I can still remember the first time I met Nick Hornby, back in 1991. As shy literary types are prone to do when introduced to each other at parties, we chatted awkwardly about the books we were then writing. I was in the middle of a satirical novel about the Thatcher years, which I trustingly believed would change the face of British political fiction. It was going well and I was feeling pretty smug about it. What’s more, as Nick Hornby started telling me about his own work-in-progress the feeling of smugness intensified, and I suspect that a sad, pitying smile began to creep across my face.
This loser, it transpired, was writing a little memoir (in his early thirties?) of all the football matches he had attended since he was a child. I questioned him further, trying to draw him out, convinced that there must be more to it than that. But no, apparently not. At which point I muttered some words of encouragement, said I was sure it would be a success, and edged away to a saner part of the room.
Almost exactly five years later I found myself sitting in the packed auditorium of the Empire Leicester Square one Sunday morning, attending a cast and crew screening of Fever Pitch, the movie, and being swept along by the sort of shared emotion which it seemed British films had, until recently, completely forgotten how to inspire.
Everyone knows what happened to the book and its writer in the interim. Fever Pitch has, of course, acquired hundreds of thousands of fans as passionately loyal to the book as any football supporter who swears allegiance to a feckless team. It would be ironic if any of them now took exception to the film version for the many liberties it takes with the sacred text, because this movie feels to me like the best vehicle Nick Hornby, as screenwriter, has ever found for his talents. It follows, after all, that for any writer whose work is founded on such rock-solid faith in commonality of emotion, the cinema has to be a natural home.
Those liberties primarily involve jettisoning the book’s loose, episodic structure in favour of a romantic comedy format that is conventional but very freshly handled. The narrator figure has become a shambling, tousled schoolteacher called Paul (Colin Firth), one of whose colleagues is the more uptight Sarah (Ruth Gemmell). Naturally it’s their initial animosity that makes a final coupling inevitable and locates the viewer in a comfortable tradition of British sparring romantic comedies stretching right back to Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps. Or, as Sarah’s friend Jo puts it in more knowing, nineties terms: “I’ve seen this film: you end up shagging on the carpet.”
Fever Pitch briskly follows the progress of this problematic romance, moving towards an expertly engineered climax at the crucial deciding match of the 1988/89 season, while taking a few flashbacks in which the young Paul is touchingly played by Luke Aikman. The combination of school football, late-summer evenings and gauche young love brings to mind Gregory’s Girl. But Chris Seager’s photography doesn’t replicate that film’s enchanted glow, preferring a darker vision, a grey north London that nicely compliments Firth’s dourness.
As Sarah struggles to make sense of Paul’s willingness to let his life be governed by Arsenal FC, she cues him up for a number of eloquent speeches on behalf of the pro-football lobby. Yet it’s the very absence of polemical language – the sense of dialogue cut loose, for once, from a pamphleteering agenda – that makes Fever Pitch so different from most recent British films with a contemporary setting. It’s no wonder that the actors (Firth in particular) give such relaxed, understated comic performances: it must be a rare gift nowadays to be offered lines that spring from the premises of character and situation rather than from schematic sociology.
The mood in the British film industry seems buoyant at the moment, after our recent Oscar bonanza, but I wonder if even now we are looking in the right place for signs of that renaissance. The English Patient has been a triumph not for Britain but for its international cast and production team (and note that the truly indigenous product, Secrets and Lies, was eventually cold-shouldered).
Fever Pitch may be a more local and altogether less risky film, but it does raise an extremely cheering prospect: that this country now has one screenwriter, at least, whose heart beats in rhythm with the mainstream cinema audience, and who can reach them with the confidence of someone who has been waiting to write for this medium all his life.
© 1997 New Statesman, Ltd.
© 2000 Gale Group
(originally published in the New Statesman)