British athlete Harold Abrahams, played by Ben Cross, wins the 100 Metres event at the Paris Olympics in a scene from 'Chariots Of Fire', directed by Hugh Hudson, 1981. (Photo by Warner Bros./Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

His race is run

ASH Smyth remembers Ben Cross, Harold Abrahams, and the impact Chariots of Fire had on his 10-year-old self

Harry Bernard Cross – or Ben, as he was known professionally – died back in August, at the age of 72. And last week I eventually got around to watching Chariots of Fire again, as a small personal memorial.

“Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us,” it begins, at Harold Abrahams’ funeral. Well, fair enough. But it was my mother, actually, who took me to see the film, at some sort of 10th anniversary re-screening at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square. It left an immediate impression.

I remembered the running along the beach, of course, and the ballroom cricket scene. I remembered the Gilbert & Sullivan-themed banter (my first intro?) at the Freshers’ Fair, and Vangelis’s Oscar-winning soundtrack. I remembered the pompous, aged college masters, and the Americans in their emphatically-more-‘modern’ tracksuits. In retrospect, I think I knew the film, though seemingly ‘old’, was the same age as me – which seemed to matter, somehow.

As a white, side-parted, prep-school choirboy type, I did not especially suffer from ‘outsider’ status

And I distinctly remembered my mother explaining why the hero, as the college porter sneers, “with a name like Abrahams… won’t be singing in the chapel choir, now, will he?” And the awkward pigs’ trotters mishap at the Savoy. Then having to spell out the entire Jewish business. I wouldn’t claim I really got it, though. As a white, side-parted, prep-school choirboy type, I did not especially suffer from “outsider” status. (My mother, from Northern Ireland, may well have felt she did – but one learns to steer clear of such topics if you don’t want the whole of Irish history with your choc-ice). Nonetheless, thanks to Ben Cross, with his proud and hawkish straight-Rupert-Everett looks, I warmed, as millions did, to Harold Abrahams’ determination and pugnacity.

On re-viewing, the film still seems nigh-on perfect to me, full of the valour of a more glorious time, the generosity of spirit, the joyful amateurism. The pulsing, adrenalized tunnel-vision exemplified by Vangelis’s synthesisers. And such economy of script.

In particular, I noted how quickly Lindsay Anderson’s stirring Master-of-Gonville-and-Caius 1919 matriculation speech, full of the horror of the deaths of an entire generation (“By tragic necessity, their dreams have become yours… Let each of you discover where your true chance of greatness lies… And let no power or persuasion deter you in your task.”) degenerates into him and Gielgud preening about their studies like two bitchy panto dames on their day off.

The real aristo athlete was David Cecil, Lord Burghley

As an adult, I have to say, the pair’s old queerness seems OTT, as does the relentless anti-Semitism (both theirs and Abrahams’ own incessant references). One can only hope that that stuff is all broadly accurate. Because while Chariots of Fire quite rightly won a slew of Oscars, BAFTAs, Golden Globes, etc. – incl. one for Best Original Screenplay – the film does amp up certain facts, and rounds off others.

Harold Maurice Abrahams

Alas, “young Mr Abrahams” never raced round Trinity Great Court (let alone Eton, where it was actually filmed), and his competitor in that great scene, ‘Lord Andrew Lindsay’, is also fictional. The real aristo athlete was David Cecil, Lord Burghley (later 6th Marquess of Exeter), who in 1927 anecdotally was the first to run the 367 metres in the 43.6 seconds that it takes for the bell to toll 12 (though this appears to be faster than his 1929 PB, scaled down, for the 400m. Hmm…), and won gold in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics 400m hurdles. Cecil refused to have his name used in the film, since he had never raced Abrahams, let alone lost to him.

Abrahams, meanwhile, competed unsuccessfully in the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games (while at university, that is), failing by large margins to “medal” in 100m, 200m, and long jump, and coming fourth in the 4x100m relay. He did not employ Sam Mussabini – the ostensibly objectionable pro coach – until after leaving Cambridge.

At the 1924 Paris Olympics, Abrahams came 6th (last) in the 200m, but he and Eric Liddell nevertheless came home with two medals apiece: a silver in the 4x100m for Abrahams, as well as gold in the now-immortal 100m, and a bronze in the 200m for Liddell, to go with gold for his 400m “fall-back” option (because he wouldn’t run the 100m on “the Sabbath”). For narrative reasons, the movie does not bother to show all these, or in their factual sequence.

So, films are films. Abrahams didn’t marry Sybil Gordon, the D’Oyly Carte soprano, either. He married Sybil Evers (a different D’Oyly Carte soprano), and that not until 1936 – for the simple reason that they only met in 1934. The relationship that came second to his running (per Mussabini’s speech) was with a Cambridge academic called Christina McLeod Innes.

