We recently explored how the birth of speedway in the UK in the late 1920s and 1930s saw the sport used as a backdrop for stories in boys’ comics. But what of the sport’s second golden age, the 1970s? Ahead of the 2016 Adrian Flux British Grand Prix, we examine the cultural side of speedway.
The 1970s were a funny old decade. It gave us glam rock, women’s liberation, Star Wars, punk, Tom Baker’s long scarf and much more besides.
It is sometimes also described as Speedway’s last golden age. The oft-repeated claim that it was the UK’s second most popular spectator sport is debateable, but it was definitely more visible than it had ever been thanks to regular appearances on ITV’s World of Sport, and it was able to sustain healthy local scenes and nationwide leagues.
Compared to its first golden age back in the 1930s, speedway figured less in the fictional world. Back then it found a home in boys’ story papers, filled with tales inspired by the new and exciting developments in transport and technology of the time.
By the 1970s, man was walking on the moon, film and television were packed with exciting science fiction and story papers had all but disappeared, replaced by comics inspired by American superheroes.
The speedway stories that did emerge reflected the changing attitudes of the time. Tallon of the Track debuted in Tiger comic in 1973. It’s noteworthy as it featured the first female character to appear in a boys’ comic. Back then, children’s entertainment was fairly strictly gender segregated, so when tomboy Jo Tallon became the trainer of the Flying Ospreys, it was definitely a sign of the times.
The comic itself couldn’t have come from any year other than 1973. There are characters who are the spitting image of early seventies style icon Jason King, while others could easily walk on stage with Slade. Jo herself is possibly inspired by 1973’s other famous fictional Jo, the Doctor’s companion Jo Grant.
Tiger comic continued publication until 1985, but Tallon of the Track barely survived the 1970s. While it’s a stretch to call it a lost masterpiece of feminist literature, it was still a fairly bold move at the time.
A story appeared in the 1972 Jag annual, another comic named after a big cat, but this was something of a one-off as the weekly Jag comic had ceased publication in the late sixties.
The 1970s were also a bit of a golden age of children’s television. Doctor Who reached heights of popularity it wasn’t to know again until the 21st century, helmed first by the stylish Jon Pertwee and then the eccentric Tom Baker, but to this day people fondly remember series like Ace of Wands, The Tomorrow People, Sky, The Changes, Children of the Stones… The list goes on. Children’s TV then was almost as robust as adult TV is today, with tales packed with murder, violence and paranoia. In 1977 the BBC broadcast the six-part series King Cinder, starring future Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan and Leslie Manville, who recently starred in the BBC sitcom Mum.
A surprisingly adult tale of blackmail and extortion based in a small town where speedway is the pastime of choice, it has sadly never been repeated or released on DVD. Speedway fans looking to fill out their collection might want to politely ask the specialists of almost forgotten archive television Network to seek out the rights to this forgotten classic.
Act fast though, physical media is dying quickly. It’s possible that the BBC might eventually add it to their download store, although I wouldn’t recommend holding your breath. Anyone wanting to experience the story should be able to pick up a copy of the book it was based on cheaply on popular auction sites.
Happily, Lesley and Peter have remained friends to this day!
The final part of the tour of seventies speedway fiction doesn’t feature any speedway, but will appeal to anybody who remembers going to Hackney Wick stadium. The late seventies detective series Hazell was based on a series of books created by footballer and later England team manager Terry Venables.
Running for two series between 1978 and 79, it was a Cockney version of hard-boiled detective fiction. The episode Hazell Goes to the Dogs features much nostalgic footage of the old stadium. As the name of the episode suggests the story hinges more on its other use as a greyhound track, but will still give a little insight into a now-lost fragment of Speedway history. The episode also features a young Marina Sirtis, who would go on to become extremely famous as Deanna Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
These days, speedway fiction is a fairly niche operation, with specialist publisher Speedway Fiction – it does exactly what it says on the tin – home to a range of novels that themselves hark back to those twin golden ages of the ‘30s and ‘70s.
Michael Hansen’s stories use speedway as a backdrop to tales of intrigue, crime and skulduggery, providing flat-track addicts with their fiction fix and keeping the long-standing tradition of speedway stories alive.