Movie Motorbikes in Oz

Road Tales By Kelly Ashton

THE FILM and television business is glitzy and glamorous for sure, with bullshit being a vital ingredient; for us bikers, the reality shines through when a motorbike appears on screen. One particularly pleasing portion of my life was the decade or so spent supplying motorbikes for movies. The official title for the gig was Vehicle Co-ordinator, but the cooler description was Bike Wrangler and I can tell you it’s a lot of fun—too much fun to be called a job. It was just a brief flirtation behind the scenes in a magic-making industry for me, but closer observation revealed it wasn’t magic but gruelling work by the foot soldiers doing the hard yards to make it look like magic. And more so than any other industry, it is based entirely on bullshit.

Everyone has of heard the common phrase Cast and Crew. Cast comprises people in front of the cameras—the actors, stunt actors and extras—and then there’s the Crew—the mob working behind the cameras. The Crew takes care of the honest, hard work while the Cast takes care of the bullshit. There’s no denying that the true job description for on-camera talent should be Professional Bullshitter because that’s what actors are paid to do—tell lies to make the audience believe the BS they’re creating.

And the perfectly-crafted bullshit they’re famous for even helps them to get acting gigs, no doubt upselling their various skills in the hope of securing a part. I reckon somewhere in Central Casting is a special CV form to be filled out by actors and stuntmen, listing any specialised skills they may possess to help them get more acting jobs; I also reckon the box which lists Motorcycling Experience is always ticked, whether the said actor or stunty can ride a bike or not. I mean, everyone, has, at some stage in his life, either ridden or tried to ride a motorbike, surely?

In the real world, bullshitting on CVs to get a gig is standard fare in any employment situation, although it can lead to the odd, amusing ‘gotcha!’ when the bullshitters get caught out, and unfortunately for bullshitting actors, they always get caught out on camera.

In my forays into film and television production, I witnessed so many situations where actors and even—allegedly—stunt actors, turned up to filming totally unprepared.

The script called for the actor or stunty to ride a motorcycle, and it was quite friggin’ obvious they had no idea of how to ride!

There was one time during the filming of an advert for an overseas outfit when the talent completely disgraced himself with a comprehensive lack of ability. The gig was being filmed in the grounds of a rambling old mansion in Fox Valley Road, Wahroonga, in Sydney’s North Shore. The brief was simple: tall, brooding and handsome man kickstarts his Triumph motorcycle, stares wistfully up at the beautiful girl in the first-floor window, snicks the bike into gear and rides gracefully out the driveway as the girl squirts some foreign perfume on herself. There was just one problem—the buffoon couldn’t ride a motorcycle for shit. He couldn’t even kickstart the bloody thing. Sure, he looked the part with his black leather jeans, black leather jacket with many shiny trinkets and chains attached, but he had no idea.

Now, the 650 Trumpy being maltreated was owned by Jane, my missus, and was a super-reliable, first-kick, daily transport; light of weight and easy to handle.

It should’ve been a breeze for even a novice to start the bike, but no—after about 40 unsuccessful ‘takes’ and 40 unsuccessful tuitions, the script was altered so the bike was already running when Bozo did his soulful stare. After a while, he got the hang of pulling the clutch in, pushing downwards on the gear lever (“No, not the brake—the gear lever… other side… that’s the one… yeah, awwww, no, he’s stalled it again”). After each take, the dill would simply sit still while the bike wrangler (me) would step in and prod the kickstart lever for yet another trouble-free fire-up. Fair dinkum, the bike never left its first position.

Jeez, it was frustrating. The director was frustrated, the cameraman was cranky and every member of the crew was fuming like a bastard. It’s amazing how, in some people’s imagination, riding your mate’s minibike into a fence as a young kid counts for motorcycling experience.

I sidled up to the director, suggested to him that the constant stalling of the motor and clashing of the gears was upsetting both me and the bike, and there’s a Lighting Guy over there, who appeared to be of the same height and build as the talent. I’d been talking motorbikes to Lighting Guy and he could actually ride motorcycles. After a quick change of clothes, a dab of makeup, Lighting Guy stood in as a stunt double, and proved to be a ‘one take wonder’, eliciting a round of applause from the crew as he managed to take it from the top. He started the bike, stared wistfully at the by-now-bored girl, snicked it into first gear and took off in a superbly smooth manner. “Cut! That’s a wrap!”

