During the 1960s and ‘70s, many broadcasters, including the BBC, worked on the assumption that more value lay in their stock of videotape than the cultural value of the programmes recorded on them. A policy of wiping took place, to enable the precious tape to be reused.
Episodes of classic programmes such as Doctor Who, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Not Only… But Also and much of the BBC’s studio coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing, were lost, seemingly forever.
Every single episode of football soap United! was wiped. Whether following the progress of fictional second-division team Brentwich United throughout the 1965 to ‘67 seasons would now make anything other than tedious viewing isn’t the point – the opportunity to make that judgment has been taken away.
Cook and Moore even offered to meet the costs of replacement videotape themselves, in order to save their comedy genius from being destroyed, but gallingly were prevented from doing so by BBC red tape.
As a result of this cultural carnage, the British Film Institute started the ‘Missing, Believed Wiped’ campaign to try and locate these lost items from British television’s past. The initiative has managed to recover some material, tracing cans of film sent to broadcasters.
Whilst discovering some lovely colour footage of the 1966 Milk Race possibly isn’t quite the same as unearthing a lost Doctor Who episode, it’s probably the closest one can come to time travel without actually being the Doctor.
“It really felt like dealing with technology from another age,” says Roger Pratt, of his initial feeling when prising the 16mm cine film spool out of its can. “It didn’t crumble into dust in my fingers as I feared.”
The Cardiff man twice rode the Milk Race, including the edition captured on film here. “You look back from my age and your memories are framed to some extent by souvenirs in monochrome media, but here was my past in movement and living colour.”
The man behind the camera was Renato Spinetti, whose employers, Wiggins Teape-Thomas Owen of Treforest, Wales, had an enlightened attitude toward allowing him company time to go and film the race as it came through its local patch.
If the surname sounds familiar, Renato’s cousin, Victor Spinetti, was at the peak of his career around this time, the Welsh-Italian actor winning a Tony in 1965 and appearing in The Beatles’ Help! and A Hard Day’s Night.
His foray into television comedy, co-starring with Sid James in Two In Clover, was largely spared the ignominy of being wiped, with only one episode missing.
Renato, a technical photographer at Wiggins Teape, was already used to following local races, often acting as soigneur to his brother-in-law Danny Morgan, a legend amongst Welsh racing cyclists of the time.
“He was the type of rider that never trained: did a lot of cycling, but he’d go to a pub and drink ten pints of beer after, stick two Mars bars in his pocket in the morning and off he’d go, that sort of thing,” says Renato.
“Danny was one of these guys who’d try and browbeat and talk you out of a race. In the changing rooms, with everyone getting ready, he’d say ‘We’re gonna smash you today, you wait til we get on the Riggers.’”
If he wasn’t smashing other riders going up the Rhigos Mountain climb (or ‘Riggers’ as Renato calls it), he’d be dropping his team support descending it.
“I always remember coming off the top of the Riggers, coming down, and I’m doing 60mph in my Minivan trying to catch him. I never saw him again until he got to the Bwlch.” Renato’s little Minivan would regain contact on the climb up the other side of the valley.
“So I’d been looking after him. Every time he said ‘I’m doing a 12-hour race’ or whatever, he’d ask me to come with him. We’d jump in the van and off we’d go. He’d expect me to pump up the tyres and feed him. And I always used to take my camera.”
Renato’s enterprising nature meant his company owned a 16mm Paillard-Bolex camera. Not that an examination of the accounts would confirm this…
The company manufactured NCR (No Carbon Required) paper, allowing copies to be made of documents without the use of messy carbon paper.
Tasked with investigating working processes at the plant in order to reduce the amount of waste, Renato convinced his superiors a stills camera wouldn’t suffice; he needed a cine camera to adequately capture the action.
A little creative accounting from his manager – invoicing for a wall that was never built – and funds for the new equipment were secured. Renato also had a darkroom constructed. Once his work for the technical department was done, he could “do what he liked”, which often meant remaining at work processing his own photographs into the small hours.
