Sunday, April 12, 2020

Cycle Cinema: A Boy, A Girl, and a Bike - RIP Honor Blackman

British actress Honor Blackman died last week at age 94. She was perhaps best known (at least in the U.S.) for her role as "Pussy Galore" in the James Bond film, Goldfinger. British audiences knew her before that for her role as the leather-clad, motorcycle-riding Cathy Gale in the British T.V. series, The Avengers.

But Blackman led an interesting life well before either of those roles made her famous.

Blackman as "Pussy Galore" - in Goldfinger, 1964.
As Cathy Gale in The Avengers - 1962 - 64

In World War II, Blackman, still just a teenager, was a dispatch rider for the British "Home Office" - delivering messages by motorcycle between military headquarters and field units. It was very dangerous work, and it was primarily done by young women as the men were on the battlefield.

Blackman aboard her Triumph motorcycle, risking her life for war effort. (Damn, I love this picture)

Blackman's acting career began shortly after the war ended, and one of her earliest films was a cute little "romantic comedy" called A Boy, a Girl, and a Bike, 1949.

I'm not going to kid you that it was a great film in any way. But it is entertaining, and features the British cycling club-riding scene as a major part of the story. There's lots of footage of riding and racing around the Yorkshire area of England, and the story is decent - if a little under-developed in places.

The film begins with the wealthy David Howarth (John McCallum) - a car-loving jerk who views cyclists as nuisances who "think they own the road" - as he then forces a bunch of them off the road with his car:
David getting annoyed (honking impatiently) as he comes upon the local cycling club, the Wakeford Wheelers. . .
. . . Then whistling away as the entire club is left to pick themselves up off the side of the road.
Of course, one of those "nuisance" cyclists is the lovely Susie Bates, played by Blackman, riding alongside her on-screen boyfriend, Sam Walters (Patrick Holt) - one of the club's leaders.
Not long after, David and Susie run into each other again (literally) when David knocks Susie off her bike and damages it.

Before long, however, he decides that the best way to get to know Susie is to get himself a bike and join the club - which sets up a bit of a love triangle story. Sure, she's been going with Sam for a while, but she doesn't try to resist the attention she's getting from David. The problem is, they're from different worlds. David is from a classy family of blue-bloods, while Susie and Sam are decidedly working class. I won't go too much into it or give it all away, though one could probably guess how things will turn out.

As mentioned, the entire story is set against the backdrop of the club riding scene of the late '40s, and there are numerous shots of riders in the Yorkshire countryside, riding along roads lined by craggy stone walls, and a couple of races between the rival clubs in the area.

And barely a car to be seen anywhere. God, it looks idyllic.

One thing I found interesting, from a historical/trivial angle, is that the racing depicted in the film is of the "Continental" style or "massed start" racing, while most club racing in Britain in those days was in the form of time-trialing. What this means is that the clubs depicted in the film (if we were to make the "leap" that this was not just a movie) would have to have been affiliated with the British League of Racing Cyclists (BLRC) which advocated for massed start racing - and put them at odds with the National Cyclist's Union that governed British racing in those days. The Taylor Brothers were among the first to join the BLRC, which got them kicked out of the NCU. Another early advocate for British massed-start racing was Henry Rensch, of the "Paris" bicycle brand (a point that I'll come back to shortly).

As a product of its time, some of the riding footage looks a little goofy by today's standards (No - I'm not being overly critical - one has to just accept these things when watching old movies like this) as the film sometimes switches from decent on-location exterior shots of riders out on the road, to "close-ups" that are clearly done in a studio.

