Chariots of Fire: Olympic heroes on stage

This week I was feeling nostalgic so I took a trip down memory lane to London’s theatre land to celebrate British sporting achievement in the early 1920s.

Well, it is the year of the Olympics!

Chariots of Fire, one of my favourite British period movies, has been adapted for the stage to celebrate the London 2012 Games.

The play at London’s Gielgud Theatre comes complete with Vangelis’ inspirational music, authentic athletics action and a script adapted from Colin Welland’s film screenplay.

Olympic torch

Tammy at Chariots of Fire play

Tammy takes to her Chariot of Fire

Sitting in the stalls sipping a large glass of red wine did make me feel like a sloth as a dozen athletic actors raced around a specially-built track inside the theatre.

The ensemble cast were fit in both senses of the word!

Goodness knows, how the actors kept up the pace as they sprinted around the ‘track’ in a series of synchronised running sequences recreating the 1924 Olympics.

By the end of the evening they’d run several 400 yards, the 100 yards sprint, the hurdles and assorted training sessions…

Usain Bolt may be a lightning strike faster but he didn’t have to act in a play in between Olympic sprints!

This is pure theatre. The track has been built through the middle of the audience which makes you feel like you’re sitting in a stadium watching the events unfold in real time.

I was almost inspired to put on my training shoes and run out of the theatre after the finale!

Edward Hall’s splendid dramatisation stars young actors James McArdle and Jack Lowden who acquit themselves well as  Olympic heroes, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell.

This is the ‘Boys Own’ style story of two athletes, both outsiders, who have to confront the establishment, class prejudices and their own destinies to achieve their dreams.


It’s hard not to watch the Chariots of Fire play without thinking of Hugh Hudson’s elegaic film which scooped four Oscars including Best Film in 1982.

Originally called Runners, the film was rejected by most Hollywood’s film companies as having no commercial viability in the US marketplace.

For the Brits who finally got the film off the blocks it was a triumph over studio short-sightedness.

The film executives who rejected the movie were left with egg on their faces when Chariots cleaned up at the Oscars.

For audiences the film struck a nerve with its nostalgia for past glories, its old school values and patriotic tones.

Both film and play are set against a backdrop of the economic depression and Britain’s diminished world role in the 1920s.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that the stage adaptation comes against a similar economic scenario today, 30 years ago after the Chariots of Fire film.

Tough economic conditions, a Tory government, a recession and a royal wedding: it certainly looks like life is repeating itself.

The tension between amateurism versus professionalism also strike a chord in today’s age of commercialised sport.

Truth versus fiction

The play and film focus on the parallel stories of Harold Abrahams, a Lithuanian Jew, and Eric Liddell, a Scottish missionary.

It’s a tale of two amateur runners who are determined to win medals at the 1924 Paris Olympics, against the odds.

But, as in all good yarns, there are plenty of hurdles along the way.

After his Olympic selection Liddell discovers that the 100 yards heats are to be held on a Sunday, and he refuses to run due to his strong religious convictions.

A solution is only achieved when Lord Linsey, already a medal winner, offers up his place in the 400 yards to Liddell.

Both Abrahams and Liddell win their respective races.

But let’s not forget the first rule of screen writing – never let the truth get in the way of a good story!

Abrahams is portrayed as an obsessive athlete with an intensive fitness programme in the play. In reality he barely undertook 2-3 days training a week, enjoyed drinking beer and smoked a cigar!

Liddell learned of his Sunday race and dilemma before departing for Paris whilst Lord Lindsey never offered up his place nor did he win any medals.

It is true, though, that Abrahams went on to become the father of British athletics whilst Liddell died in China serving as a missionary at the end of World War Two.

Seductive sport

Chariots of Fire is an extremely seductive story with its tale of two outsiders fighting to be top dog.

The evocative use of quintessentially British elements – Jerusalem, the Savoy Operas, English hymns and songs – adds to its appeal.

Chariots of Fire was described as a “a fragment of history trapped in amber” by one critic – and I’d agree that is part of its appeal.

In the film version, the nostalgic cinematography with its bronze glow and amber hues captures the halcyon days when Britain was supposedly great.

Keen readers of this blog will remember Tammy’s summer trip to St Andrews where she recreated the opening scene from Chariots of Fire on St Andrews’ West Beach.

You may also remember this classic film scene in which Eric Liddell races around the Old Golf Course at St Andrews.

Thirty years on, there’s something rather splendid about the legacy of Chariots of Fire.

We still love its tale of Olympic heroes and idealism, its uplifting sentiments and the inspiring Vangelis music.

It made my spine tingle when the very same music was played during this year’s London Olympics.

And who could fail to warm to the wonderful opening ceremony of the Games when Mr Bean joined Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra to play the classic Chariots of Fire soundtrack.

We all laughed at the lovingly created spoof of the beach scene which morphed into Mr Bean running along the sands, elbowing his competitors out of the way.

I found the final scenes of the play as moving as the film even if the screen version is ultimately more successful in capturing the nuances of this amazing story.

Chariots of Fire as a play still inspires and lifts the spirits…

London 2012 may be long over but this was a great finale to celebrate a year of sport.

Categories: Films, London, Sport

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