Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Prawn Sandwiches & Cooking Sherry?

Having provided the weak link in the all-star convoy of World Cup blogging that was Minus The Shooting, writing about football doesn't seem the most appetising proposition at present. The cream of the contributors there could feint & turn their extemporaneous theories on cognitive dissonance, tiki-taka and Freud's shinguards on a sixpence: I was more of a James Milner, straining to deliver a lumbering stepover of a post about England being a bit boring over a period of hours. After a week's involvement I wisely sidled off-screen and back to work.

Sunday's network premiere of The Damned United has however brought back to mind some of the problems I had with the film on first viewing at the cinema. And anyway, its subject did rather transcend the game after all.

The career, character and impact of Brian Clough did of course lay a considerable path for movie-making hyperbole. Yet the inspiration for his eventual celluloid commemoration only contrived to blunder the opportunity, unfilmable as David Peace's novel is. The fleshing of detail on such a brief and inscrutable episode in Clough's life swells the enigma in print, but the weight of contention over his 44 days at Leeds makes for a terminally weakened big screen adaptation, with far too many hypotheticals over deceased key figures (Clough himself, Peter Taylor, Don Revie and Billy Bremner) whose depicted conduct is still in many cases vehemently opposed by surviving relations. With much - but not quite all - of Peace's portrayal of a bleak, boozy & deteriorating Clough omitted from Tom Hooper's film version, the appearance of his staggering Rocky-esque achievements at Forest as a mere footnote only serves to magnify the missed open goal.

Michael Sheen's performance is for the most part excellent, though the tally of over-egged boardroom sneers is a touch unwieldy. Clough's world-beating confidence surely never manifested itself in anything other than that cold, dead-eyed stare, or the schoolboy's joy-in-mischief that surfaced when challenging Muhammad Ali to a fight or gleefully predicting Manny Kaltz's evening at the hands of John Robertson prior to the 1980 European Cup Final ("We've got a little fat guy that will turn him inside out. He'll turn him inside out!"). And whilst this lack of outward emotion undoubtedly betrayed the vulnerabilities that would eventually get the better of him, the almost whimpering petulance on which the entire plot rested - the attribution of Clough's enmity for Revie to the Leeds manager's cold shoulder during an FA Cup tie some six years previously - seems laughable.

There are flourishes, such as the priceless scene where Timothy Spall's squashed Taylor feeds Clough sweets with an almost post-coital affection on the long drive down to sign Dave Mackay to Derby one Sunday lunchtime in '68. Acutely observed too is the smokey, shitty air of late '60s/early '70s football, with its wooden dug-outs and generally beige, dour demeanour. You do have to wonder why the expense was spared so embarrassingly for the Leeds players' hairpieces though.

These dubious thatches do not represent the film's most ridiculous fabrication however, that particular accolade being convincingly earned by the bewilderingly incongruous assimilation of Roy Keane's "prawn sandwiches" jibe towards club directors. This awkwardly lazy co-opting of a quote to events which took place 25 years before it was actually delivered makes little sense: why falsely accredit such a line to Clough, the most quotable individual in the English game? The very idea that Derby's civic and sporting dignitaries were enjoying such exotic fare at a football match in 1974 is scarcely believable anyway.

Peter Morgan's script is sadly peppered with telegraphed dialogue, with the final scene, where Taylor and Clough make up after the Leeds debacle having parted company acrimoniously post-Derby (another factually unsound plot device), ending with a celebratory tipple of cooking sherry. "Well, I wouldn't say no" says Clough of the offer, an uncomfortably offhand acknowledgment of personal trials to come. He certainly deserved a finer toast to his talents on film.