Rob Hughes wonders why so many football-related dramas fail to strike the right tone, especially in their action scenes
Lord knows they’ve tried. Ricky Tomlinson as England manager. Sean Bean tanking around in a Sheffield United strip. Sylvester Stallone between the sticks. Even Adam Faith as pint-sized proprietor of – oh yes – Leicester Forest (from a script by Jackie Collins, no less). All of them as inept, unconvincing and downright embarrassing as each other. So just why is it that films about football never work? Certainly not through lack of an audience. It’s a sport, lest we forget, adored by millions the world over, one with its own in-built dramatic arc. A ready-made fantasy in which slumdogs really can become superstars. Never mind Mike Bassett or Jimmy Grimble. Where’s our Raging Bull, our This Sporting Life? Even a Seabiscuit would do.
“I think football films are a really daft idea,” counters Scottish screenwriter Paul Laverty, the man behind a bunch of modern Ken Loach classics, including My Name Is Joe, The Wind That Shakes The Barley and, most recently, Looking For Eric. “I don’t think people who understand football would ever make a film about it. You cannot match the experience of a real game. All you have to do is watch Escape To Victory and realise that you just cannot inject drama falsely into a fictional film about football. The moment when Stallone dives in slow motion: has there ever been a funnier moment in celluloid history? It’s so bad it’s absolutely brilliant.”
The issue of authenticity is certainly a major sticking point. The Damned United, last year’s dramatisation of David Peace’s riveting book about Brian Clough at Leeds, tried to skirt around the action on the pitch by hardly bothering with it at all. It was a shrewd move – the film’s core, after all, was Clough himself – but not quite shrewd enough. Simon Clifford, manager and owner of non-League Garforth Town, was brought in to supervise the action scenes, making liberal use of the pitch-side “reactions” of Clough and assistant Peter Taylor to further restrict any direct football to a minimum.
But film directors don’t understand football like the fans do. In particular the attention to detail. Key aspects of period detail and the action scenes themselves, few as there were, just didn’t cut it. Sure, there was plenty of grim northern grit about the muddied pitches and crumbling terraces but the fuzzy-felt sideburns of Stephen Graham’s Billy Bremner were a prop department too far. He looked more like Charlie Drake.
Ditto Peter McDonald, whose role as Johnny Giles inexplicably required him to sport a stringy mullet rather than Giles’s trademark tight thatch. Giles was many things on the football field but inelegant he was not, a fact you’d never guess from the shot of McDonald shovelling over a corner like a drunken man stumbling through a cow pat. Michael Sheen’s painstakingly mannered portrayal of Clough aside, The Damned United presented itself as a serious attempt to bring football and film together. With only mixed results.
It was merely the most prominent example of a recent spate of football-related dramas that have tried to exact a more telling brand of social critique. Best, His Mother’s Son was the controversial TV piece that mined George Best’s relationship with his alcoholic mother. An Audience With Shankly was drawing huge crowds in Liverpool theatres a year or so back. Both Zinedine Zidane and Diego Maradona have been subjects for arty indie films that aspired to equate footballing genius with some higher artistic and spiritual calling. Needless to say, they flopped. Bath City fan Ken Loach understood the futility of trying to recreate a football match when shooting Looking For Eric, instead interspersing the narrative with old TV footage of Cantona in his United pomp. But then, as Laverty points out: “What we had in Looking For Eric was the importance of football and friendship and what it means in someone’s life. And that’s very very different to making a football film.”
Another esteemed British director who understands all this is Sir Alan Parker. Like Loach he’s football mad too (Arsenal, in case you’re wondering), but routinely turns down offers to make films about the game. The problem, he feels, is more of a technical one. “It’s an impossibly difficult sport to replicate because football is seen primarily in wide-shot,” he told the Independent last year. “The excitement unfolds seeing at least four players in one shot. This is very difficult to cheat. The illusion of film is about editing and close-ups.” It’s a trick you can get away with in the intense personal slug-out of boxing (hence Raging Bull, Ali and Million Dollar Baby) and one more suited to the impact-and-edit environment of American football or baseball. But the unfolding nature of football can only be appreciated via the bigger picture. “So the on-field stuff in a soccer movie doesn’t ever work,” concludes Parker. “To tell a dramatic story it’s got to be about the people involved off the pitch.”
And there’s undoubtedly enough raw material for any aspiring director to sink their teeth into. Alf Ramsey, Malcolm Allison, Tommy Docherty and Derek Dougan are just a few who instantly leap to mind for the biopic treatment. And could there be a riper example than Robin Friday, the George Best of the lower leagues who drugged and cursed his way into both football cultdom and an early grave? Or Peter Storey, who followed his Arsenal career by running a brothel, counterfeiting gold coins and doing time in the clink? Such is the heightened theatre of football itself that only the most extreme off-field stories can compete. And this is the crux of the problem. How can any filmmaker ever hope to recapture the heart-bumping tension of Liverpool in Istanbul or the Man Utd v Chelsea Moscow shootout?
It’s no coincidence that the most convincing football action ever committed to film is the memorable scene on the school field in Loach’s Kes. PE teacher Mr Sugden, brilliantly played by the late Brian Glover, rampages around the pitch in full Man Utd gear, batting away his willowy teenage charges like the overgrown, overexcited bully that he is and that we all recognise from our own schooldays. He even commentates on himself as he trundles upfield towards the opposition goal: “The fair-haired, slightly balding Bobby Charlton.” Grown men convinced they missed their true calling in the sporting arena, regardless of talent. Fantasy football writ large. Now that’s realistic.
But there’s something else most other filmmakers forget too. “It’s the unpredictability of it, the mischief of it,” says Laverty. “I remember the first time [Tony] Cascarino scored for Celtic. I think he’d already played about 50 games before he accidentally scuffed the ball with his studs and it went into the net. I’ve never heard anything like it. Instead of cheers, what you got was a whole stadium of laughter.”
From WSC 278 April 2010