Collision - Anatomy of an accident

Car crashes provide an endless source of intrigue for screen drama. As ITV's 'Collision' begins, Gerard Gilbert asks why pile-ups fascinate us
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The Independent Culture

What do the following dead people have in common: Albert Camus, Jackson Pollock, James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, General George Patton and Princesses Grace and Diana? Diana's inclusion in the list should be the killer clue that this is a roll call of celebrities who departed this life in a car crash, although road traffic accidents are a common-enough experience for us civilians, too – and not just from rubber-necking motorway pile-ups. I have personally known two people who have died in their cars and I imagine that is a fairly average tally.

The universality of the experience and its life-shattering impact have made the car crash an attractive subject for screen writers, whether it's the medical emergency of the week on Casualty or the heady meeting of minds between J G Ballard and David Cronenberg in the 1997 movie Crash. And next week, a new ITV1 drama "event" (in other words, it's screening over five consecutive nights), Collision, joins a healthy sub-genre of screen dramas that have used auto accidents to explore the human stories of those mangled by them.

"I've always had an interest in motorways," says the Collision writer Anthony Horowitz. "I divide my life between London and Suffolk, and spend a lot of time on the A12, and it's always occurred to me that every journey you make has a story – and that all these different people hurtling around at 70mph in one-ton killing machines is in itself an interesting situation. The tiniest little incident can change your life forever."

In classic portmanteau fashion, Collision follows the stories of the different individuals who are going to come together in the pile-up, including a millionaire property dealer (played by Paul McGann), a piano teacher with a guilty secret (David Bamber) and the great Phil Davis as a man taking his mother-in-law (Sylvia Sims) out for a spin. The cast also includes Dean Lennox Kelly from Shameless, and Douglas Henshall and Kate Ashfield as the police officers investigating the accident.

"There was a film I'd seen as a boy which had a train crash – a sort of anthology film – and it told all the different stories involved in it," says Horowitz, referring to the 1949 Ealing drama Train of Events, starring Jack Warner and Peter Finch. "I've always had an interest in the question of how much you are in control of your own life. For example, if this conversation is one minute shorter than it might have been and you leave one minute earlier, your life might take a completely different turn."

Somewhat distracted by this thought, we fail to discuss the case of the author Albert Camus, who was killed in a car driven by Michel Gallimard, his publisher and close friend, in a small town in Burgundy in January 1960. Camus was famously found to be carrying an unused train ticket for the journey he was undertaking when he died. What if he had gone by rail instead? Or what if Dodi and Diana had decided to make an early night of it? "How do we recognise these crucial moments in our lives?" wonders Horowitz. "The answer is, of course, that we can't. You could say that we're all in a dance of death and we never know who we're going to be waltzing with next."

He won't of course be the first screenwriter to be interested in the metaphysical aspects of car crashes. Accident, Joseph Losey's 1967 film, divides critics between those who think it's pretentious and achingly slow, and those who think it's the nearest that British cinema has come to the elliptical style of the French Nouvelle Vague director Alain Resnais (not that the two viewpoints are necessarily mutually exclusive).

Adapted by Harold Pinter from a novel by Sir Oswald Mosley's son, Nicholas, Accident uses a car crash to shatter an outwardly idyllic summer's weekend in Oxford, where a frustrated and unhappily married academic, Stephen (played by Dirk Bogarde), jealous of the TV career of a colleague played by Stanley Baker, and locked in a battle of egos with a student (Michael York) whose vitality he envies, is edging towards an affair with a younger woman.

The accident in Accident remains unseen, and if Losey's film uses a car crash as a climactic device through which to explore (in Dirk Bogarde's words) "the squalor of the male menopause", David Cronenberg's 1997 film of J G Ballard's 1973 novel Crash gave a whole new meaning to the term auto-eroticism. A challenging dissection of the mechanics of pornography, Crash was hugely controversial wherever it screened – and nowhere more so than in Britain, where a three-headed campaign by disability groups, the Daily Mail and Virginia Bottomley, then the National Heritage Secretary, led to local councils banning the film. What seemed to outrage people was the seemingly flippant fetishisation of something as terrible as a car accident, and to quote James Spader's character in the film: "After having been constantly bombarded by road-safety propaganda, it was almost a relief to find myself in a real accident."

There were unexpected echoes of Ballard at the beginning of a later movie to take the same title – Paul Haggis's 2004 surprise Oscar-winner Crash, about racial disharmony in Los Angeles. A disembodied voice intones over a shimmering nightscape of LA freeways, "In LA, nobody touches you. Always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something."

In its theme of racial unease in the urban melting pot, however, Haggis's Crash has more in common with Tom Wolfe than Ballard. In Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, filmed in 1990 by Brian De Palma, the catalyst for "master of the universe" Sherman McCoy's woes is the panicked accidental running-down of a black man in the Bronx. Just as much as anything physical, a car accident can be a shocking collision private and public worlds.

Crash was released in 2004, since when Haggis has executive produced a 13-part TV spin-off that, well, crashed – despite the marquee casting of Dennis Hopper. Horowitz says he first had his idea for Collision 10 years ago, long before Haggis's film. Wasn't he somewhat galled by the intrusion? "No, I didn't think it was too close to the idea that I had in mind," says Horowitz, who rode with Essex traffic police as part of his research and attended a couple of car crash scenes. "My idea was much more centred on just a road accident. If you wanted to sum up Collision, it is the anatomy of a road accident – every aspect of it and the people involved in it – whereas Crash is a much broader film about racism in Los Angeles.

"Years ago, I wrote a horror film, The Gathering, for Christina Ricci that asked why, as human beings, we cannot resist slowing down and looking at something like a crash on a motorway. Is it just because there is an unpleasant side to us that revels in other people's misfortunes? Or is there something deeper that touches on the sense that, 'There but for the grace of God go I' – that we are all hurtling through our life and this could happen to any one of us at any moment?"

'Collision' starts on ITV1 on Monday 9 November at 9pm


Accident (1967)
Intellectuals crash and burn in Joseph Losey's film from Harold Pinter's script about Stephen, a married Oxford professor (Dirk Bogarde) suffering a midlife crisis. Envious of both the TV career of a colleague (Stanley Baker) and the youthful virility of a student (Michael York), his yearnings lead to disaster.

Misery (1990)
A famous author (played by James Caan) drives off the road in a blizzard, and his good samaritan (an Oscar-winning Kathy Bates) turns out to be anything but. Rob Reiner's film of Stephen King's wry study of fan-worship crossing over into psychosis proved box-office gold.

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
"Master of the Universe" Sherman McCoy (a miscast Tom Hanks) sees his life unravel when his mistress takes a wrong turning in the Bronx and hits a black boy with his car. But the biggest crash in Brian De Palma's movie (above) of Tom Wolfe's bestseller was the film itself, dubbed "the misfire of the inanities".

Crash (1997)
David Cronenberg's adaptation of J G Ballard's novel about people who fetishise car accidents was one of the most controversial films of the Nineties.

Crash (2004)
Same title but a different sort of movie, Paul Haggis's Oscar-winner used a road accident to take a simplistic but involving look at the parlous state of race relations in Los Angeles. The film was inspired by a real-life incident in which Haggis's Porsche was carjacked.