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Swagman Memories
By Richard Austin

Once a Jolly Swagman.

Possibly, the only film ever made with a total focus on speedway, maybe a testament to just how popular the sport was, prior to and following the conclusion of WW2. With the resumption of everyday life after the war, the sport continued to attract huge crowds.

I was able to obtain a VHS copy over here in the States a years ago, the film was released in the USA, 1951, titled 'Maniacs on Wheels'.

Most of the speedway scenes take place at the New Cross Track, I believe the actual league racing used, was filmed during Walthamstow track meetings.

I viewed my copy recently, interesting the film featured such a strong cast; many would become prominent in both British film and TV, for years to come. Dirk Bogarde, Bonar Colleano, Bill Owen, James Hayter, Thora Hird, Moira Lister, Renée Asherson, Sid James, Cyril Cusack, Sandra Dorne, Sam Kidd and Patric Doonan.

Tragically, Bonar Colleano, was killed in a car crash in Birkenhead, 18 August 1958, He left a wife, actress Susan Shaw, and three-year-old son Mark. Susan Shaw also appeared in a film with a speedway side story, titled 'Wall of Death' (a.k.a There is Another Sun). The film featured Maxwell Reed, a fun fair, Wall of Death rider, (Eddie 'racer' Peskett), who was trying to raise enough money to buy a bike and get back into speedway. There is a short speedway sequence, I haven't seen the film for years, but I do have 3 film stills.

The social aspects of the Swagman film, I found interesting, the lack of parked cars in the streets, gangs of kids playing, Patric Doonan (the brother) travelling to Spain to fight as member of the International Bridge, the Spanish Civil War. Everyone smoking, the showering of cinders spraying the crowd and into the faces of riders, the big time money the riders were earning.

Years ago, I was visiting my brother in London; his sister in law was a big Dirk Bogarde fan, both his films and novels. I accompanied her to a Bogarde book signing in a large store in London. After waiting in line, Bogarde signed her book, while handing it back, I mentioned, "I enjoyed your film, Once A Jolly Swagman", Dirk looked up in my direction, responding "I don�t like motor bikes".

 


Classic speedway film 'Once a Jolly Swagman' is now out on DVD. The film features Dirk Bogarde, Sidney James, Thora Hird and Bill Owen amongst the cast. You can order now at Amazon.

 

This article was first published on 24th February 2011


 

  • Richard Hodgson:

    "I had the pleasure of once meeting Arch Windmill who was one of the riders in the film. He told me that against advice Bonar Colleano had a go on one of the bikes on the set, fell off and damaged his wrist which upset the filming schedule. The Director was not pleased!"

  • David Briggs:

    "I remember my Dad telling me about "Swagman" in the '60s and for many years I wanted to see it. My pal managed to video it when it was shown on Channel 4 in the '90s and it lived up to all expectations. I now have the DVD of the film and thoroughly enjoyed it again, but boy did they enjoy a smoke in those days!! I remember seeing the wall of death movie one afternoon on Channel 4 (I think) and was delighted to see the speedway scene(scenes). Now, how about a modern speedway film, with all the wrangles going on at the moment, there shouldn't be a shortage of ideas for a script."

  • Eric Withams:

    "I saw "Swagman" when it was first released in 1948 and was a recent convert to speedway, having been taken to New Cross by my father that very summer. Interestingly the first race was filmed from just about the spot where we stood in the grandstand, so I'm able to re-create my first impressions. I thought all the riders had fallen off, and the race would have to be re-started! I was amazed when they all reached the back straight. The two-wheeling into the first bend doesn't look so impressive now compared with today's full throttle entries. We then started going to our local track, Rayleigh, but didn't realise that the Rockets' Ron Howes was the racing double for Dirk Bogarde."

  • Ian Weston:

    "It is mentioned in the article on Swagman that Ron Howe was the stunt man for Dirk Bogard.I can say with some confidence that it was my father Bill Weston who did that job. I still have some publicity photos somewhere, taken with them together with my father made up to look like him. He told some great stories about the film."

  • Mark Shipman:

    "Regarding Bill Weston (stunt double for Dirk Bogarde in 'Once a Jolly Swagman') - I'm currently researching the history of Crayford Speedway and have a great deal of info on Bill Weston who raced there from 1935. I'd be happy to share this with his son."

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