September 02, 2011

Play Acting

ASHLEY COAL STAITHES on footy at the cinema


I saw ‘The Damned United’ recently which set me thinking about football movies in general. The Damned United, for those of you who haven’t seen it, is a biopic of Brian Clough but concentrates on the few weeks Cloughie spent with the ‘White Shites’. Michael Sheen does a reasonable impression of Old Big ‘Ead, but the film falls down because it never appreciates the need for actors playing footballers to look like they, at least at some moment in their life, had once kicked a football – or in the case of Leeds United players, another footballer.

The disparity between the actors' dearth of ball skills becomes all too obvious whenever the action swings away from sweaty close ups of inept divvies with bad wigs doing headless chicken impersonations to long shots of Lorimer, Giles et al doing – pretty well anybody really. I have never understood this anomaly. Surely it must be more difficult for an actor to play a hoodlum such as Al Capone than a hoodlum such as Norman Hunter.

Billy Bremner in particular is especially badly served in the film. In real life he was short in stature and shorter in temper but could, it breaks my heart to confess, play a bit. He always seemed to me though to be the sort of berk you ran into in Church Street on a Saturday night who, no matter how much you tried to avoid eye contact would accuse you of ‘looking at him’, the punishment for which was a rearrangement of facial features without anaesthetic. Bremner, in short, was not someone you wished to mess with. His counterpart in the film is of a different cut. He looks like the old boy you would sometimes see in the corner of the ‘snug’ at the local, sipping on a half of Jubilee stout. Played by an overweight pensioner in an ill-fitting ginger wig in the film, he could not have put the frighteners on the Telly Tubbies, let alone John O Hare, John Robertson or Dave Mackay as we are led to believe. The footballing action is, however, even more painful to watch. The ball moves around the field with the flash and zip of Crown Green Bowls lethargically ‘pursued’ by a crowd of aged and wheezing deadbeats who can barely achieve a jogging pace."Richard Harris in the leading role, for example, was a dead ringer for Norman Hunter - but with more teeth obviously."

The one actor who I forgive in this respect was the guy playing John McGovern. I saw McGovern play numerous times at Pools and even played against him when he played for Central Park Youth team. I can confirm that his counterpart in the film was every bit as useless as he was.

The DVD of the film contains the accompanying inevitable extras. These include interviews with some of the main characters, including the aforesaid John Mc. Unfortunately they fail to throw any further light on their former manager who it appears was ‘just this guy you know’. Whatever factor Cloughie used to get them motivated they appear to have had no idea what it was. Before quickly moving on it is worth mentioning the amount of coverage that Pools gets in the film – essentially nothing. Cloughie and Peter Taylor, it would seem, moved seamlessly from their playing career to managing the championship side at Derby County with no in-between bit. The only mention we get is the throwaway line Sheen says to Timothy Spall (playing Taylor) about the people at ’Hartlepools’ being ‘our people’.

Enough of ‘The Damned United’. So what other football films have I seen? Well I recall one in which a bunch of POWs in the Second World War use the victory in a football match against a German (Nazi) national team as a cover for an escape. I think it was called, cleverly, ‘Escape to Victory’. This was a fascinating exercise in the old footballer V actor conundrum. As well as having real footballers such as Bobby Moore and Pele in the film, there was also actors such as Michael Caine and, unbelievably, Sylvester Stallone. Stallone played a goalkeeper who in the closing moments saves the crucial penalty in the symbolic confrontation with the Bosch. This is remarkable as Stallone has both the physique and general mobility of a tree trunk. If the film was made today a real footballer would have been used in these action scenes with Stallone’s features superimposed on the goalie's face. This might just have saved the day. However it was not possible with the technology at the time and we are left with the sight of a lumbering ox where we might have hoped for an agile cat. Happily for us the whole team, still wearing faux England football strip, somehow escapes from the stadium under the noses of the German army. One in the eye for the much vaunted S.S. then.

There are a few notable exceptions to the crap football film rule. The best soccer sequence on film, by a measured mile, is the piece in Ken Loach’s comedy drama ‘Kes’, where a fat gym teacher, played by Brian Glover, takes on the persona of Bobby Charlton and blunders about kicking lumps out of an entourage of bored school kids forced to take part in an imagined contest between Man United and Spurs. I also recall a made for TV film about a Fourth Division (i.e. League 2) team drawn against the great Manchester United side of the early seventies. The action here takes place in the dressing room before the match, when a Brian Clough lookalike manager goes from player to player geeing them up before they go out on to the field to face the Red Devils. In this instance the fact that none of the actors look like real footballers is fundamental to the plot. Having supported Hartlepool all my life, I can empathise with the irony in lines such as “You’ll be marking Georgie Best son” spoken by the manager to an old fat bloke in a ginger wig.

It seems strange to me that more use has not been made of footballers who also happen to be actors. I can only think in this respect of Eric Cantona, who was quite presentable in ‘Looking for Eric’ (also Ken Loach) if in an inscrutable Gallic “seagulls following fishing boats” sort of way and, at a push, Vinnie Jones supposedly playing a footballer locked up in jail in some recent ’cockney geezer’ prison escape romp. This movie, I should point out, must not be confused with the film version of ‘Porridge’ where a football match is – surprisingly – used as the cover for a prison escape with hilarious consequences.

It is a pity that no-one as yet attempted to make a football film that has the balls of Lindsay Anderson’s ‘This Sporting Life’. Although ostensibly about rugby league, the film would have worked equally well in respect of league football. Indeed the thuggish actors playing the rugby players in Anderson’s film looked far more like the Leeds United players of the late sixties than anything we saw in ‘The Damned United’. Richard Harris in the leading role, for example, was a dead ringer for Norman Hunter - but with more teeth obviously.

Maybe the best is yet to come. It’s amazing what can now be done with CGI. I look forward with anticipation to ‘Hartlepool United - the Movie’ with the features of Brad Pitt superimposed on the body of Adam Boyd and Angelina Jolie in the role of Sam Collins.