George Best — did anybody in Belfast have a good word to say about him? There were moments during last night’s BBC2 screening of Best: His Mother’s Son when you had to wonder.
The drama (described elastically by the Beeb as “fact-based”) set out to portray the relationship between George and his mother Ann.
Ann, like her famous son, famously suffered from alcoholism. A shy, essentially private woman she found the media and public spotlight turned upon her family excruciating. And it should be stressed, she found it excruciating even when it was benign and positive.
That constant and not always kindly scrutiny of press and public was undoubtedly one of the reasons why the mother-of-six eventually sought solace in drink.
It was to illustrate this point that last night’s drama showed Mrs Best (an impressive performance by Michelle Fairley) having to deal with constant verbal and often quite vicious sniping about her son.
By concentrating on this nasty stuff (which undoubtedly did happen) the film somehow failed to convey a fuller, truer picture.
Oddly for a play about George Best it gave little sense of the great bantering, defensive affection — no, love is a better word — which the people of his homeland had, and still have, for him. Even when he was hitting the headlines for all the lurid reasons, people here were generally supportive and protective of George.
Ironically, given the play’s theme, you could argue that the love between his home city and the Belfast Boy was borderline maternal. He was the city’s wayward son, loved, forgiven and always welcomed back home.
You didn’t get a lot of that from last night’s drama.
Then again it’s hard to imagine the screen version Best inspiring such devotion in anyone. Antiseptically played by Tom Payne this George had none of the charm, cheek or charisma of the genuine article. (The footballer was seen in archive film that was the real star of this production.)
In the drama Best charms girls with his skill at kicking coins into the air(!) Unkind as it may be, the word wimp occasionally sprang to mind. He is hardly seen to touch alcohol until a home party where his distraught mother watches in dismay as he sinks drink after drink. (Perhaps she was also aghast at the mixture he was downing — shots, beer, wine, whiskey. This for a man whose tipple of choice was famously white wine.)
Of course the central character in the action is not Best himself — but his mother, Ann.
Members of her family have been angered — and deeply hurt — by the decision of the film-makers to make the drama in the first place. And it has to be said that again, there is much irony in the concept of a film production about a woman driven to drink by intrusion into her privacy itself being accused of posthumously intruding upon her privacy.
Perhaps the most searing comment has come from Barbara McNarry, who with her husband Norman steadfastly refused to have anything to do with the project.
Barbara has said that the only comfort she took was the fact that her father was not alive to see it screened.
How right she was on that point.
For while Dickie’s main concern would instinctively have been about this portrayal of his beloved Ann, anyone who knew the man will have been dismayed by how he himself is depicted.
In real life a gutsy, brilliant, witty and fiery wee man with the heart of a lion, the Dickie of the drama (Lorcan Cranitch) comes across as insipid, ineffectual and so wrapped up in work that he doesn’t spot his wife’s unhappiness. A stuffed shirt inside a stuffed shirt is how the screen Ann describes him.
Dickie Best was anything but.
He and his wife were a powerful and loving team. They were also, as the film notes, extremely hardworking. But they supported and helped each other throughout.
A telling story comes from Our George, Barbara’s book about her brother’s upbringing. She describes how Carol once got a bike for her birthday — but hardly ever got to use it. Her mother rode it to work in the mornings and then home again at night when Dickie would take it and ride it to his work at the shipyard.
The couple were devoted to each other. Ann was a great home-maker. Theirs was a happy household. They had fun. And contrary to what the drama suggests Ann did not have her first drink at home as some sort of escape from pressure.
Things were, in fact, going well for Dickie and Ann. They weren’t having to work so hard and when their youngest child was a toddler the couple started going out to a local club.
Barbara says in her book: “The real tragedy was that Mum’s drinking began just when life was beginning to look easier for our parents. Then it just all upended.”
Ann’s first drink was a Pimms and lemonade and she would have only the odd one during the odd evening out. But very, very gradually she began to drink more. She was 44 when she had that first drink. Just over ten years later she was dead from heart disease.
Terry Cafolla who penned last night’s play is one of the finest dramatists to come out of this place. (He was deservingly nominated for a Bafta for Holy Cross.) There are some powerful scenes of real emotion in His Mother’s Son.
A disclaimer with last night’s drama pointed out that the chronology of the story had been changed at points. It would take too long to go into the many instances. But perhaps the biggest challenge is in attempting to successfully — and sensitively — pull off any drama with real-life central characters whose family are still living. (See also The Damned United, the film about Brian Clough which has been heavily criticised by his relatives.)
In this case distilling the complexity of addiction into watchable television involves much dramatic licence.
For example, it’s hard to imagine any working class Belfast woman from a large extended family coming home with a new baby to an empty house as the film suggests. The scene was there to underline again the constant media intrusion with the endlessly ringing phone unsettling both mother and baby.
Would it be simplistic to suggest that in real life she’d just have taken it off the hook?
Other niggles. During an argument Ann accuses Barbara (Laura Donnelly) of having “a hissy fit”. Dickie arrives home in the Sixties wearing an earpiece for his radio. And did a Belfast chip shop ever offer (as a poster in this proclaimed) “skate and chips”?
But these are the small points. The big question about this film is should it ever have been made in the first place?
The makers would argue the point about increasing awareness of a terrible disease. Having set up the George Best Foundation which supports research into liver disease and promotes football among kids who might otherwise fall prey to drink or drug addiction, Barbara and Norman are unlikely to argue with that.
But you can understand how seeing her mother’s decline portrayed (not exactly accurately) on screen would deeply hurt Barbara and other members of her family.
The thing you have to ask, the thing the film-makers don’t seem to have asked themselves.
If it was your mother, how would you feel?