Going the extra mile: The re-release of Chariots of Fire

Terry Mitchell runs across the West Sands in 2012. Picture: Dan Phillips
Terry Mitchell runs across the West Sands in 2012. Picture: Dan Phillips
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WITH the London Olympics just weeks away, Chariots of Fire is about to be re-released in our cinemas. For the film’s extras, 
it’s another chance to relive their unexpected moment of glory, writes Dani Garavelli.

As the young men gathered at the Scores Hotel, St Andrews, early on April 24, 1980, the talk was of the haircuts they were about to have and the beer money they hoped to pocket. A dozen or so runners, all members of local athletics clubs, had been assembled as extras for a low-budget movie being filmed in the town and told only that they would have to forsake their long locks for a short back and sides and run along the West Sands in bare feet.

The people behind the film are welcomed at Waverley Station in 1981

The people behind the film are welcomed at Waverley Station in 1981

Little did they realise they were about to carve themselves a place in cinematic history. The scene they were about to shoot was the iconic opening sequence of the multiple Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire. Within a few months of its release, the poster on which they featured would adorn the wall of many a bedsit and the theme tune, by Greek-born composer Vangelis, would be instantly recognisable on both sides of the Atlantic.

More than 30 years on, the David Puttnam-produced movie retains its place in popular affection. Voted 19th in the British Film Institute’s Top 100 British films, it transformed the careers of its stars, Ian Charleson, Ben Cross and Nigel Havers and its music is now so synonymous with running scenes, it is almost a cliché, and has been featured heavily in the run-up to this year’s Olympic Games. Later this week, a digitally remastered version of the film will be shown in 100 cinemas across the UK, while a Blu-ray disc set will be released shortly afterwards.

Not only will this introduce it to a new audience, but it will allow the extras to relive their moment of glory. Now middle-aged, and scattered across the country, the men say just hearing the opening bars of theme tune brings them out in goosebumps.

“We had no idea the film was going to be big,” says Derek Easton, now financial director of Thornbridge Sawmills in Falkirk. “We just saw it as a good laugh, but we’ve been able to dine out on it ever since.”

The men, many of them students at St Andrews University, had been told about the film by Don Macgregor, a Scottish Olympic marathon runner, who trained with some of them. By the time they took their places on the shore in their “Persil-white” costumes, the familiar landscape had been transformed, with post-1920s buildings camouflaged and cars moved or covered up. Shivering in their T-shirts and shorts, the runners laughed as the make-up girls wandered round with ice cream tubs of wet sand which they splattered on them with tiny wooden spatulas. “We thought it was a bit daft,” says Easton. “ By the time the actual footage was shot, we had been up and down the beach a dozen times and were covered in the stuff.”

One of his proudest boasts is that he was the first one ever to run to the music. “They wanted one of us to run so they could sort the cameras and some of the lads shouted, ‘Easton’ll do it’ – so I stepped forward.

“As I ran, the music was played to the others on a mini-cassette recorder.”

A camera was mounted on the dunes on long wooden rollers. But some of the filming was done, fellow extra Ian Henderson recalls, with a camera positioned on an open-top 2CV, a vehicle chosen because it was light enough not to sink into the sand as it drove alongside them.

Naturally competitive, the runners initially jostled for position at the front, but were soon told to give the stars their place. “I positioned myself out in the water, so I can see myself in all the posters,” says Henderson, who now runs a translation company. “But others got themselves right in behind the actors, so they got more close-up time than I did.”

As it turned out, the actors were almost as fit as them. Before filming they had spent three months training with Olympic coach Tom McNab.

“The bit where we jumped over the railings in front of the Old Course had to be filmed several times,” says Easton. “Once, a member of the public jumped out and took a photograph. Also we were running in bare feet and the path was quite gritty, so we were kind of hobbling over the barrier – and I remember them saying the actors were doing better than we were.”

According to the extras, the actors, then virtual unknowns, were mostly charming. “Nigel Havers’ father was attorney general at the time and he obviously thought he was a bit above speaking to students,” says Easton, “but the others were brilliant and David Puttnam let us look inside his black Porsche, which had thousands of pounds of hi-fi equipment under the seat.”

Terry Mitchell, a member of the Fife Athletics Club, who now works in the university’s grounds department, adds: “I remember Ian Charleson saying he was going to keep running after the film was over because he liked it so much.”

It took the whole day for the crew to get something they were happy with, with several takes spoiled by events such as a Sea King helicopter passing overhead.

Nigel Annett, now managing director of Welsh Water, says he remembers the freezing surf and the chafing of his shorts, although a bottle of brandy was passed round to offset the cold. After it was over, the crew realised sand had got into one of the cameras, so the extras were called back a week later. “The second time, the budget had been cut,” laughs Henderson. “We had to hang around until the tide went out, but there was no brandy.”

Still – Puttnam later recalled – a change in the weather meant the wind had whipped up and the sea was churned, which made the second day’s footage more interesting.

For their efforts, the men were paid around £25 a day, but none of them felt hard done-by. “You have to remember beer cost 15p a pint back then,” says Annett, then a member of the St Andrews cross-country team. “I do remember worrying, though, that taking it might lose us our amateur status.”

There was a little bad feeling when promised invites to the premiere failed to materialise. But this was soon forgotten as it became clear the film was going to be an international hit.

When they saw the film, laughter rang out as the words “Broadstairs, Kent”, appeared over a shot of the 18th hole, with the old Grand Hotel (renamed the Carlton Hotel for the film) in the background. “One of the most famous golfing landmarks in the world –and they were trying to pretend it was in the south of England,” laughs Mitchell. But cheers greeted the sight of the runners in local cinemas and most found the story of Liddell’s triumph over adversity inspiring.

Soon the extras were enjoying their new fame, which peaked when the theme tune entered the charts. “The nice thing was it was on Top of the Pops. We came down after dinner [in their halls of residence] to watch TV and we were on it,” says Easton.

But there was also a handful of people who regretted having passed up the opportunity to take part. Having found the extras, Macgregor, then a teacher at Madras College in the town, decided not to take the day off. And then there is the sad tale of Professor Ronald Morrison, retired head of St Andrews’ computing science department, who went along to the hotel, but ducked out at the last minute when he realised he’d have to have his beard shaved off.

Later the same day, while teeing off on the Old Course, Morrison saw the others still running across the beach. “I don’t know why I wouldn’t have it shaved – I don’t have it now,” he says. “Every time I hear the theme tune, I think, ‘I could have been in that’.”

In the ensuing years, most of the extras lost touch. West Sands, however, has been the focus of many commemorations and re-enactments. In 2001, a plaque marking the filming was unveiled and last month, the scene was recreated by schoolchildren taking part in the Olympic torch relay.

But the film’s return to the big screen – less than three weeks before the opening ceremony – will no doubt be welcomed by the public and the extras alike. “I hope to go and see it again – it will bring back some great memories,” says Easton. “But I think it will also add to the pre-Olympic atmosphere. It’s a film which really captures what sport is all about – people making a commitment and doing their best.”

• The digitally remastered film will be shown in selected cinemas from Friday. The 30th anniversary limited edition Blu-Ray set is released on Monday.