Private Viewing: Suffolk stunt legend injected adrenaline into British cinema
Dave Bickers was a huge part of the British film industry, Arts editor Andrew Clarke looks back on his life
With the death of Suffolk action man Dave Bickers, James Bond films are going to be a little less action-packed, Angelina Jolie’s summer blockbusters are going to be just a little bit tamer and any further Indiana Jones adventures are not going to be quite as whip-crackingly sharp as they were before.
Dave, the former motor-cross champion, tucked away in the village of Coddenham, was one of the British film industry’s most resourceful stunt professionals, who was able to provide vehicles to both perform miraculous jumps and crashes and allow camera crews to chase the action.
Dave had two hugely successful careers. One in motorsport and then, when he retired, he re-invented himself as one of the world’s leading motor vehicle stunt teams. He set up a company Bickers Action with his son Paul in 1976.
Among the highlights in a long career were providing the skills and know how for the jousting motorbikes and the horse tank chase sequence in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, extensive work on the Tomb Raider films with Angelina Jolie as well as the spinning vehicle scenes in her bullet-time action extravaganza Wanted. On television he had a long association with Top Gear and had staged stunts at RAF Bentwaters and had arranged a spectacular end for serial killer Richard Hillman, played by Suffolk actor Brian capron, in Coronation Street when Bickers and his team arranged for Hillman’s people carrier to leave the road and crash, quite spectacularly, into the Manchester Ship Canal.
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But, the film series that Dave was most closely identified with was James Bond. He consistently worked on 007 adventures from 1983 to the modern era. Dave was responsible for realising the jaw-dropping 360 degree speed boat barrel-roll that Bond executes on the River Thames in the Pierce Brosnan film The World Is Not Enough.
In the extras on the DVD Dave is seen overseeing the preparations for the stunt with driver Gary Powell and making sure that the hydraulic rams which flipped the boat over would operate correctly at high speed. In the behind the scenes footage you hear Dave before you see him as his broad Suffolk accent cuts through the technical chatter as he amples into shot.
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This relaxed, knowledgable, unflappable professional is who Dave Bickers was. I don’t profess to have known him well at all. I interviewed him and his son Paul three times over the years, each time to talk about films, usually Bond films and I accompanied them to the charity premiere at Cardinal Park in Ipswich for both The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Die and he always came across as a very knowledgable, hugely enthusiastic man who loved machines that went fast and safely defied gravity.
Safety was the big thing that always came across in our discussions. Dave Bickers was a mechanical magician. Stunts were the ultimate sleight-of-hand. They looked wildly dangerous but if done right they were relatively safe. It was all about precautions and camera angles.
There obviously was an element of danger. Stunt work does involve risk but Dave Bickers was about reducing risk, using mechanical engineering and physics to create the look of death and destruction while allowing the people to walk away with no more than a little bruising – if that.
Dave loved inventing bits of kit that would allow directors to keep up with stunts on the move. He created all sorts of camera cars and lowloaders, camera booms and various other pieces of specialist vehicles to put audiences in the heart of the action.
I always enjoyed talking to him and he was always willing to talk about his role in movies. He even gently put me right on a piece of local film folk-lore. It was well known that Dave had doubled for Steve McQueen during the fence-jumping scenes on The Great Escape. He sadly shook his head and told me that McQueen had done the bulk of the motorcycle riding and the jump itself had been performed by Bud Ekins. Not that Dave was concerned because he had more than enough stunts to call his own.
Dave was recruited by stunt co-ordinator Vic Armstrong for the Roger Moore World War II epic Escape From Athena in 1979 and joined the Bond family for Octopussy and created the Indian taxi-chase through the streets of Delhi before heading off to double for Sean Connery as an unofficial James Bond for a backstreet motorbike sequence in Never Say Never Again.
This nearly ended his Bond career before it began. He told me: “I didn’t realise it at the time but the two productions really hated each other but I was on and off planes making my presence fwelt when I was on set and hoping they wouldn’t notice me when I was gone.”
Fortunately, his indiscretion was overlooked and he continued to create some of his best work for Bond including the confined car park chase in Tomorrow Never Dies which ends up with a BMW taking a dive off the top storey down into the front window of a car hire firm.
Dave Bickers epitomised the quiet professionalism that makes Suffolk such an important addition to this country’s film industry.