THIS is the speedway novel that almost every fan has heard of. Not because they have read it but as a result of the 1948 film adaptation starring Dirk Bogarde, Renée Asherson, Bonar Colleano, Sidney James, Bill Owen and Thora Hird.

It tells the story of Bill Fox from Kentish Town, speedway rider, soldier and, finally, prisoner of war. He becomes a star of the dirt-track world but falls foul of the authorities by trying to organise a riders’ union and get better pay and conditions for his fellow racers. Reduced to riding the Wall of Death, the war overtakes him and the Army offers him a way out. He begins writing his book from a German POW camp where there is plenty of time to think.

THE book was first published in 1944 and reprinted the following year. At that time, with six years of war coming to an end, paper was scarce in Britain and books were produced according to the War Economy Standard. This is noted by the symbol opposite, printed inside.



Even the covers were re-used! A look behind the paper cover for the 1945 edition pictured above shows that it was printed on the reverse of the cover for another title, Foreshadowed by F E Mills-Young. There appears to be no record of such a book in the British Library catalogue so it may be a title that was not issued by the publishers, Bodley Head.

‘Uncommon and vivid, with an excitingly unfamiliar background.’

                                          Sunday Times

Extract 1

Bill Fox’s first attempt to ride a speedway bike


Extract 2

A handicap race for Bill


Once a Jolly Swagman Exerpt 1 (1).pdf Once a Jolly Swagman Exerpt 2 (1).pdf

Charles Montagu Slater was born in Millom, Cumberland, on September 23, 1902. He won a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford and, following his graduation, began a career as a reporter for the Liverpool Post. He was active in local politics and joined the Communist Party in about 1927. His political commitment is reflected in his literary work, which was particularly productive during the 1930s. He became editor of 'Left Review', which he helped create in 1934, and he wrote theatre criticism as well as plays, poems, short stories and film scripts. During this period, he often used the pseudonym of ` Ajax’. In the 1930s, he worked with composer Benjamin Britten who wrote incidental music for three of his plays. In 1935, he wrote an uncredited script for `Coal Face’, a short documentary film, and the following year his rather more political short pamphlet, `Stay down miner’, was published. Of his six novels perhaps `Once a Jolly Swagman’ (1944), with its heroes of the dirt-track, was the most popular.

UK, 1948, 100 minutes, black and white.


Once a Jolly Swagman is a strange title for a British film about speedway in England between 1937 and 1947. However, Waltzing Matilda is played at one stage during the picture. The director was Jack Lee, who was to direct such films in Australia as A Town Like Alice and Robbery Under Arms. Lee was later to move to Australia where he worked in documentary film-making from the Sixties.

The film was a star vehicle for Dirk Bogarde at the beginning of his career, following his war service, and the supporting cast includes a range of familiar faces and voices from British movies including Sid James as the boss of the speedway, Thora Hird as Bogarde’s mother, Bill Owen as a rider and Renée Asherson as Bogarde’s girlfriend.

There are several speedway sequences for those who enjoy them. However, the film also shows the average British family trying to cope in the years before the war, with a son going to fight in the Spanish civil war, with service in World War II, and with the difficulties of soldiers settling back into England and finding jobs after the hostilities ended. To this extent, the film is a story of its times, mirroring society as it was.


ONCE A JOLLY SWAGMAN Wartime book production Read some extracts from Once A Jolly Swagman About the author - Montagu Slater The BAFTA nominated movie A 2014 screening in New Cross

Amazingly, despite being 66 years old, the film could still be seen on the big screen in 2014. A showing was staged in the cafe-bar No. 178 on New Cross Road in London on Thursday May 1,  as part of the New Cross and Deptford Free Film Festival.

DESPITE its popularity with cinema audiences, the film version of Once A Jolly Swagman was received by some speedway riders of the day with less than enthusiasm. In a Daily Mirror report following a private showing, Split Waterman raged, ‘Speedway enthusiasts will tear the cinemas apart when they see it. It stamps the riders as a bunch of spivs. It can do nothing but harm to speedway racing, the cleanest of sports.’

Bill Kitchen, the Wimbledon captain, added, ‘The film gives an entirely wrong impression of speedway riders.’

Geoff Woodcock, Secretary of the Speedway Riders’ Association was indignant: ‘I particularly resented the Labour Exchange scene. The rider was made to look an ignorant layabout.’

A spokesman for Pinewood Studios, makers of the movie, said, ‘Four riders took part in the film and expressed approval of all technical details.’


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