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

 

Michael Burn: Birkin’s ghostwriter

The story told in the BBC film Full Throttle, that of the writing of Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin’s autobiography, was just one landmark in the life of another extraordinary character – the author, poet and warrior, Michael Burn. His is a tale well worth the telling.

Burn was born in December 1912, the eldest son of a solicitor who was soon appointed secretary to the Duchy of Cornwall. The family moved to a grace-and-favour house diagonally opposite Buckingham Palace. As a child, Burn used to fire his air rifle towards the palace, trying to hit the first Belisha beacon to be installed in London.

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‘Tim’ Birkin and Michael Burn as portrayed in Full Throttle

While at school in Winchester, Burn suggested to his father that he was attracted to the other boys.  Sir Clive arranged an appointment with King George V’s personal doctor, who prescribed benzedrine. That didn’t work, unsurprisingly, so his father went to a different doctor, who pronounced the youth ‘normal’ and, with that little matter thus cleared up, his son went up to Oxford.

University life was not a success. It ushered in a year of utter debauchery, from which Burn retired to a villa in Le Touquet in the summer of 1931, where his maternal grandfather had built the first casino. Here he met with the celebrated racing driver ‘Tim’ Birkin, twice a winner at Le Mans and a genuine Boys’ Own hero. Burn decided not to return to Oxford and instead agreed to act as ghostwriter for Birkin’s autobiography, entitled Full Throttle.

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Birkin also invented electric rail racing – precursor to slot cars

The book did brilliantly and led to Burn being commissioned to write a history of Brooklands, which appeared as Wheels Take Wings (1933). During his research, Burn met a student from Trinity College, Cambridge, by the name of Guy Burgess. Burgess was openly homosexual, a Marxist, and he utterly bewitched the younger man – introducing him to his circle of friends among whom was the novelist EM Forster.

In the early 1930s, fiery political rhetoric intoxicated many young men and Burn was among them. He decided to witness Hitler’s Germany for himself: renting a flat in Munich and allowing himself to be seduced by Nazism. Here he lived among a number of other expats including Donald Maclean, who would soon join forces with Guy Burgess as members of the ‘Cambridge Spy Ring’.

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Burn’s first encounter with the Cambridge spy ring came through Guy Burgess

Burn drank his fill of Hitler’s economic miracle and marvelled at the levels of national pride he encountered. He then went on to witness Mussolini in Italy, where he lived as a guest of Alice Keppel, Edward VII’s mistress, and her daughter, Violet Trefusis, in Florence. Fascist Italy provided pyrotechnic politics of the kind he so desired – and also brought about more contact with the opposite sex.

Returning to London, Burn took up residence with the celebrated stage and film actress, Viola Tree. He helped her to edit the memoirs of her late husband while he perfected vocational training in typing and shorthand. A relatively sedate life then beckoned on the staff of the Gloucester Citizen until Burn decided to spend hid summer holiday back in Munich during 1935.

Among the British crowd in Bavaria this time around was Unity Mitford, the most fervent of the celebrated Mitford sisters in her admiration of fascism. Unity was completely besotted with Adolf Hitler, and her peers were sure that she was hell-bent on marrying him. Burn took tea with Unity in Munich’s Carlton tea rooms when the Führer popped in to say hello, and Burn recorded that Unity was positively vibrating with glee as she was ushered off to sit with him.

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Burn (centre) pictured alongside Unity Mitford (left) at Nuremberg

Eventually, Burn would also be granted an audience with Hitler – who invited the young Englishman to witness the Nüremberg Rally from one of the more privileged seats alongside Unity. He was utterly spellbound by “great lights in the sky, moving music, the rhetoric, the presentation, timing, performance, soundtrack, exultation, and climax. It was almost aimed at the sexual parts of one’s consciousness.”

Hitler also handed him a personally-signed copy of Mein Kampf – although he lost it soon afterwards. He was also treated to a tour of the Dachau concentration camp, which apparently didn’t phase him. Nevertheless, something sparked an almighty row with Unity Mitford in the days afterwards and, with that, Burn turned his back on Germany.

He returned to Britain after informing his editor that he wanted to leave the Gloucester Citizen for less tranquil waters. A glowing reference was presented to The Times, which stuck the newcomer on fairly light domestic duties until Burn’s unprecedented access to the royal family led to his covering the affair between King Edward VIII and the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson.