“When the race came to south Wales, I said to my technical manager, look: this Milk Race is coming, it’s a really big cycling event. It would be great if we could do something, film the race and then use it. So he said, ‘Well, go!’
For most people, paid time off work to watch a bike race come past would be good enough, but Renato had a more ambitious plan.
“So I said, ‘Well, I can’t just go, because I don’t want to use my still [camera]. I’ve got the 16mm Bolex cine camera. I can’t film and drive’.
The company had a standing army of graduates so he recruited a suitable young man, who happened to own a Renault 4 with a sunroof, allowing Renato the option of standing up and filming on the move.
“The only problem was the car couldn’t keep up with the riders half the time – especially that sort of race, where you’ve got a convoy of vehicles, including the riders. The local races, there’s a bunch of riders with one car up the front, maybe another one, and that would be it, so you can overtake the lot.
“But this Renault, going up the mountains… Oh my God! We’d lose everybody, and then I’d try and find shortcuts to get ahead of them, y’know? And then they’d pass us again, so it was that sort of day: me trying to film, and this guy, who didn’t know anything about cycling…
“I’m standing up, shouting instructions down, and he didn’t know whether to go fast or slow, and I’m saying to go faster. He was saying ‘I’m doing my best!’”
Perhaps it’s the family name, but the slapstick picture Renato paints of proceedings off-camera makes the event sound like one of his cousin Victor’s comedies.
But the end result is professional, capturing the latter parts of the mountainous 122-mile fourth stage from Aberystwyth to Cardiff.
“Because of my association with my brother-in-law and an understanding of cycling, I knew where to go to get the best shots, and to try and show the effort that was being put in.
“And then I came back, and I had this film, showed it [to my managers] and they said: ‘Keep it, and we’ll see what we can do with it’. And nothing happened. So I just kept it.”
The film sat in a can in Renato’s attic for nearly 50 years.
He turns to Roger Pratt for confirmation and poses the classic south Walian rhetorical question: “Isn’t it?”
Cardiff Ajax rider Roger had also secured time off work for the race that year, but to compete in, rather than record, the event. “You had decent employers in those days – they gave me two weeks off to ride the Tour of Britain.”
He’d completed the 1965 race and was asked back to ride in the Midlands and Wales team to work for Hugh Porter and defending champion Les West.
“Was there any objection to filming from the race officials?” asks Roger.
“Nothing, none at all. I didn’t even think about officialdom or anything like that,” Renato replies. “It never occurred to me that you had to abide by any rule, because no one ever came to me and said ‘These are the rules’.
“And I just joined the convoy, and no one said ‘You can’t do that’, no policeman came after me…
“I knew the route. I said to the driver the day before, this is what it’s like, and we’ve gotta go up here, and down there, and these guys are gonna be travelling… going downhill really, really fast.
“If we fail to catch them, then we need to go on this shortcut and get ahead of them, but if we do that, you’ve really gotta travel, just to get ahead of them, ‘cause they’re not gonna hang about. So we planned various aspects of it.”
Roger: “On those mountain roads, you’ve really got to know the area, and it means going down residential backstreets of the valleys. I think your driver did an absolutely tremendous job. Did you get any aggro from the riders for getting in the way?”
“No, no, in fact, quite a few of them are smiling at the camera and tucked in behind the vehicle going up the hills. Always good, isn’t it?” Renato replies, again finishing on the classic rhetorical phrase of his native south Wales.
“It all seems like yesterday. But it was half a century ago,” says Roger.
“It’s historic in many ways, as there’s not an awful lot of colour film about of bike races from those days in Britain. And it’s been very important to cyclists of my generation to see this again, because it’s brought back so many happy memories. So I think we’re just very, very grateful to Renato risking life and limb racing down Bwlch mountain, manoeuvring his giant camera to record this film.”
This article is an extract from Rouleur #49