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The Damned United

March 31, 2009

After I got home from seeing The Damned United last night I began David Peace’s book, on which the film is based:

Repetition, Repetition –
Fields of loss and fields of hate, fields of blood and fields of war –
Their sport upon the walls, their sport upon the floor.
Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour: England hath need of thee…
In her shadow time.
On our terraces, in our cages, from Purgatorio, we watch,
With our wings that cannot fly, our tongues that cannot speak:
‘Destroy her politics! Destroy her culture! Destroy her!’
But our wings are thick with tar, tongues heavy with her coin,
On our broken backs, our broken hearts, she’ll dine again tonight.
In her shadow place –
We are selfish men: Oh, Blake! Orwell! Raise us up, return to us again.
These civil wars of uncivil hearts, divided and now damned –
The old is dying and the new cannot be born –
By Elland Road, I sat down and wept; D.U.F.C.

It’s not the same! Hell, that sounds like a bleat, a whine…b-but. I said I’d never do this. But. Ten, twenty, thirty pages in, and it’s not the same still.

At the start of the film, Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) arrives from Derby, with his kids in the back of the car, to begin his 44 turbulent days as manager of Leeds United, the English champions and the then giants of the game. With Manchester United relegated the season Leeds finished top, there is no-one to challenge them as preening popinjays. Clough hates Leeds, hates them for a years-old insult, but his hubris is leading him along. Fuelled by a long-held resentment towards the departing Leeds manager, Don Revie, bouyed by his success at Derby, determined to scotch rumours that he can only manage when his best pal Peter Taylor is by his side, he turns up full of vim and vigour ready to turn L.U.F.C. into a loved team. Loved, because they’ll play the Brian Clough way.

Now this much is the same. But, bloody hell, I’ve read enough Peace to know that when I saw Clough’s car peeping into view and the jaunty pop music du jour playing along, this would be a lighter take on the whole thing. And it’s true. In the book (the last time I’ll use that phrase, I promise) it’s an altogether darker affair:

The floodlights and the stands, all fingers and fists up from the sticks and the stones, the flesh and the bones. There it is, my eldest is telling my youngest. There it is. From the motorway. Through the windscreen –
Hateful, hateful place; spiteful, spiteful place…
Elland Road, Leeds, Leeds,Leeds.

And that’s as it should be; no obligation for the viewer to have read Peace’s novel. Unlike, say almost all the Harry Potter films, or the recent Watchmen, the source material isn’t required; the movie can stand on its own. Apart from the self-evident aspect of not wanting to be lost in a flood of facts and character interactions you might not otherwise have known, this is an important point to make because obviously you don’t want people to be lost, but also because if you’ve picked up anything about the novel it will probably be that it’s not a football book. Like Ninety Eighty wasn’t a book about the Yorkshire Ripper, it just happened to have the Ripper there within its pages, The Damned United, you will have heard, takes place within football, but is actually about Clough the man. Not the manager.

And it’s important to say that because, actually, there is way more football on view here than I ever expected. Drenched in a pitch perfect carapace of washed-out muted green and browns, evoking the 70s with wonderful precision, we start with league tables, contemporaneous footage, a lot of training ground action, footie history. Clough and Taylor take the Second Division by storm; they win the league title. He buys Dave McKay, Ray McFarland. Only fleetingly are we away from the grounds or the dressing rooms or the boardroom. It’s about Clough, but it’s also a film about football.

How could it not be? Not being inside Clough’s head, not having the internal monologue that I’m now finding is driving the text like a runaway train, the visuals are inevitably footie related. Born and brought up on Seventies football, and Cloughie in particular, I can’t see it as a bad thing, personally. Ole Big ‘Ead was a consistently entertaining figure on the telly; outspoken, dry, dark, witty and sharp, Brian Clough wasn’t just a man you saw on Grandstand or World of Sport, he was almost everywhere. That droning North-East twang, and the snappy one liners are seared into my brain.

Sheen delivers this perfectly. It really is like watching a young Cloughie up there on the screen, mouthing off, being brilliant, being a prick, being a football genius.

Director Tom Hooper and Writer Peter Morgan have managed between them to create biopics ranging from Blair to Nixon to HRH to Lord Longford to Idi Amin and, now, Brian Clough. Clough stands out in that crowd, of course, by seeming such an odd choice (no doubt he’d have preferred me not to have added that qualification) and, I have to admit, that if there’s one nagging question which hung around in the back of my mind as wallowed in the story and the nostalgia, it was the so-whatness of the story. But it’s questioning this that creates the film’s saving grace, it’s entire purpose. In The Deal, in The Queen, in Frost/Nixon, in The Last King of Scotland, and here in The Damned United what you have is a just what Hooper and Morgan do brilliantly, a distillation of events which culminate to create perfect tipping points. These are dramas, and The Damned United may just be the best of all of them, that isolate a moment of change. Watershed noir? Nouvelle catharsis?

I don’t know, but the build and build and build here, and the inevitable fall, paints a picture of a man who changes fundamentally, and surely that’s what we want out of human stories, isn’t it, character change? Insight is rare, insight into the flawed but lovable, rarer still. It’s reported that the Clough family have decided not to see the film. Incensed by the book, they have snubbed the movie as a further insult. It would be nice to think they might rethink. This is no meek hagiography, Clough comes across as no angel, but there is a warmth and respect that emanates from it. Sheen said recently that he hopes the family relents and takes a trip to the flicks to see what he’s made of the old boy. I hope so too.

Only, as I’m discovering, they may be best advised to carry on steering clear of the book.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2009 12:48 pm

    I actually read the book first, and enjoyed it. Yes, it’s maybe a bit grim in places – but that’s Peace all over, isn’t it? – but that didn’t stop me enjoying it and wanting to see what they’d managed to make of the film.

    If you enjoyed the Cloughie story (and here I use the term ‘story’ advisedly), you might want to pick up the bio ‘Provided you don’t kiss me’, which I found interesting too…


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