Mike Aitken: Screen tribute offers a unique glimpse of the Borders farmer who became the fastest man on earth
SHY and unassuming as well as handsome and charismatic, there was a classic Scottish duality in Jim Clark's life which singled out the Berwickshire farmer with a gift for speed as our most iconic sportsman of the past 50 years.
If Clark, who won two Formula 1 world championships as well as the Indy 500 before losing his life after a white and gold Lotus spun out of control at Hockenheim in 1968, must appear a remote figure to a generation who only read about his exploits, a new documentary, to be screened tonight on BBC 4, draws a more intimate sketch of the dark-haired, brooding Scot than has been broadcast before.
Thanks to previously unseen archive film footage and unheard audio tapes of revealing conversations provided by friends and family, the voice of this taciturn Scot resonates more clearly than at any other time since his short life ended in Germany. For those of us fortunate enough to have met Clark, as well as the millions who never knew him but revere his achievements in motor sport, this moving, perceptive and rounded portrayal of a remarkable man is essential viewing.
Much of Jimmy's life was joyful – his smile could light up a room – and cine camera home movies of the dashing Scot captured away from the racing circuit playing cricket, enjoying water sports, skiing and golf serve as a reminder of his physical grace. Initially, at any rate, motor racing was just another hobby. "I started as an amateur with no intention or idea of becoming a world champion," Clark recalls. "But I was curious to find out what it was like to drive a car fast."
Clark was a natural. Jackie Stewart reckoned Jim caressed speed from motor cars, and his talent for driving faster than any other man flowed from how at ease he was in surroundings where he was comfortable, whether at home in Chirnside or in the thick of competition. Put him in the cockpit of a racing car or at the wheel of a tractor and he was equally content. Clark, who overtook Juan Fangio and established a record 25 grands prix successes from 72 starts, couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. Unlike today's sporting superstars, his defining characteristic was humility.
There's beautiful video footage of the rolling Berwickshire farmland where Clark would tend the sheep. This was the peaceful, unhurried side of his life, helping to run the family farm at Edington Mains, at one with nature and the solitude of that unchanging bond between men, God's creatures and the land.
It would be impossible to imagine a more violent contrast with the rural world in which Clark grew up than the shocking monochrome footage of the dreadful accident in Italy which illustrates the perilous nature of Formula 1 racing in the Sixties more graphically than any words.
Clark's Lotus collided at Monza with Wolfgang Graf Berghe Von Trip's Ferrari in 1961. The German's car clipped Clark's wheel and soared into the crowd, killing the driver and 14 spectators. The short film of the second lap of that race is prefaced by Clark's own words. "He came past me and as he put on the brakes, he pulled over. I thought, 'God, you cannot do this. As he pulled over, he pulled right in beside me.' "
From there, the wheels of the two cars touch and the footage of Von Trip's car hurtling into the crowd, twirling through the air, is horrific. What made it even worse for Clark, one of the fairest of competitors as well as a brilliantly intuitive driver, was that the Italian authorities wanted a scapegoat and tried to lay the blame for the accident on him.
Never at ease in the spotlight, Clark hated the media focus which followed the calamity. He was a kind man but became testy when others were intrusive. "They wouldn't let it lie and came up to the farm," he tells a friend. "There were photographers lurking round every corner. I told them all to p*** off and that I wanted to be alone.
"Hell, I was obviously bloody upset about it all. Some of them are just bloody ill-mannered. They just want to know about you when you're in the s**t."
Clark was cleared by the subsequent investigation into the crash but the legacy of the incident always haunted him. He thought about retiring and never shied away from acknowledging the sport's terrors. "I do think about the danger from time to time," he confesses. "If there are a lot of trees about, for example."
It wasn't a premonition, but the spot where he died, at 32, after his car somersaulted at 160mph off the track, was in the forest which lay beyond the first corner at Hockenheim.
Jim once told my mother at a party in Dr Bill Aitken's house in Chirnside to celebrate winning the world championship (my uncle was Clark's GP] that he would never marry as long as he was a Formula 1 driver. He was as good as his word. One of the most touching moments in this compelling documentary comes when girlfriend Sally Swart (formerly Stokes] talks about his disinclination to propose.
"I wasn't getting any younger," she says. "We'd been going out for three or four years and he wasn't making up his mind too quickly. And, as it turned out, that was probably for the best. It's been a long time. I miss him like everyone else does."
Long before crossing swords with Graham Hill in Europe and Andy Granatelli in America, Clark was first introduced to the sport in the Borders by Ian Scott-Watson. The friends met at a young farmer's club after Clark's education at Loretto was curtailed to help run the family business.
"I thought he was a blooming idiot, driving like a real boy racer," recalls Scott-Watson. "He used to give a hand at club racing and it all developed from there. I would do my practice and thought I was going as fast as I could go. He went out and did his and was three seconds a lap quicker than me. That embarrassed me no end."
Clark says he went along as Scott-Watson's mechanic and never imagined getting the chance to drive because his parents were so opposed to the idea. When Jimmy did get behind the wheel, Scott-Watson said: "He had no real idea of his own ability. He said to me: 'Why on earth is everyone going so slowly?' I said: 'Jim, it's not that they're going slowly, it's you who is going so damned fast.' "
Lacking self-confidence, Clark admits it's unlikely he would have gone on to develop as a driver unless Scott-Watson had cajoled and encouraged him. There was a chance to race at Le Mans, where he finished tenth, and it was his canny father who directed his son's thoughts in 1960 to making a bob or two out of a previously expensive hobby.
There's another fascinating clip as Scott-Watson drives Clark from Chirnside to the airport at Turnhouse on a largely deserted road. When the BEA flight lifts off into a grey sky, the friends' lives are about to turn in different directions. Clark is leaving Edinburgh for the big time. No matter that he was as disorganised and indecisive outside of a racing car as he was quick-thinking and assured in the cockpit – friends recall him being unable to make up his mind about what film he wanted to see or which restaurant to book for dinner – Clark's combination of fearless skill and film-star looks made him one of British sport's first global icons.
There were advertising campaigns with Jean Shrimpton, one of the most famous models of the Sixties, he became a tax exile, featured on the cover of Time magazine and there were so many other commercial commitments that a private jet was required to ferry him around. "His life wasn't his own," remembers his sister.
There's a TV interview with Clark in which the reporter asks the Scot to assess his chances of reaching old age, or even middle age. Never mind the unthinking insensitivity of the question, it's the gentleman champion's response which throws a dagger to the heart. The Scot's deep, piercing eyes blink and the silent response ripples across the years, articulating the enduring tragedy of the quiet champion.
• Jim Clark: The Quiet Champion
BBC 4 tonight, 7pm
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