I think they shit-canned all footage featuring Bozo, then Lighting Guy ending up being the star of the commercial. Maybe his career took a left turn and he started making money from the other side of the camera. If he did, he owes me a beer.

A few years before that debacle, a few miles down the North Shore at Killara, another, equally laughable debacle took place, but this time, it was my Norton which got punished by someone else who ticked ‘motorcycle experience’ on his CV.

This gig was for an expensive series of road safety commercials for the Roads and Traffic Authority. The adverts were meant to be hip and zany, to appeal to the younger drivers in an attempt to stop them killing themselves and others; stop them being unskilled dickheads. The premise was that four teenage space aliens came down to earth and found themselves getting into all sorts of strife on the earth-bound highways and byways, mainly through their own inexperience.

VW movie car
The VW alien spaceship.

It’s a sad thing, but once it was ‘in the can’ (completed), the entire series was shitcanned for some reason or another, and never saw the light of day, and I never even got a copy. There was a shitload of money thrown at the ads, and they may have even worked as a teaching aid for younger drivers, but we’ll never know.

The four starring space aliens landed on Earth in their space ship which was actually an old Volksie Beetle painted matt black, had wheels which were retracted to lay flat as landing pods. It also featured a shiny wok on its roof as a satellite dish.

I worked on a number of the adverts with diverse locations taking in places like the scramble track at the old Amaroo Park raceway.

The shoot in Killara involved the aliens not paying attention, and nearly cleaning up a biker—riding my Norton—in a near head-on!

The stuntman claimed to be an all-round expert at everything, even bragged about the stunt work he did on hand-shifting Military Police WLA Harleys for a Kylie Minogue movie. I found out later that the stunties on that movie were so inept at hand-shifting, a couple of Yamaha Virago V-Twins were shabbily disguised as Harleys and stood in to complete the scenes.

At the location in Killara, the aliens were rehearsing driving a Valiant convertible through an intersection where they would near collect the biker. The stuntman was preparing to move into his position, and as a test, I allowed him to start the Mighty Norton, which he did—first kick. Phew, I thought, and then he asked me a question so dumb I thought he was being funny.

Now, if someone is riding an unfamiliar bike, it’s acceptable to ask which side the gear lever is on (it’s on the left for all post-1975 bikes, early Japs and all Big Twin Harleys; British bikes, early Sportsters and Ducatis had the gear lever on the right where it’s supposed to be).

This boofhead asked me which handlebar lever was the clutch. He then squeezed the front brake lever and said, “It’s that one, isn’t it?”

Thinking he was having a lend of me, I said, “Yeah, that’s right…” and then he pulled the front brake lever as hard as he could and stomped it into first gear! WHAT THE!

I was stunned. The bike lurched forward a few inches and stalled. 

“What are you freakin’ doin’?” I yelled.

“Um, sorry mate…” was the best he could come up with.

I was ropeable. “You can’t be a motorcycle stuntman if you can’t ride a motorcycle,” I said.

“But I can ride,” he said meekly.

The game had changed and I wasn’t so sure about my bike becoming a movie star any more. The alleged stunty then borrowed one of the crew’s Yamaha trail-bike, then proceeded to pull some impressive monos, trying to convince me that he wasn’t a totally unskilled ning-nong.

I relented and the stunt was performed on the Mighty Norton, but no matter how good the swerve looked, my John Player Special Norton Commando never became a famous Hero bike on any stupid road safety film for stupid young drivers because the pricks in charge never released the ads.

In the same road safety series, this time way out at Maraylya, north west of Sydney, a night shoot occurred with much the same theme. The dopey space aliens were cruising along the wrong side of a country road when they once again, nearly clean up a biker minding his own business on the correct side of the road.

And once again, the alleged stuntman who got the gig didn’t have any clue about motorcycles, even though he had signed up for a stunt which involved riding directly at a Valiant convertible and swerving away at the last minute.

This alleged stunty was talking himself up big time, name-dropping many famous road-racers as his riding partners in the impromptu races in the Adelaide Hills, talking up all the magnificent stunts he performed and which famous actors he’d doubled for. All his blowhard big talk didn’t cover the fact that this prick could not ride at all. He even claimed that the RipCurl wetsuit he wore under his clothes worked better against gravel rash than custom-fitted road-race leathers—yeah, righty-oh, mate.