Maybe Abrahams thought that a Jew commentating for the BBC right under Hitler’s nose was a riposte of sorts

My own (sports-teacher) wife is wont to roll her eyes when Lindsay and Harold quaff champers by way of warm-down from their dash. And even I thought the line between ‘David’ Prince of Wales and some random New Zealander who’s going to “give it a try” because he happened to be in the country was a bit much. But these men, however well-placed, were not nobodies (‘If everybody’s somebody, then no-one’s anybody’). That Kiwi, Arthur Porritt, came third to Abrahams and Charley Paddock (gold, 1920) in the 100m, and went on to become Queen’s Surgeon and Governor General of New Zealand. (Rather touchingly, Porritt and Abrahams would dine together on the anniversary and at the time of their race, for the rest of Abrahams’ life.)

The Abrahams family were a talented bunch too. The eldest brother, Adolphe (afterwards ‘Sir’), a physician and the founder of British sport medicine; the middle brother, Sydney (ditto), also an Olympic long-jumper and later the Chief Justice of Ceylon.

A month before the ’24 Olympics, while presumably training his arse off as a 100m specialist, Harold Abrahams casually broke the English long-jump record, which then stood for another 32 years. (His brother must have been delighted.) Contrarily, he did not then compete in Paris in that discipline but did break his leg doing it the following summer… whereby ending his athletic career.

He became a lawyer and sports journalist (in what I hope is just an unfortunate editing decision, at one point in the film it looks very much as though the student Abrahams is writing up his own athletic exploits in the press…), during which phase he commentated from the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In later life he was elected president of the Jewish Athletic Association. One might have felt these last two clashed a little; but maybe Abrahams thought that a Jew commentating for the BBC right under Hitler’s nose was a riposte of sorts.

Abrahams romantically used some of the gold from his 100m medal to make Sybil’s wedding ring (both items later stolen, on separate occasions!), and latterly endowed prizes in her name in the fields of singing and women’s athletics. They adopted two children and fostered two more Jewish refugee kids in the run-up to and course of WWII.

Abrahams was not inducted into the English Athletics Hall of Fame until 2009

Abrahams was clearly a thoroughly impressive bloke, in every sense. And though he may indeed have lived in a world of “won’t be singing in the chapel choir” sneers, from this distance it’s hard to see just how much of a hindrance his Jewishness was. In the film he refers to himself as (merely) “semi-deprived.” But he was president of the Cambridge University Athletics Club, and a member of the Liberal Club, the exclusive Pitt Club, and the Gilbert & Sullivan Society. He was also a freemason. Ultimately, Harold Abrahams (CBE) went on to become the elder statesman of British athletics (rather like Lord Coe, whom I always felt Ben Cross more than passingly resembled). Still, it seems only right to note that he was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1981, but not the English Athletics Hall of Fame until 2009.

Adam Smyth, also ran

I, of course, did not become a runner. Or not that kind of runner, anyway.

I have what you might call a “natural athleticism” (i.e. I’m not heavy enough to play good adult rugby), and so I won some middle-distance races at prep school and in the junior realms of secondary education. I had a spectacular Year 9 cross-country season when – for why, I don’t recall – I only joined a strong team halfway through the winter and proceeded to win the remaining three races. The next year, I vanished without a trace (since then, an all-too recognisable pattern, sadly). Around this time, I even invited myself to my grandmother’s house in Portrush, to run along the beaches, there. (Have you ever tried running on sand – let alone with a force 10 “breeze” in your face?) Oh, and once I won a Wallace and Gromit mug for coming first in a National Youth Training Choir fun run.

Six thousand miles away, I had a South African cousin whose bedroom was absolutely covered in distance-running medals. This should have been a clue, for anyone who thought I was a “runner”.

I returned to playing (college-level) hockey at university, from which I occasionally had to sprint halfway across the town to sing at evensong, my cassock steaming even as we left the chapel. That confluence might have amused Abrahams, who thirty years after his Olympian success came to that same Iffley Road sports complex to see Roger Bannister break the four-minute mile.

A couple of spells of military service have seen me do a certain amount of running, compulsorily, and to the tune of frankly envious comments about “racing snakes” and/or grief from NCOs that I appeared not to be “trying hard enough”. I never came first. Top 3-5, consistently.

And I have, to date, run one half-marathon (Silverstone: dead flat), and one full one (Marathon: very, very, un-flat). Who has the time for hobby running, though? Plus, it’s extremely boring – even with Audible.

