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British Cinema

A Boy, a Girl and a Bike (UK 1949)

Sam (Patrick Holt) and Sue (Honor Blackman) out riding with the Wakeford Wheelers.

We aim to be both ‘global’ and ‘local’ so no excuse for selecting another Yorkshire-based film. Like Holiday Camp, A Boy, a Girl and a Bike is a Gainsborough picture and as if to prove that British studios ran on genre/stock company lines in the late 1940s the same actor (Frank Martin) plays a card sharp/petty criminal duping young men just as he did in Holiday Camp. Diana Dors also has a minor (but now at least speaking) role and this film is now being marketed as part of the ‘Diana Dors DVD Collection’ – not quite a breach of ‘trade descriptions’ but pretty close. In fact the stars of the film are John McCallum and Honor Blackman. McCallum was an Australian actor working for Rank who starred opposite Googie Withers in two Ealing pictures, The Loves of Joanna Godden and It Always Rains on Sunday (both 1947) – and then married her. Honor Blackman has been a fixture on UK TV for more than fifty years and is probably best known as the first star of The Avengers (Mrs Cathy Gale 1962-4) and then as ‘Pussy Galore’ in the Bond film, Goldfinger (1964). It’s an indictment of the Rank ‘charm school’ for young female ‘starlets’ that they never really gave Blackman the chances she deserved in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In this film she is beautiful, intelligent and altogether devastating. (She still looks pretty good in her more recent appearances at 80 and beyond – see the numerous tributes on YouTube).

John McCallum and Honor Blackman

The title of the film follows the Ronseal advert and offers what it says on the tin, though there are several girls, several boys and a lot of bikes. (I’m guessing that Jean-Luc Godard was not thinking of this film when he made his famous comment about a girl and a gun.) The film features two of the main leisure activities for young working-class Brits in the late 1940s – dancing and cycling (the other was visiting the cinema). It’s surprising that there aren’t more films featuring the two activities (they do come together again in Ealing’s Dance Hall the following year). The setting is a fictitious Yorkshire mill town called ‘Wakeford’ and the principal characters are all members of the ‘Wakeford Wheelers’. Sue (Honor Blackman) and Sam (Patrick Holt) are informally engaged to be married but haven’t found anywhere to live. One day David (John McCallum), son of a local bigwig, drives arrogantly past the Wheelers on a country road and then meets Sue again. Smitten with her he joins the club and pursues her in earnest – to the dismay of Sam. This is an age-old British plot line, especially in Northern English stories – Sue is after all a ‘mill girl’. Blackman does a reasonable accent for a Londoner but she is rather glamorous. There are several sub-plots. One deals with a road race (entitled the ‘North British Road Race’ – only a southern scriptwriter could have come up with that as the ‘North British’ are the Scots and this should have been the North of England Road Race), another involves the club secretary and a war widow with teenage children, and a third involves an Army deserter. The widow’s son (played by a young Anthony Newley) is the youth duped by Frank and his story involves a minor crime. The script is actually by Ted Willis who would go on to become one of the most prolific writers of film and television drama in the UK through the 1950s until the 1980s. The cast includes several other well-known names from British Cinema including Leslie Dwyer, Maurice Denham (as the villain), Megs Jenkins (as the widow) and Thora Hird as Sue’s mum.

For me the pleasures in the film are two-fold. One is undoubtedly the location footage which seems to be mainly shot in Calderdale, around Hebden Bridge (where the film has been screened several times in recent years, I think), but also in upper Wharfedale and around Malham (the very distinctive limestone pavement is a giveaway). The second pleasure is in the celebration of collectivism in the form of the cycling club – working together to help each other. If only it were possible now to see such a celebration of organised working-class culture. Cycling clubs were a key part of British working-class culture, especially in the labour movement as this archive feature about the Clarion clubs established in the late 19th century reveals – I didn’t know that Sylvia Pankurst was once in the Manchester Clarion Club. ‘Wheelers’ was the common name of most of the non-political clubs which were, and still are, a feature of Northern towns and cities. My nearest club was founded in 1929 and the famous Manchester Wheelers Club was founded in 1883.

A Boy A Girl and A Bike works well as an entertaining story with a resolution satisfyingly true to the optimism of the period. The location photography is a major bonus and the playing is generally very good. If a new audience gets to see the film because of the Diana Dors tag that’s fine and I hope that they enjoy a film from the high point of the British film industry as a commercial venture.

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