David Stubbs reviews Mike Bassett: England manager as Ricky Tomlinson takes England to the World Cup
So, England’s manager has had a heart attack during the qualifying stages of the World Cup, to be held in Brazil. In a smoke-filled room at FA headquarters, the powers-that-be realise that for want of better applicants, they must approach Norwich City manager Mike Bassett (Ricky Tomlinson) for the England job. They need one win from their last three games to qualify. However Bassett, whose tactical nous doesn’t appear to extend beyond blustering about pressure, commitment and 4-4-2, very nearly makes a balls-up of it.
At the finals, in the face of media derision, family harassment and a sequence of howlers involving arrests, drunken binges and missing footballs, the team make an appalling start. They play Argentina needing to win in order to progress from the group stage, having drawn 0-0 with Egypt and lost 4-0 to Mexico.
Mike Bassett:Engand Manager could have worked as a naff two-minute Bovril commercial. As it is, it’s as dismally unentertaining a 90-odd minutes as you’ll witness outside a Thursday evening BBC UEFA Cup tie. The footballers are barn-door stereotypes. There’s Wackett, the Stuart Pearce-type psycho, played by what looks like a 53-year-old man. There’s “Tonka”, a Gazza-type pisshead, a Beckham-type always on the phone to his missus, etc, etc. There’s a Barry Fry-style half-time bust-up, a nodding-dog Phil Neal-style assistant manager, tabloid comparisons with vegetables. These ancient types and scenarios are tiresome enough in real life. How much more so when recreated here in the waxwork of Britfilm cliche?
The “mockumentary” format invites invidious comparisons with Do I Not Like That. But Taylor’s hapless outburst “Can we not knock it?” says more about the endlessly frustrated, inarticulate, hit-and-hope mentality that once passed for English management than this film musters in its entirety. It was also funny because it was real. This isn’t. It’s made up. Badly.
If the gags aren’t easy to see coming, to the extent of being preceded by men waving flags (players unwittingly get off with Brazilian transvestites, etc) then they’re simply implausible. Bassett writes his team selection on the back of a fag packet and so two players named Benson and Hedges get called up. Because, naturally, no secretary would be able to tell the difference between her boss’s handwriting and a very well-known cigarette logo.
Then there’s the very premise that an England needing only three points from three games to qualify for the World Cup would be considered such a moribund prospect than only a lower division journeyman would want to manage them. Hmm.
There’s also a problem when they mix in documentary footage of the 1998 World Cup match against Argentina as a build-up to the climactic fixture here. So are we to believe that some sort of clean sweep took place in the England squad, with dead wood like Beckham, Scholes, Owen et al replaced by a new cast? These inconsistencies are bothersome to anyone who hasn’t traded their brains for popcorn at the cinema door.
Another obvious snag is that the film has been rendered obsolete by Sven-Goran Eriksson. That needn’t have mattered too much if Mike Bassett had been constructed as a Taylor-type figure of fun, a thoroughgoing satire à la Peter Cook’s Alan Latchley, a final mocking burial of the blood ’n’ guts, headless chicken-style English manager of old. Instead, Bassett comes out an implausible winner.
The feelgood finale of the film turns on Bassett going red in the nose and improbably reducing press and public to cowed tears by reciting Rudyard Kipling’s If. It invites us to believe that, despite a total absence of strategic thinking and man management, a sentimental belief in the superiority of English spunk, in Three Lions patriotism, might some-how override such scientific niceties and enable our boys to barrel through against foreign foes. This, as events have emphatically proven, is wishful bollocks. It still lurks in the English psyche, however.
Ricky Tomlinson, a fine fellow in danger of spreading himself too thin, battles gamely here but, as a far greater comic persona than Mike Bassett once said, it’s an Impossible Job.
From WSC 178 December 2001. What was happening this month