At Cemetery Junction
When Vittorio De Sica was looking for funding to make the film that became Bicycle Thieves, the story goes, David O. Selznick offered to put up the money on condition that the lead would be played by Cary Grant. Film historians tend to take this as an instance of Hollywood crassness, though maybe it should be classed as one of cinema’s lost opportunities.
Skid Kids, a 1953 Children’s Film Foundation production, looks very like what would have happened if De Sica had taken the Ealing Studios shilling. Both films involve an Italian working man, Antonio, whose bicycle is stolen. In Bicycle Thieves the part is played by Lamberto Maggiorani, a factory worker rather than an actor, who had the face of an ascetic saint. He is a decent, serious man struggling to feed his family and maintain his dignity, a struggle made harder by employers and authorities who lack all compassion; without his bicycle Antonio cannot work, and is driven towards despair.
In Skid Kids (directed by Don Chaffey, known to posterity for Jason and the Argonauts and One Million Years BC), a roly-poly actor called Kurt Wagener plays Antonio as a comically temperamental immigrant who carves kitsch statues at the local novelty factory. On discovering his loss he wails that he will no longer be able to work, but no consequences are shown on screen other than a poor performance in a darts match at the pub, and Antonio soon regains his composure, or what passes for it in a flighty foreigner. Anyway, his story is a sideshow: the protagonists are Swanky Clarke and his chums in the Burton Bullets cycle speedway team, a gang of kids who pedal about the streets of Bermondsey trying to thwart a wave of bicycle thefts, in the spirit of Emil and the Detectives or Hue and Cry. Naturally the Bullets round up the spivs responsible – with the enthusiastic co-operation of the kindly local coppers – and go on to win the local speedway championship, after which the owner of the novelty factory rewards them with a slap-up tea.
Skid Kids is the highlight of On Yer Bike: A History of Cycling on Film (BFI). The two DVDs contain getting on for 30 short films (at 47 minutes, Skid Kids is more than twice as long as any of the others), including newsreel, documentaries, safety films, commercials for bike manufacturers and shops (one located ‘at Cemetery Junction’), propaganda for the joy of railways, and part of an Open University ‘materials and mechanics’ course that uses Sir Alex Moulton’s F-frame bicycle as a case study. The earliest item is ‘Lady Cyclists’, a minute of footage shot in 1899 at an unidentified location; it shows a long procession through parkland of women riding safety bicycles (fixed gear, single rod-controlled brake – in present-day Hackney the machines, if not the bonnets and skirts, would be very much on trend); though it looks to be a festive occasion, it is hard to resist the elegiac mode of the music the BFI has supplied: never such innocence etc. The last film is a short advert from 1983 in which two boys of around 12 try to turn right while riding in traffic: one sensibly pulls into the kerb and waits for a gap, but his more impulsive friend...
The line between those two films maps nicely onto the trajectory of cycling in Britain in the 20th century. From the arrival of the safety bicycle in the 1880s until after the First World War, riding bikes was a mass activity, a source of pleasure and freedom for millions. The most baffling item on the DVDs is three minutes of Manchester and Salford’s Harriers Procession of 1901. The bicycles are one element in a huge carnival, alongside a variety of local military or paramilitary organisations, some of the clowniest-looking clowns I have ever seen, and a fair amount of blacking-up. As the century progressed, cycling was increasingly confined to narrower realms, fit for sportsmen, children and people in woolly hats; Skid Kids, in which the utility of the bike to the working man comes second to the thrill of the Burton Bullets, sits two-thirds of the way along the timeline. The emphasis of the films shifts accordingly, urging the viewer to give cycle touring a go (‘Cycling without a map is like new potatoes without the smell of mint’) or try riding to work, while making sure to point out in severe tones that it is the deadliest form of transport there is. Two of the films end with a reckless cyclist turning see-through and sprouting angel wings: all bike shops, it seems, are located at Cemetery Junction. In recent years, cycling has recovered a small part of its popularity, but Skid Kids could not be made now: the idea of children cycling unsupervised in inner London isn’t much less outrageous than parading in blackface. As a filmgoer, I can’t honestly regard that as a terrible loss; as a Londoner, a parent, a cyclist, I see it as a dismal verdict on where we’ve got to.