A recent trip north of the border (to Scotland rather than Herefordshire, Worcestershire or Warwickshire) entailed crossing the magnificent Forth Bridge near Edinburgh, when the rumbling of the rails and the splendid views from the carriage window brought back memories of “The 39 Nine Steps”, and in particular the 1959 film of John Buchan’s novel starring Kenneth More as Richard Hannay. Although the Alfred Hitchcock version of the story, made in 1935 and with Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in the main roles, is usually cited as the best (Robert Powell also played Hannay in a 1978 remake) I think the Fifties film narrowly gets my vote. Mind you, the pre-war black-and-white version is worth watching just to see the wonderful John Laurie, who looks little different from how he appeared some 40 years later as the eye-rolling, doom-laden Private Frazer in television’s “Dad’s Army”!
While watching old films and repeats of popular television series it’s always enjoyable to look out for actors and actresses in minor roles before they became established stars. Although already well-known in 1959 through his comedy partnership with Tony Hancock on the radio, it was during the Sixties and Seventies that Sid James embarked on the career for which he is best remembered today: as an always entertaining mainstay of the Carry On films. He pops up in “The 39 Steps” as a lorry driver who gives the fugitive Hannay a lift and saves him from arrest. Born in South Africa in 1913, Sid James was an interesting, larger-than-life character who started out as a stand-up comedian and made more than 450 radio, television and film appearances, as well as appearing in a number of West End musicals. If you want to read more about him, he is featured in our 2018 This England Annual (further details can be found by clicking here).
Meanwhile, to continue along this meandering branch line where flickering scenes from the large and small screen can be glimpsed, I also recently came across an episode of “The Saint” from the 1960s (with Roger Moore as the suave crime-fighter Simon Templar). One of the bit-part actors (whose character came to a sticky end) was Donald Sutherland, several years before the Canadian found international stardom in films such as “The Dirty Dozen”, “Kelly’s Heroes”, “Klute” and “The Eagle Has Landed” (when, unless my memory is playing tricks, he produced one of the worst “Oirish” accents ever heard on screen!)
After being dropped off by the lorry driver, Richard Hannay takes refuge overnight with an eccentric lady clairvoyant and her long-suffering husband (played by Brenda De Banzie and Reginald Beckwith). Next day he escapes by hiding himself among a group of cyclists, a scene that, like much else in the film - the cars, the street furniture, the language the characters use - illustrates how so much in society has changed during the last 60 years.
The men and women on the bicycles are a cheerful crowd, dressed in shorts and casual shirts and with bells on their handlebars to gently warn pedestrians and others of their approach. Compare that with many of the cyclists you see in our towns and cities today! Kitted out in tight Lycra, with helmets strapped to their heads and padding protecting their arms and legs, they look as though they are dressed to do battle. Some that I frequently encounter, shouting and travelling at high speed as I walk along narrow pavements next to much wider, too-close-for-comfort cycleways, certainly are, so I am afraid that the report in the news recently that a woman, 44-year-old Mrs. Kim Briggs, had been fatally injured when a cyclist crashed into her on a street in East London didn’t come as much of a surprise.
What was surprising was the fact that 20-year-old Charlie Alliston, the smirking, thuggish individual on the bike, which had no front brake and was therefore illegal, was found not guilty of manslaughter. Instead, the court had to invoke a law dating back to 1861 of “causing grievous harm by wanton or furious driving”. Matthew Briggs, the victim’s devastated husband and father of their two small children, is now campaigning to create an offence of Causing Death or Serious Injury by Dangerous or Careless Cycling, which would carry a much more serious sentence than Mr. Alliston is likely to face.
In a 1941 essay, George Orwell described Britain as a land of “old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist”, a description repeated by Prime Minister John Major during a speech he made in 1993. On the day of Mrs. Briggs’s death, it was a Britain of a reckless, risk-taking thrill-seeker with studs in his nose and ears and a skull tattooed on his head, hurtling at nearly 20mph through crowded streets on a bike he knew he wouldn’t be able to stop in time if someone got in his way.
Let us hope that Mr. Briggs’s campaign is successful - and soon.