Match of the day
Best known as television's dashing Mr Darcy, COLIN FIRTH plays a football fanatic right down to his Arsenal boxer shorts in his latest screen role. But the film version of Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch isn't all pies and Bovril. Words: Nigel Floyd
AS (’()l.l.\' l‘lR'l'll is first to admit. he's not an obvious choice for the role of an obsessive Arsenal fan in l'evei‘ l’ite/i. .\’ick Hornby's loose film adaptation of his autohiographical book. l5irth’s early roles in Another (‘oimlijv and .-l .lluiiili In The (binary set the tone fora career in which the 37—year—old actor has repeatedly been cast as middle-class linglish chaps. most often in literary adaptations requiring period costume.
This year alone he has played an idealistic mine owner in the l3l%("s adaptation of .\'n.vii'omo and Kristin Scott 'l‘homas‘s touchineg gauche husband in T/It’ English Patient. In both cases. l‘irth has breathed life into characters whose initial transparency belies the complexity of their inner life.
l-‘irth's portrayal of the handsome. smouldering Mr Darcy in the BBC adaptation of .lane Austen‘s l’i'ide .-liid Prejudice had already made him a household name and object of panting female desire. The actor fotmd the whole experience strange: since location work in Tunisia for The liiig/is/i l’iilieiil had immediately followed the same in ('olumbia on Rhyme/iii). i'll‘lil was out of the country when all the excitement broke.
‘I certainly didn't have any sensation of
A game of two halves
When Nick Hornby came to adapting his novel Fever Pitch into a film, the boy done well. ‘-."=i'ords: Anwar Brett
WHEN FEVER PITCH was published in 1992, the critical and commercial response was immediate and rapturous. But, even in the bright light of that success — it received long and thoughtful consid- eration in the weightiest of publications in spite of being about the (then) downmarket subject of football — author Nick Hornby could not have imagined his stylised, insightful, semi-autobio- graphical story could have ended up as a movie.
'The book runs from 1968 to 1992,’ Hornby explains, 'and the story is told in a series of match reports, so it's spread over a much longer period of time than the film. Also, there's no central male- female relationship in the book, although I refer to several of my relationships. So the compression of time into one season, the flashbacks and the central relationship are probably the biggest differences between the two.’
suddenly appearing and imposing my presence on the nation when Pride And Prejudice came out.‘ he says. ‘I felt very detached from it. It was as if somebody had thrown a big party and there was an effigy of me in the middle of it somewhere. but I hadn‘t been invited. It wasn't a disagreeable experience. just slightly bewildering. One does just plod on really. regardless of how other people are perceiving you. The only problem was that it raised a lot of unrealistic expectations: people want you to be Darcy when in fact you're just an ordinary bloke.‘
lnevitably. liirtb felt these pressures when
he took on the radically re-written role of
North London schoolteacher Paul Ashford in Fever Pitch. ‘l was feeling a little bit of an impostor at the beginning.‘ he admits. ‘I thought. have ljust got this part because of all that Darcy stuff. and are people going to perceive me as being a bit too poncey for this'.’ Do I talk right'.’ Do I look right'.’ Or am l just going to be laughed off the screen‘.’ But everybody made a tremendous effort to take
me seriously. which helped me to take myself
seriously. in the end. You come to a point where you think. well. I believe it and sod the rest of you.’
lie needn't have worried. By the time his unshaven. tousle-haired Paul is stumbling about his clothes-strewn pit of a bedroom in a rumpled 'l‘-shirt and Arsenal boxer shorts. all thoughts of the dashing Mr Darcy have long since vanished.
Although Firth has only a passing interest in football. he found he had much in common with llornby‘s fictionalised (l/It’i' ((140. Like most literate football fans (David Baddiel er (1/). llornby is a slumming middle-class boy who would liked to have been an authentic working-class lad. A product of middle-class suburbia himself. Firth identified with
The association between Hornby and the film's director David Evans goes back even further than the book's publication, to a time when it was still in galley form and the filmmaker had it handed to him by his assistant.
'When the book came out, David made this piece for The Late Show,’ Hornby continues, ’and I was extremely excited about that. I couldn't imagine that anyone was going to talk about the book on national television, and then he told me he’d really like to make a feature film of it. He asked if he could have the rights for three months, and as I didn’t think anyone else would be interested, I said he could have them for as long as he wanted.‘
Hornby is also keen to point out that the film - more so than even the book — is not about football especially, rather the nature of the obsession fans have with the game.
’A lot of the films that have been made tried to show football matches being played, and then you have the choice between actors who can't play football or footballers who can't act,’ he smiles. 'We cut out that problem, because the thing that's most interesting to me is what happens between games. It's the conversations that people have and
FEVER PIT 0H
Hornby‘s search for ‘the kind of rootedness that you have to find. because it‘s not something that you grew up with.‘
When he read the script. the book and then Hornby‘s novel High Fidelity for the first time. Firth was in Rome. He found himself ‘itching to get back to the Holloway Road. missing lslington. It was a sentiment I hadn‘t felt in a long time. I felt he wrote about the Englishness of my generation. now. in an extremely unsentimental way. And yet not in a bitter or hostile way.’
More challenging were the film‘s attempts to duplicate the book’s self—mocking tone. its ability simultaneously to revel in and humorously deflate Hornby‘s own obsession with footie. Hornby may be an unhealthin fanatical. emotionally stunted slob. but at least he recognises his own shortcomings. and can be bloody funny about them.
In the film. this distancing effect could only have been achieved through the use of constant voice-over narration. an option Hornby jettisoned in favour of inventing a new relationship between Paul and tight-arsed fellow teacher Sarah. played with just the right tone of fierce. incredulous frustration by Ruth Gemmell. Firth approved of the solution. although part of him missed the opportunity to portray both sides of Paul‘s character.
‘In the film. that voice of self-mockery is given to Sarah.‘ he says. ‘lt‘s as if Nick‘s divided himself into two: Paul‘s the witness for the prosecution and Sarah‘s the witness for the defence. I missed it slightly. because one of the things I love about Nick‘s voice in the book is the two-sidedncss of it. and in the film it's only the side of himself that he's laughing at that‘s represented by my character. But however you represent it. it‘s a wonderful way in for people who are not converted to Nick‘s cause. because he‘s not just waving a flag on behalf of his obsession. he‘s questioning it. he‘s taking the Mickey. he‘s looking at it from every possible angle. without any of the lofty self—analysis that can go on.‘
Fever Pitch goes on general release on Fri 4 Apr.
the way they respond to the games that are, in the end, the most interesting things about football. I think if you cut out the need for crappy re- enactments of football matches, you can get quite a long way down the line.’
Fever Pitch: The Screenplay by Nick Hornby is published by Indigo at f 5.99 on Mon 7 Apr.
You're booked: Nick Hornby
4 r l 7 Apr 1997 THE lIST9