it current and it meant that the kids that were watching could properly engage with what we’re up to because we were riding the bikes of the day and you know and the cars of the day and all this sort of thing. Where I think there is a double win for that, that was completely unanticipated, is this whole mood for retro now. The fact that this is a 70s series is as much loved by the viewers, it’s retro 70s which wasn’t at the time but retro 70s is big, a lot of people enjoy it because they can see 70s cars and 70s bikes and that sort of thing so yeah, it’s a double win I think, an unintended positive consequence.
A: Let me tell you about some 1970s if I may. I’ve been doing a bit of research over the last few weeks which involved crawling around in my attic to be honest with you. I have here the Look-in Television Annual from 1978, lovely picture of ABBA on the front but in the section entitled “Pin-ups”, you’re alongside ABBA, Kenny Dalglish and Henry Winkler, otherwise named Fonzie from “Happy Days”. There’s the four of you with Timmy outside a tent presumably on the Exbury Estate. How do you feel now looking back at that? You must feel proud.
M: Extraordinarily proud! I’ve had a lot of fantastic experiences. I’ve had a great life and I’ve been very privileged, I’ve got my own children now and a great relationship you know, all these things but I look back at that as an absolute golden time and yes, and I look at this photograph now and we really are happy there. I can’t recognise whether it’s on the Exbury Estate or not but we’re genuinely happy, that’s not acting, that’s just four kids who’re having a great time in a field with a tent and a dog.
A: Now there were lots of Annuals there were about four or five years worth of Annuals which featured you in either cartoon form or pictures from the series. But also, I discovered this, now I don’t know whether you’ve ever seen this before, this is the Famous Five adventure card game. Have you seen that before?
M: No, I haven’t. And I must say I’m forever surprised when we go the the various Famous Five conventions and the Enid Blyton conventions and things and they invariably have retailers of merchandise and I’m forever coming up with things like this that had been produced with my image on and the greatest thing is I remember badges. At the time there were Famous Five badges and there was a whole stack of badges with my picture on signed by me that I just used to have bucket loads of and didn’t think of and I went to one of the Enid Blyton conventions in Loddon Hall and looked at some of the merchandise resellers, these badges are selling at £50 each and I used to have buckets of them and don’t know where they’ve gone! And so yes, things like this, it’s just amazing to see and at the time again it was such a deluge (a huge amount) of stuff we did, I mean you talk about that picture next to Henry Winkler and Kenny Dalglish and ABBA and I wouldn’t ever say that we were anywhere near as famous as any of these people but at the time it felt right. Jennifer and I went off for an interview with Lee Marvin and it just felt natural to be there with someone of Lee Marvin’s statur and it’s the same with all these things that so many games and books and magazines and photographs and things all happened at the time, that you didn’t really take too much notice, you just signed everything you were asked to sign and moved on but now looking back at it I think it’s fantastic and I’m very envious of you having that pack of cards.
A: Okay, you just sign them later. Now, before we get to the end of the programme I must just ask you, are you still in contact with any of the others?
M: Absolutely! As you’d expect from a family we don’t live in each other’s pockets but Gary, Jennifer and I have been meeting for a number of years, we recently were reunited with Gail Renard, who was one of the writers and most recently I think Jennifer, Gary, Gail and myself met up at Richard Sparks’ house, who was the other one of the main writers and we had the most fantastic evening of reminiscing and just talking and as I said, it is just like a family, you know, Jennifer is like my little sister and whenever we meet up we just pick up where we left off and carry on but we’re not seeing each other every month or anything like that, it’s when we all get together we have a great time.
A: Marcus, just before we round off the interview today, what are you doing at the moment? Are you still acting?
M: No, I certainly am still acting. I finished the Famous Five and because of two years out of education I got six GCSE’s (exams children sit for in the UK) which were the exams of the day and I set off into the world of work and got a serious job. Over the years I built a business and then sold the business in 2007 and returned fully back to acting, so I went back into Equity, back into spotlight and I’m building up my career as an actor and a presenter. I’m still a businessman as well but I’m building up my career acting and presenting. I present on one of the shopping channels these days and I’ve done a few adverts, I’ve done a documentary, I’ve done a pilot for a comedy sketch show that may or may not be optioned so I’m very much looking for the opportunity to start getting back into this. It’s a world that I love, presenting, acting, that’s where I love being so I’m now formally back into the professional world but I’ve never ever gone away from semi-professional or amature productions over the years so as various children around Wallingford will attest of being scared by my various baddies Ogers and King Rats and wolves and things over the past sort of twenty odd years.
A: Marcus, it’s been an absolute pleasure meeting with you this morning. Thank you very much for taking the time out and good luck for the future and maybe we’ll meet again some time.
M: That’s great, Andrew, thank you very much indeed. Thanks for coming over to Wallingford.