Obree left and Miller right (all photos © Verve Pictures)
The Flying Scotsman is the film adaptation of Graeme Obree’s autobiography, a sincere and inspirational journey of the Scottish cyclist’s rise from obscurity to the top level in professional cycling.
In 1993, Obree, whose riding up until then had consisted mostly of amateur achievements, broke the hour record previously held by Francesco Moser. It was the realisation of a dream to succeed, an inner desire to push himself beyond his limits. The path to realising the hour record was far from smooth though, and the film delicately tells the rollercoaster story, from his personal battles with depression, frustration at the UCI and a close rivalry with Chris Boardman.
It’s an intense experience at times, with the filmmakers really capturing the speed and excitement of the cycling action. Obree is excellently played by Jonny Lee Miller – you’ll remember him from Trainspotting – who portrays Obree’s journey from a young lad growing up in Scotland to his ongoing battle with depression. Along with his wife (Laura Fraser) and best friend and manager Malky (Billy Boyd), we’re allowed an intimate window on the life of Obree during his record breaking years.
The film adaptation condenses the book into 102 minutes, and while it’s not quite as accurate as the book, Obree’s response to this is: “…there’s a lot of dramatisation, but basically it’s not quite 100% accurate, but if people want the real story there’s the autobiography which is totally accurate. The book contains all the information: the film has to be entertaining.” And true to his word the film does entertain, but at moments really tugs at the heart strings as Obree struggles to overcome his personal problems.
And while the film will certainly appeal to cyclists, there’s an underlying story of an unlikely hero triumphing against the odds that will be appeal to non-cyclists. ‘Take along your non-cycling friends and partners’ is Obree’s message, so confident is he that the film can aspire to appeal to more than the cycling community. “What I’ve actually observed from the few showings that there’s been is that cyclists are going to love it no matter how good or bad the film is. Cyclists are not objective in giving an opinion on whether they like it or don’t like it. But what happens is they drag along friends and families that really aren’t into cycling and what happens is they love the film. And they tell other non cyclists and they go and see it. So it ends up being having much more of an appeal.”
So while the film isn’t totally accurate, it covers all the important stages in his journey to the top and does so in a highly inspirational and emotional voyage. At 102 minutes it’s a film that is just the right length. You’re constantly kept on the edge of your seat, with the action scenes especially adding to the drama. You’ll not fail to get a sense of the speed involved. Initial plans to film the chase scenes with a motorbike hit upon problems. The weight of the motorbike and the camera necessitated a novel solution, which Obree fills us in on: “… they actually got a motorbike stunt rider to do the shots on the track. The problem was with the weight of the bike, the weight of the 35mm camera, the whole thing is tremendously heavy. This camera is mounted on a fork arrangement on the front of the bike. Now with all that weight, and the 45degree banking, meant the motorbike was terribly unstable, and only really became stable at 44kmph. Jonny had to ride at 44, and if he fell of the motorbike wouldn’t be able to brake in time. This wasn’t a good scenario. So three days later, we’ve got a great plan. If we can find a track rider here now who can actually ride with a camera attached to the handlebars, then we can do it. So I thought right, let’s do it. It was terribly unstable, with the cameras you had to sit bolt upright. The camera was so heavy; it was a £250,000 camera so I had to make sure not to fall off. That’s how the footage was taken. Some people thought I was going to fall off, it was so unstable. But we got the footage and I think it made a difference. I’ve now got a qualification on my CV as a cycle-cam operator.”
Of course, Obree is famous as much for the bike he built himself, from bits of other bikes and famously parts from a washing machine as for his racing. Asked if he gets annoyed with people who only remember him for the washing machine bike, he says: “Well yes and no. I kind of have a problem with the fact that people think that anyone could win the Worlds in that position, which everyone knows wasn’t the case. Some people tried it and weren’t going any quicker. Once I’d done the ride, Old Faithful was more popular than I was. People would walk right past me to see the bike, and I was like ‘what’s going on here?’”
Perhaps the hardest part of the film is portraying the pain and agony endured while Obree was attempting to break the record, and the film does manage to give a good sense of how much riding the hour record really hurts. “I really felt, jeeze, that really takes me back, hearing the bang of the gun. Jonny was great with the facial stuff and the effort, and got it across. What most people actually miss, a major part of the film we were so keen to get absolutely accurate, as accurate as we could, is the difference between myself on the first attempt and the second attempt on the following day. The first day I’m very measured, this is the big one, take a big breath. But the big day I’m like let me at it. I’m gung-ho, that’s mine. I’m having it. As opposed to the first day I was a totally different person.”
The story just isn’t about how a man beat the world hour record. In fact, a large contributory factor to the remarkable story is how Obree revolutionised pre-conceived bike positions. And not once, but twice. This however brought him right into the UCI’s firing line. “There were no restrictions at that time. From the tuck position to the Superman position it took about ten minutes to get accustomed. It conforms and I feel good on it, and I was describing it, it’s kind of like Superman with his arms out in front. The next thing its spread and everybody was calling it the Superman position. I shouldn’t haven’t mentioned it and it would be called the Obree position now. [Laughter]”
But the UCI were against your pioneering positions. This must have been frustrating? “They weren’t against the Superman from the start, to I thought right this time I’m not going to make a mistake. What I’m going to do is come right out with the position, I’m going to ride the World Cups on it, and everybody will have the opportunity to get a long stem and put their bars out. So if I beat them and they haven’t changed then it’s their fault.”
With current rules do you think the UCI have stifled bike design and innovation? “Is stifling innovation a bad thing? I don’t think they’ve done enough. If they’re going to stifle it then they might as well stifle it all together so people can afford to buy a bike for £300 and race. I think they haven’t gone far enough. If they’re going to limit innovation, limit it to a degree where people don’t have to spend thousands on equipment. Make the sport more accessible. And also I’ve never disagreed with the UCI’s decisions, I’ve only every disagreed with their methodology. The fact that they made up a rule that was unwritten the night before a championship which we couldn’t possible conform to, was unconstitutional. There were people ready to have a rebellion at the World Championships in 1994, because of the way it was instituted, they just said,’oh we don’t like that’. They just weren’t having it. The rule is you can’t ride like that, and that was it. And I thought the bike confirmed to all the rules so I had to be allowed to be able to ride. It was a bit demoralising.“
So, is Obree pleased with how the film has turned out? I would say I am. Also there’s a lot of dramatisation, but basically it’s not quite, things aren’t as you watch it, but if people want the real story there’s the autobiography which is totally accurate, it contains all the information. The film has to be entertaining. Another thing is if somebody doesn’t know anything about cycling goes and watches the film and next day they tell somebody about the film, 20% of the information will be accurate.
The Flying Scotsman is currently screening in cinemas nationwide. We recommend everybody takes the time to see this film.
To get a taste of the film, watch the trailer, it’s well worth the wait