To be a stuntman or woman, you had to be a member of the Stunt Actors’ Union, and even though your specialty might be porpoise trainer, sheep wrangler or high diver, if the job called for motorcycle riding skills, that’s what you said you were proficient at. This bloke had very few bike skills; luckily, the stunt bike was a piece-of-crap Honda twin I’d got for free so I didn’t care what happened to it.

The main scene that night involved the vital, head-on avoiding swerve onto the grassed verge and a simple speedway-style of sliding out and laying the bike down to a harmless crash. No matter how hard he tried, the two-wheeled Einstein was incapable of stomping on the rear brake after the swerve, keeping the back wheel locked up on the grass until he slid the bike to a stop on its side. Frustrating, bloody frustrating—he just couldn’t do it.

I can see why he was spooked into swerving too early, which accounted for about 20 unsuccessful takes, because the aliens’ Valiant had a mobile generator in the boot to power this monstrous searchlight about a metre in diameter strapped to the bonnet. And it was really, really bright. But I couldn’t for the life of me understand why the stuny couldn’t simply slide a bike out and lay it down on a grass verge.

On one particularly poor attempt, the goose did his usual trick of NOT laying the bike down, but also managed to steer it into a resident’ fence, knocking the gate clean off its hinges. Up until that time, the local resident had merely watched on in a bemused fashion but was soon over the glamour of having a television advert shot in his street.

The stunt buffoon was doing little more than bending the bike and making it harder and harder to ride; once again, the director and crew were getting more pissed off with each unsuccessful take.

Luckily, for the sake of humour, one funny thing happened that night. Back then, traffic control wasn’t the well-ordered regimen that it is today; at either end of the film set, a roadblock was manned by a couple of non-essential crew with Eveready Dolphin torches and a few orange traffic cones. I had my stint at one roadblock, and basically, had to flag down and hopefully halt the cars racing along the rural road. It was pretty scary as I reckoned this road must have been a back-road rat-run to get people from the pub to home because it seemed like no-one was noticing the frantically waved torches. I came up with this great idea—the torch was stuck up the guts of a traffic cone and that glowing ensemble was waved about.

It must have looked just like the then-new hand-held, illuminated orange batons the cops had just introduced at their Random Breath Test stations.

What a difference! Instead of roaring full-bore towards us and slamming the brakes on at the last minute, almost every single car would screech to a halt a couple of hundred meters away, then perform a desperate U-turn before disappearing into the darkness in search of a new sneaky short cut. It was hilarious watching drink-driving dickheads freaking out, but I was soon needed back on set when the dufus stuntman needed help to get the wounded Honda underway for each successive unsuccessful take. I pleaded with the director to let me do the stunt, but, “No way, matey; you have to be a member of the Stunt Actors Union.”

Sometimes, it’s not all bad news with talent and stunties. There was this one gig I scored that was a dream job. Many years ago, there was a mildly successful drama series called Big Sky following the trials and tribulations of a small aviation company flying light planes into all exciting adventures. It should’ve gone better than it did; the show was well-written and starred iconic Aussie actors like Gary Sweet and Rhys Muldoon as commercial pilots.

One of the plot lines featured a flight with an elderly passenger who dies in transit. Seems the old fella was once a Wall of Death rider and Sweet and Muldoon’s respective characters’ attempt to return his meagre possessions to the grieving family. Arriving at the family’s farm, the old fella’s Wall of Death stunt bike is discovered and dragged out into the light for the first time in decades. In one of the scenes, Muldoon’s character takes the bike for a thrash around the farm and that’s what had me worried.

I’d prepped Jane’s custom 1949 Triumph Speed Twin for the part; removal of headlight and front mudguard was really all that was needed to make it look like a Wall of Death machine (and the fitting of a fake key lock ignition, something the scriptwriters insisted on, because the script called for the finding of and inserting the keys in the reveal scene—even though in reality, Triumphs that old never had keys).

The sweet little Speed Twin was a lovely bike and I’d hauled it in the ute over to the Big Sky production office in Mullins Street, Rozelle. It was in its stripped down Wall of Death condition and was there for some still photos to be taken to be used in the episode. Naturally, I was a bit concerned that the talent would be another inept non-biker who’d bullshitted about biking skill to get a gig.

