He's the driver of the banter bus who's the most likely man in football to tell you the price of his watch. But is Robbie Savage actually just a vulnerable puppy in a harsh world?
Last week we reviewed so-so football hooligan feature G.B.H. It got us searching through the film collection and we found a dusty copy of what is, in our opinion, the best film in this sub-genre: The Firm. We are speaking of the 1989 TV movie, made under BBC2's Screen Two aegis, that stars Gary Oldman and Phil Davis. If you rent 'The Firm' and get 1993 vintage Tom Cruise as a lawyer discovering the dark side of corporate America, don't say you weren't warned. You slags.
Oldman, in one of his best performances, is Bex Bissell: an upwardly mobile working class estate agent in 1987 suburban London. He has a wife and a child, a modest but defiantly aspirational property, a good line in sales patter and a drive to make something of himself. The film is a savage satire on Thatcherism, among other things, because this shining example of 1980s self-made get-up-and-go is, of course, a football hooligan.
Bex is the 'top boy' of West Ham-affiliated hooligan crew the ICC and has aspirations (that word again) of creating a nationwide hooligan firm to unite as one in an assault on the 1988 European Championships in West Germany. This brings him into conflict with the leaders of two other club's gangs. One of these, Oboe, is dispatched with efficient savagery, although not before he has maimed one of Bex's young soldiers with a razor. The unfortunate youngster is played by much loved Benny Green off of 'Grange Hill', making this a distinctly upsetting scene for viewers of a certain age.
The other rival leader, Phil Davis' Yeti, proves distinctly more problematic and pursuit of this opponent obsesses Bex to the point that it destroys his life and relationships. Viewers are invited to see the quick-witted but essentially straightforward brutality of Bex in a queasily favourable light compared to the more modern, slick and ultimately less manly methods of Yeti. At only 70 minutes, this film is superbly taut and efficient: along with the descent into madness that unfettered ambition can bring, it also explores the alienation of the urban working class by Thatcherism's brave new world.
Several excellent character actors do a lot with not much screen time, for instance Corrie's Charles Lawson as a former soldier with nothing else in his life but the camaraderie of the punch-up. Lesley Manville - who was married to Oldman at the time, but not for much longer - is brilliant as the wife powerfully sexually drawn to Bex's blend of savagery, charm, wit and rather peculiar femininity. She cannot understand why he needs "the buzz" to give his life meaning, screaming "What's so bad about being normal?"
Talking of camp, better than almost any other film we have seen, The Firm captures that odd blend of fruity "ooh get her" teasing and powerful closeness that are apparently at odds with, but often intrinsic, to all-male groups, especially in ostensibly macho environments. The Firm is a fascinating study of the male group dynamic, and the destruction that one driven, charismatic visionary can wreak.
No football is shown in the film, beyond a park kickabout at the beginning, and in a final scene where members of the gang are interviewed by a TV documentary crew, it is explicitly stated (by Phil Mitchell!) that "if they stop the rucks at football, we'll go boxing, we'll go snooker, we'll go darts."
Incidentally, there are almost no police at all in the film, save for an appearance by a pair of jaded, ineffectual CID investigators who turn up at Bex's house, quite clearly several steps behind the hooligans. Among the other comments the film is making is that Bex and company are operating outside mainstream society; there is a scene in which the gang watch a news programme where a talking head posits on the nature of hooliganism and football culture as if these fans were from an entirely different species. For younger viewers in 2012, that might give some context as to how football fans in the late 1980s were regarded as being outside of decent society, sub-human, and we all know how that worked out.
Directed by Alan Clarke, this is a superb film which takes in so much material without wasting a second. Essential viewing.
John Nicholson and Alan Tyers
Alan has ghost-written a book for football legend Ronnie Matthews.
Read Johnny's book, 'The Meat Fix' here
Follow Alan on Twitter here
or Johnny here.