The Damned United, a bestselling novel written by David Peace in 2006, is based on the 44 day managerial reign of Brian Clough at Leeds United in the 1970’s. It’s been adapted for the stage by Anders Lustgarten for Red Ladder Theatre Company, with performances at Leeds Playhouse on 10 – 12 June. Chris Lloyd, Producer, and Luke Dickson, who plays Brian Clough generously gave me some of their time.
I wondered if Chris and Luke are fans of the Elland Road team.
Chris smiled. “This is a complete vanity project for me, one that has lasted for 5 years. But not all members of the cast are fans. People expect all actors to be big Leeds fans and know everything about the Club, but that isn’t the case.”
Luke: “I have never been a big football fan, but this season I have followed Leeds. I am not as big a fan as Chris; he is probably the biggest fan there is. Lots of people who see the play are also big fans.”
The impact of the Pandemic
Luke: “It’s easier now that rules have been relaxed. It has been a bit tricky over the last year because we were all wearing masks and wiping every surface. There were also signs all over the place. But it is more straightforward now, especially as we take tests frequently and so it’s good to know we are all negative. Also, we are used to things. But we are still being careful as we are all in the same space.
We rehearsed during the second lockdown, with the hope of showing the play during December, but we never got out of first gear. The tier three restrictions in Leeds were tough.” Luke told me that they’d done some work in schools, performing a Christmas show in December with just two people. The response was mixed, with some schools not so positive. Some schools wanted the performance to take place outdoors, and of course they did this, but it was cold.
Given that the play is all about Brian Clough’s brief sojourn at Elland Road, I was curious to know how my partners in conversation feel about the man. Chris: “Clough was a troubled person, isolated, especially when at Leeds. He stayed at a hotel for most of his time and conducted much of his business in the bar. He didn’t have his friend, Peter Taylor, to turn to. They were a formidable double act.’” Luke: “Taylor was at Derby with Clough. They had a good relationship but fell out. Taylor died and Clough regretted not fixing that. The play follows their relationship too.’“
Chris: “There is a fascinating link between Bielsa [current Leeds United manager] and Clough. They both have a drive to leave no stone unturned. Clough wanted to be in control and so had spies all over the place. Cleaners would report to him to tell him when players got back at night. Bielsa is not dissimilar. There were a couple of Leeds documentaries made about Leeds United and they gave some examples of the kind of Big Brother regime that Bielsa runs, but he is like that because he wants to absolutely drill down… Clough was very principled and Bielsa is similar. Clough had a strong sense of fair play.“
Responding to my question about the differences between Bielsa and Clough, Chris told me: “Clough was never off the TV. The Club thought he was dedicating too much time to himself. Bielsa is not like that. But Clough made a big impact. Although he was only at Leeds United for 7 weeks, there have been books and films made about him. Football programmes also don’t seem to need an excuse to mention Clough. I think he should have been England manager as he would have been perfect for the job. In addition to being in the media a lot, Clough was also a big family man, and would not go on any pre-season tours as he wanted to be with family….. but he was full of contradictions. Clough also had a big drive for money. Apparently, Che would accept pay rises but wouldn’t tell his right hand man, Peter Taylor. We spoke to Duncan McKenzie and he said that Clough signed him first. But even then, Clough wanted to save money. He drove to meet McKenzie in his new Leeds United company car and told him that he wanted to announce the signing at a press conference in Leeds. But told McKenzie that if he was late that he would fine him a week’s wages. Clough then drove back to Leeds, leaving McKenzie to make the 40 plus mile journey on a scooter. Of course, he was late and so he was fined a week’s wages. That is the kind of thing that Clough would do.’
Luke added: “Clough had lots of weirdisms and used lots of tricks. It was all a big power play. He was cruel in many ways.”
Red Ladder Theatre Company has the theatrical rights to the play, which were bestowed by David Peace, the author of the original book. What does this really mean?
