Flying Scotsman - interview

  • 8 August 2006

This article is from 2006.

The making of The Flying Scotsman has been as tough as the life of the cyclist Graeme Obree, whose life it portrays. Nick Barley talks to Obree about breaking records, refusing drugs and suffering mental illness.

To say that art imitates life might be a weary cliché, but in the context of The Flying Scotsman it is impossible to avoid. On the face of it, the film is the simple story of Graeme Obree, a maverick cycling nut who invents an entirely new way of riding a racing bike, wins a bunch of major races . . . and then slips into obscurity once the authorities have changed the rules and turned their backs on his innovations. Along the way, there are the euphoric highs of world records smashed to smithereens, alongside the desperate lows as Obree slides in and out of mental illness and attempts suicide. It is all based on a true story of one modest Ayrshire man.

Whether the film itself will follow a similar trajectory, fading into obscurity as a footnote in the history of Scottish film-making, remains to be seen. But what is certain is that The Flying Scotsman has suffered as many ups and downs as the man it portrays, in a traumatic production history that stretches back as far as 1993. This week, having been abandoned for dead several times, it takes its place as the Gala Opening Movie at the Film Festival, in the hope of securing distribution in mainstream cinemas. Its birth has been as controversial as any of the victories scored by Obree during his days in the saddle: just as Obree was once left in debt by sponsors who abandoned him, this film has been left in intensive care by a production company in administration, unable to pay the people who worked on it. At the very moment when Obree’s status as a Scottish hero should be celebrated, his film will open at a red carpet reception for industry pundits, while unpaid workers stage a protest outside the door.

The protesters have the sympathy of many in the industry, but they also know that their only real chance of seeing any money from the project will come from a successful showing in Edinburgh. Obree, who is among those owed cash, believes the course of events may ironically have led to a better movie. ‘Ten years ago, I already had the agreement and rights with Gaumont,’ he explains. ‘They had the film on the backburner, so Peter Broughan, the producer, bought the rights. Then things went on hold with me trying to kill myself, and the whole mental illness thing, but because of this, the script kept evolving. If someone had given Peter £20 million in 1996, it wouldn’t have been half the film it is now.’

Obree is sanguine about watching his own life portrayed by someone else, and is full of praise for Jonny Lee-Miller - Sick Boy in Trainspotting - who played the role. ‘Trainspotting was an excellent film, and although I am nothing like Sick Boy, I wasn’t at all surprised when I learnt that Jonny was going to play me. He took to it like a duck to water,’ Obree says. ‘He was fantastic at the cycling, and everybody else thought that Jonny’s got my kind of characteristics. I did some body doubling, not because his legs weren’t up to it, but because the sheer quantity of cycling you’ve got to do is amazing. So Jonny and I took turns.

‘It does feel strange watching somebody playing you, but when I saw the final cut, it definitely brought the pain of it back.’

Pain, and the struggle with his own demons, has been inherent to Obree’s life since before he hit the big time. ‘My worst subject at school was Physical Education,’ he smiles. ‘I was also useless at Metalwork and English. Now, I’ve built my own bike, won the World Championship and written a book about it.’

Obree’s urge to ride a bike was rooted in his individualistic approach to life. ‘I started cycling with my brother, going miles and miles, when I was about 11,’ he recalls, ‘It was an escape mechanism: the call of the horizon. I suppose at school I always wanted to be the explorer.’

Friends began to suggest that Obree take his cycling more seriously, and his temperament suited the lonely, one-man-against-the-clock discipline of the Time Trial. By 1993, aged 27, his best time for the 50-mile event had improved to a British record-breaking 1 hour 39 minutes and 1 second, an average speed of over 30mph.

It was in the same year, at the peak of his form, that Obree decided to attempt the World Hour Record. The best distances for this discipline, which simply requires a rider to cover the maximum number of kilometres possible on an oval cycling track, had previously been held by cycling legends Eddy Merckx and Francesco Moser, whose record had stood for nine years. But Obree had been experimenting with modifications to bicycle frames to improve the aerodynamics of his riding position, and was convinced he could exceed Moser’s distance. ‘I knew exactly how I wanted the bike,’ he recalls. ‘There was zilcho money, so I had to use old bits and bobs. There was a piece of metal I found in the road, and an old broken washing machine out the back door. I used it to make a very narrow bottom bracket.’ The bike he created became known as Old Faithful and his knock-kneed, scrunched-up riding position - dubbed the Tuck - was born.

Obree’s attempt at the Hour Record was undertaken in Norway. After one failed attempt the previous day, on 17 July 1993, Obree rode himself and his home-made bike into history, covering a lung-busting 51.596km in one hour. ‘I just trusted God that Old Faithful wouldn’t fall apart! In fact, half a bike had fallen apart once, live on Eurosport,’ he smiles. ‘That’s why I was scared witless during the filming of The Flying Scotsman. It wasn’t until it was a wrap, and Jonny Lee-Miller hadn’t fallen off a broken bike and broken an arm, that I could relax.’

The Flying Scotsman covers Obree’s quest for speed, his intense rivalry with fellow time trial-junkie Chris Boardman, and the much darker events that followed, including Obree’s disastrously short period with a professional cycling team. ‘I was probably the shortest-ever professional rider, 31 hours or something like that,’ he says. He’s not laughing. ‘I have no doubt that the whole team was taking drugs, and I was told, “you need to do the same.” I said “I don’t want to do that”. I got fired on 2 January, and I’ve never been invited back into any professional team again.’

Things got worse for Obree, who was diagnosed with manic depression, and one day in 2001 he was discovered hanging - barely alive - from the rafters of his barn. It was his third failed suicide attempt. Five years on, Obree is upbeat. ‘Since I wrote my book,’ he says, ‘I’ve found there is more interest in the mental illness thing than the cycling side of the story, and it will probably be the same for The Flying Scotsman. But I think in time it’ll be seen as a multi-faceted film; one that appeals to people in different ways. It’s no longer just a rocky story of a cyclist; it’s much deeper than that.’

Cineworld, 623 8030, 14 Aug, 9.30pm, £10.45 (£7.70).

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