That time at Sandown…

Here’s a little something that pops up every so often – the racy demonstration of Sir Jack Brabham in his Brabham-Repco and Juan Manuel Fangio in his 1955 Mercedes-Benz W196. Both cars had been recently restored by their owners in Australia, and as a support to the 1978 Australian Grand Prix at Sundown they were to be reunited with their original drivers.

All the hype and Fangio’s own insistence was that this was not a demonstration by two champions but a race. Perhaps it was, but it’s worth remembering that, in their heydays, there was a full minute’s difference between the two cars over a lap of Spa-Francorchamps and 13 seconds at Monaco.

Nevertheless, while Black Jack is the perfect gentleman and makes a show of it, it’s clear that Fangio is properly ‘on it’ for a recently-restored car that was worth a major sum of money even 40 years ago. And both men clearly wanted to be first past the chequered flag.

Incidentally, the Australian Grand Prix was a Formula 5000 race, won by Graham McRae in his self-built Chevrolet-engined car in a highly attritional race that saw two drivers hospitalised.

It’s thanks to this sort of enthusiasm for old cars, so clearly on show at Sandown that day, that the Silverstone Classic, the Goodwood Revival and the Nürburgring Old-timer exist as some of the best-attended motor sport events in the world. This is why…

Hooray for Tailspin Tommy

A recent discovery online has been one of the serials whose instalments were a weekly highlight of life for cinema-goers in the 1930s. Pretty much every major genre was represented in these movies, which broke a longer story into 10-12 chapters like a pulp fiction novel for the silver screen, but the antics of  Tailspin Tommy take some beating.

Just look at the hardware on show in these first two chapters of Tommy’s first tale! There’s an entire encyclopaedia of US Navy aviation in the Thirties on screen almost throughout the film, with the added joys of some proper barnstorming aerobatics.

Tailspin Tommy himself was a creation of comic strip artist Hal Forrest, a former WW1 pilot, who sought to capitalise on the popularity of barnstorming and the surge in popularity of aviators thanks to the record-breaking exploits of Charles Lindberg et al.

Tommy Tomkins made his comic strip debut in four newspapers during 1928, but such was the thirst for air-related yarns that this rose to 250 newspapers by 1931! The central character was America’s answer to Biggles, an aircraft-obsessed teenager from Littleville, Colorado who comes to the aid of an airman in trouble and earns himself a job with Three Point Airlines in Texas.

Once in Texas, Tommy soon earns his wings as a pilot and picks up a new best friend, Skeeter Williams, and a girlfriend, Betty Lou Barnes, and the tree of them buy shares in Three Point Airlines. Along the way the trio have many and varied adventures throughout the USA, usually with a ticklish problem to solve.

Hollywood soon beckoned and Universal snapped up the rights to these adventures. The first movie serial, Tailspin Tommy, appeared in 1934 as a 12-episode tale in which Tommy must help Three Point Airlines overcome an unscrupulous rival to win a major contract. Not only that but he must win Betty Lou’s heart from a rival suitor.

The second serial, Tailspin Tommy and the Great Air Mystery, is where the above clip hails from – an altogether bigger and more ambitious production.  Tommy must stop a corrupt businessman from stealing vital oil reserves, and along the way befriends an investigative journalist played by screen legend Pat O’Brien.

This was to be the last of Tommy’s serial adventures, although he would return for four full-length movies later in the 1930s. The cinema-going public’s affections had switched from air-minded melodrama to the utterly fantastical, which was good news for one of the stars of the Tommy Tomkins movies – Jean Rogers.

From playing the businesslike, if slightly flighty, Betty Lou Barnes she went on to become a genuine Hollywood icon playing Dale Arden, the love interest of Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon in the greatest serial of them all.

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Jean Rogers went from Tailspin Tommy to Flash Gordon – doubtless to the envy of many girls of the Thirties

 

Hollywood on the march again

It appears that moves are afoot in Tinseltown to remake another flying epic – in this case The Battle of Britain.

The original 1969 movie was directed by the godlike genius of Guy Hamilton (responsible for the British spy movie masterpieces Goldfinger and Funeral in Berlin).  Hamilton was employed by James Bond producer Harry Saltzman to depict the summer of 1940 with an all-star cast including Sir Laurence Olivier as Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Trevor Howard as Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park and luminaries such as Robert Shaw, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer and Edward Fox among the pilots.