Chris: “David Peace, who wrote the book, lives in Osset, close to me. We would see each other around and made friends. Over drinks, we talked about adapting a book called ‘Red or Dead’ into a play. I love the poetry style prose element of his writing. Its hypnotic. But there were long delays as Dave couldn’t give the stage adaptation until the film was done, and it felt like the Red or Dead book would never be ready. So, David decided to donate the rights to the Damned United book. It meant that he wouldn’t get any royalty payments. The gesture created a lot of appeal and gave the play the seal of approval. But once the show started selling David was given some money. I think this helped him because times were tough when he first moved to Tokyo. But yes, the gesture was magnificent – very newsworthy. Our press manager at the time flew with it and it generated a lot of interest. David came over from Tokyo and saw the play at the Playhouse and he loved it. He was chuffed that he had helped and was happy that his book had been done justice.“
There seem to have been a few different versions of the Brian Clough period given to David when he was researching for the book. How is this reflected in the stage script?
Chris: “The play is based on the book rather than the film. The play is darker, there are lots of drinking and troubled moments. It was important for us that we didn’t try to impersonate Clough. Instead ,we wanted the actor to portray the man.’” Luke agreed, “I wanted to give a nod to Clough. If anything, in the play some of Clough’s characteristics are heightened. I didn’t want to give an impression of Clough, as that could go into a parody. There are quirks of Clough in there. But not sure of the accuracy of it all.”
Chris: “Anders, who wrote the script, agreed to do the play because he liked the source material and loved the poetry of the writing. Anders’ first draft of the script barely changed. It was almost camera-ready. Anders is great, and he likes football. He always manages to get some football in all the plays he writes.” Luke agreed: “Anders has done a fantastic job. He captures the poetry of the book. The language has been crafted and honed. He has done a great thing in taking a 368 page book into a 90 minute show.”
In the 2018 run of the play, the backdrop was minimal and there were very few props. Has this changed for 2021?
Luke: “The 2021 set is stark looking and corrugated. There are projections of people on the backdrop throughout the play. These projections have been created by the very talented video artist Nina Dunn [a Video & Projection Designer for Theatre & Live Events]. The projections create extra space and extra characters within that. Yes, the props are minimal – we have two key props which are the Sunday Mirror and the whisky bottle. The overall play is very character led.“
Chris: “In the original version, we had tall boxes which we built into towers and covered with gauze. When they weren’t lit, they looked black. We did some of the scenes inside the boxes. We also used lots of flash photography. The boardroom table was flown in and out in the original, but now it’s scaled down so we can tour. We had to fit everything in the back of a van. Not having so many props or set means that we have been able to play in big and small venues. We have shown the play in Scarborough, which has about a 900 audience but we have also shown it in working men’s clubs. We also showed it at the Edinburgh Fringe, and there we only had 20 mins to get in and 10 mins to get out. Our lads got it down to a T. It was a military operation and everyone had a job. What is good now, is that we can adjust the projections to fit. Our amazing technician is very skilled. The show is versatile but sometimes the more intimate works better.“
Who do you expect will be in the audience for this run?
As the play is based on a book about a very short stretch in history, I was interested to know who Luke and Chris expected to see in the audience. From our conversation it sounded like the play, when on tour, goes to a range of venues and therefore the audience varies a lot. However, many of those watching are football fans, which can be challenging. Luke: ‘There was an infamous event in Armley when we did the show. It was in a working mens club and all the people watching looked so angry throughout the performance. At the end, we asked why and they said that they ‘f***king hat eClough’. I think it was a form of catharsis for them as they had no love for Clough. They thought that Clough came to destroy the club.“
Chris told me that in the 2018 run of the play, it incorporated ballerinas who mimicked the characteristics of players: “It was a risk to include dancers as we were aiming at a non-theatre going audience. It was funny to see how different audiences responded to the play. In one theatre, it was clear that most of the audience were football fans, because they would be going to get drinks all the time. After 45 minutes, about half the audience left to get drinks. It was probably because there was a phone call between Clough and his mum at that point, and the audience found it too much display of emotion.“
Do you feel that The Damned United has a shelf life?
I was interested to know if Chris and Luke thought that there might be a point at which the appetite for this period in the history of Leeds United would have diminished beyond what would be considered worthwhile to produce.
