That Damned movie

BACK to Brian Clough, and also to Duncan Hamilton. While reading Hamilton’s book on Clough, I was thrilled to discover that I shared with the author an interest in the writing of BS Johnson.

It is Johnson’s novel The Unfortunates that gets a namecheck from Hamilton. Published in 1969, this was Johnson’s ‘novel in box’, consisting of 27 unbound chapters designed to be read in any order (save for the first and the last, which were clearly marked).

The novel concerns a disillusioned football reporter sent to cover a match in an unnamed city, which is based on Nottingham. Johnson’s narrator remembers the city was once home to a close friend who died of cancer at a young age. For the rest of the novel, Johnson’s narrator attempts to concentrate on the match while memories of his friend keep interposing themselves in his thoughts.

Hamilton, who grew up in Nottingham and spent a significant part of his working life there, found that the novel struck a chord with him because Johnson conveyed the frustrations of the football reporter’s art so accurately. Just as intriguing, though, was Johnson’s decision to structure the novel in such a random fashion.

The unbound chapters were Johnson’s way of trying to represent the chaos of human thought. He was a writer keen to remain faithful to reality. And even the most cursory glance at Jonathan Coe’s astonishing biography of Johnson, Like A Fiery Elephant, demonstrates what a struggle this was for him.

Johnson had a problem with the traditional novel. To him, neat chronological plots which tie themselves up just in time for the last page failed miserably to convey the randomness of real life.

As he once wrote: “Life does not tell stories. Life is chaotic, fluid, random; it leaves myriads of ends untied, untidily. Writers can extract a story from life only be strict, close selection, and this must mean falsification. Telling stories really is telling lies.”

What, then, would Johnson have made of The Damned United, the film of the book of Clough’s 44-day tenure at Leeds? Most of the criticism aimed at book and film in recent days has been along the lines of: “But that didn’t happen.”

Coe suggests in his biography that Johnson’s analysis of the selective nature of storytelling is flawed; that the author is not lying to his reader at all – more that both are joined in an implicit pact. The reader knows that the author has created fiction, and is willing to go along with the conceit in order to be entertained.

For some people, that pact has not been made as far as The Damned United is concerned. The novel’s critical reception can be divided into those who saw it as fiction (and praised it) and those who saw it as an attempt at presenting fact (and criticised its fictions). Both views are entirely valid. But if you’re going to see The Damned United at the pictures over the next few days, be warned: Too much knowledge of the facts is a dangerous thing.

The cinema version is a great story: the tale of Clough’s growing rivalry with Don Revie, and his friendship with Peter Taylor. It’s a tale of a super self-confident, almost arrogant man, humiliated and then given the chance of redemption. It’s almost as if Clough’s tale has been reimagined by Richard Curtis. (I won’t give away the final scene, but I kept expecting Hugh Grant to turn up in it.)

Inevitably, the facts have been mucked about with in order to satisfy cinema’s need for a tight plot. It means Clough is sacked after a 1-0 defeat at home to Luton. (Not only did the game finish 1-1, but Clough was actually fired a few days later, after a draw at Huddersfield in the League Cup.) And it means that Clough is protrayed as far less sure of himself in the TV showdown with Revie on the night of his dismissal. (The scriptwriter Peter Morgan has, in my view, done this purely to set up the final scene.)

The level of Clough’s drinking during his time at Leeds was perhaps the novel’s biggest inaccuracy. Clough did have a drink problem, but not until the later stages of his time at Nottingham Forest. That aspect of the novel is played down significantly in the movie, as are the roles of practically every Leeds player.

In a sense, that is no surprise. Johnny Giles’ successful legal action against the publishers of The Damned United made it inevitable that his character would be reduced to near-silence in the movie. (I think he has two lines, neither of which I can remember.) The late Billy Bremner instead becomes the ringleader for the anti-Clough factions in the movie.

That’s the other compromise forced on The Damned United by the conventions of cinema: the need for clear-cut goodies and baddies. Bremner is reduced to a snarling caricature, able to push the helpless Clough around. Both Bremner and Clough were far more complex than that. But I guess if you wanted that to be shown, the movie would end up being around five hours long.

Michael Sheen is, as many have pointed out, brilliant as Clough, just as he was outstanding as David Frost, Tony Blair and Kenneth Williams. He might want to steer clear of playing celebrities for a while, though, lest he comes to be seen, as one writer put it in a recent issue of When Saturday Comes, as “a RADA-trained Mike Yarwood”.

Timothy Spall also gives a tender portrait of Taylor, while Colm Meaney’s physical resemblance to Revie is spooky.

It’s a gripping film, The Damned United, but it’s not real – just as Frost/Nixon wasn’t real, just as The Queen wasn’t real. As Johnson would have said: “Telling stories really is telling lies.” If the idea of fiction drawn from fact is too much for you, then it’s best to stay away from this one.

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