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Burn and his father playing golf, 1931

When viewed from our age of phone tapping and litigation, this would appear to have been a staggering breach in court security. Burn’s father was firmly ensconced in the Duchy of Cornwall, and from this position granted his son access to court and everyone up to Walter Monckton, the King’s go-between with the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, during the abdication crisis. Whatever else, it can certainly be said that coverage of the whole sorry spectacle in The Times did not lack authority.

Nevertheless, the growing threat posed by Germany loomed large over proceedings and soon the threat posed by Hitler trumped even the ongoing fallout of royal scandal. Burn enlisted as a reservist in the Queen’s Westminsters territorial battalion of the King’s Rifle Corps during 1938 but remained a journalist and travelled to Croydon Airport to see off the new prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, when he went to Munich to meet Hitler.

When war finally came, Burn volunteered for service in one of the ten independent companies that were formed to conduct guerilla operations in the battle to save Norway from invasion. After the fall of Norway, Burn joined the British Commandos, ending up in No.2 Commando and honing his skills in readiness for the assault on the world’s largest dry dock in Ste. Nazaire in March 1942.

St. Nazaire, Zerstörer "HMS Campbeltown"

Ste. Nazaire: HMS Campbelltown resting on the wall it would soon destroy

The dock was believed to be the only location large enough to accommodate the battleship Tirpitz, and if it was put out of acton the German Kriegsmarine would be less likely to send its flagship out into the Atlantic. Burn’s 2 Commando landed in advance to destroy onshore facilities and minimize the firepower that could be brought to bear on the attacking force. They were to clear the way for the destroyer HMS Campbelltown, which would be crashed into the wall of the dry dock, laden with concealed explosives.

The plan was for the Campbelltown sit astride the dry dock wall, the fuses on her explosive cargo delayed to allow the Commandos to escape. Then she would be blown to smithereens, taking the wall with her and ushering in a wave that would demolish the entire facility.

Burn’s commanding officer described the audacious plan as “the sauciest job since Drake”. Militarily, the operation was an unprecedented success in terms of destroying the base, but the Commandos paid a heavy price, made worse because the small boats that they were supposed to escape in were sunk, forcing them to fight their way out and attempt to escape over land.

Burn was among the wounded. His capture was filmed for use in the propaganda reels and, noticing the camera crew as he passed, Burn discreetly positioned his fingers in a ‘V-sign’ as he was marched off. When the newsreel was shown in occupied Holland, Burn’s defiance so moved the mother of future Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn that she sent a food parcel to his prison camp.

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Caught on camera: Burn gives his defiant V-sign

Burn’s internment was to last to the end of the war, primarily in Oflag IV-C, better known as Colditz Castle, where he languished alongside such men as future Le Mans winner Tony Rolt. Burn recorded as much detail of life in the camp as he could and, when he was released, turned his recollections into another best-selling book. During his incarceration, Burn also became a confirmed Communist sympathizer.

In the hoary early morning of the Cold War, Burn was to be found in Vienna as correspondent for The Times. He remained in the city – a place of secrets and shadows on the fringes of the enlarged Soviet empire – for almost a year. He then went to Budapest, much closer to the Soviets, and took with him a new wife.

Mary Booker had been the subject of one of the most tragic and celebrated romances of the war, as the great love of Spitfire pilot Richard Hillary, who badly burned in the Battle of Britain and later killed in a flying accident during 1943. Mary had been significantly older than Hillary and was well into middle age by the time she married Burn. They lived contentedly enough together in Budapest while Burn was The Times’ Balkan correspondent.

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Burn and his wife, Mary

The couple returned to Britain in the early 1950s, whereupon Burn forsook journalism for more creative writing. He put out a play, The Night of the Ball, which opened in 1954. It was at this time that he was arrested during a sexual encounter with a young man in Bayswater. The policemen concerned attempted to blackmail Burn, who called their bluff and prosecuted the men. They were found guilty of blackmail and sentenced to prison.

Burn continued a fairly prodigious output of poetry and novels throughout the Fifties and the marriage continued until Mary’s death in 1974. He lived for a time in some bohemian splendour amid the eccentric village of Portmeirion, later to become famous as the location for Patrick McGoohan’s surreal spy drama The Prisoner. North Wales was his home and from here he attempted to run a Communist-style co-operative mussel farming business without conspicuous success.

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Portmeirion – the Welsh village has had a profound effect on popular culture

In 1988, Burn produced the book Mary and Richard, based the love letters that passed between his late wife and Richard Hillary up until his death. He wrote it as a means to end rumours that Hilary had chosen to kill himself because of unhappiness in the affair. As a defence of his late wife’s reputation it was a masterpiece: through their intimate words, Burn conclusively proved how profound their affection had been to the end.

