Monday, October 26, 2015

"Old. Slow. Drunk"

No cliché is left unturned in Yesterday's Hero (1979) - top footballer with a drink problem fallen from grace, plucky Third Division club challenging football's elite in a cup final, millionaire pop star club owners, embittered ex-player turned manager, pop star ex-girlfriends and last minute penalties which win cup finals.  Oh, and just so that we know Ian McShane's alcoholic striker is really a decent guy, not only is he good to his dad, but he spends his Sundays, (these were the days before Sunday fixtures), coaching a team of kids from a local orphanage - an orphanage run by nuns.  Of course, one of the kids has a limp, so McShane makes sure he always gets a fair crack in the team.  When we first meet him, McShane is reduced to playing for 'Windsor United', which I think we're meant to assume is a non-league outfit, (certainly, these sequences were shot at the grounds of non league Windsor and Eton FC and their rivals Maidenhead FC), but the film is vague on these kind of details.  Before he knows it, McShane finds himself being offered the chance to play for 'The Saints', a Third Division team owned by pop star Paul Nicholas, who are doing well thanks to his money and are in the semi-finals of a cup competition, although which cup it is, remains vague.  The film being made back in the days before the imposition of transfer windows, when clubs could sign players whenever they felt like it, McShane, finds himself at  'The Saints' as an emergency replacement for the team's injured star striker, and facing the disdain of manager Adam Faith, an embittered former team-mate who dismisses our hero as being 'Old. Slow. Drunk'.

The problem with all sports-based films is that either they have to assume a certain level of knowledge as to the rules and set up of the sport in question on the part of potential audiences, or spend an inordinate amount of time explaining these details.  Interestingly, Yesterday's Hero does neither - the sheer vagueness of the footballing background, with regard to the actual structure of competitions or even the league system itself , will neither satisfy football fans nor enlighten the casual viewer.   Indeed, this vagueness simply gives the impression that the film's makers and particularly its writer, bonk-buster queen Jackie Collins, didn't actually know much about the game.  A feeling reinforced by the way it all unfolds like a soap opera and the pointless non-footballing sub-plot involving Nicholas' unrequited love for a US singer, (played by Suzanne Sommers, who had previously played the Sally Thomsett role in Three's Company, the US version of Man About the House), who also happens to be an ex-girlfriend of McShane, (who, in turn, had been, when in his prime, Nicholas' footballing hero).  The various pop concert and recording studio scenes involving these two just come as padding, designed to fill the movie out to feature length because the makers had no confidence in the main footballing plot.  Worst of all, the putative love triangle never actually amounts to anything, with Sommers ultimately rejecting both men after a complete lack of dramatic conflict between them.

All of which undoubtedly makes Yesterday's Hero sound like a complete waste of time.  Which isn't true.  Whilst its grasp of footballing details might be weak, it does succeed in creating a vivid portrayal of the dressing room side of seventies football, when the players were a long way from being the athletic, perma-tanned and perfectly coiffured gym-dwellers of the present day game.  Yesterday's Hero accurately depicts the dressing room of 'The Saints' as being full of pale, scrawny looking blokes with bad hair cuts, whose post-match celebrations involve decamping to a club or pub and boozing themselves stupid.  The early scenes of muddy, poorly maintained pitches, clapped out team buses and tiny crowds attending dimly lit matches on freezing cold Saturdays, perfectly evokes lower and non-league football in the late seventies. Of course, a sport-based film is always going to be judged on its recreations of the actual sport itself, which brings us to another problem with football themed films: it is next to impossible to convey the essence of a ninety minute match in a few minutes of screen time, (just watch the match highlights on Match of the Day after you've either seen the entire match or heard a live radio commentary to confirm this).  Consequently, Yesterday's Hero only actually recreates parts of two matches - the cup semi final and final - which are the only games McShane's character seems to ply for 'The Saints'.  Both sequences involve cutting together actual match footage with close up scenes of  the actors portraying the fictional players, acting out set-pieces, goals and the like.  To be fair, the film succeeds in integrating these elements quite well - the main problem lying in the condition of the visible pitch: in the real match footage it is inevitably muddy and churned up, in the recreated sequences, probably shot in Summer, it is lush and green.

One aspect of the film I find fascinating is that, for the final script, the makers must have started by deciding what match footage they were going to use for the cup final, and worked back from there.  By using footage from the 1979 League Cup Final at Wembley, between Nottingham Forest and Southampton, they ensured that there would be plenty of spectators waving banners saying things like 'Up the Forest' and 'Come on you Saints', which dictated the fact that the script then had incorporate this by calling the participants in the fictional final 'The Saints' and 'Leicester Forest'.  The latter name, of course, is ridiculous, betraying the writer's lack of football history knowledge: clubs in the UK don't just arbitrarily stick suffixes after the name of the town they represent.  There are historical and geographic factors which create these names.  Nottingham Forest, for instance, are so-called because of the city's association with Sherwood Forest and Robin Hood.  The last time I checked, the real Leicester didn't have a forest, (the real life team based there is, of course, simply called Leicester City).

Despite all of its shortcomings, I have to admit that I enjoyed Yesterday's Hero.  Not only does it offer a fascinating portrayal of the era it was made in, but it is also another of those British films, like A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, which was made at a time when the UK film industry was collapsing and film makers were desperately casting about, trying to find subjects that might bring audiences into cinemas.  The old standards of British cinema, war movies, crime dramas and gothic horrors seemed to have fallen out of favour with audiences, whilst the kitchen sink drama and detective genres had been co-opted by television.  Producers had either to try and find new spins on old subjects (like Nightingale's bank heist caper), or try to explore new territories, trying to exploit other popular British past times, like football.  Sadly, neither approach seemed to work, with the film makers unable to break away from the established tropes and structures of traditional British feature films.  Both A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square and Yesterday's Hero feel as if, (with a few modifications to their scripts to remove the expletives and nudity and shot in black and white), they could have been made two decades earlier.  That aside, what's not to like about the film which not only gave Cary Elwes his debut (as a 'disco dancer'), but also gave football commentator John 'Motty' Motson his only acting credit, playing himself.  Badly.



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