Brian Clough didn't have a lot of time for drama. Al Needham wonders what old big 'ead would make of this one

“I hate the thought of football on stage – pointless shower scenes, folk explaining the offside rule and still nobody understands it, three actors waving some sodding scarf in the air and, most of all, slow-motion football like some wankers’ ballet in shorts”
Jimmy in Old Big ’Ead: The Spirit of the Man

They had barely swept up the flowers from the City Ground car park before the city of Nottingham announced a deluge of right and proper tributes to the recently deceased Brian Clough. Although plans for a £60,000 statue in the city centre have just been unveiled (the money to be raised by the public – see for further details) and the renaming of the road between Nottingham and Derby hasn’t happened yet, the most intriguing of the lot – a production at the Nottingham Playhouse celebrating the man’s life – has been and gone. And I’m still not sure what to think of it. It could have been horrific; Springtime For Brian, if you will. It could have been brilliant; a comfort blanket for Forest supporters to bury their heads into after looking at next season’s fixture list. Instead, just like practically every other play about football, it was decidedly neither.

Provincial theatres love plays like Old Big ’Ead. Ever since the success of An Evening With Gary Lineker in the early 1990s, football plays have been seen as a reliable way to drag in the kind of punter who wouldn’t be seen dead in the stalls when it isn’t panto season. Problem is, how do you please the sweating masses in polyester shirts as well as the regular punters? You launch yourself like Big Daddy between two stools and hope for the best.

So this is what we get: at the start of the play, Cloughie (played with an uncanny accuracy by former The Bill actor Colin Tarrant, who deploys the flat whine, the finger-wag and the general bluster while never descending into Yarwoodisms) is in a sauna in the East Midlands branch of Heaven, along with William Booth, DH Lawrence and Lord Byron, waiting to be sent on a mission to help the living. One mistaken message later, he’s back on earth. Now, there are many things a celestial Brian could do for Nottingham at the moment – not least sort out Forest and Notts County. So what does he do? Help a playwright with writers’ block who has just been dumped by his missus crank out a play about little-known Nottinghamian Robin Hood. Hmm.

From here on in, it’s a rewrite of Play It Again Sam, with a dead football manager in the place of Humphrey Bogart and Woody Allen recast as an annoying Hornbyesque bloke whom the real Clough would have chinned in an instant. Instead of attempting to address what made Brian Clough so important to the city and the sport, he’s been reduced to the role of plot device for a play-within-a-play, popping up every now and then to cause light-hearted, Whitehall-farcey palaver.

As someone who turned up fully expecting a selfish wallow in the glory years, it’s a tough slog. You tap your fingers on the armrests, awaiting the next Cloughie sighting. You seek solace in the fact that Little John looks a bit like Kenny Burns in his prime – and that Friar Tuck looks a lot like Kenny Burns today. You fully expect Archie Gemmill to run across the stage with his trousers round his ankles at any moment.

By the final scene, when Cloughie rewrites the ending of the play-within-a-play, reunites the annoying playwright with his wife and rises through a scale model of the City Ground to sing My Way, you’re willing to forgive the obvious shortcomings of the play to an extent. Plainly, the intention was to show that with a dogged spirit and a desire to cut the crap, problems can be solved and there’s a little bit of Brian in all of us, and the play just about managed it. But a one-man show with Tarrant unleashing his full arsenal of Cloughisms would have killed the audience and guaranteed interest in places outside the East Midlands. A missed opportunity all round, sadly.

From WSC 222 August 2005. What was happening this month

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