In 1995 Burn added his voice to the BBC’s film Full Throttle, a dramatization of his three week stay with Sir Henry Birkin, where his young self was portrayed by Crispin Bonham-Carter, cousin of the celebrated actress Helena. Burn’s own autobiography appeared in 2003, entitled Turned Towards the Sun. He died in his sleep at home in North Wales in 2010, aged 97.

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Michael Burn in his final days in North Wales

 

Ferrari and Alfa Romeo – 80 years on

Today saw the launch of Ferrari’s 2015 Formula One contender, the SF15-T. At this stage in its life it simply looks like a prettier version of last year’s car, but what’s this on its flanks? Why! It’s the Alfa Romeo badge!

The 2015 Ferrari - complete with Alfa Romeo badge

The 2015 Ferrari – complete with Alfa Romeo badge

While of little overall consequence, the badge does offer some hope that the Scuderia might embrace a little more of its pre-war past. For too many years the boys and girls in red have been keen to impress upon us all that the world began in 1947, when Enzo first set about building cars in his own name.

Yet by doing so, they have cast aside the many triumphs achieved through the 1930s, when Scuderia Ferrari was first a customer team for Alfa Romeo and later the effective works squad.

Each year around the world there is undoubtedly more excitement surrounding the birth of a new Ferrari than can be whipped up by any of the other teams. Perhaps in 2015 this is because they remain scarlet in a sea of grey colour schemes (perhaps ‘Fifty Shades’ should be the new tagline for F1), but more often it is because of heritage and tradition, the pageantry and sheer Italian theatre that surrounds the team.

The twin-engined 1935 Alfa Bimotore was designed and built by Ferrari

The twin-engined 1935 Alfa Bimotore was designed and built by Ferrari

Well, the Scuderia provided bucket loads of the latter throughout the 1930s. This year, for example, marks the 80th anniversary of Tazio Nuvolari’s victory at the Nürburgring. That race – when the Maestro wrung the neck of his underpowered Alfa P3 to beat the Germans on home soil – is about as big a chunk of Grand Prix folklore as you’ll find and an anniversary that is well worth Ferrari’s time to celebrate…

…particularly when the Germans are stomping all over the sport now as they did then.

So, with this in mind, here’s a lovely little film of Nuvolari winning the 1935 Pau Grand Prix. The event, in February of that year, was Nuvolari’s first after returning to the fold at Ferrari, having previously believed that he would be better off in privately-entered Bugattis and Maseratis.

The race doesn’t look particularly well-attended, but at the front of the field the two Ferrari-entered Alfa Romeos of Nuvolari and René Dreyfus put on a show. Ferrari’s all-stars traded the lead throughout 75 of the 80 laps before the ‘Flying Mantuan’ asserted his authority to lead Dreyfus home nearly four minutes clear of the competition.

Such was the stuff of the 750 kg Grand Prix formula – until the Germans arrived and rewrote the rulebook for the glory of the Reich. So enjoy the clip and let’s hope that the good people in Maranello break open the archives on this earlier partnership with Alfa Romeo.

 

‘Mad Jack’ and the Shuttleworths

The Shuttleworth Collection is one of Britain’s best-loved transport museums: a haven where the exhibits really do come to life and the only place in the world where you can often see a real 1909 Bleriot monoplane take to the air. But while its living, breathing artefacts are well-known, perhaps its ‘founding father’ is a little less so.

Ivan Berryman captures 'Mad Jack' in action - available here

Ivan Berryman captures ‘Mad Jack’ in action – available here

The Shuttleworth family originally came from Dogdyke in Lincolnshire, where this corner of the industrial revolution saw Joseph Shuttleworth ally his boat-building business with his brother-in-law Nathaniel Clayton’s iron foundry. Together they began to build steam engines and the new agricultural machinery that began to mechanise the British landscape in the late 19th Century.

The Claytons and Shuttleworths bequeathed a thriving business to their children, with Joseph Shuttleworth’s younger son Frank enjoying a privileged upbringing and education in Germany and France and becoming an accomplished yachtsman. His chosen career was as an officer in the cavalry, while also becoming a successful steeplechase jockey; buying an estate at Old Warden in Bedfordshire from which to breed horses.

