Historic scene with... Gordon Cruickshank

Stars of the silver screen
More than a decade after their 1955 Mille Miglia win, Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson became subjects of a BBC play…

Thank heavens for enthusiasts, especially the ones who have the patience to upload endless information to the internet. Once you’ve learned which sites to trust they can be a valuable source of detail. It was an e-mail from one of these compilers that led me to a lost TV drama starring ‘Moss’ and ‘Jenks’.

Aiming to put it online, reader Ian Fleet has compiled a list of the contents of thousands of hours of racing videos he’s watched, and in it I noticed BBC Theatre 625 – Mille Miglia, featuring Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson, shown in 1968. It seemed a bizarre subject for a BBC play – how would they recreate a 1000-mile road race? But the writer was noted playwright Athol Fugard and it starred well-known actor Michael
Bryant, so surely it would be worth watching?

I tracked down a copy in the British Film Institute and went to the South Bank to view it. Set almost entirely in their hotel bedroom before the race, the 70-minute studio play centres on the emotional strain for Moss and Jenks as they prepare for the gruelling event, unaware of the historic victory ahead. It’s an atmosphere piece, nerves battling with confidence on both sides, and clunky conversations explaining the intensity of racing to the viewer. Knowing both of them, I found it hard to lose myself in the fictional world: Bryant as Moss conveyed some of Stirling’s restless energy, but Ronald Lacey’s Jenks was too fearful, too poetic, gazing wistfully into space to convey terror of death or, worse, of letting Moss down. His glasses were correct, but the stick-on ginger beard and the fact that he was taller than Moss undermined the effect… He also sat hammering at a typewriter, whereas DSJ famously wrote his epic MM piece longhand. (And no, we don’t know where that historic manuscript went.)

Amazingly, the scene shifts briefly to a workshop where under the eye of a portly ‘Neubauer’ they practise a tyre change on what’s clearly a real 300SLR, and even start it up. The wheel change is rapid, but that’s about the highlight in an overlong production in which Moss fires off the line: “1000 miles to get nowhere! But I want to get there first!”

You can’t make drama without conflict, of course, and in this case it erupts as they sit side by side at a table practising hand signals to use in the deafening Mercedes. It’s a way of taking us into the race as Jenks winds through his famous roller map while Stirling wields an invisible wheel on opposite lock. Then Jenks fluffs a bend. “We’re dead,” shouts Moss. “I’d be faster on my own!”, and Jenks retaliates by accusing Moss of driving hairily to scare him. All entirely made up: Jenks was fearless with a driver he trusted, and he had implicit faith in Moss.

“Not that awful BBC thing?” said Stirling when I rang him. “Ghastly. No understanding, no warmth. In one scene I didn’t stand up when a priest joined us – I’d never have been that rude. Then a good-looking bit of crumpet walks past and I don’t even look! It was nonsense.”

We can’t ask Jenks for his views, but he expressed them firmly to Doug Nye at the time. “He detested it,” says Doug. “But his girlfriend Nan thought his depiction was hilarious.”

It’s unlikely to be repeated, so if you’re keen you’ll have to call the BFI. Or you could accept Jenks’ comment, related by Doug: “Well, what would you expect of… (dismissive pause, then sneering emphasis) television?”. He concluded: “It’s all bollocks. Knew it would be. Waste of time trying to help them.”

Orchestral manoeuvres
It’s not every day that a TT-winning Ferrari turns up on your drive. Time for a spin, then

Went out to lunch the other day, by extremely public transport – that’s to say, everyone looked round as we roared by. Not surprising – I was riding in the Moss/Walker TT-winning 250SWB Ferrari. After our story about taking the car to the Highlands for Jaguar design chief Ian Callum to drive, owner Clive Beecham promised to give me a ride in it, and once it had returned from a year on display in Maranello we finally made our date.

Speed humps and dry sumps don’t mix well, so I heard the snarling V12 approach in a series of surges rather than a full-throated blare, but finally the glistening blue shape with its proud white stripe and No 7 roundels pulled up outside my house. I blinked a couple of times, but it was still there – not just one of the most georgeous cars ever bashed into shape by Scaglietti’s craftsmen, but probably the most famous of them too – bought by Rob Walker, raced by Stirling Moss, victor of the 1961 TT, sitting on my drive. A proud moment.