For what it’s worth, I read somewhere that Ben Cross also hated running. Since school, what’s more, even I have probably done more acting than I have done running. So, I was tickled to receive an e-mail from my mother, in answer to some points I wanted clarified.

An Ulsterwoman writes

“You were a runner. But also a good tennis player for your age and lack of proper tuition [there had been no tuition whatever]. You had made some comment about never being good enough to get to Wimbledon and my reply was that you could be whatever you wanted to be if you were prepared to devote the time and make the sacrifices. I took you to the film to show you just what was involved in turning yourself into a champion.”

Well, it worked. My favourite scene from Chariots of Fire remains “Lord Lindsay” trying not to spill champagne while doing hurdles on his lawn.

The rest is all just “notions”, as the Irish call them. Obviously – perhaps even by the age of 9 or 10 – I was nowhere near being a world-class sportsman, either in skill or temperament. Nor was I ever a notably good tennis-player, even when I played every day. My old friend and fellow Critic, Dominic Hilton – a proper tennis player, against whom I have played only once – summarised the situation thus: “You play bad tennis well.”

When I got where I was going, I don’t recall too many cricket sweaters or straw boaters

What struck me more, though, was that in our exchange my mother did not recall the name of Eric Liddell – arguably the senior partner in the CoF story/athletic pairing. Liddell was an all-round excellent athlete, who had also played rugby for Scotland – and in 1924 won gold for something that was far from being his supposed specialism. The fact that he switched races months in advance, giving him time to train, and did not (as one might rather imagine) find out about the Sunday issue while the team were embarking at Dover, as the movie tells it, does not in any way diminish the fact that any Olympic event is quite a thing to “switch to” at the comparative last minute.

I could live without the film’s “Auld Reekie” proud-Scot business (maybe it’s meant to balance Abrahams’ outsider-ness?), and all that training-for-the-100m-by-running-across-the-gorse-in-tweed-trousers. There’s also the, er, ‘intense’ relationship with his sister. In real life, Liddell also vacated 4x100m and 4x400m spots over the Sabbath business, which may well not have helped his team-mates awfully. And as for his line about not wanting footballing kids to “grow up thinking God’s a spoilsport,” well…

Liddell paid heavily for his beliefs, dying as a missionary in China, during WWII – and I’ve always felt my mother associated rather too strongly with his Presbyterian character. I most certainly did – and do – not. But Harold Abrahams had a lot of respect for him. In its 1945 obit, the Guardian called Liddell “the ugliest runner who ever won an Olympic championship.”

“Let them,” Abrahams had said, phlegmatically: “he gets there.” Perhaps the fact that I’ve mentally rejigged the hierarchy of heroes in the film says more about me than it does about them.

Six degrees of Harold Abrahams

Now (literally), I am nothing if not a “well-rounded” amateur. Because my parents instructed me to be. Based precisely on men like those in Chariots of Fire, only without the easy affluence. Per Gielgud’s Master-of-Trinity rebuke about “professionalism”, my parents too thought that sport was essential to completing a chap’s education. But only completing, mind you; not replacing. The idea that they would have encouraged me – in what immediately morphed into the professional era – to become a sportsman, to the exclusion of all else? Well, that’s a conversation for another day.

The world of acting is mercurial and cruel, for sure

No doubt, in fairness, the proposition was never really tested. Some things in life stick, and some don’t. I didn’t go to Cambridge, nor did I prioritise sport, let alone athletics. And when I got where I was going, I don’t recall too many cricket sweaters or straw boaters (though assuredly there were those types around, and they may right now be carving out essays on how Chariots of Fire – or, more likely, Brideshead – informed their upbringings). But I did promptly join the Gilbert & Sullivan society, in which, out of three shows I was involved in, we did both Iolanthe and The Mikado, as referenced in CoF. I’m even old enough to have seen an actual D’Oyly Carte production. Disappointingly, I’m yet to be invited to play cricket in a hotel ballroom.

Anyway, mothers are as mothers do – and here mine specifically paused to mention a copyright infringement case involving Vangelis (another thing we do not mention at the dinner table), the judge of which subsequently retired to live next door to the vicar in our Kentish village. The vicar himself came from Northern Ireland, and his daughter went to my prep school. When that church organist laughed off my request to join the choir, I went elsewhere, to Maidstone, where a fellow chorister, Andrew Cottee, taught me to play the Chariots of Fire theme on the piano. Andrew himself is now a film and orchestral composer.

An almost perfect circle was nearly achieved last year when Simon Tavener, my director in those early Noughties G&S shows, put on the stage version of Chariots of Fire. I seriously considered auditioning (it was a Facebook “memory” of same which prompted me to rent the movie, finally), but with a small child to look after (in Kent) this was a tad impractical. In the end, I went along to the press launch, on a January Sunday morning, where they re-enacted the Trinity, Cambridge “dash” in one of Oxford’s smaller quads. (No-one forbore to run because it was the Sabbath, NB.)

