Classic Cars on Film: Soft Top, Hard Shoulder

Before Peter Capaldi was Doctor Who or Malcolm Tucker, he was Gavin Bellini in 1993’s Soft Top, Hard Shoulder. We unearth a movie gem deserving of your time

We’ve all been there. Struggling with financial demons and fending off the landlord with varying degrees of success, living on the edge of malnutrition. Setting out with a naive ambition to make something of yourself, instead locked in a sprawling city where morals are bankrupt and traffic is heavy.

Welcome to the world of Gavin Bellini (Peter Capaldi) – a 34-year old artist who, while determined to succeed as an author and painter, has alienated himself from his Celtic-Italian family and developed a bittersweet attitude towards life in London.

Selling his worldly possessions to pay rent, there’s one asset that’s going nowhere; his 1971 Triumph Herald. Gifted in lieu of payment for a rock band’s album graphics, the British roadster lives by the kerbside under a grimy tarpaulin.

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Scarcely turning a wheel due to lack of funds, it’s not until Uncle Salvatore (Richard Wilson) tracks the elusive Gavin down, warning him about his father’s failing health, that the Herald is lured out of semi-retirement. What’s more, disgruntled with Gavin’s lack of family involvement, Salvatore informs him that Gavin is expected home in Glasgow for Bellini Snr’s birthday – or else there will be consequences.

Capaldi's character refuses, blaming a lack of fuel money in the process, but Salvatore drops a bombshell. The family ice cream business has been sold for profit, with a portion of the sale to be granted upon each Bellini youngster. If Gavin doesn’t show up for his father’s surprise birthday party, he gets nothing and will be written out of the will.

Suddenly spurred on by financial redemption, Gavin yanks the cover off his Herald and hits the road. Naturally, as any classic car enthusiast may tell you, leaving an old vehicle to sit before undertaking several hundred miles could only result in mechanical disaster – something Capaldi’s character suffers at every turn.

Why was a Triumph Herald used?

‘The film was made for virtually nothing. Favours really,’ Capaldi told AutoClassics. ‘We had two Triumph Heralds. None of them were very reliable but they looked funny. Which was what we were after.’

'The Triumph Herald is a beautiful example of the British trying to be as glamorous as the Americans, but not really having the guts to go all the way. It's got these little wings at the back which are very sweet and rather sad that are saying "I really want to be a Cadillac", but I'm too shy because I'm in Britain.'

The first problem occurs on the A1, where changing lane at 50mph causes mayhem with an HGV, before the engine then conks out completely. It’s here, on one of the A1’s countless and monotonous sliproads that we meet hitchhiking Yvonne – played by Capaldi’s real-life wife, Elaine Collins.

Helping to fix the Herald, yet too selfish to offer a lift, Gavin leaves her at the side of the road in an awkward flurry of nerves. Re-attempting the A1, it’s not long before the Herald gives Bellini a further dose of automotive karma.

Poking fun at life on the road back when the waif look ruled Britain’s fashion outlets and four-star was still available at the pump, Gavin caves into his hunger and wheels into (what we think is) Lancaster services.

After arguing with management over the cost of a meal, he bumps into Yvonne for the second time. Feeling pangs of guilt, the passenger seat is offered up and the pair tank off towards Glasgow. But not before Gavin’s wallet is accidentally left behind.

Thus begins a slow-burning yet charismatic trip towards Scotland’s central belt, peppered with cameos from Simon Callow, Phyllis Logan and Clive Russell along the way. Furthermore, the captivating road trip is backed up with an infectious score from non-other than Chris Rea.

How did Chris Rea get involved?

‘Halfway through the album [God’s Great Banana Skin] I had occasion to see Channel 4,’ explained Chris. ‘They have an Arts, Entertainment, Media section on the breakfast show, and I saw these guys struggling with a lower budget and I heard the idea of the movie, and I saw what they were trying to do, and was very impressed’.

‘It seemed very real, very real-life and it appealed to me. It was a movie like I try to make music – it was for the sake of its own art. So I went down immediately, that morning, and knocked on their door and said: “I want to do the music for the film”. They were very, very surprised, in fact, it took them a while to actually say yes.’

Rea was so taken with the film’s tone and script that he stopped production of his album to pen the incidental music. With a stellar cast, catchy title song and Bill Forsyth-inspired use of subtle humour (unsurprising, as Capaldi had worked with Forsyth on Local Hero), Soft Top, Hard Shoulder proved to be a surprise hit – garnishing its reputation with two Scottish BAFTAS and a London International Film award.

Since then, however, the film descended into obscurity. Only die-hard Capaldi fans or those of a Scottish-cinematic persuasion knew of its existence. That is, until Capaldi was cast as Doctor Who. A re-mastered version was then released in December 2013 on Vimeo on demand, the title having been released on VHS and DVD only once before.

Worth a watch? Absolutely. We won’t spoil the goings-on that await you, but besides the witty script and masterful character acting, there’s plenty of car action to keep petrolheads amused.

From ill-fated overtaking manoeuvres of which classic car drivers can only but relate, to mechanical woes and breakdowns, the film may be far removed from the realms of excitement but, with the above factors, this is the sort of film destined to cozy your Sunday evening.

Amazon occasionally have copies for sale here, but you can also watch the film on Vimeo.

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