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Behind The Scenes

Written by Liz Crow

Inhabiting worlds

Inspired by her grandfather’s appreciation of whisky and life as a barrow boy, and by her own love of swimming and work for inclusion, Nectar was a labour of love for Writer-Director Liz Crow.

Asked about her reasons for making Nectar, Liz says, “I wanted to make a film that held a sweetness; an antidote to the school of filmmaking that says if the audience isn’t deeply traumatised at the end, then the film has failed. The film might be set in 1931, but the dilemmas that affect Walter are the same that affect us all: our place in the world and whether we are bold enough to shape it for ourselves.”

Alongside the tale of Walter as a champion swimmer, is a parallel story of him as a young Deaf man. The elements of swimming and sign language are equally important and entwined. The naturalness of swimming for Walter is mirrored in the naturalness of language and vice versa. As he turns away from competition and from other people’s way of communicating, Walter is seeking the flow of the water and the flow of his own language; they are both the same journey. It is when he achieves both of these that he becomes most Walter.

Liz: “I wanted to show a disabled person in a situation where impairment is not the defining force, at the same time as it is integral to the character and the situation. Walter doesn’t either compete or stop swimming because of being Deaf. However, there is a fluency in his swimming that is matched in his BSL and, if only people had listened, they’d have known they were pushing him towards a dream that was not his.”

The golden age of swimming

Set in 1931, the film’s veracity depends on the production team’s detailed historical research.

As Walter swims his way towards selection for the 1932 Olympic Games, he uses a stroke that is quite different from today. The Amateur Swimming Association’s archive included film footage of a 1930s national swimming gala held at the very location used in the film and this gave the team valuable pointers on how the actors could adapt their own swimming style to fit.

Swimming costumes were also very different. In Nectar, the championships swimmers were recruited from the handful of young open water and Channel swimmers in the UK. A prerequisite was a sense of humour to cope with wearing 1930s woollen swimming costumes, especially when wet.

1930s sports training was also very different from today, with no formal sponsorship and athletes expected to fit training and competition around their full-time work commitments. In Nectar, when Coach reveals the plans for Walter to go to Loughborough to train with Harry Koskie, he is referring to one of the UK’s first dedicated swimming coaches who was pioneering structured training programmes and developing swimming strokes.

This was the golden age of swimming. As a relatively young Olympic sport, it was graced by names such as Johnny Weissmuller, five times gold medal winner (and subsequently the star of twelve Hollywood Tarzan films). For the people around Walter, the glory of the Olympics and the glitz of Los Angeles, the possibility of becoming ‘the next Johnny Weissmuller, beckon. They see a life of fame and fortune for Walter and cannot understand why he does not share their dreams.

For Nectar, the team had to locate two, fully functioning pre-1930s pools, including one of the right scale for the national championships. Months of recces led them to the lovingly-restored Wiveliscombe pool, near Taunton. With the cubicles repainted in period colours and sign writing added to the walls, this became Walter’s home pool. A spring-filled former quarry on the outskirts of Bristol became the setting for the championships, although the scale and small budget made a huge challenge for Art Director Simon Hicks. The aluminium-covered pontoon had to be dressed and the large open space decked with bunting, windbreaks, tents and deckchairs to convey a sense of scale and occasion. A second pontoon was installed in the middle of the lake. Attention to detail was vital throughout to give that period feel and the team sourced a remarkable array of props, including a set of cork lane markers couriered in from a Portuguese fishing fleet.

With the sets dressed, the actors costumed and the props in place, arriving on set for Nectar became like travelling back in time.

A natural language

Just as Walter is under pressure from all around to continue as a competitive swimmer, he is expected to fit himself into the hearing world through lip reading and speaking. As he journeys towards swimming for the love of it, he also works to claim British Sign Language (BSL) as his natural language.

BSL is the visual-manual language used by 50,000-70,0000 Deaf people in the UK. It has evolved over centuries and has undergone marked changes even within the past 75 years. The production team was joined by Deaf consultant Lorna Allsop, who researched period sign language and tutored the actors, as well as advising on the broader historical and cultural accuracy of the film from a Deaf perspective.

1930s sign language used far more fingerspelling and fewer lip patterns than contemporary sign language. Because signing was heavily censored by the hearing world, the signing space was generally smaller with people signing more tightly to the body. This was not an easy task for a young Deaf actor from a generation used to being able to project themselves openly. You might liken it to asking a hearing actor whispering their lines through pursed lips. So when it came to the shoot, Lorna not only taught key actors their lines in period BSL but also encouraged them to act within those constraints

At the start of the film, Walter wears a hearing aid, a gift from the local community. It is a typical 1930s, portable hearing aid, then a very new technological breakthrough, even though the technology was limited. Hearing aids magnified all sound so that the user received a cacophony of speech and background noise. The hearing aid in the film was lent by Lorna. “It was my father’s. He had it from aged four to six – it was a heavy, unreliable, burdensome thing and he put it down and never really used it much.”

To cite this page: Crow, Liz (2005) Nectar: Behind The Scenes, Roaring Girl Productions [online] [Available at:] [Accessed 19/06/2024]