Hollywood Bulldogs review – thrilling tales from heroically stupid stuntmen

Meet the excellent British oddballs who doubled for the likes of Harrison Ford and Roger Moore – and whose near-death stories of derring-do are enough to make you hyperventilate

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.


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Gossip Girl review – completely stupid in all the wrong ways
The original show was fabulously bonkers, packed with awfully rich people being awful to each other. The reboot is fatally earnest, and instantly doomed

Lucy Mangan

25, Aug, 2021 @10:35 PM

Article image
Flatbush Misdemeanours review – Broad City-esque comedy is fresh and thrilling
Two friends ruin a drug dealer’s stash in this funny, surreal US sitcom – then end up having a tremendously daft, series-long caper

Rebecca Nicholson

12, Aug, 2021 @10:15 PM

Article image
Philly DA: Breaking the Law review – a deeply thrilling, hopeful show to devour
This stirring docuseries charts the rise of Larry Krasner, a crusading attorney fighting for justice in a corrupt city. And there’s no catch!

Lucy Mangan

22, Jun, 2021 @3:24 PM

Article image
Taken: Hunting the Sex Traffickers review – stomach-turning tales of abuse and exploitation
Stories of women bought and sold ‘like meat’ and the criminal gangs enjoying lavish lifestyles at their expense are under the spotlight in this disturbing documentary

Lucy Mangan

26, Jul, 2021 @9:00 PM

Article image
Attack of the Hollywood Clichés! review – Rob Lowe raises idiocy to a high art
Produced by Charlie Brooker, this jam-packed sendup of hackneyed film tropes – from The Baguette Rule to The Smurfette Principle – is a perfect hour of fluff and nonsense

Lucy Mangan

28, Sep, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
McDonald & Dodds series two review: far from dark – and all the better for it
Standing in stark contrast to the likes of Bloodlands, there’s both a lightness of touch and a neat precision to ITV’s chalk-and-cheese crime drama

Rebecca Nicholson

28, Feb, 2021 @10:00 PM

Article image
When Ruby Wax Met … review – excruciating outpourings from OJ Simpson, Donald Trump and more
From a menacing Trump to OJ Simpson trying to stab her with a banana, Wax looks back at her interview hits and misses – and it makes for jaw-dropping, fascinating TV

Rebecca Nicholson

22, Aug, 2021 @9:00 PM

Article image
Scenes from a Marriage review – Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac’s uncoupling is all killer, no filler
Ingmar Bergman’s powerful 70s series has been reimagined for our pandemic times, with its two leads navigating the pain and frustration of a brutal breakup, and agonising separation

Lucy Mangan

11, Oct, 2021 @9:10 PM

Article image
Starstruck review – Rose Matafeo’s millennial fairytale
Co-written by the standup and Alice Snedden, this series about a struggling twentysomething who has a one-night stand with a film star is both improbable and rather enjoyable

Lucy Mangan

25, Apr, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Naughty & Nice: Sex Toy Britain review – fistfuls of fun
What’s the best sexy stocking filler? How is Brexit affecting strap-ons? Will a truly silent vibrator ever exist? This amusing documentary goes behind the scenes at a sex toy retailer

Lucy Mangan

14, Dec, 2021 @10:59 PM