It was bloody cold.” That’s what Ben Cross has to say of the iconic opening scene of the Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire. All those bright young things in their white cotton shorts and T-shirts, running through the sea on St Andrews’ West Sands – doubling for the Kent coast – to the strains of Vangelis. It is one of the best-known title sequences in cinema and was mimicked in playgrounds and parks for years afterwards, creating a national craze for slow motion running. When it comes to British athletics, as well as the classic rivalry of Coe and Ovett, the stamina of Steve Cram and the power of Allan Wells, there was Chariots of Fire. It didn’t matter if you’d seen it or not.
“The water was freezing,” says Cross. “And we had bare feet – completely ridiculous. If you spoke to a sports trainer about running barefoot in ice-cold water they’d ask you if you were mad. But, look, it made for a good opening sequence so that was that.”
Set in the build up to the Paris Olympics of 1924, Cross played Harold Abrahams, the English athlete who ran just as much to counter the rampant anti-semitism he experienced as for his love of sport and who was a rival to Scot Eric Liddell (played by Ian Charleson), a former rugby winger and devout Christian for whom running was an expression of his love of God. The 1981 film was Cross’s first lead role – he’d been a “glorified extra” in Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far, but that was the extent of his movie career – and he was 32, eight years older than Abrahams’ tender 24. He also had to contend with holding his own with a few of the acting establishment’s great and good, including Sir John Gielgud and Ian Holm, who were cast in supporting roles.
“All the people I had known and admired were suddenly thrown together. But, and I don’t mean to sound immodest, but they were in my movie and in Ian Charleson’s movie and not the other way round.
“It was an extraordinary experience for me because I had to give a performance and, of course, there was no rehearsal time with these guys so it was as simple as getting into costume and turning up on the set, and there in the flesh were these venerable, wonderful people. It was extremely intimidating, I have to be honest.”
Written by Colin Welland, directed by Hugh Hudson and produced by David Puttnam long before he was Lord Puttnam, the drama was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four, including best picture, best original screenplay, best costume design and best original music for Vangelis’s score. An impressive haul for a film whose young stars were relative unknowns and to which the reactions of test audiences were decidedly mixed. One American TV executive apparently left the room before the film was even half way through, declining to sign it for his TV channel, never mind imagining it as a suitable candidate for a cinema release.
How things changed. The film is ranked at number 19 in the Top Hundred British films and a digitally restored version is set to return to more than 100 UK cinemas later this month to celebrate the London Olympics. Meanwhile, a recent stage adaptation enjoyed a six-week sell-out run at London’s Hampstead Theatre, before transferring to the Gielgud Theatre in the city’s west end. So what is it about Cambridge undergraduates swanning about in evening attire in between running or leaping over hurdles balancing champagne saucers that we can’t get enough of?
The drama of the film comes from the contrast between the ruthlessly determined Abrahams, running to escape the prejudice he experiences, not least among the dons at Cambridge, and Liddell, the son of a China-based Scottish missionary, so powered by his unremitting Christian faith that he pulls out of a 100 metres heat at the Paris Olympics of 1924 because it is to be run on a Sunday. For Hudson, the film’s focus on achievement for the sake of it, not for money or fame, and the refusal to compromise in matters of conscience is what audiences love.
Cross says that his initial reaction on hearing about the re-release was “cynical” – “oh yeah it’s the Olympics, Chariots is bound to rear its ugly head”. But since then, he’s rather enjoyed it. Still though, Hugh Hudson described the film as a “golden cross to bear” and Cross understands the sentiment.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” he says. “In this sense Hugh and I are rather similar because it’s the most successful film that he’s directed and it’s the most successful film I’ve ever taken part in. We’re now two old buffers looking to be cast in something that will eclipse our so-called masterpiece.” He laughs.
Shot all over the UK, not least in Scotland, Cross has fond memories of trundling between locations with no idea, of course, how the film would eventually be received. “We were like a rock group on the road. We did a lot in Liverpool and in and around London and up in Scotland. I remember we were in Scotland shooting the sequence when Eric Liddell was running at a local club and they had a lot of Scottish men dressed as extras as it would have been – a sparsely attended athletics meeting. One of the extras actually shouted out – and it made Ian crack up – ‘get the lead oot a tha boots’.” He laughs. “It was an ad lib but it ended up in the movie. It was very funny.”
With his equine face and cut-glass vowels, Cross perfectly captured Abrahams’ drive, focus and arrogance. It was a part he says he knew he wanted as soon as he read the script, so he started to train before he’d even auditioned.
“I used to go running with my wife. I trained like a madman for three months just in case I got the role. And then we were all gathered together one blustery day, the shortlist of actors, sprinkled with a lot of professional athletes – we didn’t know about this, we thought they were all actors – planted there to try to intimidate us and make us run faster. It was some masterplan created by David Puttnam and Hugh Hudson but as naïve kids, we weren’t aware of any of that.”
Once the contracts were signed there were six weeks of intense training with Tom McNab, who was the Olympic bobsleigh coach. Cross’s training paid off and he was more than capable of doing whatever McNab demanded, but that’s not to say that the physical demands of the role were easy once shooting began. In one scene, Cross had to run alongside a car and overtake it, he also had to pull off the long jump (Abrahams was a champion in that event too) for a freeze-frame shot. Cross says he vomited in the grass while they were filming, hoping that no one saw him and that he wouldn’t be fired. He held on to his job, but when the film was released not everyone was impressed by his sporting performance.
“In the original review of the movie, the colour magazine of one daily journal, which shall remain nameless, referred to me as a ‘plodding plough horse’. But then again, the movie then went to America, won four Oscars and was re-released. Guess what happened? The same journal got another reviewer in and suddenly I had the ‘grace of an Olympian god’.” He laughs. “Neither is true of course. I think I was somewhere in the middle: I have all the grace of an Olympian plough horse.”
Cross may have captured a sense of Abrahams’ dedication to his sport, but none of it rubbed off on the actor.
“For two years after if I even looked at a running shoe, I felt nauseous,” he says. “For two years I became a slob. But I’ve always been involved in movies that have made physical demands of me as much as intellectual ones, so I need to stay in shape. So yes, I go to the gym I work out and do treadmills and lift weights and all that as much as I possibly can.”
Sounds more civilised than running along a beach in Fife with no shoes on.
“Padding softly along a beach in the Caribbean sounds more my style.” He laughs.
• Chariots of Fire is in selected cinemas from Wednesday.