George Dodds's picture

It all began with a tasty pastry or two in the Mielle Patisserie, West Street.
Yes the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival might have a big, and growing, reputation nationally and internationally; it might draw thousands of art lovers and attract thousands of pounds in Arts Council funding and private sponsorship and, for over a decade been one of the highlights of the year for northern art aficionados.
But where was the speedway?
Sitting opposite me that day in February 2016 was Peter Taylor, the young Northern Irishman who also happens to be the full-time director of the festival.
Films about speedway had largely passed him by and I had to admit that domestically we didn’t have much to offer other that the legendary Once a Jolly Swagman starring Dirk Bogarde and Compo from Last of the Summer Wine; a BBC children’s series called King Cinder and some speedway footage in On Any Sunday.
Probably more in keeping with the usual programmes at film festivals were 1970s documentaries on Russian speedway Closure of the Season and Lap of Honour and 1971 Polish offering Motodrama.
While it didn’t look too promising from my side of the table Peter had heard enough to whet his appetite, so much so he decided that a visit to Shielfield Park was called for.
Fortunately he chose last spring’s Premier Trophy meeting against Glasgow for his first taste of speedway, a rip-roaring local derby under the lights with the Bandits’ barmy army and the Tiger hordes in full flow and some exceptional racing.
Not surprisingly he immediately “got” what attracts us as fans week in, week out.
Meeting two big Macs – Dennis and Graham McCleary – later in the year simply added to Peter’s enthusiasm, especially after discovering that 2017 would be our 50th year.
Phrases such as “seeking Heritage Lottery and Arts Council funding” were bandied about. By now Peter was not looking to the past or behind the former Iron Curtain but to commissioning something brand new and about Berwick.
One of his friends had been involved with Dee Dee Wallauer’s crowd-funded documentary Speed Mud and Glory which follows fellow German Martin Smolinski as he looks to establish himself in the Grand Prix series. Finally released in 2014, the film is especially poignant for British fans as Lee Richardson is one of the interviewees, his contribution cut short by his death in a track crash in Wroclaw during filming.
New York-born but Glasgow-based film-maker Margaret Salmon accepted the commission to create a film about the Bandits.
The result, Mm, will premiere at The Maltings on September 23, the penultimate evening of this year’s festival.
While a lot of work was going on in the background – club owners Scott and Jamie Courtney and Gary Havelock putting out the welcome mat for Margaret and her film crew – most fans probably only became aware of what was happening as they settled down for the visit of Peterborough last month.
Just before tapes’ up Uncle Roy took to the radio mike with what sounded suspiciously like the Gettysburg Address. Perhaps, we pondered, it was a rehearsal for a Civil War Re-enactment to be staged in the ruins of what was once Brough Park.
Actually he was reading the copious disclaimer from the producers of Mm. They effectively boiled down to: “if you do something daft tonight it could end up on the big screen”.
The last I saw of Margaret was her being escorted into the showers along with film crew to interview Dany Gapmaier.
And so, a couple of weeks later, Berwick Bandits for the first time in its illustrious history, came to be mentioned in the same sentence as “part-feminist investigation” – which how Margaret’s film is described in publicity material for the 13th year of the BMAF - www.bmaf.org if you want to know more.
This year the Bandits will rub shoulders with a retrospective of the work of Uzbekistan film legend Ali Khamraev, a series of films marking man’s complex relationship with the sea by Lithuanian Ilona Jurkonyte in addition to the work of visual artist in residence Charlotte Prodger and dozens more between September 20 and 24.
Of course we won the night the cameras were in town – perhaps we should adopt Margaret as an honorary Bandit – the start of a run of four successive home wins which has turned our season around.
Scunthorpe, Workington and now Newcastle have been accounted for in quick succession but even if we win our last two home meetings – Edinburgh on Saturday and title favourites Sheffield the week after – it would take a management committee decision of monumental proportions, even by 2017 standards, to see us qualify for the playoffs.
Which means that after September 16 we have to find something else to do on a Saturday night. Beginning with September 23 – the night that Mm premieres during the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival, from 7pm.
Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?
In addition to Mm – with live music from award-winning Scottish band Sacred Paws – there will be a screening of Once a Jolly Swagman, a Q&A with the film director and plenty of Bandits-related action and talk in what promises to be a unique evening for speedway and film fans alike.
Bandits’ season pass holders can get their tickets for £5 – it’s £7.50 (£6.50 concessions and £5 children) for the rest.
As a town Berwick punches way above its weight on so many levels: on the speedway track and on the football pitch in addition to the food, film and literary festivals which dot the summer.
I hope to target the 2018 Berwick Literary Festival next. Keep an eye out for the no-hold’s barred autobiography: Bertie: the life and loves of a speedway mascot … and what bears really get up to in the woods. It’ll be hitting the presses soon.