Monday, 10 October 2011

Goals on Film: The Firm (1989)

When you spent as much time watching telly as I did as a kid, certain images live long in the memory.  There’s the scene in nuclear-holocaust drama Threads where the woman pisses herself when the bomb drops.

There was lovely Holly Aird playing the young Elspeth Huxley in the Flame Trees of Thika.  I was seven, she was 12 we were a match made in heaven despite the age difference, at least so I thought.  Recently she popped up in a brief cameo in Page Eight. Now we're older I think the phrase is "bang tidy", but I digress.

Another drama seared on to my retina was the 1989 Screen Two film The Firm.  Before watching it for the purposes of this post, I'd only seen it once 22 years ago, but I can remember some of scenes verbatim.  In part this is down to the central, visceral performance of Gary Oldman as Clive ‘Bex’ Bissel the leader of the Inter City Crew, loosely based on the real-life West Ham hooligans the Inter City Firm.

Where's my faacking wand?
Getting Oldman to appear was a bit of a coup as he was just about to 'go Hollywood'. Like many, since The Firm I've made a point of watching all his films. A measure of his talent is the gulf between the menace of Bex and the quiet control in his portrayal of George Smiley in this year's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. He even made the Harry Potter films just about palatable. (The books are still derivative shit, mind. JK, you're a charlatan; take your Horcrux and shove it up your arse.)

The Firm, which is a little over an hour long, charts Bex’s efforts to recruit an English crew ahead of the (fictional) European Championships in Germany that summer.  More than that, it portrays his deepening and ultimately fatal obsession with besting Yeti, the leader of the rival Buccaneers.  Along the way he, perhaps predictably, alienates his wife and even some of the members of his crew.

It's full of familiar faces off the TV.  Phil Davis plays Yeti; there's Liz McDonald's long-suffering ex, Jim; Del Boy and Rodney's mate Mickey Pearce and even a young Phil Mitchell, before alcoholism got the better of him.

It was also director Alan Clarke’s last film before his untimely death from cancer and it portrayed all the hallmarks which made him famous from the then ground-breaking use of steadicam to create a signature look to his uncompromising portrayal of violence.

Eleven years earlier he made Scum for the BBC which refused to transmit it because of the violence it showed, despite the fact it was based on real-life experiences inside Borstal.  Clarke remade Scum for the cinema, although the original was eventually shown on über-trendy and controversial Channel Four in 1991 replete with complaints from wizened old busy body Mary Whitehouse.

Somewhat inevitably The Firm was edited for transmission, which left Clarke far from happy and arguing that by sanitising the violence you make it more palatable and to truly “damn the characters by the way they behave and the way they talk then it’s important to keep the violence they do as graphic and disturbing as possible”.

It’s a moot point these days where the film industry is churning out stuff like Hostel and the Human Centipede on an almost weekly basis and the violence of the battlefield is graphically brought into our living rooms thanks to our PlayStations and X Boxes.  Back then violence was used sparingly and had genuine shock value. Now, there’s even a ride based on Saw at Alton Towers.  How mainstream can you get?

This isn’t to say the film wasn’t without fault.  On The Late Show broadcast the day after, academic John Williams and documentary maker Ian Studard both suggested Clarke’s portrayal of hooliganism was too stylised and not ‘messy’ enough.  We see no police involvement, no large crowds outside games, no atmospheric build up, in short none of the key elements of the late-Eighties football experience.

Yet, in a way, this only serves to reinforce a central point of The Firm; hooliganism isn’t really about football at all. The sport makes only the briefest of appearances in the film, about five minutes from the end when Yeti and his crew march into Selhurst Park to look for Bex.  The football’s just a backdrop, we don’t see any of the action; the protagonists don’t even bother to watch it. 

What it is about - both The Firm and hooliganism itself - is male ego and the battle for power within a strict hierarchy, football just happens to provide one of the most fertile grounds for this to happen.

Bex and the members of all the firms portrayed emasculate each other through the use of  derogatory sexist and homophobic language and apart from Bex's wife, Sue, played by Oldman's then-wife Lesley Manville (the pair separated the year The Firm was made) the only other female characters of note are pub strippers who are treated with contempt.

