Beryl Burton is the greatest British sportsperson you’ve probably never heard of. Over the course of a quarter of a century she dominated the world of cycling. From the late 1950s to the 1980s, she won more than 90 domestic titles, seven world titles and in 1967 set a women’s record for the 12-hour time trail that exceeded the men’s record for two years, and still stands as a women’s record to this day. In 1964 she was awarded an MBE and in 1968 an OBE.
So why haven’t you heard of her? Not to worry, you’re not alone, not many have. Actress Maxine Peake, who has written a radio play about her, Beryl: a Love Story on Two Wheels (Tuesday 27 November 2.15pm Radio 4), in which she also stars, only recently found out about her.
“I just sort of stumbled across her really. My boyfriend, who’s obsessed with building old racing bikes, bought me her book for a birthday present and there was a note inside, get your hair in a curly perm and there’s a part in here for you. I read it and thought, why don’t I know about this woman? I cycle and enjoy it, but a sportswoman of this calibre who was at the top of her game for so long, why hadn’t Beryl filtered through to the mainstream?”
When I asked if she thought there was a hint of sexism in Beryl’s lower profile compared to male stars of the era, Maxine readily agreed.
“Yeah, there’s definitely that. Initially I wanted to write about this woman, about how difficult it must have been for her in the late 50s and 60s to be a sportswoman, albeit amateur because she couldn’t be pro at that time. And be so dominant and dedicated and have a husband and a family, and how did she do this?”
Then during the course of her research, Maxine talked to Beryl’s husband Charlie and daughter Denise. It was Charlie who first got Beryl into cycling and continued to support her at all her races, even travelling with her behind the Iron Curtain when she competed at the world championships.
“That’s why she did it, because he’s just an inspiration. I kept saying to him, it must have been so difficult for her, the sexism, so tough, what did the neighbours think, and he’s say ‘No, no, it was fine’. I was looking for this slant of Beryl battling, and there were stories that came through, obviously she did experience a bit of sexism but the family was such a tight little unit, they did their own thing, went to the beat of their own drum it. They didn’t seem to care what other people thought.”
So what began as the true-life story of an athlete’s triumph suddenly took a different turn into a love story of the remarkable bond between these two people, one whom just happened to be a driven, high-calibre sportsperson. It’s something that shines through in the play Beryl, how her relationship with Charlie informed her success.
“It was meeting Charlie [that changed it], because normally it’s ‘Behind every great man, there’s a great woman’ and it was just the flipside of it. I did want it to be very female at first, very about Beryl, about female cycling, and women at that period in the 50s and 60s with the difficulties they had. Then Charlie came along and scuppered it for me. I felt I couldn’t lie, really, and I was so moved by their relationship and Charlie. So I thought I have to make it about them really.”
Still, there was no escaping the fact that Beryl Burton was a most remarkable person. As a child she was diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia and told not to exercise too strenuously. At the first cycling club race she took part in, she came in ninth. Charlie thought that was great but Beryl wouldn’t accept anything less than first and burst into tears.
“Her autobiography is called Personal Best, which says it all, she competed against herself as that’s what the best sportspeople do. So that was one of the elements that really interested me. You think, crikey, there you go, that’s determination.”
And Maxine sees some parallels between the world of sport and the business of acting. “It’s like people say acting’s competitive, but I say the only person I compete against is myself. You know ‘You’ve got to be better next time, that wasn’t very good.’ Because in some respects you can’t compare yourself to anyone else, everyone’s very different. And it’s that fine line, you know you need some element of talent, but the more I look around the business I’m in, it’s about drive and determination.”
So how does she deal with the juxtaposition of acting being seen as an art form but also needing a great amount of determination to get ahead?
“It’s something I find really hard. Sometimes I just want to say ‘Oh please don’t make me go in for another audition.’ I just want to go in and say ‘Can I just read the lines, don’t ask me any questions, I’m not very articulate. I’ll do it, on the day, but please…’ I find that side of it so difficult. I don’t want to push myself, can the work not just do the talking?”
But can we take it from that the writing of the play was a reaction against the ordeal of facing another round of auditions?
“I always said I’d love to write but I’ve never had the confidence. I’ve had loads of other ideas and then this sort of fell [into my lap] and I thought radio. Something about bikes, with the chains, the wheels and the wind rushing through when you’re cycling past, it goes from being something filmic to being something about the audio, the soundscape of it. So what inspired me was the sound of bike.”
But it wasn’t a case of reading the last page of Beryl’s book and then moving straight to a typewriter and knocking off a script. First Maxine approached Justine Potter, who produces Craven, a Radio 4 series Maxine stars in, written by Amelia Bullmore
“I said to her what do you think, and she said ‘Go on then, write it.’ And I went, oh no, is there nobody else could do it and I could just be in it? But [the answer was] no. I thought I’ve got to do it now.”
Having so far been part of collaborative processes as an actress, how did she find the solitary act of sitting down to write a play?
“I loved the writing. It was a bit difficult fitting in between jobs, because I was filming at the time. I’d be writing all hours, up late at night and early in the morning. But it was good, I did really enjoy it. I spent days where I’d say, ‘I’m just going to sit in the front room and do a bit of writing’ – that would be about 9am – then I get dragged out for lunch and go back, then about 10pm I’d get ‘You’ve got to stop now!’.”
Obviously she was writing about real people, including Charlie and Denise who are still alive (Beryl died in 1986 aged 59). How did she feel about putting words into people’s mouths?
“I think there’s the danger when you meet people you’re writing about and you sort of fall in love with them, you feel this sort of responsibility. For me it was the joy of people, and I thought they were just extraordinary. Extraordinary and ordinary, which is a beautiful mix.”
Were there absolutely no skeletons in the family’s closet?
“I don’t know whether to be a good writer you’ve got to be a bit tougher, but I just want to tell their story. I don’t want to dish any dirt. I just want people to know about Beryl. It’s different if she’s in the public domain and then you tell, like a lot of these biopics do, the story behind. But I just wanted tell the story of what she achieved and how she did it.”
Beryl may have been the person in the saddle winning the races, but in the play you get a real sense of the camaraderie and support of her and Charlie’s cycling club. However, that’s not something that Maxine has experienced first hand.
“I keep trying to join the local Clarion club, I keep emailing them, and I don’t know if they think I’m taking the mickey or they just don’t want any members, but I’ve not been able to join one. I went to a Clarion celebration in Salford last year, and tried to sign up and my details were taken but I’ve never heard anything from anyone since. They’ve obviously seen me on a bike and thought, that will be a waste of time!”
Beryl Burton: a Love Story on Two Wheels is on Radio 4 today at 2:15pm