Last Night's Television: Clough, ITV1
Newswipe With Charlie Brooker, BBC4
Thursday 26 March 2009
You could tell a lot about Clough from the fact that this profile of "the best manager that England never had" began with a contribution from Barbara Clough, his widow. So, an authorised version then, and one openly at odds with an unauthorised version – David Peace's book The Damned United, which appalled Clough loyalists when it was first published and which will be given a new lease of life by Peter Morgan's film adaptation, which hits cinemas tomorrow. ITV1's Clough wasn't hagiography exactly – there was a candidly uncomfortable contribution from Nigel Clough about how difficult Brian could be as a father – but it was unabashedly protective in nature and there was no doubt about where the threat lay. Even Johnny Giles, a former Leeds player and a man with no strong incentive to burnish Clough's reputation, contributed to the defensive wall. "The portrayal of Brian Clough in that book is outrageous," he said. "It's mean and it's mean-spirited and it's wrong".
If you skipped the programme because you thought you had no interest in football you missed something good. I have no interest in football either, but I doubt if anyone could find Brian Clough dull. That's what both Peace and Morgan recognised in him, a character whose charisma and self-belief was intimately knitted into both his successes and his defeats. A character, also, whose story fits deeply rooted narrative templates. Rags to riches would be the first of them, exemplified here by the way Clough took Derby County from Second Division mediocrity to the top of the First Division, with the help of his friend Peter Taylor. "He turned the average into the extraordinary," said one contributor, a remark in which the first term is just as important as the second. Clough's triumph feeds our unappeasable appetite for underdog transformation, with its implicit promise that we too might find the extraordinary in ourselves. The second narrative template is Icarus, in which the underdog overreaches itself.
Clough's first brush with the sun was the letter of resignation he tendered to the Derby County board, an offer he confidently assumed would be rejected but wasn't. Undaunted, he soared even higher, accepting a job with Leeds United, a club he'd repeatedly demonised for the dirty style of its football and with whose manager, Don Revie, he had a long and public rivalry. "It would be like Arsène Wenger taking over the job Manchester United," said Roy McFarland, struggling to convey the oddity of this marriage. "That is extreme," said an off-camera voice. "It's not extreme enough," McFarland replied. A more diplomatic man, or one less dazzled by his own reputation for plain-speaking, might have begun by soothing hurt feelings. Clough began by hurting them some more, telling the players that their medals and trophies had all been won by cheating. Unsurprisingly, this unusual motivational technique led to a string of defeats and Clough's sacking after just 44 days. Unlike Icarus, he landed, fixed his wings, and, with Peter Taylor, took Nottingham Forest to two successive European Cup victories, though his outspoken style may well have cost him the job he most wanted, which was to manage England. Lawrie McMenemy, one of a handful of candidates when the job became vacant, recalled waiting for the interview in the lobby of the FA headquarters and watching as Clough teased an elderly gentleman who had paused, breathless, on the stairs. Elderly gentleman turned out to be on the appointment panel, though there was also a suggestion that his vote would have been irrelevant anyway since the FA chairman had already decided to ignore public and expert opinion by offering it to Ron Greenwood. The film tartly concluded this account of missed opportunity with a close up of the FA's vapid mission statement: "A World-Class Organisation with a Winning Mentality".
On a good day, Charlie Brooker can make Brian Clough look like Kofi Annan. He's a kind of genius of spleen and when it's directed at the right target it can be deeply gratifying to watch him in action. But Newswipe with Charlie Brooker doesn't work quite as well as Screenwipe, the television-based series from which it has been spun off. What Brooker promises is a "fun, snarky, weekly digest" to help less committed viewers keep up with "the world's most complicated soap opera" – the news. And when he concentrates on style it can be both funny and telling. To have the visual metaphors used to tart up news reports on "quantitive easing" dipped in acid until only the witless desperation of the endeavour was left was not only entertaining but salutary. There was also a striking contribution from Nick Davies, on how PR companies can effectively manipulate the news agenda. But elsewhere it occasionally strikes you as a one-man Have I Got News for You, and the contributions from people who aren't Charlie Brooker fall sadly short of the cutting precision of the man whose name is in the title.
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