Tuesday, 25 July 2017

On TV: "George Best: All By Himself"

Daniel Gordon's documentary George Best: All By Himself opens with a chastening gobbet of to-camera testimony from none other than Angie Best. One night, she recalls, she was driving home in the rain when she saw a bedraggled old soak hunched over at the side of the road - a figure she first took for a homeless drunk, and only belatedly realised was her then-husband George. How had one who'd known such highs, as the most celebrated and adored sportsman in the land, been struck so low that even the mother of his child could no longer recognise him? That establishes the line of inquiry Gordon is pursuing over these ninety minutes; the pleasures of his film reside in its astute stitching together of the available archive.

Of course, the filmmaker has the advantage of a subject who was both much photographed and supremely photogenic, who made a perilous task - dribbling past defenders drilled to kick wideboys and flash Harrys like Best into the back row of the stands - look effortlessly easy, like a schoolboy nutmegging his contemporaries for fun. The rise, even after all these years, is still stirring: fast-tracked through the ranks at Old Trafford, Best found himself in the Man U first eleven at precisely that post-Munich moment when the fans were desperate for reasons to cheer - and quickly repaid the faith Matt Busby placed in him several times over. Celebrity followed - and here, too, Best wrote the book as British football's first superstar, dubbed "The Boy with the Beatle Haircut", and presented with an array of temptations that Paddy Crerand and Harry Gregg (old-guarders, both interviewed here) never faced.

Yet unlike the Beatles, who had people around them to help convert dizzying overnight success into the basis of A Hard Day's Night, Best had to negotiate the breakneck twists and turns of modernity relying only on gut instinct: he was, as per the title, left to his own devices. Gordon carefully and sensitively sows the seeds of the tragedy that was to follow: a late Sixties TV interview in which Crerand, Best's roommate during those glory years, unsmilingly admits suicide is the only future he sees beyond football, a confession Best made to agent Bill McMurdo in the dressing room after United's European Cup victory in 1968, worried that he might never again experience anything as elevating. How to match those intoxicating highs?

Those of us who grew up watching Best's increasingly troubled and troubling chat show appearances in the Eighties and Nineties will already know the answer - but here those look like endpoints, brick walls, possibly even cries for help. (Did he mistake Wogan - that avuncular Irishman with the soothing voice and the comfortable couch - for a shrink?) Gordon's thesis is that his subject's first response, through the fallow Seventies and Eighties, was that of many disaffected working-class boys: to run away, from one girl to the next, from Manchester to London, the UK to the US (where he briefly reinvented himself as a commodity in the nascent NASL, before his lack of professionalism became an issue). If that gives All by Himself the same rise-fall shape as a half-dozen other recent documentary requiems, there is a sense that only now, a decade or so on from Best's passing, can we properly catch up with its errant subject.

Certainly, this is a very 21st century perspective, one that views Best less as a sorry joke or tabloid punchline than as, among other things, the victim of a terrible disease - and we all of us now know enough about alcoholism, its causes and effects, to be able to respond to the footballer's decline with a good deal more compassion than anybody thought to do at the time. You could look upon the moisturised millionaire Beckham - Best's obvious successor in United red - and see proof positive of an evolution in footballing circles; equally, though, you could watch All by Himself back-to-back with the recent Gazza doc Gascoigne and ponder this: how has the game improved its response, beyond throwing more and more money at these talented young men, in the hope it'll make all their problems disappear?

George Best: All by Himself screens tonight on BBC2 at 12.10am, and is available to view on iPlayer here.   

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