Here’s another intriguing British film courtesy of Talking Pictures TV that has had relatively little written about it despite its lead role for a young Dirk Bogarde. Perhaps it is the title that suggests Dirk might be shearing sheep in Australia? In fact, the central focus of the narrative is Bogarde’s character Bill Fox as an aspiring speedway rider in the London of the late 1930s. That’s nearly as unlikely as seeing him as a sheep shearer. I didn’t know that speedway was an Australian sport originally and in the film, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is played over the tannoy, presumably in support of the ‘Cobras’ leading rider, ‘Lag’ Gibbon (Bill Owen) who is the team’s Australian import. The tannoy also offers ‘On Ilkley Moor Baht’at’ to which the crowd responds with their own version. Community singing like this was, I think, common at major sporting events well into the 1950s.
The film was directed by the documentarist Jack Lee who had studied photography before joining the GPO Film Unit in 1938. H. E. Fowle had previously worked with him on camera for his documentaries so the overall representation of working-class South London is impressive in visual terms. The speedway was the working stadium at New Cross Gate, close to the old Millwall FC football ground The Den and street scenes were shot in various parts of South London. The film was produced by Ian Dalrymple and his Wessex Films unit. Dalrymple was an industry veteran starting as an editor and rising to become a producer at the Crown Film Unit during the war when he first worked with Lee. After the war he produced Lee’s first fiction feature, The Woman in the Hall (1947). Wessex was one of the various units working under the Rank umbrella at Pinewood and Dalrymple also gave a first role to Dirk Bogarde in the second Wessex film, Esther Waters in 1948. The Rank connection may explain the familiar presence of Bonar Colleano and Sid James as Bogarde’s ‘team leader’ and manager at the track respectively alongside various other familiar faces including Thora Hird and James Hayter as Bogarde’s parents.
For me, what’s most interesting about the film, apart from the unusual speedway setting, is the script and how the narrative structure is handled by Lee and the team. The source material was a novel by Montagu Slater published in 1944. Slater was a major literary figure, a working-class boy who had made it to Oxford and who joined the Communist Party in 1927. Jack Lee worked on the adaptation himself alongside the American writer William Rose who would later become famous for his work with Alexander Mackendrick. I do wonder if the inclusion of a brother for Bill in the Fox family came from Lee or from Slater. This brother, Dick, played by Patrick Doonan is shown at the beginning of the film signing up for the International Brigade in 1937 to fight in the Spanish Civil War. The brothers are very different and I assumed that Dick was the elder since Bill seems more like a disaffected adolescent, interested only in his motorbike. In fact Doonan was five years younger than Bogarde. Jack Lee was the elder brother of Laurie Lee, the celebrated poet and author who did indeed go to Spain to fight for the Republic in 1937. Slater, too, would have been pre-disposed to support the International Brigade. What is the function of this character in the film? Dick re-appears in December 1938 and criticises the now successful Bill for his extravagant life-style and lack of concern for his fellow riders.
Dick’s return marks a moment of disruption for Bill – and for us as the audience. Up to this point Bill’s career has followed a familiar pattern of the young sporting hero becoming the centre of attention and spending his rapidly growing income on flash clothes and a car (much like a modern footballer). Amazingly he has also been successful in courting Lag’s sister Pat (Renée Asherson), a rather unlikely romantic partner (she doesn’t like speedway and prefers a quiet life). They marry, but Dick’s words prompt Bill to make a graceless speech at the wedding which embarrasses everyone concerned. He manages to turn Dick’s political analysis into his own egotistical crusade to create a new union for the riders. This doesn’t go well but then the war intervenes. This must have caused a problem for Lee and Rose. Slater’s novel was written during the war, but ending the narrative during wartime probably wouldn’t have worked in the film. Even so the last third of the film is problematic, especially the final sequence. What was originally a sport narrative becomes a kind of family saga. I did find some of the later scenes very interesting. Lee’s documentary experience offers us a good view of a ‘prefab’ – the housing solution which solved some immediate problems in bombed out London. The returning soldiers and the post-war world are depicted in ways familiar from other late 1940s films such as The Weaker Sex (UK 1948) and I was also reminded of Nevil Shute’s novels, in particular The Chequer Board (1947). Coincidentally, Jack Lee would have his biggest success with his adaptation of Shute’s A Town Like Alice in 1956.
Once a Jolly Swagman has been seen mainly of interest to speedway fans and the presentation of the sport and in particular the races seems to have gone down well. The film was released in the US with the equally problematic title of Maniacs on Wheels. Otherwise, attention has come from the still large numbers of Dirk Bogarde fans. I admired Bogarde’s later work in cinema and his books reveal a fine writer. His own history during his wartime RAF service in India and after the war in Indonesia reveal that in 1949 he had a real hinterland, but as he himself said, he had no idea how to act in his early films (Ian Dalrymple had seen him in one play before signing him up for Rank). For two or three years, Bogarde played young hoodlums. Pinewood chief Earl St. John said he was “too thin” and his head was “too small”. In some shots in Once a Jolly Swagman that does seem to be the case. Not until he played ‘the weedy killer’ in The Blue Lamp for Basil Dearden, “the first director to teach me anything” according to Bogarde, did he really get recognised. But despite this and the strangely handled narrative, Once a Jolly Swagman is worth watching.