Sunday, 10 July 2016

GOING FOR GOLD: CHARIOTS OF FIRE, ST ANDREWS



It seems hard to believe that four years have gone past since the nation and the world witnessed the stirring spectacle of the London 2012 opening ceremony.  The most memorable part of the ceremony was the spine-tingling sequence representing Britain’s Industrial Revolution, but prior to that there was a comedy sketch involving British comedian Rowan Atkinson playing a pianist with a repetitive role in a performance of the theme music to Chariots of Fire, a film made in 1981 but re-released in 2012 prior to the London Olympics, which tells the story of two athletes who, after years of training, are accepted to compete in the 1924 Paris Olympics.  The film triumphed at the 1982 Oscars, winning four awards including Best Picture.  The music also earned its Greek composer Vangelis an Oscar for Best Original Score. 

Anyone who has seen the film will remember the scene near the beginning where, with the theme music as a backdrop, the athletes raced along a glorious sandy beach in their white period racing gear, their feet splashing in the shallows.  In the 2012 opening ceremony Rowan Atkinson’s mind wanders off during his boring part of the musical performance and he starts fantasising about being a part of the beach scene.  Some clever camera trickery is used to superimpose him on the scene alongside the original actors.  Ben Cross, who played Jewish athlete Harold Abrahams in the film, described the act of running along the sand as ‘hell’.  Worth enduring though, for what has come to be one of the most iconic scenes in British film, so much so that people can often be spotted recreating the scene on the beach.  

So where was this beach?  Well in the film it was meant to be Broadstairs, but in fact, the scene was shot at West Sands in St Andrews, Scotland’s answer to Oxford, famous for its university and the fact that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge met there.  Famous also for its fine golf courses, one of which was founded in 1754 and is regarded as the home of golf.  St Andrews was chosen as a cost-saving measure, due to the fact that other scenes were being filmed elsewhere in Scotland.  Filming on a beach is not without its problems: the story goes that the crew were forced to return to the location to film the sequence again because sand had got into the camera the first time round, damaging the negatives.

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West Sands, St Andrews. Photo by Stephen Sweeney, via Wikimedia Commons


The production crew had to change the outward appearance of some of the city’s newer buildings to make them look more in keeping with the period.  Towards the end of the beach sequence an imposing building can be seen near the golf course, with the name Carlton Hotel on it.  The building was used as a University residence at the time but was relabelled for the film.  Sean Connery reportedly joined the film’s producer David Puttnam at a screening of the film, and when the building came into view he tapped Puttnam on the shoulder and said “That’s not the Carlton Hotel, that’s St Andrews”.  Apparently a lot of the extras used in the filming were recruited the night before from the local bars.  

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St Andrews Golf Links. Photo by Rob Bishop, via Wikimedia Commons


Although the city did not form a part of the film’s story and, Connery, aside many people would not have recognised it in the beach scene, St Andrews is evidently determined not to forget its role in the film, with a plaque commemorating the filming and a hotel bar called Chariots.  There is also an annual Chariots of Fire fun run on the beach, giving fans of the film a chance to relive the scene.

Map of the area.

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