(On the road)

(NOT on the road)
And some of the actors really ham it up while trying to "act" like they're riding - bouncing and flailing all over their bikes:

My favorite. That's Sam and David (in white) - rivals for Susie's attention - teaming up to defeat a rival club.
I mentioned that some aspects of the film's plot are a bit under-developed. One is a fairly interesting sub-plot involving some unscrupulous bike shop owners who run a sideline business as bookies - and coerce a troubled teen into stealing bikes for them to re-sell. That plot line doesn't really get resolved satisfactorily - but it does bring up a fun point for bike-obsessed anoraks:

When was the last time you saw the finer details of bike construction used as a plot device? One of the club members, whose bike was stolen, describes to the police that even if his stolen bike were repainted, it could be identified positively by its brake cables that route through the top-tube. Now, here's some serious bike anorak trivia: Though he calls his bike "a foreign make," when we eventually see the stolen bike up close, it is a Rensch-built Paris-brand bicycle (actually a British bike with a foreign name). Recall that Rensch was one of those early advocates of massed-start racing in Britain - and the model shown here is probably their "Tour de France" model.
Being made just a few years after the end of the war, there are a couple of points in the story that demonstrate that Britain was still in recovery. One is that it's mentioned that many goods are still being rationed (in one scene, Susie's father complains that his mother-in-law is taking all his rations for "sweets"). And then there is a plot point involving a member of the Wakeford Wheelers club who is wanted by the police for desertion - a point which literally comes out of nowhere in the final 10 minutes of the film - another one of those "under-developed" elements I mentioned before.

But on the whole, despite whatever flaws it may have as a film, A Boy, a Girl, and a Bike is an enjoyable movie, a good diversion while we're shut in during the pandemic, and a nice showcase for the young Honor Blackman.

I hope you'll enjoy it!


  1. Great story! Thanks for sharing link to film. Love all that bike club gear in the film. And most on bikes with drop bars. Guess that was the new style post-war, especially for club "races"?

  2. Hey Brooks - glad you enjoyed the film, a fun little respite from the lockdown. Yes, the idyllic countryside, the cycling nerd details, the post-war sensibilities, all make for a charming diversion. The one downside was seeing all the *smoking* these otherwise healthy souls were doing. Cough, cough!

    A rider in Oregon

  3. Hi Brooks, thanks for the post, a curious little film not only for depicting cycling as anything other than an oddball activity but also for its sympathetic portrayal of northern English working class life. However, to a British ear the attempts by southern ('properly' spoken) actors at doing a Yorkshire accent are just as corny as the riding scenes (Honor Blackman herself being a Londoner). The scenes of northern English countryside are indeed idyllic (especially in contrast to the grim mill town) and ironically have probably returned to something similar today with the Covid lockdown in place. Even here in the normally congested south-east I'm enjoying relatively car-free cycling while it lasts. In reading your notes about the NCU/BLRC rift, I'm impressed by your knowledge of British cycling history; a bit of an anorak yourself, eh? Likewise your comments on the Paris bike with its innovative internal brake cabling. I've just discovered that Condor Cycles have revived the Paris brand with a few replica models such as the iconic Galibier I must pop in to their shop when I can and see if they have one on display.

    Nigel, Hertfordshire UK

  4. Hi there, Thank you for this little slice of escapism. My wife lost her sister this Easter Sunday and we have both been feeling pretty despondent. I started watching this on Youtube and my wife joined me, it was just nice to escape to a simpler time (if there was such a thing). We both enjoyed the corny but very watchable storyline and as Nigel noted it was a kind look at the working classes and post war England where cycling was good fun and shared by a wide strata of regular folks looking to enjoy the outdoors. Somewhat reminiscent of the short film 1955 CTC cyclist special. Be well and lets all forward to happier days.

  5. Interesting movie! Thanks!
    Also interesting was what the closed captioning did with some of their pronunciations. ;)

  6. 12:00 shows a bike with lovely shaped drop bars I would like on my own .


  7. Great find!
    I've got an early, Paris Tour de France that is undergoing a long, slow burn revival....i dont do resto! I've got an original H.Rensch handlebar bottle holder on it too....have you ever seen another?

  8. Great post! Ihave an early tour de France with a Rensch bar mounted bottle cage.....i bet there's not many of those around!