The Clayton and Shuttleworth factory today

The Clayton and Shuttleworth factory today

At the ripe old age of 57 he settled down and married Dorothy, the beautiful 23-year-old daughter of Old Warden’s vicar, in 1902. The couple were blissfully happy, despite the age gap, taking a round the world trip in 1906 before Dorothy gave birth to a son, Richard, who was born in 1909.

Frank died just four years later, but his legacy of adventure and adrenaline lived on in his young son. Richard developed an abiding passion for aviation, enhanced no doubt by the fact that the Clayton and Shuttleworth factories were given over to war production during World War 1. Clayton and Shuttleworth became a major aircraft constructor and, in so doing, built a wide range of machines from the nimble Sopwith Camel fighter to the gigantic Handley Page 0/400 bomber.

The mighty Handley Page 0/400

The mighty Handley Page 0/400 was built by Clayton and Shuttleworth

Perhaps in anticipation of an inherited reckless streak, Richard’s father had ensured that his inheritance was to be held in trust until he turned 23. This prompted some inventiveness from the young scion to ensure maximum thrills on a tight budget – he chose to buy and tun old cars, taking part in the London to Brighton Run from the age of 19 at the wheel – or tiller – of a variety of pioneering pre-1906 machinery.

This was often done in the company of boisterous friends and peers, while Shuttleworth’s ebullience at the controls gave nim the nickname ‘Mad Jack’ which was to become very much part of his persona. Once he turned 23, however, Richard’s massive resources allowed him to indulge all his passions, and he immediately learned to fly, buying the Bleriot and Deperdussin monoplanes which remain at the heart of his collection today.

Aircraft were one passion but motoring was another. As his contribution to the family business, Richard invested heavily in Noel Macklin’s new Railton sports car marque. For his own motoring ambitions, meanwhile, he bought a Bugatti Type 51 Grand Prix car and won the Brighton Speed Trials.

Shuttleworth at the 1934 Mannin Moar (pic The Bugatti Trust)

He upgraded the Bugatti to a brand new Alfa Romeo P3 in 1935. The green-painted Alfa won the Brooklands Mountain Championship and ran competitively alongside the works cars of Scuderia Ferrari in Europe, but Shuttleworth’s finest hour came in the inaugural Grand Prix held at Donington Park circuit in Leicestershire at the end of the season.

It was a weekend of foul weather and the ‘crack’ Ferrari-entered Alfas of Giuseppe Farina and Raymond Sommer held sway through the early stages of the race. Shuttleworth ran in fourth but spun while attempting to remain on the lead lap and appeared to be out of the running completely.

In desperation he ditched the blue and white cork crash helmet and visor, opting instead to race bare-headed in just a pair of goggles as he attempted to fight his way back into contention. ‘Mad Jack’ was to the fore, powering the Alfa through the many bends of the parkland circuit in a string of lurid slides with his hair blowing in the wind… meanwhile the works Alfas hit trouble, leaving the British drivers a clear field.

The two Bugattis of Earl Howe and Charlie Martin looked to have the race sewn up, but Shuttleworth kept charging and when the more experienced men spun in the aqwful conditions he was able to pounce, In the end he finished 45 seconds clear of Howe’s Bugatti to claim a memorable victory – and his finest racing achievement, taking home the Donington Park Challenge Trophy and £400 for his efforts.

Early in 1936, Shuttleworth took his Alfa to South Africa and entered the East London Grand Prix. He lost control of the car at speed and suffered career-ending injuries – preferring to dedicate himself to aviation, except for his outings on the annual London to Brighton jaunt.

Fairey Battles on a training flight over England

Fairey Battle bombers on a training flight over England

At the outbreak of World War 2, Richard joined the Royal Air Force. For all his enormous experience, however, he was killed in an accident while piloting a Fairey Battle bomber over Oxfordshire while practicing night flying.

His mother, although devastated by the loss of her son, set up the mansion as a Red Cross Convalescent Home for injured airmen and created a small chapel, dedicated to Richard. In 1944 she decided to place the estate in a charitable Trust in memory of her son; she wanted to ensure that it would continue as one entity to be used for the purpose of agricultural and aviation education, two interests that Richard was especially keen on.

Shuttleworth College first opened its doors to students in 1946 and remains as part of the modern Bedford College. Richard’s collection of historic aircraft and cars were also preserved in working order, opening to the public in 1963. The Collection has since grown in scale and stature, while the family home at Old Warden Park is now also a renowned conference venue and is also home to the English School of Falconry.

Shuttleworth's 1912 Deperdussin in action today

Shuttleworth’s 1912 Deperdussin in action today