It was my great pleasure to go to a screening of Chariots of Fire the other day in anticipation of its re-release, ahead of the Olympics this summer. And what a treat it was.
The film is a perfect slice of British nostalgia, combining the perennial Albion favourites of stiff lipped implacability and getting-one-over-on-the-Yanks. Throw in Gilbert and Sullivan and a theme tune from a more heroic age (the 80s), and what you have is something as satisfying as a roast beef Sunday lunch. Now, for the few that don’t know, the film charts the true story of the 1924 British Olympic team as they take their expeditionary force of amateur athletes to the games in Paris.
The two main contenders are Eric Liddle and Harold Abrahams. Liddle is a naturally gifted sprinter, and probable favourite, who puts God before gold, when he refuses to run in his heat on Sunday. Abrahams has a different god and is determined, with the help of Ian Holm, to win in Paris and be accepted by a country still prejudiced against Jews. However, their competition with each other is soon turned against the Americans and suitably jingoistic jollity ensues.
The film captures that faded euphemism for old Britannia, when sportsmanship and jolly good shows were the order of the day. A black and white world of decorum, duty and clench-jawed sobriety. But what comforting fiction it is, at least for a couple hours. And how delightful it is to doze through a Sunday afternoon, dreaming of a sun drenched country full of frightfully good cakes and Nigel Havers. This fuzzy Britain exists merely as a holiday destination that flatters to deceive – like France. Very nice to look at but you wouldn’t want to actually live there.
In 1981, when the film was released, Britain was only just beginning to find its feet again after the political and economic strife that had crippled it during the 70s. The sick man of Europe was slowly emerging from the funk and was keen to show that he would not go quietly into the good night. A feeling that was summed up by the films Oscar winning writer, who gave that famous rallying cry of “the British are coming.” But we never really arrived, probably took a wrong turn off the M4.