Well I’ll be Damned, that was pretty good!

What to do of a Saturday when there’s no Forest match, well, this weekend at least a trip to the cinema to see The Damned United.  Longer term readers will know that I had severe reservations about the book, and some of you coerced me into reading it – which I did.  I did review my initial stance – it’s a good book, and in David Peace’s own words, it’s designed as a portrait rather than a photograph – well, as a portrait artist Peace is rather one-dimensional.  The book painted  a bleak and embittered character who upset the Clough family (and even his former enemies like Johnny Giles).  Here is what I made of the book.

The film is better.  Like any film based on a novel, much of the depth is lost for the screen adaptation – the ‘depth’ of Peace’s novel was basically darkness, despair, drinking, bad language and chain smoking.  So with less emphasis on negativity the movie gives us a much more tolerable portrait of Brian Clough.  It’s still a portrait, and I personally have no way of validating how lifelike it is, because I’m too young to have witnessed the events it covers – but in this film you find yourself liking Clough, indeed, whereas the book felt like it was casting him as the villain and Revie and Leeds as the heroes, the film turns that on its head.

So that naturally makes it rather more appetising for an unflinching Clough sympathiser such as myself.  I would be interested to read any input from Leeds fans lured into watching the film though.  For those of you who want no spoilers at all, don’t read beyond this paragraph.  I would recommend seeing this film, I enjoyed it – I think the principle trinity of actors, Michael Sheen as Clough, Timothy Spall as Taylor and Colm Meaney as Revie are all excellent in their portrayals of the football legends.  More detailed observations with some potential spoilage is below (although you all know ‘the story’ anyway!).

The first sight we get of Clough in the film is on a rain-lashed drive to Leeds, with sons Simon and Nigel in the back of his car, inconceivable singing “What’s new pussycat?” – I find that hard to imagine being anything approaching reality!  In another scene, after the fateful cup draw pitting Clough (then Derby manager) against Revie for the first time, chairman Sam Longston calls Clough to tell him to treat his family to a meal in a restaurant (rather than the fish and chips just brought back by Peter Taylor!).  “Chicken bhuna!” exclaimed Clough excitedly.  I never had Cloughie down as a curry man!

One distracting factor was that the actress playing Barbara Clough used to be in that godawful sitcom ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ with Nicholas Lyndhurst as a time travelling shop proprietor.  So it was a bit disconcerting when John O’Hare and John McGovern arrived at Derby in the film – because the latter had a distinct whiff of Lyndhurst about him (facially).  Aside from a touch of the ‘Rodneys’ the pair of them looked more like a couple of Hobbits from Lord of the Rings than a pair of footballers!

In another unexpected food-related outburst, when speaking of chairman Longston’s preference of refurbishing the decrepid Baseball Ground over providing him with a squad capable of contesting European games (particularly after an encounter with Revie’s Leeds left Clough and Taylor with an injury nightmare for their European Cup tie with Juventus), Clough utters the phrase ‘prawn sandwiches’ – I’m sure you’d have to roll forward a few years to have one of Clough’s signings to make that statement.  I could be wrong, though!

The only other quibble (and it is a quibble) that occurred to me was during a scene where Clough is arguing with Giles following him signing McGovern, O’Hare and McKenzie for Leeds and you catch a tantalising glimpse of Elland Road in the background – which looked far too developed for the 1974 timeframe it purported to be!  That really didn’t detract from the film or the scene, but just distracted me as a very picky person!  The only final thing that occurred to me was one of the rare things where I do have a basis for comparison in reality.

Annoyingly I can’t find a clip of the real interview featuring Clough and Revie after Clough’s sacking from Leeds.  But it was a scene in the film I was looking forward to – because it’s something I’ve seen, numerous times.  My recollection was a pair of men with body language and confidence at odds with their respective recent histories.  Clough was resplendant in typically pithy style, whereas Revie was awkward and straightlaced.  My favourite bit was where Clough admitted he wanted to win the league better than Revie, Revie was incredulous “You can’t win it better, we only lost four games!”, “Well I could only lose three!” replied Clough, in a heartbeat.  It was ace.

In the film this is turned on its head – Clough is as ever accessible to the media, who spring the surprise of Revie on him, I’m not sure if that’s what really happened or not.  Here though we have an under-par Clough who is bettered by his less media-savvy nemesis which is either demonstrably inaccurate or I’m seriously misremembering the interview (which I doubt, as it was on telly in the week during the Clough documentary on ITV).  However, given that compared to the novel Revie and Leeds suffer a bit more of a panning, perhaps this was a director’s concession to give them a bit of a saving grace.  I’m not sure.

The best thing about this film was the focus on Clough’s relationship with Taylor, it’s one of my favourite soapbox topics that Peter Taylor’s contribution is not valued highly enough in general – in the film it is made dizzyingly clear, numerous characters reference Clough’s effectiveness without his right-hand man was compromised – and the fall out/making up scenes are probably the only parts of the film that prompted any genuine emotion from me – and the fact that they fall out, then make up at the end of the film gives us a nice end.

We are then treated to a montage of what they go on to achieve together – making a certain team called Nottingham Forest, hitherto unmentioned, the ultimate happy ending for this football tale, replete with clips of celebrating Nottinghamians from real footage of Clough and Taylor’s glory years.  Oh yes, certainly it offers a tantalising opportunity for a sequel – and certainly over a longer time period Clough’s tenure of Nottingham Forest does offer up the potential for a great story – although one that would end sadly.  I doubt we’ll ever see it, though!

I did enjoy the film, I was almost pleased when Derby were doing well – almost.  As I said, Sheen is excellent as Clough, and I did find myself genuinely liking him, he also looked surprisingly like Clough for a man who patently doesn’t – he must’ve practiced the mannerisms a lot! However, whilst this was an enjoyable and more sympathetic yarn about somebody I idolise, the ITV documentary had skin prickling and tears pricking, which this film was never in any way close to achieving.  Much like the book, it shouldn’t really have outstanding status – but it is certainly not without merit either.

I’m not sure if the Clough family will relent and watch the picture or not – I can’t imagine how odd it must be to see what you feel is an inaccurate portrayal of a loved family member on screen, but I imagine they will take to the film more readily than the family of Billy Bremner, who along with Revie do really come across as the villains of the piece, certainly much more so than the novel casts them.  I would recommend seeing it, because football based films are generally absolute horseshit, and this one isn’t!

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