It wasn’t as hard as expected to slide from wheelchair into SWB, with the spare interior of the competition version of this thoroughbred coupé – black crackle-painted dash, simple row of gauges and switches, minimal cord bucket seats (leather is heavy!) and plexiglass windows on leather straps like train windows in the old days. No radio – this is Walker’s second SWB, not the wireless-equipped ’60 winner in which Moss allegedly listened live to the commentary on his own win. No slotted gear gate, either – it has a perfectly good change without, says Clive. There’s enough space to move your arms, so who needs any more equipment when a press of the starter brings a tingling whine and an exultant whoop of carbs and exhaust as the car leaps into life around you, quivering and hissing like a horse raring for the loose.

Shame, then, that I hobbled the beast with a navigational blunder that bogged us down in Derby Day traffic on our way to the North Downs. And do you know what? The Comp/61-spec engine that saw off Parkes, Salvadori and Clark didn’t overheat, didn’t lose oil pressure and didn’t fluff when we finally broke through into clear air. It simply wailed back up to 7000, revelling in revs, the full open-throated Maranello orchestra whirring and zinging as Clive reached for another gear. “Of course, it’s probably no quicker than today’s Golf GTi,” he said, slotting into fourth…

At our very suitable lunch halt – the William Bray in Shere, owned by ex-F1 pilot Julian Bailey – we hadn’t even parked when the one-time Tyrrell driver appeared to see what all the noise was. It’s that sort of car: sparks conversation when you stop, grins and thumbs up when you don’t. After a fine meal surrounded by some of LAT’s striking racing photos (Julian’s partner is Deborah Tee, daughter of LAT founder Michael Tee and granddaughter of one-time MS owner W J Tee) we struck out for open roads.

Well, it’s the south of England; there barely are any open roads, but in between blockages we found stretches of freedom, surging up the Downs feeling the car squirrelling a tad on its racing Dunlops but always secure and planted, the ride abrupt but not harsh, and above all the sensation of relentless urgent impulsion. Fast sweepers and plunging dips flash past the screen, those glossy blue wings arching ahead like the paws of some great beast devouring the road. And if I’m waxing poetic it’s because the ride rekindled the mechanical joy of a thoroughbred machine properly used, a joy that’s being steadily quenched by ever lower rural speed limits, cameras and road strangulations. Even steady speeds on the A3 delivered their own pleasures, bathed in the racket of cam chains and belts and the satisfying scent of hot oil and rubber, and quivering on the dash in front of me a personal inscription by S Moss: “The best GT car in the world.” No further comment required.

Back in Wimbledon Clive cut the engine. It stopped with that suddenness of a race motor with minimal mass in its moving parts, and the silence was a shock. The church clock chimed and blackbirds sang, but not as sweetly as the Maranello choir.

The art of setting a shining example
Bentley specialist Will Fiennes is so busy that he doesn’t have time for his own cars

They say the cobbler’s children go unshod. The old proverb came back to me talking to Will Fiennes at his Gloucestershire restoration shop, where I stopped in for a celebratory gathering of Aston Martins of all eras, from 1½-litre to DB9. This AMOC meet may have been at a workshop specialising in Bentleys, but car people are car people… Looking at the long bonnets of Derby’s finest, Will declared that he began as a Riley man, and has one that is still unrestored after 40 years. If only people didn’t keep bringing him Bentleys to fix…

Fiennes specialises in the Derby cars that came out of Rolls-Royce in the 1930s and had just finished preparing a squad for a private Bill Boddy run. It was to commemorate our Founding Editor’s ‘HoP-JoG’ drive in a 4¼-litre in 1938. Starting from the Houses of Parliament as Big Ben chimed midnight, he drove to John O’Groats in 15 hours, stopping only to refuel man and car. If WB had pootled through camera after camera on the A1, there would have been a ringing editorial in the mag.

I love seeing these finely engineered cars in states of undress, raw chassis having moving parts re-honed and a joiner working on crafted timbers shortly to vanish for another 20 years under beautiful coachwork. I once took 0-60mph figures in a Park Ward 4¼ (with the owner’s approval) and was astonished to manage just over 10sec, two-up. These inter-war Bentleys were rapid cars, silent, smooth and usually beautifully coutured, with a silky rifle-bolt action to the right-hand gear lever. There’s a space set aside for one in my fantasy garage, between the Alfa Romeo Monza and the SWB Ferrari. I almost made off from Fiennes’ place in an elegant drophead coupé – but then the boss appeared.