Chariots of Fire is one of those films where an actor’s portrayal of a single character would make a perfectly sufficient tombstone

The programme notes that the actor playing the Master of Caius had once seen Sybil Abrahams in Macbeth, just before she died. “Sam Mussabini” had met Harold Abrahams, and later become very distantly related to him by marriage, and his father had been sent to Dulwich College through the cognizance of Eric Liddell’s father. And the current Dean of Trinity, Oxford, sportingly played the Duke of Sutherland, head of the British Olympic Committee (though the Gielgud role would have been funnier, surely?). Having not made it back to Oxford for the show, I only discovered today that thanks to one of those “dash” shots, I’m accidentally included in the programme. That’s… something.

When Mike Bartlett adapted the movie for the stage, before the 2012 Olympics, the film’s director Hugh Hudson cited “Issues of faith, of refusal to compromise, standing up for one’s own beliefs, achieving something for the sake of it, with passion, and not just for fame or financial gain, are even more vital today.”

“A wonderful story,” my mother concluded in her e-mail. And, on the antisemitism issue in particular, she signed off: “it should be compulsory viewing in schools.”

Ben Cross

The world of acting is mercurial and cruel, for sure. But I cannot be the only one to be puzzled by the, um, “trajectory” of Ben Cross’s career. When the Wikipedia short blurb says you were in two big films thirty years apart (and the second was one of 97-and-counting Star Trek movies), it doesn’t exactly suggest you really took off.

After Chariots of Fire, layman movie-watchers of my generation – 40ish – may struggle to remember him in anything else, honestly. Or anything that was much good. We’re too young for ITV’s The Far Pavilions, and (listen up, kids) back in the day if you missed something on TV it stayed missed, often for decades.

I suspect there’s now a generation of not-so-young British (ex-)runners who mourn the death of Ben Cross

Working class, Catholic, and partly Irish, Cross himself may have struggled a bit. He did manual and semi-skilled jobs prior to being accepted into RADA. He then did a lot of stage work, including RSC stuff, a stint as Billy Flynn in Chicago, and a bit part in A Bridge Too Far. Like Harold Abrahams, Cross was very openly ambitious, and apparently did not like doing repertory roles that hundreds of actors had done before. Well, fair enough. But the obits and other such (bedecked with frankly minor names) went on to speak of “international stardom” which, in retrospect, may have been called a bit too soon. Most of the TV work that made up his career was, evidently, quite forgettable. And though he also has occasional directing, singing and song-writing credentials, I remember catching him in Banshee, several years ago, and thinking “Oh. So, this is where he’s been this whole time.”

An old friend (Cantab.) in Colombo tells me he once saw Cross in a London stage production of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, alongside Charlton Heston. Reviewers allegedly averred that the most moving part of Heston’s performance was his hairpiece. Another Sri Lankan friend (whom I first saw in a movie) tells me that he met Cross in 2013, when Cross was in Colombo with Sir Ben Kingsley, filming a Sri Lankan LTTE thriller movie (A Common Man: not seen, though I remember feeling a completely pointless frisson of affinity when it was shooting). It is, presumably, coincidence that David Puttnam, the CoF producer, hosted a screening of it at the Galle Literary Festival a couple of years ago.

“His race is run” I’d thought was from the Bible. It isn’t, quite; but the KJV does offer “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith,” which seems entirely fitting to both Abrahams and the man who played him. It also has: “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things.”

Well, Abrahams was a fairly feisty character, by all accounts. And I don’t know how temperate Cross (no puns, please) could be said to have been. He reportedly spent much of his career not playing ball with interviewers who dwelt too long on his most famous role. But, in his own assessment, “Since then I have done 80 or 90 projects, none of which have been in any way as successful.”

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Like Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List, I reckon Chariots of Fire is one of those films where an actor’s portrayal of a single character would make a perfectly sufficient tombstone. Ben Cross will be remembered for playing Harold Abrahams, in the same way that Abrahams, realistically, is now remembered for that 100m – thanks to Cross.

In the closing scene of the film, as it returns to the 1978 Covent Garden funeral of Abrahams, a title card comes up to the effect that when Eric Liddell died, all Scotland mourned. I suspect there’s now a generation of not-so-young British (ex-)runners – with hope in their hearts and wings on their heels – who in their own turn mourn the death of Ben Cross, and the inspirational introduction that he gave them to their sport. For my part, I’ve just bought a brand-new pair of trainers, and am off out running.

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