What a truly great docudrama from Terry Cafolla on BBC2 this was. Dark, evocative, moving and showing the rise and fall of one of football’s legends, George Best, this was riveting watching.
I didn’t know a whole lot about George’s past prior to this show; I’d seen him in the 70s playing football as my dad and brothers raved about him, and I’d seen him in his latter years as the booze took its toll, but it was fascinating to see how his fame and fortune took an otherwise normal family into a place that all but destroyed them… especially George’s mother Ann who was brilliantly portrayed by Michelle Fairley.
George’s childhood home reminded me a lot of mine too; garish wallpaper, hideous colour choices, clothes that were so loud they almost needed earplugs to wear and a ‘sunray clock’ shown in the Best’s living room was the same as the one we had over our fireplace, so just that alone brought a nostalgic lump to my throat…
I was lucky enough though not to grow up surrounded by Northern Ireland’s troubles, whereas George and his family were not similarly fortunate. However, whilst the political tumult of the time featured in last night’s drama, it didn’t feature as heavily as I thought it might and was more a backdrop issue than a central one, but of course, this was about George and his family, not Northern Ireland per se.
The story began in the backstreets of Belfast, in the shadow of the shipyard with Ann and Dickie Best – who’d met at a dance – trying their best to raise their kids on a low income and keep a nice home. It was a teetotal home too and we learned that Ann had never drunk booze before the age of 44. She apparently began as a result of the problems George’s fame and fortune had visited upon her, as of course did George himself to some extent, though a ‘party-boy’ he without question was, and champagne flowed as freely as his Irish charm.
Like his mum, George had been keen on sports all his life, and even as a toddler, he loved to kick a ball about and by the time he was 15, it was obvious he was something special in terms of football, so when the opportunity came to travel to England for Manchester United bosses to see him play, Ann reluctantly allowed him to go… which mother wouldn’t allow such a chance? But through the film, one could see how she came to regret that first step on the ladder to her son’s rise and fall.
By the time May 1963 rolled around and George was 17, Manchester United signed him up on £35 a week and the ball, literally and metaphorically, began to roll on his new life of wealth and fame. Tom Payne was a joy to watch as George but of course, nobody could possibly capture the true essence of George Best; he was – as we all are – as unique as a snowflake, but Tom did a damn good job of trying.
And I especially enjoyed seeing the archive footage of some of George’s best moments on the pitch inter-cut with the film; his goals against Benfica were a joy to behold, even for someone like me who just isn’t that into football. I’m not that into art either but I can appreciate the beauty of a Constable masterpiece, and this was how I felt watching that footage.
And you could see how thousands of people chanting your name could go to a person’s head… even though he didn’t become ‘big headed’, nonetheless, the adoration of millions affected George, and vicariously, his mum Ann, and was part of both of their eventual downfalls into the bottom of dozens of bottles and both died in their fifties from alcohol related illnesses.
Michelle Fairley as Ann should win some form of an award for her portrayal of this lonely woman who was torn between wanting to appear – and be – respectable and normal and her equal desire to escape those very things. One of the scenes that aptly demonstrated her ‘double life’ was when she was trying to get George’s sisters Barbara and Carol to school; once outside her front door, she had to literally hoist them above the heads of the dozens of photographers and journalists who were camped outside her home. Inside though, as the media scrambled for pictures and glimpses of the family, she had to carry on dusting and vacuuming like any normal housewife of the time…
As she said in the film, “Two minutes to go to the shops, and ten to get through my own garden!” Coping with all that attention, under the constant gaze of everyone – media aside – while raising six children, it’s perhaps little wonder that she turned to drink. By the end of her life, she was a committed alcoholic, stashing booze all over the house and doing a relatively good job of hiding her dedicated drinking, except from those closest to her.
And as she watched George’s life spiralling out of control – as was her own – during one particularly poignant moment in the film, she looked deep into his eyes and said, “What did I do to you?”
Lorcan Cranitch also did a fabulous job of portraying George’s dad Dickie as a dull, boring and exceptionally ordinary working class man while somehow managing to make him quite fascinating… not an easy feat I shouldn’t think. And the poor man not only lost his wife just before her 56th birthday, he then had to watch his son’s decline over the years until he lost him too. Mother and son lie in a grave beside each other, in accordance with George’s dying wishes.
In short, this was a wonderful, moving and truly gripping programme, and if you missed it, I’d highly recommend catching up on BBC iPlayer. In the meantime, here’s an interview with Tom Payne about his role as George as well as clips from the programme…