Apart from the violence - which looks a bit tame by today’s film standards - the other key point of The Firm was that hooligans come from every strata of society.  They don't fit the stereotype of the skinhead, tattooed, beer-bellied working class yob.  These hooligans aren’t animals but articulate human beings.

On a Timewatch shown in the same year The Firm was broadcast (and placed on the DVD’s special features) sociologist Patrick Murphy suggested that at the time hooliganism was wrongly cast as a game-related problem.  He argued that the policies to deal with it were also game-related and if that’s how things stayed then the violence would merely manifest itself in other areas of society.

But what do these lentil-eating, sandal-wearing, criminal-loving academics know, eh? Well, the police, thanks to banning orders and a range of other tactics have managed to quell large-scale violence at grounds, but society itself is hardly violence-free. To take just one example, knife crime has risen over the last decade and a half and after a small decrease over the last couple of years it's on the rise again.

Speaking late last year, ex-hooligan turned author and self-proclaimed 'hooliologist' Cass Pennant said: "People remember the Seventies' hooligans as being part of the general depression, the days of austerity and frustration among the working classes. But that tinderbox environment is back. If we're not careful we could easily see a return of riots, not just over football, but on the streets."

Jinkies! It seems he could see what the Government couldn't and he could see it a good nine months before those pesky kids kicked-off over the summer (and Sky showed live footage of a carpet shop burning for a good four hours but, strangely, no rioters).

Let's be fair though, Dave did cut short his tennis holiday in Italy to come back and 'take control' of the situation (mind you, I wouldn't leave Nick Clegg in charge of a barbeque, let alone a whole fucking country).
Bex is a successful estate agent and, with an A-Level in sociology, he’s relatively well educated - “clever git, ain’t I?” - (and remember this was when A-Levels were actually worth something).  He’s got money to spend on cars and clothes and will happily travel first class.  He’s also a doting father.

If you want more evidence that it’s not just the working class scum which is revolting, Stephen Robinson’s biography of Bill Deedes tells us how, prior to the Second World War, it was considered “rather off-side” if the annual cricket match between Harrow, which Deedes attended, and Eton at Lord’s didn’t end with a mass brawl between the rival pupils in front of the members’ pavilion.

This was the reason that Deedes, in his later years, refused to condemn so-called ‘yob culture’ when he was columnist on the Daily Telegraph.  As Robinson writes: “he had a lot of experience of it before he left his teen years, even if in his case the yobs wore fancy waistcoats and drank champagne rather than lager.”

Top hole! Let’s all raise a glass to dear Bill, before we smash it in someone’s face.

Predictably our feckless politicians aren’t quite so insightful. Or, maybe they are, but they just lack the bollocks to be honest about the reality of the society we live in.  Our slimey arsewipe of a Prime Minister, the moon-faced twat who passes himself off as Chancellor (never trust a man whose middle name is Gideon) and that mop-haired fuckwit who managed to get elected Mayor of London were all members of Oxford University’s exclusive Bullingdon Club.

Working class heroes
Supposedly a dining club, it’s actually notorious for the drunken vandalism of its members who dress to the nines in £1,000 tailcoats.  To quote Andrew Gimson, author of The Rise of Boris Johnson: “I don’t think an evening would have ended without a restaurant being trashed and paid for in full, very often in cash.  A night in the cells would be regarded as being par for a Buller man.”

The PM now admits he's embarrassed by his Bullingdon membership. When asked by Andrew Marr if that was "the real David Cameron", he replied: "No. We do things when we are young that we deeply regret." Like nicking some trainers during a riot perhaps?

Of course, if you nick some trainers you get locked up for a good long spell to 'send a message'; kick off in an Oxford restaurant and you might get to run the country.

We commoners aren’t really supposed to know about any of this. Bringing up Boris and Dave’s Bullingdon membership is considered a low blow. Well, I don’t give a shit. When it comes to smashing things up this truly is a classless society, for once the millionaire Oxbridge graduates in the cabinet were right: we really are all in this together.

Last Goals on Film: Lord Sugar Tackles Football

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