It is a movie brim-full of bravado and armed with no shortage of quotable moments that have probably done more for sales of Airfix kits than any other venture of the past 50 years. Here’s an old favourite to set the tone:

The production famously featured enough aircraft to count as the 35th largest air force in the world. Wartime bomber pilot, Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie, brought together 18 Spitfires and six Hurricanes, while the Spanish Air Force was still flying licence-built Heinkel He-111s, Junkers Ju52s and Messerschmitt 109s and provided no fewer than 61 aircraft in total.

Admittedly not all of the aircraft flew (it’s always fun to spot the ‘Messerschmitts’ in formation with the three airworthy Hurricanes, for example), but the resulting film was for the most part flown for real. Better still, it was filmed under the direction of genuine Battle of Britain aces on both sides of the conflict led by Group Captains Tom Gleave and Peter Townsend on the British side and General Adolf Galland representing the Luftwaffe with characteristic verve.

The film cost $12 million – an incredible fortune in 1968 – and by the end of production money was tight, meaning that scale model Stuka dive bombers were used rather than the planned restoration of the RAF Museum’s full size example. Although generally receiving favourable reviews, the renowned critic Roger Ebert picked up on the cost cutting in his review, saying:

“The airplanes are another sore point. Sure, Harry Saltzman spent millions to assemble and repair Spitfires and Hurricanes, and there was even a TV special about the authenticity of the movie. But you’ve got to USE airplanes; it isn’t enough to own them. Some of the aerial photography is very good. We see dogfights actually filmed in the air and fought by real planes (instead of by models and visual effects). But the aerial scenes are allowed to run forever and repeat themselves shamelessly, until we’re sure we saw that same Heinkel dive into the sea (sorry — the ‘drink’) three times already.”

Despite Ebert’s reservations, much of the aerial photography and the actors’  performances were astounding, leaving us with scenes to treasure such as this one, when Robert Shaw’s Captain Skipper leads his men in to intercept another Heinkel raid:

Fast forward 48 years and the Oscar-winning producer, Graham King (The Departed), has hired Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) to write a new script. Towne and King have previously worked together in the Tom Cruise Mission Impossible series.

King recently told Entertainment Weekly that the film is personal project, saying: “My father lived in London and watched this spectacular dog fight over the city, so bringing this story of endurance and triumph to the big screen means a great deal to me…”

It has now been reported that nine of the Hispano ‘Buchon’ fighters – licence-built Messerschmitt 109s – used in the film have been unearthed still wearing their fictional warpaint from 1968. At least four of them are being recommissioned for the remake. It would seem that money was so tight that by the end of filming they were presented to the flying co-ordinator in lieu of currency!

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Four Hispano ‘Messerschmitts’ are receiving some TLC

In total there are three genuine Messerschmitts of the correct vintage and seven Hispano Buchons airworthy in the world, with a further 29 Messerschmitts and 14 Hispanos under restoration to static or flying condition.

Elsewhere in the world there are nearly 240 Spitfires known to exist worldwide, of which 54 are currently airworthy and 113 are in various states of restoration. Thanks to the population explosion in restored airframes there are many more period-correct Spitfires available today than Guy Hamilton had in his ‘air force’ – in the 1969 movie many of the Spitfires were given cosmetic makeovers to appear closer to 1940 specification, being nicknamed ‘Mk. Haddies’ in deference to the Group Captain.

Hurricanes are less plentiful but nine are airworthy and six more are potentially ‘runners’, with 14 on static display in Europe and North America. Two genuine Heinkel He-111s are on static display, 11 of the CASA 2.111s used in the film still exist – but for the Junkers Ju88s, Dornier Do17s and Messerschmitt 110s there is little hope.

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Spitfires are multiplying at a rate unseen since the Forties

There are now two airworthy Gloster Gladiators in the UK, plus a Bristol Blenheim and a static Boulton Paul Defiant. Their use all depends, of course, on how authentic – and how well-funded – the remake is intended to be. And, of course, there is the question of how much of the final film is shot for real and how great a role digital special effects will play.

