'Sweet FA' - a brilliant British farce

All the elements of farce are present in this tale of the secretary, two middle-aged suitors, and the Football Association
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The Independent Online

I grew up on Whitehall farces, evenings spent in stuffy theatres surrounded by middle-aged people (my parents included) wiping their eyes, helplessly convulsed in gales of mirth as a bug-eyed Brian Rix dashed in and out of a series of hotel bedroom doors clad in his underpants, shirt and tie, babbling incoherently.

I grew up on Whitehall farces, evenings spent in stuffy theatres surrounded by middle-aged people (my parents included) wiping their eyes, helplessly convulsed in gales of mirth as a bug-eyed Brian Rix dashed in and out of a series of hotel bedroom doors clad in his underpants, shirt and tie, babbling incoherently.

At its glorious best, there's nothing to beat a full-blooded British farce, in the hands of a master like Alan Ayckbourn or Joe Orton. Early last year, I sat through a grim reminder of how the genre has been devalued, a ghastly entertainment about a taxi driver and internet dating written by Ray Cooney. Even the huge talent of Eric Sykes couldn't breath life into that particular turkey. Then the brilliant television comedy writer Simon Nye ( Men Behaving Badly etc) produced a stunning new translation of Dario Fo's classic farce Accidental Death of an Anarchist at the Donmar, and I remembered that nothing can beat a gorgeously rumbustious full-blooded farce.

Nevertheless, such evenings in the theatre are rare these days, and I was beginning to think that writers like Simon, John Cleese and David Nobbs had transferred the best elements of farcical comedy to television in such series as Fawlty Towers, One Foot in the Grave and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, until events at the swanky London HQ of the Football Association started to unravel in all their glorious ineptitude this week.

If any theatrical producers are looking for a surefire comedy hit to revive the lacklustre fare on offer in the West End, then please can they commission a new farce - preferably set to music - and call it "Sweet FA". All the homegrown elements of a classic farce, one we British can be thoroughly proud of, are present in this tale of the secretary, the two middle-aged suitors, and the jury of 12 angry board members steered by the capable but dreary chairman Geoff Thompson.

Sven Goran, the mystical Swede, with his curiously helmet-like blow- dried hair, turns out to be a man of hidden shadows. Described famously by David Mellor (surely there's a walk-on role in this farce for the toe-sucking politico turned commentator) as "the man who has taken English football to the upper reaches of mediocrity", Sven has proved himself to be a man permanently on heat when not on the pitch.

In 2002, he not only had an affair with the nation's favourite suffering blonde, Ulrika, and then rudely dumped her when it became public knowledge, but he confidently steered the English team as far as the quarter-finals of the World Cup. He returned home to his larger-than-life Italian bombshell, Nancy, and continued to persevere with blow-drying his hair and waiting until another set of challenges came on the scene.

In 2004, having flirted with Chelsea's rich new owner, he managed to re-sign his contract as England coach for an astonishing £4m (that's more than £10,000 a day), send a lot of red roses to females at the FA headquarters, and bonk gorgeous, pouting champagne-loving Faria Alam, 38, (nicknamed Ferrari on account of her costly tastes in leisure activities) secretary to the FA's executive director. Oh, and Sven also masterminded the English team's feeble performance in the European Championship.

But I know that this is a man of hidden talents, because I once listened all the way through the double CD, entitled Sven's Classical Collection, released in time to cash in on the World Cup. It's a weird mixture of hoary old Proms favourites, and pleasant, if inconsequential, offerings by 20th-century unfamiliar Scandinavian composers.

The irony of this week's headline-grabbing escapades will not be lost on any serious student of the rules of farce. On the day that the FA announced it's new set of disciplinary rules governing behaviour on the pitch, chief executive Mark Palios was nowhere to be found. Why? Because it had emerged that he, too, had dallied with the lovely Ms Alam, and that she had sent a series of e-mails detailing the relative sexual prowess of her two middle-aged corkers to a friend, who had felt compelled to hand them over to the tabloid press.

Mr Thompson, who already looks the fool he probably is, for engaging lawyers to spend the past week defending Ms Alam and denying that anyone had slept with anyone else, promptly did a reverse shunt and announced a full-blooded inquiry. I expect Andrew Gilligan to be summoned to cover the proceedings for Five Live any moment now.

And before the inquiry has even started, Mr Thompson has cleared Mr Palios of any wrong-doing. This is the Mr Palios whom Mr Thompson brought in to run the FA, having forced the resignation of Adam Crozier in 2002. Mr Crozier put far too many noses out of joint, trying to bring the management and finances of the FA into something approaching the 20th century.

Of course, the FA as an organisation is caught with its pants down in this affair, collectively and corporately behaving as usual in the most hypocritical fashion. Having stamped on Rio Ferdinand for not taking a drugs test and banned Alan Smith for chucking a bottle into the crowd, it was strangely silent on the sexual textploits of captain and role model David Beckham.

This week, the FA has been even more reluctant to comment on the revelations that Euro superstar teenager Wayne Rooney once bonked a prostitute and then signed her an autograph "with love". (She claimed she realised it was Wayne from the outset because "he was dead ugly, and wearing a Marks & Spencer shirt".)

The FA can hold all the inquiries it likes, because you don't have to know one end of the pitch from the other to realise that the group of middle-aged blokes who are going to run it have very little interest in how their sport is perceived, other than as a revenue-generating enterprise. If they truly cared about English football, they would have sacked Sven when he dropped his pants the first time, and made them a laughing stock in 2002.

They would have dropped Beckham until he and his family could rebuild their relationships out of the public eye. They should be preventing their star players from endorsing fattening junk foods and horrible teeth-rotting drinks, and they certainly wouldn't be taking sponsorship from manufacturers whose products endanger the health of the very young people they need to nurture and train.

The figures for sexually transmitted diseases among the young were released on the very day that the FA was busy promoting its new guidelines on discipline, Mr Palios was keeping his head down, and Sven was acting very cool on holiday. Funnily enough, these statistics show that unprotected sex is on the increase, and one reason could be that from the top to the very bottom, no one in English football offers any guide or role model to the young.

A week from today, Mr Eriksson will be told his fate, Ms Alam will no doubt be considering a portfolio of offers to present reality television series, and Mr Rooney will be insisting to the tabloids that he and his fiancée are still an item. Nancy will be appearing on Question Time, and Mr Thompson will still be in his job. And every Friday night in a town centre near you, young football fans will be getting slaughtered and having unprotected sex.

Come to think of it, this has all the elements of a tragedy.