The familiar music starts to soar as the runners appear in the distance, splashing their way through the surf on St Andrews beach.
The opening sequences of 1981 hit film Chariots of Fire are now one of the most instantly recognised in movie history.
The film tells the stories of two very different runners – Cambridge University student Harold Abrahams and the “Flying Scotsman”, Eric Liddell – and their battles to win gold medals at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games.
And now it has fallen to a young Borders actor to portray Liddell in a new theatre production of Chariots of Fire which is currently wowing special preview audiences packing London’s Hampstead Theatre. Oxton’s Jack Lowden is just 21, but already his stage career has seen him winning plaudits as Cammy in the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch while still studying at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. His previous theatre credits include Peter Pan for Kudos Entertainment, and Being Victor, Mr Moonlight and A Beautiful Day on television and radio.
Chariots of Fire starts its run next week and is on until June 16 ahead of the London Olympics. The show will then transfer to London’s West End.
Adapted from the film by Mike Bartlett, the theatre version has been designed by Miriam Buether – who also worked on the original movie version – and she has transformed the Hampstead Theatre into its very own stadium, giving an immersive experience to evoke the atmosphere of the Paris Olympics. The production will also feature music from the legendary Vangelis score, with additional live music and arrangements by Tony Award-winning composer Jason Carr.
Former Earlston High School pupil Jack, who got his first big break three years ago in a TV advert for Irn Bru, is thrilled and humbled to be playing Liddell.
“We’re at the preview stage and so far the feedback has been amazing. To also be doing this in Olympics year makes it just that wee bit extra special,” Jack told TheSouthern this week during a break in his hectic schedule.
It was Jack’s performances in Black Watch which secured him the chance of portraying Liddell, who competed on Borders tracks. Liddell went on to serve as a missionary in China where he died in an internment camp from a brain tumour in 1945 at the age of 43, five months before liberation.
Jack said: “I obviously knew about Eric Liddell – he’s one of this country’s greatest Olympians and a national Scottish hero. But I found out a lot more about him. I realise I am playing a legend and hope I am doing his memory justice.”
Asked if it had been difficult following the late Ian Charleson’s big-screen performance as Liddell in the movie version of the story, Jack said it’s a different situation altogether. “I am a different actor so the performance will be different right away. This has also been adapted for the stage, so that makes it different from the screen version.
“There are also more meetings between Liddell and Abrahams in this production than there were in the film. There’s also a lot more humour and a lot of opportunity to show different sides of difficult situations.
“That was something I found out – that Liddell always had an incredible sense of humour.”
Jack has endured punishing twice-a-week sessions with his fellow actors, under the guidance of instructors from the British Military Fitness organisation.
He said: “I do five different races in the show, so when I come off am absolutely knackered. The British Military Fitness sessions have been brutal, but I’d say I am now 10 times fitter than I was before I started this.”
As well as the music from his famous original soundtrack, Vangelis has also provided fresh material written specially for the new theatre production.
Jack has a contract that will see him go with Chariots of Fire when it transfers to the West End.
“I really want to go with it to the West End and then just see what happens. I wasn’t in Black Watch from the beginning, but I have been with this from the start and want to see it through”, he said.
Jack admitted there are similarities between the two productions.
He said: “Both Black Watch and Chariots of Fire are very physical performances for the actors. Mind you, one big difference is there’s no swearing in this – there was swearing in nearly every line in Black Watch!”
Jack is conscious both shows have required him to portray iconic Scottish symbols – the Black Watch is Scotland’s most famous infantry regiment, while Liddell is one of the country’s most famous sons.
“I’m very proud to be playing Eric Liddell – it’s a real honour.”