Matters of the moment

Television and the motor car

“The living need charity more than the dead” — George Arnold, 1834-1865.

The motor car preceded television by some forty years, although it might be said that whereas the former was practical transport by about 1905 (earlier if you possessed a Sixty Mercedes or similar), it wasn’t until the 1950s or thereabouts, that everyman’s TV arrived. Of this we were able to remind an irate cottage-dweller on the way home from Silverstone some years ago, when we had left the engine of a vintage Riley running at a petrol station opposite his premises and he emerged, irate, yelling at us to switch-off, as we were ruining reception on his screen of the Cup Final. . . .

Since then BBC and ITV television have become a vast force in the land, as other TV services are throughout most of the world. Perhaps the horseless carriage and Baird’s incredible invention should never have intertwined. But they have, with some interesting, and also some unfortunate, results. For instance, not long ago we got very sparse coverage of motor racing on “the box,” compared to the time devoted to kick-ball, Rugby-football (a game in which hands play as great a part as the feet in transporting the oval “ball”), tennis and horse-racing. The BBC used the excuse that such a Nasty Word appeared on certain F1 cars they could not permit it to be seen “Bluebird” at Brooklands, by viewers, thus making John Surtees the scapegoat, — quite ironical, when you think of how much porn is shown in so many TV plays. Now the situation has swung quite the other way, with the dates of Championship Grands Prix adjusted to suit TV producers— which we in Britain can only hope implies that this year viewers are going to get as much, or more, motor-racing coverage as they have had from the BBC in recent times. Such “live” reporting of the F1 racing season provides us with entertainment and just enough information for avid followers of the Sport who have been unable to attend a race to satisfy them until the full facts are available from D.S.J. or A.H. in the next issue of Motor Sport. So for such small crumbs of TV motor-race reporting as we may receive, let us be grateful.

The younger generation of enthusiasts may not realise that coverage of motoring events with a sporting flavour goes back to pre-Television times. For instance, there were those pioneering broadcasts on 2L0 from “Vox Villa” at Shelsley Walsh, which started at one of the 1932 hill-climbs, BBC’s very first “outside” motor-racing programme. It was Eric Findon, Editor of The Light Car, who was “on the air” on that and subsequent occasions, aided by his wife and daughter, with Major Vernon Brooke at the “Esses” — the writer can well remember the excitement of listening-in to these “live” broadcasts from the famous Worcestershire hill when he was unable sager there in his Austin Seven from South London, and of hoping fervently that the wonderful sounds would not be cut off, be “returned to the studio in London”, before the crackle of GN-based, vee-twin Shelsley Specials had been heard and Raymond Mays had had his second run in the Vauxhall Villiers Supercharge. . .

Even before that, motor racing had been reported on the radio, for does not the inimitable S. C. H. (“Sammy”) Davis tell, in his book “Motor Racing”, of switching-on his set one Sunday evening in 1924 and of its loudspeaker confirming his worst fears, namely that his friend Lou Zborowski had crashed fatally at Monza, in the GP Mercedes? I have often wondered whether this was a 2L0 news item or whether Sammy had one of those then-covetable radios (or “wireless sets”) of the multi-valve, super-hetrodyne variety that could receive foreign stations at loudspeaker strength, and whether the report gave the winner of the Italian Grand Prix (Antonio Ascari in a P2 Alfa Romeo) or only mentioned the fatality? These early motor-racing broadcasts led on to wider coverage in this media, including support from the BBC for the ten-lap “Broadcast Trophy” Race at Brooklands in 1937, won by John Cobb’s Napier-Raihon at over 136 m.p.h., the commentary given by Alan Hess, today a Vice-President of the Brooklands Society.

In those pre-war days of less leisure, fewer cars and slower journeys, such broadcasts helped to publicise motor racing among those who could not normally attend the different venues, and probably encouraged the large attendances at Donthgton Park in 1937 and 1938 when the German Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union GP teams raced there, with victory twice going to the latter.

