The history of the Grand National dates back to 1839 and British Pathé News has newsreel footage dating back to ‘Victory’ Grand National – so-called because it was the first to be run at Aintree after the cessation of World War I – in 1919. Newsreel footage of the real Grand National, often accompanied by jaunty background music and a typically British voiceover, is entertaining enough, but over the years the celebrated steeplechase has also provided the subject, or at least the backdrop, for several fictional or fictionalised accounts.
Based on the true story of jockey Bob Champion, played by a suitably irascible, not always likeable, John Hurt, and the 1981 Grand National winner, Aldaniti, played by himself. Yes, we know how the story ends, but that doesn’t make it any less inspirational.
Dead Cert (1974)
Adapted from a novel by Dick Francis, with a screenplay co-written by Lord Oaksey – or John Lawrence, as he was known in his riding days – who also acted as technical adviser. A chaotic crime caper, starring a young Judi Dench as Laura Davidson, the widow of Bill Davidson, a jockey killed under suspicious circumstances. A weak plot and poor characterisation made Dead Cert a flop at the box-office but, by contrast, the racing footage – which includes races from Fontwell, as well as the climactic Grand National – is eventful, realistic and compelling.
The Galloping Major (1951)
Based on an idea by, and starring, Basil Radford as retired Major Arthur Hill, who assembles an ensemble of British comic talent – including Joyce Grenfell, Sidney James, Charles Hawtrey, Leslie Phillips and Alfie Bass, to name but a handful – with a view to buying a horse which, more by luck than judgement, turns out to be a Grand National winner. Brisk, entertaining comedy from a talented cast, without being laugh-out-loud funny.
National Velvet (1944)
A whimsical, if overly-sentimental, family film starring 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet Brown, who wins her horse, The Piebald, a.k.a. ‘The Pi’, in a raffle and, with the aid of a youthful Mickey Rooney, trains and rides him to win the Grand National. Escapism for younger viewers, who may not be distracted by the tropical foliage of Uplifters Ranch, Santa Monica, which stood in for Aintree.