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Adapting Birdsong and finding gay footballers

This week, the long-awaited TV version of Faulks’ war epic was trumped by a surprisingly sweet invective against footie fans.

David Bowden

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There are things, dear reader, that I never thought I would see come to pass. Aurora Borealis twinkling above me in the Arctic stillness of Norwegian night; a tube train rolling into West Croydon station; the inner workings of newly pregnant friends’ uteruses via Facebook; Sir Paul McCartney releasing a concept album about rimming (the forthcoming Kisses on the Bottom). Some of these things I anticipated; others came as a bolt out of the blue, so to speak.

On this scale, I am not certain how to respond to the current adaptation of Birdsong that is gracing our screens. It has been 13 years since the rights to Sebastian Faulks’ 1993 mini epic of war, peace and mud were secured, and the project has been slower to advance than the form of trench warfare it depicts. Indeed, perhaps in homage to twentieth-century military tactics, original objectives have been revised and achievements overlooked. Birdsong staggers on to the small screen just as West End smash-hit play War Horse gallops into cinemas, with a similar animal-themed take on the futile bloodshed of the Great War.

Reviews have been mixed, which is a shame since there’s very little overtly wrong with the production. Brave steps have been taken to cut out huge chunks of the book (including the more contemporary storyline of the hero’s granddaughter uncovering her family history). The casting (including rising star Eddie Redmayne and delightfully named French actress Clémence Poésy) are pretty faithful to the characters. An excellent effort has been made to translate Faulks’ unusually effective lyrical prose to a different medium.

Yet the sense of bad timing is inescapable. Birdsong, when originally released, tapped into a very particular fin de siècle mood. Its bloody and claustrophobic depiction of twentieth-century warfare and halcyon Anglo-French relations brutally interrupted by imperial national conflict was very much in the spirit of post-Cold War, pro-European optimism. Certainly, the upsurge in interest in tracing family history (neatly captured by the sub-plot jettisoned here) alongside the accompanying rebranding of Remembrance Sunday and the poppy into a pre-Diana symbol of public emotionalism find its early expression in the success of the book.

It is fitting that it is the ubiquitous scriptwriter Abi Morgan who has finally brought the novel to the screen, at the same time as her controversial Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady and her sex addiction drama Shame are in the cinema. These follow hot on the heels of 2011’s headline TV series The Hour, created by Morgan. All, in their own fashion, have felt deeply unsatisfactory in their attempts to reconcile contemporary liberal mores around feminism and identity with the distant or near past. Here, you suspect any failing in Morgan’s outlook has been exposed by the limitations of the subject matter. Nonetheless, Birdsong remains a fine example of a novel while this adaptation, however, is likely to be swiftly forgotten.

On the subject of long-anticipated events, the hunt for Britain’s gay footballers remains a firm obsession. In a very modern twist, the desperation to uncover what young men are getting up to and feeling up in their private lives has a very different tenor to the homophobic prurience of the past. Come out, come out wherever you are, gay footballers, is the message, because Britain just wants to give you a big hug.

The latest in a seemingly neverending series of investigations into the topic, BBC3’s Britain’s Gay Footballers, at least had an intriguing twist to it. The tragic case of Justin Fashanu – who to date is the only footballer who has dared to come out while a professional, and who committed suicide after his career fizzled out – is taken as a terrible warning to those who think of following in his footsteps. Here his niece and aspiring model, Amal, sought to expose the homophobic culture in football which brought this tragic event about.

Despite the now familiar irritating trappings of a BBC3 documentary (pretty celebrity goes on journey, cries about injustice, asks heavily loaded questions to peers and assorted talking heads, demands something fatuous and attention-raising be done), this was actually a surprisingly sensitive look at the problems that emerge when attempting to police people’s private lives.

Amal visited a real-life football match to see the homophobic chanting of Leeds fans at Brighton fans (‘We can see you holding hands’) only to see it met with a surprising degree of witty banter. She confronted some of her uncle’s team-mates over their perceived bullying, only to discover that he was treated with a surprising degree of tolerance given the context of professional sportsmen. Even in a tense showdown with her father, the eccentric John ‘Fash the Bash’, over his notorious lack of support for his brother, we saw a portrait of tense sibling relations laced with a very familial sense of anger and regret. Whatever the problems gay footballers may face, Britain’s Gay Footballers was a reminder that there are many things which can’t, and shouldn’t, be legislated against.

It was painful and borderline voyeuristic stuff – Amal listening to an audio version of her uncle’s suicide note, written after being accused of sexual assault – but given the realities of the sad fate of Justin, it felt at least like the final word on a fraught subject that is too often reduced to a simplistic modern morality tale. The sense you were left with, as with many long-awaited events, is that when a professional footballer finally chooses to come out, it will make very little difference – either to the acceptance of gay people in society more broadly, or to the obsession with regulating and policing football fans for offending against contemporary morality.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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