Man of the narrow boats

Granada’s drama The Villains enlists the help of real people

TVTimes masthead
From the TVTimes for week commencing 5 April 1964

LIFE was so uncomplicated for Ken Nixon and his family. His bread-and-butter was pig-iron and copper.

His address was anywhere along the silver necklace of waterways between Liverpool and London.

His only major headache was fishing the kids out of the water whenever they went overboard.


Until a certain Spring afternoon when the sun was shining with surprising warmth, and the wind was corrugating the chocolate brown surface of the water at Weston Point Docks, at Runcorn, Cheshire

And Granada’s Travelling Eye unit moved in and took over his life for a week!

People stand on a barge
Watching rehearsals for The Villains… Ken Nixon and his family, left, board their barge

Friday’s episode of The Villains tells the story of two bargees smuggling contraband from Runcorn to London.

In the process it provides a tender and tragic glimpse of a section of the community with an attitude of mind as anachronistic as the horseless carriage — the fraternity of Britain’s waterways.

Authenticity and realism are the twin – keynotes of the series. And to obtain these, producer Harry Kershaw moved both cast and production unit down to the Cheshire waterways, lock, stock and barrel to prepare a large slice of the show on location. Which was were Ken came in.

The producer needed two real working barges. And the know-how to handle them.

Ken Nixon, a 31-year-old bargee who has been working the waterways since he was ten years old, was in a position to supply both. So he was seconded to the Outside Broadcast unit by the British Waterways Board as a sort of temporary “technical adviser.”

He turned out to be a lot more than that — particularly to the actors.

Jack Smethurst and Derek Benfield, who play the bargee brothers who fall foul of the law, spent days trying to capture his accent.

“It isn’t anything you can localise exactly.” said Jack. “A bargee’s accent seems to be coloured by every county he passes through.’’

But, more important still, Ken was a key to the extraordinary character of the men who drive the narrow boats. Because the long days gliding through the lonely, rippling reaches of Britain’s canals seem to produce an attitude to life which has never been fully reconciled with the world of television, the telephone and the washing machine.

Ken Nixon and his wife have three small children — but live in a tiny cabin that would make a gypsy’s caravan seem spacious.

His philosophical delight in Britain’s languid water highways is something he inherited from his parents, who were bargees before him

“You leave it, and you come back to it,” he said quietly, manoeuvring boats into position for next scene. “Once it gets in your blood, you just can’t get rid of it. It’s such a free life.”

Travelling Eye films
The real thing… cameramen in action on the episode

For this particular barge family, however, it is an idyll that can’t last forever.

The children are approaching school age. “I could send them to the Waterways boarding school at Birmingham,” said Ken. “But we’d miss them being away for all those months between holidays.

“So I suppose eventually I’ll have to give up the barges and find myself some kind of a job ashore.

“Mind you, I want a job driving a lorry or something. You get used to moving around. And like I said, you always come back to the waterways in the end.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *