Arthur Hopcraft

TV dramatist and author of 'The Football Man'
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The Independent Online

To be looked on as one of the best sportswriters of your era and to be acclaimed as the author of the most profound study of football ever published would be plenty for most men. For Arthur Hopcraft, author of The Football Man (1968), it was merely the first half of his career.

Arthur Hopcraft, writer, scriptwriter and journalist: born Shoeburyness, Essex 30 November 1932; died London 22 November 2004.

To be looked on as one of the best sportswriters of your era and to be acclaimed as the author of the most profound study of football ever published would be plenty for most men. For Arthur Hopcraft, author of The Football Man (1968), it was merely the first half of his career.

His 1971 television play The Mosedale Horseshoe, which also helped launch the career of the director Michael Apted, propelled him from the bonhomie of the Observer sports desk to a solitary communion with the typewriter which resulted in a string of single plays and serials such as The Reporters (1972) and The Nearly Man (1974). These established him alongside Dennis Potter and Jack Rosenthal as one of the greats of that decade's television drama even before he brought his unusual combination of intellect and sensibility to the adaptation in 1979 of John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Jonathan Powell, BBC Head of Drama during that period, said,

It was one of those things that went brilliantly from start to finish. He wrote a really brilliant script, crystal clear. I know the book had a fantastic reputation but if Alec Guinness hadn't liked Arthur's script he would never have touched it.

The adaptation of le Carré's elegant, witty and labyrinthine narrative was called "a textbook example" of how to adapt a novel for the screen. Two other adaptations for television, Hard Times (1976) and Bleak House (1985), were further testaments to his skill. He also wrote the screenplays for Rebecca (1996) and Agatha (1979) and in 1985 received the Bafta writers' award.

Fastidious, set in his ways and prematurely balding, Hopcraft had an air of the valetudinarian bachelor about him from a relatively early age. He was gloomy, introspective, intense, dogged, tender, subtle, compassionate, deliciously catty and sometimes cantankerous, but never coarse or crude.

His background was Methodism; he wrote about it in The Great Apple Raid (1970), subtitled "Memoirs of a Tin Chapel Tyro". He was born in Shoeburyness, Essex, and brought up in the Black Country around Cannock; his first football love was the Wolves of Stan Cullis, the team of Roy Swinbourne and Billy Wright. After a loathed spell of National Service, he wrote for local papers before joining first the Daily Mirror, then the Guardian, in Manchester. In 1964, after going freelance, he became a contributor to the Observer, for which he reported on two World Cups.

His first book, Born to Hunger, was published in 1968 after he had travelled 45,000 miles in underdeveloped countries on behalf of the Freedom from Hunger Campaign. The first edition of The Football Man appeared the same year. What fascinated and enchanted Hopcraft was football's social and cultural impact as well as the beauty and grace of the game and its players.

His writing about it was distinguished not just by erudition but by a surprising delicacy and erotic power. Of Bobby Charlton, he wrote, "The flowing line of Charlton's football has no disfiguring barbs in it, but there is a heavy and razor-sharp arrowhead at its end." He also took a mordant delight in recounting that when he returned to his school to give away prizes one speech day, he was introduced as "the author of The Football Fan - one for our younger readers".

Hopcraft never married, nor took a partner of either gender - he once said, in his customarily precise, rumbling tone, "I tried both, but I always ended up just wishing they would go away." He appeared to live his home life, first in a Cheshire bungalow called Deepdale after the Preston North End ground, then a semi in suburban Twickenham, like the surviving half of an elderly couple.

His friends became his family and to them he was loyal, affectionate and generous, if sometimes unable to resist the little stilettos of malice that were usually adumbrated by a half-smile. Once I returned to my house excessively radiant after aerobics to find him sharing what was probably a fourth bottle of wine with my husband. Hopcraft greeted me with a delighted snort. "You look just like Steve Bruce," he said.

The producer Betty Willingale, who worked with him at the BBC, said,

His great gift was friendship. He was such a good companion. He retained the wonderful objective eye of a good reporter and it was sometimes quite beady. You knew exactly where you stood with him. No bullshit.

By 1973, Hopcraft was adamant that he never wanted to report another football match. He didn't like crowds around him and was jumpy about being enclosed with people. But he could never lose the connection with the game. For many years he and a friend, the actor turned writer Ken Siclan, made West Ham their team and Hopcraft retained his season ticket till the end, although he had long stopped making the trip to Upton Park.

As he said in the closing words of The Football Man,

Even now, whenever I arrive at any football ground, or merely pass close to one when it is silent, I experience a unique alerting of the senses. The moment evokes my past in an instantaneous emotional rapport which is more certain, more secret, than memory.

Julie Welch