London 1937, and factory worker Bill Fox (Dirk Bogarde) has ambitions to leave the production line and become a speedway rider. He manages to get an audition with manager of the Cobras, Rowton (Sid James), and takes the afternoon off work to be greeted by his cynicism. One of the team's stars, Tommy Possey (Bonar Colleano), is riding round the track, but falls off at the turn, though he is fine and gets up, dusts himself off and is ready to get back on the bike. After borrowing some leathers, Bill mounts the bike himself, and Rowton has to admit, the boy has talent...
The sport of speedway is not one that bothers the movies very often, and the Elvis Presley vehicle Speedway doesn't count because that was about a different activity. In the years following Once a Jolly Swagman, the highest profile drama to feature this was the 70s children's television serial King Cinder, starring future Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan, and even that has been largely forgotten, so it's Bogarde's unlikely motorcyclist that takes the silver screen honours for the sport's adherents, mainly because there was not much else to choose from. Speedway was arguably at its most popular at the time this film was released, which could be seen as your basic cash-in.
But this was the period where British social realism was capturing the imagination of that country's filmmakers, so far from being wall to wall bikes zooming round in circles interspersed with the odd crash, we we offered the not so sunny life of Bill for most of the story. In fact, the film didn't seem too enamoured of speedway at all, and came across as very down on it for its supposed dangers; sure, riders occasionally got injured, but according to this it could seriously mess up your life. This was most apparent in the character of the Australian Lag (Bill Owen), for whom the sport has left him a shell of a man after falling over once too often, serving as a warning to Bill of what he has to look forward to.
There was more to this than the bikes, however, as there was a soap opera arrangement to the plot, with Bill's home life the cause of much concern and the looming world war on the horizon. This enters into the story when his brother Dick (Patric Doonan) goes off to fight the fascists in Spain, which leads to a montage of Bill's increasing success mixed with clips of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, something that may have you wondering which teams they rode for. But the war is there mostly as another impediment to the hero's happiness, as is just about everyone else in this as they all are in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the chap, except for Tommy (the tragically shortlived Colleano is now best known for his mention in Ian Dury's Reasons to be Cheerful (Part 3)).
If nothing else, you could see what a bunch of veteran British character actors looked like when they were young, with Thora Hird showing up as Bill's fretting mother; the answer to that question is that they looked pretty old even back then. Bogarde was not really anyone's idea of a sportsman but he was the rising star at the time, so when Bill gets a taste of stardom he gets to grow a little moustache and wear a bowtie to indicate his newfound sophistication, which Bogarde frankly looks more comfortable with though it's absurd that any speedway rider would opt for that look. His romantic interest was Renée Asherson as Pat, who frets even more than Bill's mother and though they get married that darn sport gets in the way. This does end on an optimistic note, and in its favour it does capture some valuable footage of what speedway was like in its heyday, but the way in which almost everyone is so sceptical about it in the film does become wearing - as big a drag as World War 2, according to this. Music by Bernard Stevens.