By Tony Stafford
Travelling around the country’s motorways nowadays can be as frustrating a pastime as one could imagine. Living as I do within minutes of Redbridge roundabout, an easy access point for the M11, I’m almost exactly one hour from Newmarket, a few minutes less if it’s the July Course rather than the Rowley Mile or Warren Hill gallops.
Yesterday it took more than three hours, thanks to some heavy roadworks at Redbridge which will prevent any northbound access to the motorway for the next three weeks. I get on the A12 going down to Redbridge, near the Olympic Velodrome, and the first notification of the imminent difficulty was cleverly delayed by the road authorities until just after I’d passed the final possible avoiding point at Leytonstone’s Green Man.
Fifty minutes later, I was on said roundabout with no option but to continue east rather than north. OK, so what? you might say, but I’ll continue, because once again I had a similar eerie instance of uncanny coincidence awaiting me.
My revised route took me to Barkingside and on to Chigwell, where Harry Taylor lives, past Theydon Bois, home of Roy Street, up Epping High Street and through to the M11 at Harlow. Five miles later I came to another virtual dead stop and after limping to the Stansted Airport turn, went east again into rural Essex, turning at Dunmow, then collecting Thaxted, Saffron Walden and Linton, passing the entrance to the Zoo there , before getting back on track at Four Went Ways.
Another so what? Well I’ll tell you what. It was just after Saffron Walden that Harry Taylor called. He said: “Roy died yesterday. His wife just phoned to tell me. The poor man’s heart just gave out”.
Since Harry moved from Loughton last year, I’ve often picked him up from home, frequently then collecting Roy after he strode purposefully along to the green at Theydon Bois. Roy knew everyone there, and also at Newmarket, where one of his greatest friends Alan Bailey was shocked to hear the news, relayed from another mate Roger Hales, whom I’d told a few minutes before I got to the track.
Alan’s shock was followed by “you never know when it’s your time to go”, to which Roger replied: “my uncle did. He knew the day and exact time that he would leave this world, and that’s exactly when they hanged him!” Rather irreverent, but Roger was probably still elated that Yarmouth, his local track and another well-known to Roy, resumes operation today after almost a year off the roster.
It’s probably against all the rules of writing a news item to talk about Roy in this rambling way. He should have been the subject in the first sentence, and despite myself I know the rule is still “who, what, when, where and why”. To those who knew his story, he was one of those rare people who had a tale, or rather many tales to tell of his days as a film stunt man, with the emphasis on his great skill and knowledge of riding horses.
This started more than 70 years ago in the rustic setting of Theydon Bois, developing after serving in the forces into competing in point-to-points, where his enthusiasm and hard work got him rides on horses from the field while wealthier young men would get on the potential winners.
But there was no hint of bitterness as he reminisced about those days, still lauding the Bloom and Turner families that dominated the sport in East Anglia for all the post war era up until relatively recent times.
The stunt work – he was a stunt arranger and choreographer (officially co-ordinator) on many major films – also teaching stunt riding and demonstrating his own talent around the country in jousting events of which he was often part-promoter.
He described some of the stunts, daring instances of great courage and almost foolhardy timing as he would somersault off the back off a galloping animal or run across a marauding vehicle or apparently-bolting horses, mini-seconds before being involved in the inevitable fatal crash, hoping the cameraman had got the shot.
He’d been off the main stunt circuit for the past few years as he entered his 70’s and lately Harry had shown his concerns, saying: “Roy’s not coming today, you know, I don’t think he’s right.” Yesterday he returned to that theme, almost sorry he’d voiced those thoughts.
That winding down did not prevent a couple of what must have been highly-taxing demands on his strength, something of which Roy was rightly proud, even if it led him to occasional difficulties as he’d never back down from a challenge. First he spent days careering down the centre of an escalator at an abandoned London Underground station in one of the latest Bond films and then he drove a truck incessantly back and forth through the Mersey Tunnel avoiding crashes every few yards for one of the Fast and Furious series.
He let me in on one movie-making secret. “It’s simple really. You think it’s all happening at 70 mph, but it’s more like 30 and they speed it up in the editing suite. That’s not to say it’s not dangerous enough.”
I’ll restrict myself to a couple of little reminisces of Roy, one involving a car journey back from Newmarket after no doubt chatting to Bailey and Jack Banks, another great pal and hosts of others that have enjoyed his company over many years; the other an example of his idiosyncratic attitude to racing and some of its major protagonists.
Roy loved his cars, usually was a Mercedes, and often after racing he would say: “I’ll drive back”. This day, having done a few taxing journeys up and down the country in the previous week, I took him up on the offer.
I generally doze off when in the passenger seat – ask Roger – but this time, underneath the serenity, I got the feeling that something was a little ‘off’. I looked across at the speedometer and said: “Roy, slow down, you’re doing nearly 110!” “Sorry, it felt more like 80,” to which figure he eased at once.
Minutes later we were back at 110 – didn’t know the VW Golf could go that fast – and neither did Roy, so another admonition was needed. Off the motorway down the little windy roads past David Sullivan’s house and the fields where he’d first developed his love and skill for and with horses, he was up to 70 in a 30 limit. Careering past a camera, he said: “Don’t worry, there’s no film in them.” That’s what Harry says, too, until he gets done in one of the new 20mph zones around London, but Roy was right that time anyway and he won’t be wrong ever again!
For someone with so much experience of racing, Roy had the betting shop punter mentality to the end, straight-facedly accusing runners in Group 1 races of being non-triers despite the contrary evidence of the fact that those will be the races where everyone’s ‘off’ for his life.
He was less than charitable to what he perceived (sometimes unfairly) as jockey error and my favourite concerns JP Magnier, son of John. He always referred to JP as “an amateur amateur”, not that he was too deficient in talent.
Anyway one day JP was on a Nicky Henderson short-priced favourite in the dark blue Magnier silks in the concluding bumper at Kempton. Roy backed it – putting all his winnings from what had been a successful afternoon, on the steed.
At the start, JP was manoeuvring towards a final circle when the starter let them go, JP turning off to the right, while the rest of them were going left onto the track. Master Magnier was unable to get back into the race, leaving Roy, and no doubt thousands of others fuming.
After venting his spleen to us, Roy said: “I’m going to tell him what I think of him” and as the riders came back to weigh in he called across to one young man, telling him with a fair bit of invective that he was an adjectival you know what.
The gentleman in question waited for the tirade to peter out and clearly distressed by the verbal assault, plaintively said: “I wasn’t riding it.” That was Roy, but there will be hundreds, among some of the biggest stars in the film industry, and horsemen in many countries around the world who’ll miss the tall, strong and totally independent man we knew.