The S&G is therefore watching developments with a measure of trepidation. Hollywood’s idea of the Battle of Britain will be based upon what is sellable, as was last seen in the odious tosh that was Pearl Harbor – a movie that will live in infamy.

Will the presence of the Royal Navy at anchor and the almost complete absence of a workable German invasion plan warrant a mention? Will the remake toe the line and depict the mythical ‘Few’ of Churchill’s invention? Will Tom Cruise single-handedly win the Battle as an American volunteer who is ostracised for wearing crepe soled brothel creepers in the officers’  mess?

Locations shouldn’t be too great a problem – doubtless Goodwood/Westhampnett will be in the mix and Duxford is a given. Sadly for all concerned, the closest airfield to the white cliffs in wartime and star of many scenes in the original movie, Hawkinge, has long since been buried under the urban sprawl.

One thing is for sure: very little could ever replace the sight of Susannah York preparing for a night of passion. One can rebuild a Spitfire pretty easily, but other things are unrepeatable.

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Celluloid dogfights: a brief history

With a title that sounds like a b-side from the late David Bowie, the S&G reflects upon the too-few attempts to portray World War 1 in the air on the silver screen.

In many ways it is a tragedy that stories of the young pilots in peril during World War 1 have not received as much of the high quality of storytelling as their counterparts in the trenches. Perhaps it is the lack of poetry. Perhaps it the combined legacy of Biggles, Snoopy and Captain Flashheart that serious depictions of the airmen of the great war are so few and far between.

Whatever it is that has caused this massive gap in popular culture is utterly and fundamentally wrong-headed. Here endeth the lesson, now let’s watch some aeroplanes and dream of the day that Peter Jackson actually gets on with making the ultimate cinematic tribute.

Grand-daddy of them all is Howard Hughes’s movie Wings (1927), featuring a whole lot of veteran pilots flying war surplus aircraft. Even then, genuine machinery was becoming hard to come by and one could never mistake California for Passchendaele in a million years but enough about this epic film was authentic in a way that nobody since would ever attempt to match.

The advent of World War 2 somewhat stifled demand for movies about World War 1. Not until the 1960s was there another blockbuster about flying over the Western Front and it came in the form of The Blue Max (1966), starring George Peppard. As with Wings, the aerial sequences were filmed for real, with just enough authentic-looking replicas of Fokker Dr.Is, Fokker D.VIIs, Pfalz D.IIIs and S.E.5as to conceal the makeweight Tiger Moth contingent in the rear. The back screen projection for the actors’ close-ups look rather quaint in this day and age but it was a stronger film than it receives credit for.

Fast forward to 1975 and you have the hottest star of the era, Robert Redford, lighting up that million megawatt smile as The Great Waldo Pepper; a tale of barnstormers in the midwest in the days after World War 1. In the final section of the film, director and writer George Roy Hill goes all-out to recreate the filming of Howard Hughes’s Wings – including putting his actors into biplanes for their close-up shots. It is a riot that quickly gets out of hand when Waldo, the ace in his own mind, goes head-to-head with Ernst Kessler, the German ace of aces…

George Roy Hill went out of his way to celebrate the World War 1 airman in war, in peace and most importantly in popular culture while, at the same time, the British took a very different approach. The movie Dawn Patrol (1975) and the BBC TV series Wings (1976-77) attempted to tell the story of the air war as sneering social commentary. Both appear to have been written by North London socialists in penance for Britain’s imperial past. Jeremy Corbyn probably has the DVD box set of Wings in pride of place on his Soviet-era wall units. Ghastly.

After decades of silence about biplanes (and triplanes) over the Western Front, in came Hollywood with a bright young star, James Franco. Predictably, this is a tale of how Americans tried to win the war before Woodrow Wilson had got under starter’s orders. Flyboys (2006) was loosely based on the story of the Escadrille Lafayette in 1916-17 and is actually a good deal less infuriating than it might have been – although the speed of the CGI Nieuports and Fokkers seems to owe more to Star Wars than to The Blue Max.

And finally we have the slightly poetic violence portrayed in The Red Baron (2008) – a German movie filmed in English to try and maximise the international audience.