Chris: “It’s historic already. And even now, it takes so little for football channels to want to talk about Clough. He seems to materialise all the time, and it doesn’t even have to be an anniversary. The memory of Clough is big. Although his time at Leeds was very short, it was seismic. The memory has been embalmed. So no, I don’t think there is a shelf life for this.’” Luke: “No ,I don’t think there will be a shelf life. People who are younger still go to the play. People who are in their 20’s and 30’s and some of them bring their sons. I think because it is affordable and in venues where people feel at home it helps. Red Ladder is passionate about making theatre accessible. For example, there was one audience member who said to me that he wished he was alive at the time so he could have been a part of the golden era of football. There when football was a working class sport. And audience members like that pass that on to their children. This might be a Leeds specific thing, but I think it is probably a football wide thing.“
Chris: “My lads have seen it [the play]. My older lad in encyclopaedic about Leeds. He could give you all the information about the games that Clough led. I think it’s become folklore now. Also, similar things happen today. You see it with Mourinho. He has moved around a lot. It is not necessarily the fault of the manager. The relationship might just not work. Also, I think there is a groundswell that Clough and Taylor could have turned things around. Clough thought that Revie [England international footballer and manager, who managed Leeds United from 1961 until 1974] bribed his way to success. Clough wanted to win the European cup and the league but do it by playing honestly and beautifully. He wanted to show Revie that football could be won by playing beautifully. There was a kind of missionary vision for Clough. He wanted to rid Leeds of cheating. But he wasn’t given time.“
What would you say to Brian Clough if he was still around today?
Luke was quick off the mark: “I wouldn’t want to go near him!’” but Chris was a little more measured: “Duncan McKenzie loved the play. But Eddie Gray [a member of Leeds United in the 1960s and 1970s, and later became the Club’s manager] was more mild about it. Eddie thought that Clough could have had a fighting chance. Even though Clough told Eddie that he would have been shot if he was a racehorse. Other players hated it because they didn’t like Clough at all. We also asked the Clough family if they wanted to see the play, but they didn’t. I think Clough would have enjoyed it. It would be great to have had Clough and Revie at an after-show chat. We could have talked to Clough about his rationale for treating the players as he did. I’m not sure anyone knows the answer.“
And what do you think Brian’s reply to that might be?
Luke: ‘I’m not sure he would have been honest. Towards the end of his life ,he drank a lot and told stories. But that is what is great about him. There is a lot of mystery and I think that is why he endures so much. I have questions about why he did so many things. But he always did things with confidence which is captivating.”
Chris: “Not sure. Clough was an unusual character. He had a weird relationship with money. He was a big socialist and was friends with Harold Wilson. He also came from a mining background. But he was also not warm, for example when Peter Taylor was in hospital, Clough was making wisecracks. The book does give some good insights into Clough. It got a lot of bad press. But McKenzie did say that the book was pretty accurate. However, David Peace said that the book was never supposed to be a photograph of Clough and his time at Leeds, it was supposed to be a portrait.“
What’s next for you both?
Chris: We are doing three shows of the Damned United in Leeds and York and then there are more in July in Sale and Durham. After that we are in to rehearsals for a show based in Liverpool. That is about a bakery that rises from the ashes. The rehearsals for that start in August. It will only be shown in Liverpool for 4 weeks. It might go beyond that, but I’m not sure. There is also the play that we were rehearsing last winter, that we will bring out in December. We might take that to Edinburgh in 2022. We are also filimng the Damned United at Leeds City College in a couple of weeks. And we are filming another play – Glory – which will be really powerful.’”
Luke: “I am doing an autumn and winter show, but I am just writing and directing those. I am also doing some smaller family work.“
I had a great conversation with Chris and Luke and am excited to see the Damned United next week at Leeds Playhouse. Performances on June 10 and 11 have almost sold out. Owing to demand, another performance has been added – 7.45 p.m. on Saturday 12 June – there are still tickets (here) at the time of writing.
Feature image: The Damned United – Luke Dickson as Brian Clough. Photograph by Malcij Photography, taken at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2018.