How the bottle gets the Best of you

BBC2’s Best: His Mother’s Son was a poignant tale about how alcoholism can ruin the lives of the most unlikely people.

Patrick West

Patrick West

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I thought it slightly curious when the decision was made in 2006 to rename Belfast City Airport as George Best Belfast City Airport. Was it really appropriate to dedicate an international terminus to a selfish, inveterate alcoholic who squandered his talent? Why not rename Gatwick as Pete Doherty International? Or turn Luton Airport into Amy Winehouse London Luton? Only in Ireland, a cynic might say, could a piss-head be officially venerated in such a manner.

The answer lies in the fact that Best was not only remembered as a boozer, but revered as one of the finest footballers ever. Moreover, he was an icon which Northern Ireland, and especially its unfashionable Protestant community, could be proud of in an era when all the province was ever known for was shootings and bombings. I suppose it was for the same reason that Speke Airport became Liverpool John Lennon Airport in 2002: Lennon was an unlikeable character with some dubious (a)political opinions. But he was an iconic figure, who did write some fine songs, and The Beatles remained a source of pride in the late-twentieth century when Scousers were caricatured as a bunch of self-pitying thieves who lived in a slum city run by an inept and corrupt council.

George Best, as a person in the 1960s and the 1970s, and as a lasting public icon after his deat, was, and is, multilayered. He was a footballing maestro in the 1960s, who had become a egomaniac show-off by the early-1970s, before losing all serious interest in the game by the middle of that decade. He was a shy and nervous person, yet was simultaneously gregarious – possessing a dark, brooding mind. Financially he was generous; emotionally he could be egocentric and unfeeling. He initially embraced the rock-and-roll lifestyle, but it was fame that was to be his downfall. Spoilt by the attention he had received in the early-1960s, he felt embittered and disillusioned by the early-1970s as Manchester United’s fortunes began to flounder. He had lived for football, and all he had left now was his boozy lifestyle.

It seems that Best’s fame was also to be the downfall of his mother, Ann. At least, this was the theme of BBC2’s 90-minute feature-film Best: His Mother’s Son (Sunday) (1). Ann Best had never touched a drop of alcohol until she was 44, but driven to distraction by the constant attention heaped on her family in their modest terraced house in east Belfast in the late-1960s, and not to mention the envy it inspired among neighbours, she took to sherry, first socially, and then compulsively and hopelessly. Within 10 years, she had drunk herself to death.

Sure, Best: His Mother’s Son recalled some of Best’s greatest moments on the pitch, featuring the original footage of the two goals he scored within the first 10 minutes against Benfica in March 1966, his 25-yard run and successful finish against the same team in the 1968 European Cup final (2), or the six goals he put past Northampton Town in 1970 (3). But most football fans have seen these clips a thousand times. And most aficionados of the game have heard the George Best ‘wasted genius’ tale probably even more times.

Terry Cafoll’s engrossing drama was not really about football. Essentially, it was a cautionary tale about alcoholism and whereas famous films about drink addiction such as The Lost Weekend (1945) and Leaving Las Vegas (1995) are pretty blunt in their approach to the subject, Best: His Mother’s Son was more subtle, and yet more truthful, in its depiction of alcoholism.

Ann Best (portrayed by Michelle Fairley) is initially shown as a loving, sober and responsible mother, the epitome of a Belfast Protestant maternal figure of her day. But like most alcoholics, she turns to drink not because she is a ‘binge-drinker’ who is out for a fight or has a naturally violent predisposition, but because she is a sensitive soul who finds the world often difficult, and finds alcohol is a means of inoculating herself from reality. In this case, that reality was the noisy and endless intrusions of the press, and, from 1969 onwards, the violence and sense of fear that enveloped Belfast.

Alcoholics will tell you that drink is a very sly drug, unlike harder, illegal substances, which give you a much more obvious ‘hit’. And Michelle Fairley’s masterful and haunting depiction of Ann Best is a more realistic representation of how alcohol creeps up on people without them knowing it, of what a paradoxical drug it is: people imbibe it to feel happy, but it only makes them miserable; it initially seems to get rid of your problems but then only multiplies them; alcoholics drink to forget that they drink; they consume it to make them gregarious, but it turns them into egocentric yet ironically self-hating people. And towards the end, Fairley’s Ann is a horrible person who fulfils all the criteria of a true alcoholic: selfish, self-pitying, lying, deceitful – a once popular person who rails against everyone around them, and turns against themselves, too.

Ann’s son’s descent into alcoholism in the 1970s only appeared to make things worse for her. Like any mother who sees her son on a self-destructive mission, Ann blames herself for spoiling him. But chronic boozers, when not blaming the entire world for all their problems, usually conclude in their moments of sobriety that everything is actually their fault. Then there is the unspoken conclusion, underlined by the film’s title, that nature, not nurture, is at fault – that George Best perhaps inherited some malevolent alcoholic ‘gene’.

So was George Best’s descent into drink his mother’s fault for molly-coddling him? Ann’s daughters seemed to turn out all right in the end, which seems to refute both the nature and nurture thesis, but maybe a drink ‘gene’ has something to do with the Y chromosome. I personally think that nature and nurture shape us all (I know most social scientists don’t even believe in such a dichotomy), but neither defines us. George Best may have been a naturally gifted footballer, but he also trained incredibly hard from an early age. His footballing brilliance is a reminder that we needn’t be slaves to external forces, biological or social, and that as individuals we can all be masters of our own destinies.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist and author of Beating Them at Their Own Game: How the Irish Conquered English Soccer, published by Liberties Press, 2006. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

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