There is an awful lot to commend this one, but despite being a veritable feast for the eyes it’s all a bit flat with no edges whatsoever, turning the real-life Red Baron into something of a gauzy nonentity. There are moments of beauty that the PlayStation graphics of Hollywood would have overlooked but, oddly, if I were trying to conjure up some enthusiasm for World War 1 flying in someone without much exposure to it, I’d play something else. This film just isn’t quite as good as it could have been, in the same way that Flyboys isn’t as bad as it should have been.

It is quite interesting to see how techniques – and the speed of the aircraft – have changed over the years. So too are the perspectives of the film makers themselves. As the centenaries continue to roll round over the next couple of years, these films may well be dragged out of the hangar on occasion. As the remaining links between our lives and those that the films attempted to portray slip deeper beneath the waves, that is something of a worry. There really was so much more than any of what the movies have given us. Future generations may as well study Snoopy…

 

The name’s Biswas. Mister Biswas.

It’s not often that ITV offers a nugget that really tickles the taste buds – particularly not in amongst the endless round of talking head documentaries that fill the Christmas schedules. For the record, whoever came up with the concept of showing a clip of a film/music video/gameshow and then have a Z-list nonentity describe what you’ve just seen with some wild-eyed embellishments needs to be shot.

Be that as it may, when ‘the nation’ selected its top 20 James Bond themes for an eponymous show (presumably that segment of the nation which shops at TK Max, drinks WKD and knows who any of the contestants on I’m a Celebrity… are), we were treated to an outing for Monty Norman’s first use of what would become his iconic Bond theme.

This was in fact a song from an unfinished musical adaptation of the novel A House for Mister Biswas, which was originally called Good Sign Bad Sign. If you can stand more than 74 seconds of it, you will have set a new record:

It is a spectacularly poor piece of work, you’ll undoubtedly agree, and it would have been a travesty if such a landmark novel as Mister Biswas were to have emerged with the sort of production values that went into this. All we can say at the S&G is thank goodness that Norman’s handiwork was given a final polish by John Barry, Vic Flick and his 1939 English Clifford Essex Paragon Deluxe guitar.

So let’s celebrate the masterpiece that was the opening credits to James Bond’s first on-screen adventure, featuring the John Barry/Vic Flick remix of Good Sign Bad Sign in its original glory, together with an awful lot of Caribbean goodness…

 

Some special heritage moments

Few sports are as good at looking backwards as motor sport – but then few sports have attained such levels of bravery and skill as a matter of course. With so much to celebrate each year, there are always some highlights. Few of these fall within the S&G’s remit, but they’re fun nevertheless…

Sicily 2015: Dan Ricciardo drives the Targa Florio

Goodwood 2014: Marking 50 years since John Surtees became F1 champion – love the standing ovation!

Bahrain 2010: 60 years of Formula One – world champions gathering

Barcelona 2015: Alonso drives Senna’s McLaren

Ferrari 2012: Jacques Villeneuve marks his father’s memory 30 years on

And while it’s been on the S&G before, it’s always a pleasure to see Fernando Alonso at the wheel of the Ferrari 375 in 2011 – one lap behaving himself and then the blue touch paper is lit!

On the subject of Charlie Chaplin…

Glad everyone seemed to enjoy yesterday’s post about the links between Fiat racing cars of a century ago and contemporary Hollywood. While gearing up for further stories that connect to Mack Sennett, the Keystone studios and their connection to the motor racing and aviation world, to be told over the Festive Season, I thought it well worth posting a bit more of Charlie Chaplin’s magic.

The single reel of Kid Auto Races at Venice marked the public debut on Charlie Chaplin’s ‘little tramp’ character when it was released on 7 February 1914. Once again, as in Mabel Takes the Wheel, the movie was shot live on the streets of Santa Monica – this time when the Junior Vanderbilt Cup was held: a soap box derby with all the bells and whistles.

Once again, Chaplin proved to be fearless in pursuing his art in front of racing vehicles. And, once again, some of the fervour that surrounded motor racing in the days before World War 1 can be gleaned from the crowds he clearly amuses and irritates in equal measure.

The tramp himself may not yet be the complete article in Kid Auto Races, but it is nevertheless a film which anticipates those irksome types who stand on David Coulthard’s shoulder in the F1 paddock, mobile phones in hand, prattling on at their friends to let them know that they’re on TV. Enjoy…