“I’ve done a million things since but that was the first film, which is what makes it important.”
Speaking in 2006, aged 80, Jimmy Savile was remembering his first brush with showbiz. It was spring 1948, and director Ralph Smart was on location in Skipton making the romantic drama A Boy, a Girl and a Bike.
The story makes for nostalgic viewing today. Honor Blackman is the lithe lass pursued in life, in love and on two wheels by rival suitors: plain-speaking working class lad Patrick Holt, and smooth, upper class John McCallum.
Among the various cyclists hired as extras was a 21-year-old former coalminer from Leeds. His name: Jimmy Savile. Later to become one of the best-known faces on British television and a tireless charity fundraiser (he would be knighted for his charity work in 1990), Savile had spent the war years working as a Bevin Boy. He and a friend, both racing cyclists, heard about the filming, volunteered their assistance and were promptly hired.
For more than a month they cycled every day and were paid for their pleasure. Savile and his pal moved into digs in Grassington, close to the unit base at Malham. Every morning they would head off to the day’s location. They couldn’t believe their luck.
“Riding a bike was the most marvellous thing for me. I’d just come out of the pit and was getting used to being able to stand upright without banging my head,” says Savile. “I wasn’t really doing anything other than trying to get a few quid to live. When this film came along it was like heaven on earth. It was the most amazing time in the world.”
As well as Skipton, Smart filmed in Grassington, Elland and Hebden Bridge.
The film is regularly screened at the Hebden Bridge Picture House where inevitably it plays to a full house. Nostalgia clearly plays a big part. But the film is also a time capsule of Yorkshire life in the years immediately after the war.
I asked Sir Jim if he was nostalgic for those far-off days.
“For those of us who were in it, it was a lot more to us than just seeing a film with nostalgia. We loved it, and I love it today. It was special, different and, for us, totally amazing bearing in mind that I had just come out of the pit.
“I saw it [for the first time] in Halifax, with a girl. She got very excited. I think she thought she was sitting with a film star, and that didn’t do me any harm at all.”
Jimmy Savile’s showbusiness career took off as a disc jockey with Radio Luxembourg in 1958. He presented the first edition of Top of the Pops in 1964 and, over time, reinvented himself as a peroxide-haired eccentric.
There were other films – guest appearances in Just for Fun, with David Jacobs and Alan Freeman in 1963, and in Gerry and the Pacemakers’ musical romp Ferry Cross the Mersey in 1965. There were sundry documentaries, the “Clunk Click” TV seat belt campaign and, of course, Jim’ll Fix It.
But it was that first movie, filmed on the open roads alongside green fields and beneath blue skies that held a special place in Jimmy Savile’s heart.
“It was the most amazingly marvellous experience for all of us. They did hot food every day. We all had a dinner at lunchtime – we’d never had that in our lives! Wonderful, it was. It was a dream time.”