Award-winning sports journalist and author
Award-winning sports journalist and author

Simpson film, March 2011

Let the cameras roll, and quickly. The news that British film maker Shane Meadows – of This England fame – is interested in the tale of Major Tom prompted headlines and made waves on Twitter, but that’s no surprise. The surprise is that it has not already happened. A few years ago one such project fell foul of that old villain, budgetary issues, but this time round, perhaps the involvement of a major figure such as Meadows will tip the balance or perhaps one of the other projects that are bubbling under may get the go-ahead. Let’s hope so.

The story is worthy of an Oscar in its own right. It seems never to fade in the telling. The award-winning documentary Death on the Mountain, made by the BBC’s Alastair Lawrence, draws viewers aplenty each time it is repeated. New Simpson projects – books, videos – keep emerging from the woodwork. Cycling fans can’t get enough of the sport’s ultimate James Dean figure: handsome, charismatic, lovable, with all the nervous dash of a Spitfire pilot and a whiff of illegal brimstone. Newcomers to the sport can relate immediately to the Simpson story’s core elements. You don’t need to know your sprockets from your echelons to understand death, drugs and doomed youth.

The most vital point about the Simpson narrative, as I realized when I began to write Put Me Back On My Bike, and as Laurence showed in Death on the Mountain, is that the ending is known to the reader from the very beginning. Every viewer and reader is aware every time Simpson comes into view that he is going to die, on Mont Ventoux, on July 13, in the heat of the Tour de France. That lack of suspense means we can delve deep in searching explanations for why it happened, explore the foibles and fascinations of the leading man.

Simpson as central character is made for cinema. Indeed, much of his life was pure theatrics. He was larger than life, constantly acted up to the crowd and adopted multiple personae: working class boy made good, jack the lad with a ready eye for a deal, party animal, homeloving husband, English gentleman, adopted Frenchman. And the themes that underpin his death are big ones, transcending sport: love, faith, the corruption of ideals by the seductive influence of money and fame, blind heroism in pursuit of a goal, the rise from working class background to glory and riches.

The wider undercurrents are those that all cycling fans have discussed endlessly since the Festina drugs bust and through the years of Armstrong and Contador: the question of what makes a hero, whether drug-taking in sport is forced upon our idols or whether it is a cynical choice made in pursuit of money with the full knowledge that it is corrupt, whether the men who push sportsmen to their physical, mental and moral limits are to blame for the decisions of their protégés. And then there is the backdrop, familiar to all cycling fans: the roads of Europe with cobbles, mountains, forgotten villages and great cities.

Cycling feature films have always tended to be patchy, depicting as they do a sport which includes details that may confuse all but the cognoscenti and presenting the writer with a dilemma: how far to explain without dumbing down? The Graeme Obree biopic Flying Scotsman should have been an epic but never reached the dramatic highs (or even charted the lows) that punctuated Obree’s life. It left the feeling that much more could have been achieved. Many of us began our love affair with cycling through films such as Breaking Away or American Flyers, but there the actual cycling content is barely satisfactory.

The sport has been best treated on celluloid through documentaries, from the work of Jorgen Leth to Laurence’s Simpson film. The task that will face Meadows or whoever eventually manages to work on the tale of Tom will be documentary: to recreate the era authentically – not the easiest task, as anyone who saw the Fausto Coppi biopic on Italian television in the 1990s will recall – and to show the hero as the strong, charismatic, appealing character he was in life, without ignoring his dark sides: the drug-taking, the love of money, the overwhelming obsession that drove him forwards. Let’s just hope it happens. If it is done right, the product could be the greatest cycling film ever, simply because it has the strongest material. Get it wrong, and it could be bumsquirmingly painful to watch.

This column appeared in procycling in April 2011