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It started with a request in the local York paper and an appeal on Radio York for a power assisted pedal cycle for use in a stage play that one of the amateur groups was staging. The producer was getting desperate and she thought it was wonderful when I responded to her call for help and doubly so when I offered her a choice of more than one machine to satisfy their needs. In the end, because it was on stage and because the location was somewhat confined, I decided that I should offer the Petite VéloSoleX 5000, with the 12" wheels as the most appropriate of my collection to satisfy the requirement.
When she came round to see it, along with Adam, the cast member who was required to ride the machine, Helen, the producer, was delighted in what she saw and advised me that it fitted the bill admirably. She hoped I would not take offence but Adam's was really a cameo role and the funnier he looked the better. My VéloSoleX therefore was a funny little machine and that was really fine. She was well pleased.
The publicity girl in their group got on with her work and told Radio York that they had helped the players find a motorised bicycle and it was being provided by someone who had a collection of them. The producer of the afternoon radio show rang up. Could I do an interview for them? I duly agreed and we discussed briefly what form this would take. The inevitable question - which I was expecting - came up very quickly. "Yes, Mr Rayner, and how did you become interested in these machines?" I told her that it was about some ten years ago when my steam roller was off the road for major repairs. There was a stunned silence from the other end of the phone. "Did you say Steam Roller" she eventually stuttered. "Of course" said I. She was really lost for words for a minute or so. The combination of cyclemotors and a steam roller was obviously too much for her to handle all at once. I didn't dare tell her about the C5 as well or she'd probably have just expired. But some people have hobbies like playing golf - me, I'm different.
And so we went to see the play - Habeas Corpus by Alan Bennett. It turned out to be a typical British farce with lots of trouser dropping and scantily clad people to-ing and fro-ing across the stage in the splendid Brian Rix Whitehall Theatre tradition.
The Solex appeared early on, to the prompt of "And there's our thrusting young vicar, Canon Throbbing - Why, that sounds like his Biretta now"..[Enter stage left, vicar riding a power assisted pedal cycle].
The production was set in the late 1950s/early 1960s but quite what a Biretta is or was, I was not able to discover. The name does not appear in my extensive collection of books on the subject. One or two of the cast felt it might have been an erroneous reference to a contraction of the word Lambretta but I was doubtful. I wondered whether Alan Bennett himself actually knew or whether he had invented another type of cyclemotor for us to tax our brain cells on. *
The crowning joy of all this, however, was the discovery, and what a marvellous discovery to boot, that the play was actually set on the south coast, at the upper class resort of Hove. And who do we know who live in Hove and who are also some of the leading proponents in the south for the VéloSoleX marque but Tim and Margaret Bunting. I somehow felt the setting was most appropriate.
When I went to collect the machine after the last night of the show, several of the cast members had taken a fancy to it and wished they could have had a ride round on it properly. That had not been possible since because of fire regulations, the machine had to be kept without petrol in the converted chapel which now serves as a splendid theatre.
In the end, I certainly enjoyed the play, had a good night out and I was glad to have been of help to the York Settlement Community Players for their stage production of Habeas Corpus at the University College of Ripon and York St. John.
Note: Please don't go looking up in the cyclemotoring books for the make of machine mentioned in the play - it was obviously another of Alan Bennett's little jokes. A Biretta is a flat square stiff cap worn by Catholic clergy at outdoor functions, the colour of the item varying with the rank of the wearer. And the name sounded so much like a genuine cyclemotor too!
First published - June 1996
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