Thursday, 5 November 2015

COLIN WELLAND, CHARIOTS OF FIRE, AND ME

When I heard Colin Welland had died, I remembered leaving the Odeon Swiss Cottage, having just watched Chariots Of Fire, and saying to Theresa, 'I guarantee that film will win the Oscar, if it gets released in America'. I haven't felt such certainty often; The King's Speech was another one. I recall Colin Welland's 'The British are coming' shout as he received his Oscar; of course the British were already there, and had been, but it turned out he was right, and American movies and TV are littered with Brits in ways he probably couldn't have imagined. I remember he got his Oscar from Jerzy Kosinski, who'd played Zinoviev in Reds, the film tipped to take the Oscars. I used to see Kosinski around Wesleyan's Center for Advanced Studies when I was a student.

A few years later, sometime in the mid to late Eighties, I was at the Rugby League Challenge Cup final, representing ABC Sports. It might have been the year after ABC stopped covering the games; they used to send American football players over to provide colour commentary, without having ever done TV or seen rugby league before; they thought that worked well. One year it was Giants' punter Dave Jennings with Frank Gifford (Jennings took eight takes to get his scene-set lines right; as soon as he did, Giff flubbed his finish, which I've always thought was deliberate) the next it was Cris Collingsworth with Jim Lampley (when a player was bleeding profusely from a clash of heads, the rugby league medic sponged off his forehead and threw the sponge back in his water bucket. Another player picked up the sponge and squeezed the bloody water into his mouth. 'Did he just do what I think he did?' asked Lamps. With no hesitation, Cris said 'these guys are so tough they drink blood!'.

The RL invited me to lunch before the match, and I was seated at a table with Colin Welland, Michael Parkinson, and Fred Trueman. On the surface, this should have been paradise for me: the screenwriter of one of the best sports movies; Britain's leading interviewer; and, since I was a big cricket fan at the time, a cricketing great who provided acerbic and sometimes begrudgingly gracious commentary on Test Match Special. Unfortunately, it turned into a rugby league contest to determine exactly who was the most northern of the trio (I was a non-starter in this race, obviously). For the life of me, by the time the coffee came I was thinking of the Monty Python 'Four Yorkshiremen' sketch: 'oh, we used to dream of living in a corridor!' I enjoyed it mightily! If I'd brought a camera, I'd love to see that photo of it today.

Years afterwards, I wrote a piece about the ways Welland had changed history for Chariots of Fire, though oddly enough I can't find it now. But the changes were instructive, for they way they built the dramatic storyline. NBC Sports do similar things with live Olympic events today.

The movie compares two stories at the 1924 Olympics in Paris: Harold Abrahams' quest to overcome anti-Semitic prejudice and his drive to win at 'all costs' is contrasted with the Christian missionary Eric Liddell's decision not to run in the 100m because the heats fell on a Sunday. Liddell's decision, while controversial, was actually made long before the Olympics, not on the spot as depicted; and he wasn't given 'Lord Lindsay's' place in the final, he'd long before been entered in it.

Liddell did win the 400m, but he also got the bronze medal at 200m, behind the Americans Jackson Scholz and Charlie Paddock, who finished second and third to Abrahams in the 100m. Abrahams finished last in that final; it was the only time he and Liddell ever raced. In the movie, we see Abrahams beaten in the 200, but it comes before the 100m race not after as it actually was; this gives him a chance in the film to overcome adversity and win with the chips down.

'Lord Lindsay', of course, wasn't a real character; but he was based on the hurdler David Cecil, Lord Burghley, who became the first non-American to win the Olympic 400m hurdles. Only he did that in 1928, in Amsterdam! In 1924 he failed to even reach the final of the 110m hurdles; and never even was entered in the 400m flat race, so he could not have given his place up to Liddell anyway.

And in the film, Abrahams is shown beating Lindsay while completing the 'Great Court Run' at Cambridge, which never happened. It was Burghley who did beat the clock on that run, but not until 1927. There are a few non-sporting liberties with timelines too.And look at that picture of Ben Cross, with the karate-chop hands, which all actors seem to use now when they run , but it wasn't something actual runners were doing in the Twenties.

I didn't bring any of these sporting points up with Welland, but we did talk a bit about the way both Burghley and Abrahams stayed in athletics, and, somewhat ironically in Abrahams' case, given the controversy over his use of a professional coach,  both were presidents of the Amateur Athletic Association. Abrahams became a journalist and radio commentator; Burghley became an IOC member and, as Lord Exeter, was president of the IAAF, the international track federation. We talked about the days when Brits in blazers ran international sport; and I recall him saying soon only Rugby League would be left, but the Aussies would beat us anyways.

It was one of the best lunches I've ever spent. RIP Colin Welland.

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