Preview: The Damned Utd

Divisive football manager Brian Clough was fertile subject matter for David Peace’s book The Damned Utd and the novelist sold the rights to a theatre company for little more than the price of a pint 

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In an era of social media and instantaneous global communication it’s heartening to hear of deals still being done down the pub. That’s where the idea to adapt David Peace’s 2006 novel The Damned Utd for the stage first took shape.

“Our producer Chris Lloyd met David, who’s originally from Ossett, in the pub a few times while he was writing Red or Dead, his book about the Liverpool manager Bill Shankly,” says Rod Dixon of Leeds-based Red Ladder Theatre Company. “We were interested in adapting that but the rights were being sold to a film company so David Peace said: ‘I tell you what – I’ll give you the rights to The Damned Utd instead’.”

Peace intended to hand over the rights for free but his publishers insisted on some kind of fee. The princely sum of £3.68 was eventually agreed, which equates to a penny per page, and the theatrical production began to take shape.

Described by the author as “a fiction based on a fact”, the story revolves around football manager Brian Clough during his brief, tumultuous spell at Leeds United during 1974, augmented by frequent flashbacks to happier times spent with Derby County. Adapting such a work for the stage had its problems.

“We originally opened at the West Yorkshire Playhouse two years ago with five actors and six dancers from the Northern School of Contemporary Dance but we had to slim down to tour,” says Dixon.

“The current version features Clough, his managerial sparring partner Peter Taylor and a third actor playing a number of roles. It all revolves around what’s going on in Clough’s head, which was always going to be a challenge.”

How did Dixon’s personal take on Clough, a notoriously blunt and divisive manager, affect his direction?

“I remember him as a massive celebrity but one who had this need to always say something controversial. Stick him in front of a camera and it was almost like he had some sort of Tourette’s – he couldn’t stop himself. We’ve tried to show that but also stuck with the idea that the man’s life was divided between heaven when he was at Derby and hell at Leeds United.

“We’re retelling a story that was part of people’s lives so they have their own memories of the things we’re addressing,” says Dixon, although he is confident there’s plenty for those ambivalent toward the beautiful game.

“My wife hates football but loved the tension and the testosterone and the pressures on men to be men. The male relationships are fascinating – we’re observing what was basically a sort of love affair between Clough and Taylor. The audience ultimately witnesses the breakdown of an amazing friendship.

“Everything revolves around the pressure to succeed we have in modern life and the masculine, macho world we live in. The play reflects the fact we’re still in a patriarchal, capitalist society and how mass media can twist and distort the truth.”

The Damned Utd is at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, 27 March-7 April; The Dukes, Lancaster, 24-25 April; and Junction, Goole, 27 April

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