Wednesday August 16, 2017
What are the great Austin A35 moments in cinema? Well, there is Leslie Phillips driving a van in Carry On Constable, the taxi in The Great Muppet Caper and the spectacularly dire Austin van/Land Rover chase in the 1967 horror film The Deadly Bees, a picture involving bored actors being attacked by black and yellow Styrofoam on a regular basis. If we expand our remit to include the A35’s predecessor we have the even worse Clegg, a 1970 second feature where everyone is out-acted by an A30, various lampposts and their own hair. But, of course, little could equal the sheer drama and excitement of Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
In a recent interview, Nick Park, the genius behind Aardman Animations, noted that ‘We chose the Austin A35 because it’s such an unlikely heroic car – our ironic take on the Batmobile or the Starsky and Hutch car. That didn’t stop an American movie executive asking me during the early stages of making the film if Wallace could have a cooler, more modern car. The whole point is that it’s not cool.’ Now, far be it from us to disagree with one of the great talents of British film and television but a light commercial that was favoured by both James Hunt and Wallace has automatically entered a kingdom of cool far beyond any dreams of a teenaged slacker. Many people regard Bullitt as the acme of ‘cool’ but while Steve McQueen may have looked undeniably groovy in his taciturn way as he chased a Dodge Charger R/T 440 with a Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2, defending civilisation with a Preston Green Austin A35 Mk. II Van is far more of a challenge.
Park has also noted that he grew up in Preston of the 1960s ‘where everything looked like it was still from the 1950s’. Similarly, Wallace and Gromit’s adventures always seemed to unfold in a part of the country where The Beatles had not yet been heard of and so an A35 van - a 1950s design that was made until 1968 - was the perfect vehicle. The film’s soundtrack used the authentic sound of A35 windscreen wipers and whenever I see one of these fine Austins vans at a show, I automatically think of a soft northern country voice uttering ‘And slow down, for pity's sake! You'll buckle me trunnions!’
So associated did the late Peter Sallis become with Wallace & Gromit and 295 episodes of Last of the Summer Wine, that it is easy to forget that he hailed from Twickenham. Sallis’ long and distinguished career encompassed all genres and anyone who wants to see his considerable range should seek out Clash by Night, a low-budget thriller from 1963 in which he played a mentally disturbed arsonist. But to Austin enthusiasts, he will forever be associated with the role that he originally undertook in 1983 for a £50 charity donation to oblige a young film student. When Sallis retired from acting 27 years later his vocal genius and the A35 Van were known around the world, especially for one of the greatest lines of recent British cinema history – ‘Oh, come on, Gromit. A bit more, you know... alluring’?
PETER SALLIS 1st February 1921 – 2nd June 2017