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Since the war years Television has escalated into a full-time, nearly non-stop, Show-Biz entertainment Industry. It has encompassed motoring in other than racing and rallying forms. The number of vintage and other pre-war vehicles which now earn lolly for their fortunate owners by appearing before the cameras is legion. We have also had plays about motor racing and have seen racing drivers taking on the role of actors. There was, for instance, that fearful farce featuring Stirling Moss and Denis jenkinson on the eve of the 1955 Mille Miglia, which in real life they won for Mercedes-Benz at a record average-speed of 97.96 m.p.h. The playwright made a fiasco of it by concentrating on making the two heroes dwell morbidly in their bedroom with thoughts of death and destruction on the morrow, which in reality would have been totally out of character from either of them, a scene made were made worse because the actors formed a poor parody of Moss and a quite impossible Jenkinson. It has, we believe, mercifully never been repeated. Then there was Graham Hill dressed as Daddy Christmas at those Boxing-Day Brands Hatch Race Meetings, to draw the TV cameras away from some fairly serious racing, and more recently we have had James Hunt playing his trumpet to Variety Show audiences.

This reminds us that when, some nights ago, drugged as TV tends to make one, we inadvertently sat on into a “Friday Night-Saturday Morning” frolic, it was to find Jackie Stewart acting as the compere, interviewing James Hunt and Henry Cooper. All we wish to say is that Henry Cooper did his best and generously said he wouldn’t get into a racing car at any price, although according to a Sunday Times survey professional boxing is more than twice as dangerous as Motor Racing. But Stewart and Hunt (again the continual bleating about the immense sums of filthy-lucre you can collect if you are prepared to risk dying in a racing car, which neither of them are, any longer) really should keep to whatever it is they do these days, but right out of Show-Biz. . . . Not that it was always as bad as that. Indeed, we recall many years ago seeing Stirling Moss face the then-intimidating Robin Day in one of his famous “face-to-face” interviews. So well did Stirling stand up to the barrage of the ex barrister interviewer that in the hotel lounge where we happened to be old ladies laid aside their knitting to listen to this famous racing driver make a spirited defence of his chosen way of life. . . .

So we come to the BBC-1 “Speed King” play, currently being discussed. On the whole it was good entertainment for a large audience, although there cannot be a motor-racing enthusiast who would not have preferred its replacement by a proper documentary about Capt. Sir Malcolm Campbell’s career in pursuit of the LSR. And as so much excellent newsreel must exist, why not, indeed? As it was, not many inaccuracies were noticed by us in Roger Milner’s script, but we are open to readers’ additions! The smoke from “the Rolls-Royce R-type aero-engine” in the mock-up of the 1935 “Bluebird” was not black enough at first and it issued in clouds instead of from each exhaust-stub, but the Producer, with the late Leo Villa, OBE, to hold his hand, did know about gas-starters and he wisely did nut let the needle of the big (too big?) tachometer go beyond about 2,800 r.p.m (In fact, Campbell was looking for 3,400 in top gear, we believe). But did Sir Malcolm really drive the 300 m.p.h. car without gloves?

The car’s speed in each direction was not accurately given (304.15 and 299 m.p.h., in the play, 304.311 and 297.947 m.p.h., in fact) and although the episode of the timing-gear giving trouble was used, Campbell’s anger at being at first wrongly informed of his speed wasn’t. Of supporting vehicles used, one noticed a Stutz and very-ancient motorcycle “at Salt Lake”, Campbell’s 4 1/2-litre Bentley coupe (CXK-1) and open 3 1/4-litre Bentley (CXK-2), Lady Campbell’s very ordinary Vauxhall saloon, and the Morris Eight tourer given by Campbell to Villa and the Ariel Red Hunter motorcycle to Donald. It was presumably poetic licence that killed both Parry Thomas and Sir Henry Segrave on the 13th of the month — for the record, Thomas died on March 3rd 1927. They also got mixed-up over the new circuit which Campbell was having built at Brooklands (actually, two years hence), which was the Campbell road-course, not the Mountain circuit. One noticed framed pictures on Campbell’s walls of his GP Delage, etc., but did one of the Napier “Samson” on the Brooklands banking really hang in the garage at Povey Cross?

However, “Speed King” was a play for a mass audience, it was well cast, and it seems to have pleased the professional TV critics. It was centred round Sir Malcolm Campbell, MBE and the worst thing Producer Innes Lloyd permitted was to over-dramatically emphasise the “affair” of Lady Campbell, which need not have been dragged out in a play which in so many other ways, portrayed so well the life of a top racing driver of the 1930s and the atmosphere of the times. The sordid story was known in the inner-circles of motor racing at the time, namely that the Hon. Brian Lewis.. (David Quilter) was Lady Dorothy Campbell’s lover (could you blame him, with Sir Malcolm (Robert Hardy), so occupied and the lady, played by Jennifer Hilary, so beautiful?)