David Peace’s work has been a modern day staple of visual adaptations for the past year or so and the author is one of those writers whose books can often be found on the shelves of those who, as The Daily Telegraph might term it, “don’t read books”, an explorer of yoof issues to cast alongside Irvine Welsh, Howard Marks and Nicholas Blincoe. In truth, and without wishing to denigrate those authors, Peace’s ambition extends beyond this. His GB84 in particular is an exercise in wilful complexity, and the earlier Red Riding Quartet constitutes a dark journey into the underbelly of 1970s Yorkshire; its Life on Mars style beiges and browns obscured by gore and low cloud.
That foursome of novellas was filmed to blistering effect in 2009, and Independent Television hadn’t shown anything as disturbing for years, unless you count Gazza and Gary Neville on the sofa during the 2002 World Cup. So, the celluloid release of his most accessible novel, The Damned United, roughly contemporaneous to the third channel’s offering last year, was eagerly anticipated. Add in the presence of the often flawless Michael Sheen and the combination would be a winning one for sure?
I finally caught up with the movie on DVD this week, and there’s a lot to enjoy. Readers of this website will revel in reflecting on the rise of Derby County from relegation threatened second flighters to English Champions in those few short years of flower power and stacked heels, the old stadia interiors with their grubbiness and flaky plastering are heart warming, those colour shades are still there, and the splicing of classic Match of the Day footage with close ups of on-pitch lookalikes is carried off with comparative aplomb.
Sheen is almost uncanny as Brian Clough himself. Due credit is given to the sidekick’s sidekick, Peter Taylor, the building of a team around Dave Mackay and a host of other unheralded but hungry and talented players is marvellously narrated, and the explosive 44 days at Leeds are entertainingly depicted. For a football fan, it’s an effortlessly quick hour and a half as the memories and memories of childhood reading of Shoot! annuals come teeming back. Love him or hate him, Clough was an unparalleled legend and his achievements are also without equal: the book doesn’t even mention his glory years at Forest and the film affords them but a footnote.
But compared to the groundbreaking, daring drama of the Quartet, it’s all knockabout stuff, not quite Doctor in the House, but profoundly lacking in gravitas all the same. The book may be Peace-lite, but it’s still a warped story indeed, with all the action taking place in Clough’s brain. In contrast, Sheen’s Clough is a little too bright eyed and bushy tailed, and accurate as the famous nasal whine initially appears to be, it’s exposed as too parodic when Ol’ Big ‘Ead appears on screen immediately before the closing credits. It’s said that the offence taken by the Clough family by the book led to a toning down of the film’s ambition, but this compromise leads to a fudge of a film where the swearing seems tacked on and the 1970s are played for laughs. The Leeds of that era was bandit country indeed, but one never senses the danger of that rough, tough city. So, it’s a three star effort and a story lovingly recreated, but more punch would have been welcome.