The Damned United: Can Andrew Lancel make Brian Clough come alive on stage?

As The Damned United opens in Leeds, Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad speaks to the actor playing Brian Clough.
Andrew Lancel who plays Brian Clough in Red Ladder's production of The Damned United.Andrew Lancel who plays Brian Clough in Red Ladder's production of The Damned United.
Andrew Lancel who plays Brian Clough in Red Ladder's production of The Damned United.

I can remember about four or five occasions in a journalistic career of almost two decades where an interviewee has appeared difficult from the very start.

I can now add Andrew Lancel to that list.

Sort of.

It’s actually Andrew Lancel as the mercurial Brian Clough that earns a position on The List, not Lancel himself.

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When we speak it is immediately after a run through of the stage adaptation of David Peace’s novel The Damned United, at West Yorkshire Playhouse from tonight.

Lancel plays Brian Clough and when we talk he has clearly brought some of the combative, difficult, inspiring, larger-than-life Clough into the room with him. The character hasn’t been entirely left on stage by the actor.

It means Lancel begins our interview at full throttle and with what could very easily have become a diatribe against people who only know David Peace’s story through the movie adaptation.

Fortunately I’m not as wet behind the ears as when I met Ian Botham (he’s top of the list, by the way) and put Lancel straight. Here in Yorkshire we don’t really need reminding of David Peace’s reputation, nor of how superior his writing is to the film made of The Damned United.

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“Forgive me if I’m talking about it all a bit seriously,” says Lancel.

“I’m still in Clough mode. It’s 
a unique and powerful piece of work – and it’s definitely not the film.”

It’s one hell of a role for an actor to take on. Peace’s novel, typically innovative, imagines the inside of Clough’s head for the 44 days in 1974 when the manager took charge of Leeds United, a team he openly despised throughout his career.

“There are parts of the play where I’m going to be standing on stage – in the middle of Leeds – saying ‘dirty, dirty filthy Leeds’. It’s some pretty hateful stuff. I’m definitely expecting a bit of audience participation at those moments,” says Lancel.

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“Fortunately I have no affection for Leeds United. I’m an Evertonian.”

Lancel is perfect to play the role.

Published in 2006, Peace’s The Damned United was a controversial hit. Peace, the author of the Red Riding Quartet, shrugged off the controversy, making clear time and again that it was a fiction, albeit one based on a real-life figure and a real-life sports soap opera.

Clough arrived in Leeds and immediately told Don Revie’s team to chuck all their medals and trophies in the bin, because they’d all been won by cheating.

He was not a manager who favoured the touchy-feely approach.

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The book was adapted into a film in 2009 by Peter Morgan and featured Michael Sheen doing an uncanny take on Clough.

Lancel says: “It’s easy to do Brian Clough. It’s camp Geordie.

“The play doesn’t ask for an impression though, we’re doing something very different. It’s full of movement and visuals, there are 7ft tall mannequins on stage. I think we’re creating a theatrical event.

“If you’ve seen the film Field of Dreams, then it’s about football in the same way that is about baseball – that’s to say, it isn’t really.

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“I loved Field of Dreams and I know nothing about baseball and I think the same is true for this – you don’t have to love football to love the play.”

David Peace’s novel has been adapted for the stage by award-winning playwright Anders Lustgarten and is being brought to life by Leeds radical theatre company Red Ladder.

With a movie already made and with a high profile publisher of the work of a high profile writer, you might expect this production to be an expensive business.

It’s the biggest production the theatre company, which last year lost all of its Arts Council funding placing its future under real threat, has taken on in its 47-year history.

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The good news for Red Ladder is that David Peace has donated the rights to stage his book to the company for virtually free.

Peace says the company has provided him with such support over the years that donating the theatrical rights to the play was “the very least I could do to try, even in such a small way, to help save Red Ladder”.

Peace will be flying in especially from Japan to see the West Yorkshire Playhouse production and will also be taking part in an after show interview and Q&A at the theatre on March 14.

The author approves of Lustgarten’s stage adaptation and feels that it is more faithful to 
his novel than the film version. The original idea for the movie 
had been to shoot it in black and white as a tribute to great northern films of the 1960s such as Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life.

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“I read Anders’ first draft and I liked it a lot,” he says. “I know the way Red Ladder work and it will change. But it is closer to the book than the film. It’s harder, it’s edgier and it’s darker. Put it this way, it doesn’t have Brian Clough getting on his knees and serenading (his long-suffering assistant) Peter Taylor. It’s not a bromance.

“One thing theatre has, which a novel or film doesn’t, is that you’re in it. It’s closer to the reality of a football match. If you go to Elland Road or Huddersfield or wherever you’re seeing a form of theatre before your very eyes. So in a 
way I think this is the perfect 
form for it.”

The Damned United is at West Yorkshire Playhouse, until April 2. Tickets from the box office on 0113 2137700 or