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The Damned United - Peter Morgan interview

Peter Morgan

Interview by Rob Carnevale

PETER Morgan is the acclaimed screenwriter behind British hit movies such as Frost/Nixon and The Queen. With The Damned United, he turns his attentions to late football manager Brian Clough, and his disastrous 44-day spell with Leeds United during the ‘70s.

He talks to us about how he went about capturing all aspects of Clough’s character (both dark and humorous) and where and why he deviated from some of author David Peace’s source text.

Q. In adapting the book, did Clough’s story lend itself very easily to a film structure? And did post-Leeds career with Forest lend itself to a happy ending of sorts for him?
Peter Morgan: Yes, although of course there is hanging over a spectre of all that the fact that it was well documented that the latter years were fairly conflicted and the memories of Clough post 1985 were very different. I certainly struggled with that. I wondered what I was telling. When you read Peter’s book, it seems to me that he’s written the story about the 44 days of Leeds with the point of view of the voice of the post 1985 Clough. And that didn’t seem appropriate to me.

It didn’t feel responsible. It felt to me like Clough in between ’63 and ’74 was absolutely in his heyday and he went on to his greatest achievement in 1979. The hope, the vitality and the energy made him like a movie star. So, actually there was a difference in my mind between the bitterness of some of the interior monologue of the book and with actually what was going on.

The more that I talked to people about Clough, their first instinct was to smile. And my memory as a 10-year-old boy in that period was of this guy who you just couldn’t wait to put the TV on and see, because you knew he’d just upset everybody. You just knew it would be funny. But there didn’t seem to be much of that in the book – the joyfulness.

Also, the structure killed it. Was it going to be a hate story or a love story? Was it really going to be a story all about the rivalry with [Don] Revie? Or was it going to be what I think the great untold story of Clough is, the inter-dependence between Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. And that behind every great man there is another great man… or another overlooked man. And so I wanted to have my cake and eat it and hope that we’ve somehow pulled it off.

Q. How close did you come to making sure this was just about Clough and Taylor? Because Clough’s autobiography doesn’t seem to have the obsession with Don Revie that comes across in the film…
Peter Morgan: Or comes across in the book. Yeah. That’s partly the journey of adaptation. The book was really the natural rivalry and the hatred between Clough and Revie… in a way it’s playing out in front of our noses every day with Benitez and Ferguson and Jose Mourinho. That’s kind of healthy and all these managers are competitive and it’s the stuff that makes headlines. The stuff that doesn’t make headlines is collaboration and friendship. Animosity makes for much better copy. So, what I felt – and it’s probably more my instinct and it’s where I deviated from Peace – was that the Taylor story was kind of a love story.

There was something about David Peace’s writing that had this almost poetic nihilism that felt strange when brought to a football story. And although I felt a lot of that tone was inappropriate, there’s equally something strange about the rather touching love story between two men and football. In the case of Clough, who was such a flamboyantly emotional figure… all the evidence, if you ever look at it, the highpoints of Clough’s career are always in tandem with Peter Taylor. Every time they were separated it resulted in under-achievement and in some cases tragedy. So, that felt to me like the story I wanted to tell and I tried to weave that in. So, the moments that are more about Peter and Brian are probably more me.

Q. How big a football fan are you? And did that influence how little actual football you included in the screenplay?
Peter Morgan: That’s not an expression of my lack of passion for football; that is an expression of my passion for the game because I hate to see people play it badly. There’s a huge gulf between actors and accomplished footballers, and there’s an even bigger gap between accomplished footballers and professional footballers.

Thereafter, there’s still a gap between the pro’s and the best footballers in the country, who we’re talking about. I once spoke to a chess player who was a grand master who said he could not understand what was being done by Kasparov. The gulf was so large. It’s the same with footballers… even having extras who can do good keepy uppies doesn’t make for a convincing game of football, so to protect all the viewers who do love football I tried to keep football out of the story as much as possible [laughs].

Q. How much of what Clough says in the film is real? And did the late night phone call between Clough and Revie actually take place?
Peter Morgan: There was a scene in the book where there’s a late night phone call. But I think that in the case of both Nixon and Clough, they both did drink. Nixon’s drinking was mixed with mood stabilisers, so he had black-outs. In the case of Nixon, he was aware of the fact he was making the phone call but he had no memory of it. In Clough’s case, I think there was very deliberate provocation and he was in despair at that particular moment. And that was one part of the darkness that I wanted to hold on to. It stayed with me from the book.

Q. Which club would you nail your colours to?
Peter Morgan: West Ham.

Read our interview with director Tom Hooper