Light work on a classic tragedy

A decorous film about the downfall of footballer Justin Fashanu, who hanged himself in May, left too many questions unanswered; Inside Story: Fallen Hero BBC1
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The Independent Culture
A TIRED bell chimes for six in the morning, a city street sleeps under a colourless sky, a few car headlamps bleed across the rainy tarmac, and a slow, elegant tracking shot draws us away into a dead-end East End alley. As a film noir location for a former bigshot to meet his desperate end, it's ideal. The voice-over is done by a woman, but a trench-coated gumshoe would have been more appropriate. "This is a film about a man who had everything - looks, talent, money - who lost it all, and died alone, in shame." Clearly, Nick London and the other makers of Fallen Hero knew they had a classic story to tell.

The tragedy of Justin Fashanu can be approached fruitfully from more angles than a goal mouth. Maybe it's the tale of a boy wonder who peaks at 19, when he curls in the Goal of the Season against Liverpool in 1980. Not only is this his moment of glory, it can also be seen as the beginning of his downfall. He was bought for pounds 1m by Nottingham Forest, where a bullying manager, Brian Clough, whittled away his spirit. Or maybe Fashanu's life is the age-old fable of sibling rivalry: a younger, less talented child reveres his elder brother, then climbs over him to greater heights of fame and fortune. There's the sub-plot of their parentage: the Fashanus were Barnardo's boys, fostered to a middle-aged white couple. Justin kept in regular contact with his biological mother, but met his real father only once.

Maybe it's the tale of a black man in a white man's world, or a gay man in a cauldron of machismo. Or the tale of a man who gives his heart to Jesus, but sells his soul to the gutter press by dreaming up affairs with MPs. He flees to America to work as a trainer and is accused of sexual assault. He flees back to Britain and hangs himself. Lock Jeffrey Archer and Jimmy McGovern together in a room for a week and this is the grim, glamorous, soapy, unlikely outline they'd come up with.

There is a movie to be made here, but Fallen Hero was the trailer rather than the film itself: although it alluded to all the themes listed above, the only one it explored was that of the battling brothers. Perhaps there was just too much life to squeeze into 45 minutes. There was hardly anything on the tribulations of being a black professional footballer in the days when "fans" would throw bananas on to the pitch, for instance. And considering that Clough boasts in his autobiography of his homophobic treatment of Fashanu, it was peculiar that his taunts weren't reported here. Presumably Clough declined to be interviewed, but we were never told, and Fashanu's real father, his foster family and his friend Peter Tatchell were similarly conspicuous in their absence. In print journalism terms, you'd call the documentary a cuttings job, ie, the researcher didn't travel much further afield than the, admittedly well-stocked, BBC archive library.

The film's main interviewee was John, who had so much time on camera that events were more or less seen through his eyes and narrated in his soft, self-exonerating voice. "Justin was my shining light," he said. "He was my life. He was the one who I saw as my mother and my father as I was growing up. He was my strength, he was my inspiration, he was what I idolised." More fluent than he ever was when he presented Gladiators, John almost sounded scripted, and it did cross my mind that he might have had a hand in producing the documentary. There was no reference to the recent ups and downs in his own life.

It may be that some of the key players just aren't ready to talk yet, as Justin hanged himself only four months ago. Channel 5 has already broadcast its own Fashanu obituary, but the Inside Story team still seemed very aware of how recent the death was, and were painstakingly careful not to upset or offend anyone. It was less of an inside story than a hovering-sheepishly-on-the-threshold story.

The tone was decorous and reserved, a moving elegy delivered by someone who didn't know the deceased very well. Remarkably quiet by the standards of today's documentaries, there was almost no incidental music, and no sound over the end credits but the trickle of rain down a gutter. Justin Fashanu wrote in his suicide note: "I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my family and friends." Nick London appears to have felt the same way.

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