14.8.09

Thunderballs


From Cyril's memoirs dated 2 February 2007

It was 1964 and I was a young and, whenever possible, thrusting Global Sales Director at Triumph, but as Triumph was by then controlled by the mighty BSA I was generally aware of what went on at the Small Heath HQ. Back then, the Cold War was at its height, as were James Bond films, with Goldfinger on the screens that year (I saw it in a Soho cinema and was expecting something entirely different). There was another film already in production – Thunderball – and BSA was approached by special effects genius John Stears (who later won an Oscar for his work). He wanted to equip a performance motorcycle with rocket launchers, to be ridden by the SPECTRE agent Fiona Volpe (played by the really rather stunning Luciana Paluzzi, who happens to be Francesca’s aunt’s godmother’s niece, but I digress).

All went very well and Stears got a 650 Lightning on which his own people did a lot of modification work. Months later, there was a special private preview of the film at the Birmingham Odeon to which various members of the BSA board were invited, including Harold Armstrong and Edgar Smeer.

Armstrong and Smeer were long-serving board members with solid engineering backgrounds, which makes what follows all the more baffling. They were, as a pair, so taken by the stunts they saw in the film, featuring a pneumatic woman in tight black leather shooting rockets from her Beeza, that they took it upon themselves to develop their own fully-functional version of the bike, no special effects needed. They rightly assumed that they’d never get official approval for the work but convinced themselves that the Ministry of Defence would be thrilled with the machine once presented with it. At the subsequent trial at the Old Bailey they referred to the disastrous events as ‘snags’. The judge, I recall, preferred the term ‘criminal negligence’.

Thanks to BSA’s background as a gun manufacturer, Harry Armstrong had several useful contacts in the arms trade, which was how he managed to get hold of the anti-tank guns which were fitted to the side of an A65 Firebird street scrambler. After various bench tests and many hours with the slide rule, Armstrong and Smeer decided to take the contraption to a disused airfield for secret tests. We should be glad that they decided to film their exploits as the grainy black and white footage provides a valuable document (reputedly available in some obscure corners of the internet, though I've never found it, and even Francesca's deft young fingers fail to raise anything despite intense googling).

The footage, as shown in court that day, begins with Armstrong and Smeer unloading the bike from the back of a Commer van on a bleak and blowy airfield (I forget where). The bike looks proficient enough, with the launchers attached to its flanks. But then, from the back of the van, emerges the bizarre sight of Smeer's secretary, Janet Jones, dressed in a replica of the leather catsuit worn by Fiona Volpe in Thunderball. All very well on a toned Italian siren, not so fetching on a middle-aged mother of three a little too fond of the biscuit barrel. The impression was of an over-stuffed black pudding at bursting point. The men had clearly convinced her to take on this role purely for their own pleasure as her riding skills were not the best, as soon became clear. In fact, one wonders whether the whole venture wasn't focused solely on getting Janet Jones into a leather catsuit, an endeavour that I imagine required a couple of hefty lads and a pint of baby oil.

Anyway, the A65 was fired up and, with Armstrong filming furiously, Janet Jones squeaked onto the saddle with the sound of a hand being dragged over a highly-inflated balloon. The following events happened very quickly indeed and I recall the court re-watched the footage in slow motion many times. It seems Janet released the clutch rather abruptly, the back wheel stepped out, the bike went down on one side and one rocket shot out and destroyed the Commer, seen exploding in the background. Janet, now sprawling on the tarmac, is highly compromised as the catsuit's gusset seam finally gives up and bursts wide open (ah, now I remember, it was Blackbushe airfield in Hampshire) and Smeer flings himself on top of her in what he claimed to be an attempt to 'preserve her modesty', though I've never before heard it called a 'modesty'. It's clear in the footage that she sees things differently and the ensuing fight goes on for almost a minute, the dedicated Armstrong not missing one second with the camera.

It's a shame that the film ran out before the arrival of the police soon after. What they found was a scene of devastation, degradation, broken machinery and a grown man crying – a scene that by the decade's end would be fairly normal at the increasingly troubled BSA.

3 comments:

Gary Inman and Ben Part said...

'.....a little too fond of the biscuit barrel'
is my new favourite catch-phrase
BP

Simon Weir said...

Genius, Mick - when are you going to publish the collected works in book form?

Mick P said...

Thanks Simon, much appreciated. I'm just waiting for that millionaire publisher with a lack of taste to come and offer me the big deal.