Triumph Speed Twin
Actor Rhys Muldoon on Jane’s 1949 Speed Twin for publicity shot for Big Sky series. c.1996.

The actor slated to ride my missus’ pride and joy in front of cameras was Rhys Muldoon, a leading actor now, although a little while back, he was better known by countless Australian toddlers as Rhys from Play School. When I got to the production office, he was just going into wardrobe, getting dolled-up as the Wall of Death rider for an olde-style black-and-white pic on the Speed Twin stunt machine.

Yeah, in a totally believable plot line, when the pilots deliver the old coot’s belonging to the family farm, they find out it’s an old circus base camp (played beautifully by Bullen’s Circus World at Wallacia, complete with warehouses of old circus show gear) and out comes the old Wall of Death bike.

I asked Muldoon as tactfully as I could if he had any actual motorcycle riding experience, although I’m sure it must’ve sounded something like, “So you’re just another bullshitting actor who claims to be a rider and is going to trash this classic bike?”

The answer surprised me. “Well,” he replied matter-of-factly, “I turned up for work today on that Bee Em over there; it’s my daily ride.”

“Hallelujah, Brother, an actor who does ride,” I muttered, and soon we were talking motorbikes and shit and having a fine old time. He really liked the look of the little Trumpy.

A few days later, we were out at Bullens; all actors in costume and the Trumpy looking fine. In the crucial reveal scene, years of dust are blown off the sleek machine and an ignition key is theatrically produced with a flourish. It was a bit of an ‘in’ joke to me, as the key from a TY Yamaha was inserted and turned in a TY ignition lock which was attached to the Trumpy fork leg via a café racer clip-on headlight mount.

Once the unconnected ignition was officially on, Rhys kicked the pedal and the bugger of a thing fired up immediately—natch!

Before he kicked the bike into gear and took off on a mad thrash around the circus paddock, the actor playing the part of the dead grandpa’s relative—the retired circus strongman—excitedly dug out the old leather jacket and helmet from the Wall of Death days and insisted they were worn while riding grandpa’s old Wall of Death bike.

While Rhys rode around the paddock whoopin’ and a hollerin’, other relloes emerged and gasped, “Oh my God, that pilot is a dead ringer for granddad when he was young!”

Wouldn’t you know it—he was the grandson of the old coot who died in his plane. Yeah, like I said, really believable plot line, but it wasn’t as corny as other Aussie dramas where just another bomb kills most of the guests at just another wedding.

All in all, it was a good time, seeing the Missus’ Trumpy as a hero bike, getting up big on the small screen and looking too cool for school.

Another very interesting event occurred later that day in between takes. Rhys Muldoon’s co-star, Gary Sweet, was so taken by the look of the soon-to-be famous-with-its-own-fan-club Triumph, that he sidled up to me and quietly asked me if he too, could take the Speed Twin for a fang.

“Don’t ask me,” I replied as cool as I could. “Ask the owner—that’s her over there.”

It was a very interesting situation; mild mannered Jane, who didn’t really know many famous people, was asked by a well-known actor if she’d lend him her bike for a ride. “No,” she said, quite flatly.

Sweet got down on one knee, and channelled John Belushi in the sewer scene from The Blues Brothers where Joliet Jake pleaded with Carrie Fisher’s character just before the best car chase in movie history.

“Please, please, oh please, can I ride that little Triumph,” he begged.

Jane looked at me and I shrugged. She looked at the kneeling actor, then shrugged and said, “Orright, I suppose…” and the actor got to go for a fang around the paddock as well.

Since the Missus has owned the bike, very few people other than her have actually ridden the cool little Speed Twin custom. There’s me, of course, plus two well-known Aussie television actors. Then it appeared in some long-forgotten outback-based Oz drama series with Erik Thompson, the fella who starred in Packed To The Rafters.

Then it captivated one particular fella who should know his Triumphs—Steve Chiodo, the big boss at Triumph Australia. Steve was so taken by the looks and stance of the Speed Twin, he politely asked Jane if he could take it for a burl and Jane agreed. Like I said, it’s a cool machine, and this Speed Twin has been on television so it’s a star.

Triumph Speed Twin
Rhys Muldoon, with the author, Kelly, and Jane’s 1949 Triumph Speed Twin.

Road Tales By Kelly Ashton

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