The latest children’s drama series shot in the North East focuses on a little-known aspect of life on the home front during the First World War. DAVID WHETSTONE met some of those involved at a preview screening on Tyneside
Ciara Baxendale and Elliot Baxter were all smiles at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art this week. It was nice to see, especially since Ciara recently punched Elliot pretty hard in the face.
But some explanation is required here. The eye-watering punch comes early in Harriet’s Army, a new CBBC drama shot in the North East, and it is delivered by feisty young Harriet Grange (played by Ciara) to the nose of Thomas Brown (Elliot Baxter).
The two young stars of the series were at Baltic for a couple of preview screenings and took time to talk about the fun they had during the shoot.
“We had a stunt man,” said Ciara, then added hastily: “Not to teach us how to punch someone in the face but how not to.”
The punch looks as authentic on screen as all the costumes and sets in this beautifully filmed series and that’s just as well because it’s a vital, plot-driving moment.
Harriet gets kicked out of the Girl Guides for her act of aggression, despite her protest that the punch was in retaliation and intended for someone else.
Consequently she is unable to help in the war effort, the First World War having just broken out, and has to channel her considerable energy into mustering her own independent army to smooth the path to victory.
Ciara, who will be 19 on Saturday, comes from Rawtenstall in Lancashire’s Rossendale Valley.
“I’ve been acting since I was 15,” she said.
“My first role was in Sky One’s Little Crackers series playing Jane Horrocks’ young friend, Patsy (this was a series with flashback moments). Funnily enough, the girl playing the Jane Horrocks character as a girl is playing Violet in Harriet’s Army.
“She was also in My Mad Fat Diary so we’ve had three jobs together.”
This is Sophie Wright, from Doncaster, who plays Girl Guide Violet Croft in the new series.
Ciara played Izzy in My Mad Fat Diary, the Bafta-nominated comedy drama that started on E4 at the beginning of last year. It earned her quite a following. In fact Elliot, who is from Kendal, said he was momentarily taken aback to encounter his co-star in the flesh having previously watched her on TV.
Ciara, with her striking red hair and acting experience, must have been quite an easy choice for the part of Harriet. She is also petite which makes her a believable 14-year-old.
“I didn’t know how much the Guides and Scouts did in the war,” she said. “I was in the Guides. I remember being told off for dropping litter in a field. I think I left after that.”
Elliot is a newcomer by comparison. The affable 17-year-old said: “I’ve just finished my first year at Kendal College, studying drama.
“I joined a drama group and got an agent through that but I haven’t done much other stuff professionally. I got my first part in Silent Witness although it was a very small part, playing one of the characters in flashback.
“I come from a family of tradesmen so there are no actors in the family, although my sister, who’s two years older, is on the same course as me. Us choosing acting was a bit of a shock for my dad because he’s a builder.”
Elliot said of his character, Thomas Brown: “He keeps himself to himself because he gets bullied a lot. People think he’s German because his sister married a German bloke.
“He is pretty much the exact opposite of Harriet. She’s very ‘out there’ but she helps his family and he follows her, even though the first time they meet he punches her in the face by accident.”
Elliot said: “I’m very into history. It made me think how useful children were during the First World War.”
He said he had enjoyed the night shooting best of all although some other cast members hadn’t been looking forward to it.
Ciara said: “My shoes were really thin. My feet were so cold.”
The series was shot earlier in the year, at locations incluiding Beamish, because the plot demanded dark skies.
Ciara, whose younger sister is training to be a ballet dancer, said: “I loved playing Harriet. I think she’s great. She’s really feisty and follows her own instincts.
“She doesn’t have a mum. Her mum died so she has had no female role models. Her father is a headmaster and also the Scout leader.”
Ciara said of the shoot: “There are some great locations here and I loved coming to Newcastle. It’s a great city.”
Harriet’s Army is the latest children’s TV drama series to be made in the North East as the BBC strives to increase its involvement in the region.
Children’s programming has been identified as one specialist area ripe for development here following the trail-blazing Byker Grove and more recent successes such as Wolfblood and the Tracy Beaker spin-off, The Dumping Ground.
Also at Baltic this week, at screenings facilitiated by Northern Fim & Media, were Helen Bullough, head of CBBC Production, and Jo Ward, executive producer of Harriet’s Army.
Jo said the series came out of the discussions that took place ahead of this year’s First World War centenary events.
“It was decided our contribution would be a drama for children that would show what happened to the children left at home.
“While that was being researched a development assistant came across the fact that the Scouts and Guides played a very big part in the war, forming a second line of defence.
“What they did was a bit like what Dad’s Army did in the Second World War. That was the starting point.
“Various writers were approached and Guy Burt latched onto the Scouts and Guides thing and came up with this girl, Harriet, who gets ejected from the Guides just before the outbreak of war for fighting too much.
“He came up with this rather nice story about Harriet putting together a band of misfits and going off to find spies... the sort of thing the Scouts were supposed to be doing.
“Harriet is quite a modern girl for her time and this is really her story. But what starts off as a game becomes real when she helps a family (the family of Thomas Brown) who are accused of being German spies.”
Jo said they didn’t want to do a series set in the trenches for CBBC’s audience of children aged six to 12 but said the important issues were still dealt with.
“The brother of Harriet’s friend is shell-shocked so you get a feeling of what it was like to be in the trenches but without us showing it – there’s enough of that going on elsewhere. This is how it was for this small community back in England.”
It is not specifically a North East community, as the accents reveal. “We wanted to keep it fairly loose because we knew we wouldn’t get everyone with the same accent,” said Jo. “We maybe had a Yorkshire mill community in mind.
“But we wanted to shoot at Beamish. That was our starting point because Beamish offers so much... but then to look for things around there.
“We had to look for streets which didn’t have double glazing and in some places we put up our own windows.”
Jo said of Harriet’s Army: “I was a bit afraid that it might come across as The Famous Five meets The Railway Children but it’s not as simple as that. There are quite a lot of interesting relationships in it and I think it won’t necessarily appeal only to children.”
Helen Bullough, still basking in the success of CBBC Live which brought 36,000 visitors to the Newcastle and Gateshead quaysides a few weeks ago, was clearly pleased with the way Harriet’s Army has turned out.
But she revealed it had originally been called Emily’s Army. The name had to be changed because there’s an American rock band of the same name.
Ciara Baxendale said that was fine with her because she preferred the name Harriet.
Harriet’s Army was screened twice at Baltic this week and was well received by children and adults. It is a very classy piece of drama, well acted and good-looking, which should appeal to a family audience.
It is due to be shown on CBBC in three half-hour episodes, the first in early August to coincide with the centenary of the outbreak of war. All three parts will then be shown together in a feature-length broadcast near Remembrance Day.