I was eight when Chariots of Fire appeared in the British cinema, too young to have watched it by myself, and I doubt that its sporting theme would have appealed to my mother, the one adult who might have acted as a chaperone.
It is a shame that she did not offer to watch it, for one of its two protagonists Harold Abrahams, a Jewish law student at Cambridge, faces a dozen petty barriers which have been hers too. “There’s an ache, a helplessness, an anger”, Ben Cross’ Abrahams remarks, ”I catch that look at the edge of a remark, in the cold reluctance of a handshake … This England is Christian and so are its corridors of power … They lead to me water but they will not let me drink” (seconds after he delivers this line, a waiter delivers Abrahams a tray of pigs’ trotters).
She would not have endorsed Abrahams’ response to anti-Jewish racism: which in the film is one of resistance, “I’m going to take them on, one by one.”, a decision expressed by his choice of the law as a career. Nor would she have admired the film’s second hero, the working-class Scot Eric Liddle.
I suppose I must have seen the film when it was first on television, perhaps two or three years later. Watching it now, I am struck by the busy-ness of the screen: there is as much going on around the edge of the shot as you would find in an Aardman film. A young Derek Pringle is an extra in the freshers’ fair scene. The college quad scene is filmed around College square at Eton (who the actors’ legs must have stung afterwards from the impact of so many paving stones – above). Nigel Havers’ Lord Andrew Lindsay hurdles jumps with champagne glasses placed just above.
My brother in law Hugh O’Donnell was an assistant director on the film.”The director, Hugh Hudson, came from a background in TV commercials”, he tells me, “As a result, the film is very strong visually. The art department worked very hard, as did costume etc.”
“The crowd scenes were limited, before CGI. Even though we paid local extras very little, they all had to be costumed and have suitable haircuts etc. That took time and money. In the Olympics scenes, the numbers were enhanced by having distant crowds painted on the edge of a glass sheet placed near the camera.”
“The film was deliberately lit to have some of the feel of period photographs.”
“At the time, I was motivated by the quality of the script. I got caught up in the portrayal of striving for athletic prowess and the wish to achieve an authentic 1920s period feel. Hugh Hudson showed me many books of photographs by people like Brassai to help me when casting extras and choosing location.
“I always felt that David Puttnam was more involved in this film than a producer normally is. Although it is Hugh Hudson’s film, Puttnam was very hands on throughout. It was he that brought together all the principal elements and made it all work.”
Returning to the film’s plot, for Abrahams, running is an addiction; defeated in an early race by Liddell he threatens to quit the sport, determining instead to train with the professional coach Sam Mussabini. Abrahams is then criticised within his university for betraying the amateur code. Liddell’s motives have a different origin, but his commitment is just as deep: “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure … to win is to honour Him.”
The story of Chariots of Fire was still playing in my head five years’ later when I took my first preliminary steps towards running competitively.