Remember when Indiana Jones slashed through a rope bridge with his sword to escape racistly conceived, scimitar-wielding, Kali-worshipping Thuggee warriors who were after him because he nicked some precious stones for reasons too complex to get into now? Of course you do.
And remember what happened next? The bridge collapsed on to a sheer cliff face, leaving Indy dangling from what had become a rope ladder, while some buff shaven-headed monk who, if the villain thing didn’t pan out, could easily have found work in a Right Said Fred tribute act, sought to tear chunks out of our hero and chuck him to the alligators below.
Well, it is neither Harrison Ford, nor India’s foremost Right Said Fred impersonator Amrish Puri, in that footage. It is two British blokes called Vic Armstrong and Frank Henson – their stunt doubles.
Before the chunk-tearing could begin in earnest, though, Frank had a problem. His harness got tangled around his groin and flipped him over, making him tumble a few feet before he could grab the ladder and deprive the alligators of lunch. Vic and Frank, being true professionals, realised the camera was still rolling so kept trading blows. “I was worried to death about him and I was punching him in the face at the same time,” recalled Vic.
Hollywood Bulldogs: The Rise and Falls of the Great British Stuntman (BritBox) was full of stories like this, to make health and safety workers hyperventilate and metrosexuals like me contemplate our moisturisers and wonder where it all went wrong, butch-wise. The first recorded film stunt came in 1908, when a man was required to fall from a cliff into the sea in The Count of Monte Cristo. Hundreds of men subsequently cheated death by doing things so heroically stupid as trying to outrun a stationary tunnel entrance while on top of a speeding train, crashing through french windows in Nazi uniform, falling from helicopters, getting hung upside down on a meathook by Bob Hoskins and back-flipping plausibly over a G Plan sofa when punched in The Saint by the former knitwear model Roger Moore.
While British masculinity has become increasingly oxymoronic, men with names such as Vic, Frank, Ray, Rocky and (my personal favourites) brothers Nosher and Dinny kept the bulldog spirit alive until green screens and CGI almost made them obsolete. Or so Ray Winstone, who, naturally, narrated this programme, maintained. Unless it wasn’t Ray but his voice double. This programme taught me to take nothing for granted.
Stuntmen were often oddball war veterans without marketable skills in Civvy Street beyond boxing and bouncing. Jim Dowdall recalled being asked to describe his skillset at job interviews. “I can drop a grenade into a bucket at 30ft eight out of 10 times, and I’m very good with a light machine gun.” Nobody wanted that. So he and men like him found themselves hanging around Elstree and Hollywood, waiting to be summoned to do something that straddled the line between insanely stupid and consummately terrifying.
“Fire jobs are very dangerous,” recalled Dowdall, whose memoir, Man on Fire, details a professional life being serially turned into a human torch. “You can’t run from fire.” What you should do, apparently, should you ever be consumed by a fire on a film set, is lie still and wait for assistance.
In one Bond movie, Dowdall was playing a baddie happily strangling Timothy Dalton’s 007 to death when the latter produced a lighter and ignited his accelerant-doused foe. Dowdall had a little tube running from his mouth under his fire-retardant costume to provide air when he was inside the resultant fireball, while Dalton, you’d think, had retired to his trailer for a vodka martini. But when Dowdall sucked, nothing came out. Then he had a brain wave: he blew into the tube, releasing a blockage, and sucked air into his lungs. Which is why he lived to tell the tale.
Back in the 60s, it was a British stuntman’s rite of passage to be kicked in the crown jewels and chop-sockyed into oblivion by a leatherette-catsuited Diana Rigg in The Avengers. The fight scenes would inevitably conclude with our heroine surrounded by comatose geezers, before Steed wafted into shot, commenting: “I say, Mrs Peel, you’re remarkable!” When I interviewed Rigg shortly before her death, she recalled her human punchbags with a fondness that can’t be conveyed in a family newspaper.
We didn’t hear from stuntwomen, whose stories would have been at least as interesting as these gents recalling their glory days. The director, Jon Spira, should do a sequel.
Instead, we got an intriguing scene from 1967’s Casino Royale that Frank told us he did the stunt for, swerving around a corniche in a yellow E-type Jag. But hold on. The driver at the wheel looked like a woman in a headscarf. Was that Frank in women’s clothing? Couldn’t they have got a stuntwoman for the job? It set me thinking of how I missed my calling. I could have been Diana Rigg’s body double.