Donald Campbell: Speed King; TOWN with Nicholas Crane

The Marillion song Out of This World was inspired by Donald Campbell, and when they play it live the visuals are footage of the man and of his last fatal attempt to break the water speed record. So I recorded this biography of Campbell (Donald Campbell: Speed King) because that’s pretty much all I knew about him. We’d been putting off watching it for a while, as the footage of the crash is always pretty depressing to watch and the programme was probably also going to be.

We were right … it was pretty sobering to watch. Partly because of the tragedy at the end, dying chasing a goal that really wasn’t worth someone’s life. And partly because towards the end of his life it seemed like the world had moved on and he hadn’t. The programme opened with much the same footage of the accident as Marillion use, and then fairly straightforwardly told us the story of his life with contemporary footage and lots of interviews with people who knew him. This included people who’d worked with him, and also his daughter & widow.

Campbell’s father had been a land and water speed record holder before him, and was knighted for his achievements. Malcolm Campbell was by all accounts not a very nice man – arrogant & overbearing – and ignored Donald a lot. Donald on the other hand idolised him, and wanted to impress him. One of the interviewees, a writer who met Donald Campbell at the height of his achievements, thought that this desire to live up to & to out-do his father was the driving force behind his whole life. And certainly Campbell didn’t make any attempts at speed records until after his father died. But once his father was dead he gave up his job, mortgaged his house and dedicated himself to breaking speed records.

He broke the water speed record several times. At first he used his father’s old boat but was unsuccessful with this, even with modifications. Then he & his team created a newly designed boat, the Bluebird K7. This boat was barely in the water at all when in motion, as one of the engineers pointed out this is the best way if you want to go fast – air being a lot less dense than water. With this boat he broke the record several times in the late 1950s. This earnt him the CBE, and lots of prize money.

In terms of his personal life he’d been married twice by the late 50s. He had a daughter from his first marriage, who was interviewed on the programme. She said what she had been told was that her mother had been unfaithful to her father, and he’d discovered this and packed his bags & left. She didn’t see her father again for a few years (this was when she was quite young) and the first she knew about speed record attempts or anything like that was when he broke the first water speed record – she was in hospital (swallowed a hairgrip, she said) and someone came to tell her her father had broken the water speed record.

The programme didn’t mention his second wife beyond saying she existed, and moved on to the period he was single after this marriage ended. At this point he was rich, famous and was also charismatic … so unsurprisingly he had a lot of success with the ladies. His daughter said when she first met the woman who was to be his third wife she thought it was just another of his girlfriends, but this relationship was to last until Campbell’s death. And beyond – his widow was another of the interviewees and she said she still regarded herself as Campbell’s wife not his widow.

Having outdone his father in terms of water speed records Campbell now moved on to the land speed record. Campbell & his team designed and build the Bluebird CN7, a car that was theoretically capable of breaking the 400mph barrier. There was a lot of investment & sponsorship from British industry, and an assumption that he’d find breaking the land speed record just as easy as the water one. Sadly this wasn’t the case – the first attempt ended in a spectacular crash at around 300mph, wrecking the car and astonishingly not killing Campbell. The car was rebuilt and they searched for another place to attempt the record, blaming conditions in Nevada for the crash. But the Australian salt lake they found was even worse – it hadn’t rained for years there, but once the team arrived it rained again & again. The investors were beginning to balk at these successive failures – what had they paid their money for? Why wasn’t he getting on with it? Campbell even had to appear on TV to answer criticisms because various of the investors had been giving interviews about how unhappy they were with the lack of progress. To make matters worse, an American competitor had set an unofficial record (the car wasn’t set up right for the rules) so Campbell looked even more like a failure. Eventually in 1964 he succeeded in setting a record of 403mph – a record, but lower than the unofficial one.

He counted this as success (which it was, but I think they all felt it was only partial success) and set out to do something his father had never done – break both speed records in a single year. He achieved this in December 1964 & then returned to Britain. Sadly for him, the world had moved on and people didn’t really care so much for speed records as they had done in the 50s and before. It was the mid-60s, the Beatles were the big thing, and a rather old fashioned man doing rather old fashioned daring deeds wasn’t a good fit for the mood of the era. He announced plans to build a rocket car to break the land speed record again and built a mockup for the press. But he failed to get funding or sponsorship so the project was shelved. It felt like this is when he should’ve retired – he’d beaten dear old Dad, the public enthusiasm for more was waning, time to rest on his laurels.

Obviously, he didn’t. Various of the interviewees said that this was his life – all he knew how to do was make speed record attempts, it was what he’d devoted his life to for years. And it was how he earnt money. And he still hoped if he could generate a bit more publicity he’d get funding for the rocket car. So he moved on to making plans to refurbish the Bluebird K7 and start making attempts on the water speed record again. The boat had only been designed with 250mph in mind, but he was determined to push it past 300mph.

And on 4 January 1967 it had fatal results. He died doing what he loved. But to me it feels so pointless to have kept trying to cheat death after all that success.

His body wasn’t recovered (nor was the boat) until 2000-2001, and he was finally buried in September 2001. They didn’t say on the programme but the diver who located the wreck was inspired to search for it by the Marillion song, which brings me full circle.

After that we cheered ourselves up by watching the third episode of TOWN with Nicholas Crane – a much lighter & fluffier programme! This one was about Huddersfield – a new town. Before the Industrial Revolution it was a village, albeit one with a market, but the proximity of both coal fields & the wool industry meant that Huddersfield grew quickly into a town. There’s still cloth mills in Huddersfield even now – Crane visited one that still works in the (post-Industrial Revolution) traditional way. He also visited a company that is pioneering new technology for finishing cloth using lasers and plasma – the man he spoke to there was a pro at saying nothing with lots of buzzwords 😉

Being a heavily industrialised town it wasn’t surprising that the Luddite Movement was strong in Huddersfield. Crane talked to a modern anarchist who is also a Luddite historian about the rebellion – how they came & broke the mills because they were taking away their livelihood. They were also concerned with how the employees at the mills were treated poorly and felt it was ruining their way of life.

Rebellion of another sort in more recent history – Huddersfield is the town where the northern rugby teams met and decided to split from Rugby Union to form Rugby League. While there are rules differences now the original split was down to pay – Rugby Union players must not be paid, and the poorer more working class players who played for the northern teams found that impossible to sustain. Watching Crane dressed up in rugby gear having them demonstrate tackles on him was particularly entertaining.

Crane also did a tour of the various bits of the town – including one of the markets, the canals, and the university. At the university he spoke to Patrick Stewart, who’s the Chancellor. The theme through the whole modern bit was that everyone who is born in Hudderfield or moves there wants to stay. Also that it’s not a touristy town, not even in the guidebooks. Crane got more than a bit carried away with himself several times – waxing lyrical about the wonders of Huddersfield. I’m not sure if this was padding or that he’d been genuinely overcome with love for the town. It was a little OTT tho!