Tracking Down the Swagman
Noticing just now the link to Amazon for the Once A Jolly Swagman DVD reminded me of the time over twenty years ago now that I decided to try and track down this mysterious and rarely seen piece of speedway folklore.
Remember 1987 was pre-internet and pre-DVD, and I couldn't find out if if the film was available on video. I decided to do a bit of research and picked up the phone.
Assuming it was probably a Rank film I decided to ring Pinewood Studios. "Hello, my name's Ian Harwood. I'm trying to find out how I could get to see a film called Once A Jolly Swagman". "I'll just put you through to archives". So far so good.
A very frosty lady answered the phone so I repeated my question . "Why?" came the response. "Erm," I said, mouth going dry, "Well, it's a film about speedway ...."
"I know what it's about", she interupted. I thought, blimey, she probably knows every film they ever made.
"Well", I started again, "I'm, interested in speedway and I wondered if there was anyway of being able to see the film. I don't think it's available on video."
What came next was better than I could ever have expected. "I've just sent it over to the British Film Institute for a viewing. You could try calling them". So I did.
Turns out some ex-West Ham fans had booked it for a club visit to the BFI but had cancelled. As luck would have it I was due to visit friends in Kent (I'm in Cheshire) about a week later so a trip into London by train was a piece of cake.
I think it cost me something like £25 for the viewing. I was shown to a little rooms with a Steinbeck machine and four cans of film which I had to load myself. I was really excited. I felt like I'd personally discovered this lost and forgotten speedway film as I sat and watched it whir and flicker in the semi-darkness. I felt like Howard Carter lifting the lid on Tutankhamen's sarcophagus.
Then would you believe it got shown the following week on Channel 4.
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 10th February 2011
"I enjoyed the recent piece about Once a Jolly Swagman, which has also had several showings on Talking Pictures channel on tv. I first went to New Cross in 1951! Another film from the same era that has appeared on there is There Is Another Sun, in which there is a lot of footage from Walthamstow Speedway."
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