Speed is Expensive

Reviewer: Rachel Kent

Writer and Director: David Lancaster

Speed is Expensive feels rather like one of those films families put together for memorial services . The title is something the subject once said; historic footage is mixed in with family cine-films; there are contributions from friends and colleagues . In this case the subject is Philip Vincent, inventor of the iconic motorcycles, and the film is the deluxe version. The narrator is an A lister (Ewan McGregor -Golden Globe winning motorcyclist). The film features celebrities – Jay Leno and a number of motorcycling champions – and some international headline grabbing events.

Who will watch it? Obviously motorcycle enthusiasts. In fact, it’s not without interest for people who know nothing of sprockets and fairings and don’t care about speed. The story of Philip Vincent’s journey from hubris to humiliation might be grandly called a classical tragedy, but it’s also the story of what happens to everyone. You go out of date.

How did a young boy from the colonies (Argentina not the British Empire ) come to create a machine so powerful and desirable that a song would be written about it? Without insurmountable difficulty, it seems. He went to Harrow and Cambridge. When the dons, whom he considered hopelessly old-fashioned, objected to his lack of engagement, his father sold some land to help him set up a business. He succeeded wildly, and lost everything. It’s a peculiarly twentieth-century tale. It begins in the stiff-collared Edwardian age , ends with leather-jacketed bikers and is punctuated by six years of war. Vincent himself was in a reserved occupation but there’s still a hero whose last words are “I’m sorry chaps. That’s the best I could do.” Also mid-century modern is Vincent’s cavalier approach to safety. He wasn’t wearing a helmet when he had the catastrophic crash which is thought to have exacerbated any tragic flaws he may have had.

The film is not a glowing tribute. It acknowledges that Vincent was an arrogant teenager, and became an increasingly difficult boss. His voice on a taped memoir recorded in 1970, is partly sonorous like Churchill (Harrow again) and partly querulous like an old man. He was sixty-two . He talks contemptuously of modern ‘cock-eyed’ ideas , and describes how he ‘burst out laughing’ when the Ministry of Defence had the temerity to cancel a wartime contract (because of his recalcitrance).

The film makes it clear that Vincent was genuinely talented. His schoolboy drawings of prototype motor bikes are astonishingly meticulous and original. His motorcycles broke many records. It also shows many people who cared about him. For twenty years he had a lover called Ethel, and after her a much younger wife called Elfrida, who was devoted to him. His daughter Dee only speaks fondly of him, and his late son-in-law Robin Vincent-Day seems to have been such an admirer that he added Vincent’s surname to his own. His grandson Philip does a lot of the leg work in the film, including a trip to Australia.

What the film does not always make clear is who the various people are. This is especially true of the talking heads, artfully filmed in wrinkle- enhancing black and white. Their names and occupations appear only once and there are many of them. Sometimes the picture on screen doesn’t entirely fit the voiceover. We hear of Vincent sailing to England as a boy, shortly after the end of the Great War. The scenes of life on deck look as if they are from a decade or so later. Considering that David Lancaster, in a pre-release interview, says that both his parents were motorcyclists, the film is surprisingly male -dominated. Apart from Vincent-Day herself, only two women, who worked at the factory, feature briefly. Ethel and Elfrida are each mentioned by name only once. Vincent’s mother is not named.

More than a century separates Vincent’s grandson Philip Vincent-Day, with his close-cropped hair and tight black T shirt, and frock-coated walrus-moustached father. They look as if they could have nothing in common, and are a reminder of how one generation overtakes another. When engineer Phil Irving joins the firm, McGregor tells us “Lennon had found his McCartney.” The Beatles were a symptom of Vincent’s problems. They belonged to the same generation as the Ton Up boys who bought cheap colourful Triumphs to get around; the tweed-wearing pipe-smoking customers of the previous decades were inevitably no longer cool. Although Vincent was still having with wildly innovative ideas, they were not yet practicable on a sellable scale. There were new engineering ideas that worked. Like his teachers at Cambridge, Vincent was becoming outdated.

The film ends with a few lines from Kipling’s immensely popular poem If, known and loved by many a pipe-smoker. Vincent may have liked to think he embodied it. But the line that springs to mind is Eliot’s: ‘Consider Phlebas. I was once handsome and tall as you’.

Speed Is Expensive will be available on Digital Download from 25th September.

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