Skip to main content

Philip Differ – Smile

The first time Philip Differ met Jim McLean, the man behind football-based comedy sketch show Only an Excuse remembers the legendary former manager of Dundee United as being angry.

“Not at me,” Differ hastens to add, though his description of McLean is one familiar to many football fans, as the passions and tensions of the beautiful game sometimes got the better of their hero. Despite McLean’s grim-faced image, it was a second meeting that lingered with Differ more. This followed an appearance on Offside, the comic football chat show presented by Tam Cowan which Differ co-produced.

“He was a completely different person,” Differ remembers. “We were in the green room after the show, and he was totally relaxed and open. We had a conversation about theatre, and through that I realised there was much more depth to the guy than I thought.”

The result of this is Smile, Differ’s brand new play about McLean for Dundee Rep ensemble, which opens on home turf this month. As Differ’s first-hand experience hints at, while his hour-long opus will look at the triumphs of the former joiner from Larkhall who transformed a wee local football team into a major force both at home and Europe, the play will also look at the complexities of the man behind the pugnacious mask.

“Jim was a master tactician, and he had a dedication to what he did that we can only dream of,” says Differ. “That gave him an edge, and it manifested itself in him appearing quite belligerent, but he was a shy man, and the more I dug I found that he was quite humorous as well. But my father was an extremely shy man as well, and it can be crippling trying to deal with that, especially if you’re in the public eye like Jim was.”

McLean’s devotion to Dundee United was total, sometimes at the expense of his family life. If the team lost on a Saturday, trying to talk to him before Monday wasn’t a possibility, and he later went on record as describing himself as a disgrace of a father.

“There’s a lot of emotion in the play,” says Differ. “You see the ups and downs of being a professional sportsman, and he pays the price for that. Latterly he opened up about a lot of these things, and that’s very moving.”

With a now 82-year-old McLean now too ill to approach, before they did anything, Differ and Dundee Rep artistic director Andrew Panton met his wife Doris and their two sons.

“I knew we had to convince them, and I could tell they weren’t sure. Here we were, wanting to do a play about their husband and their dad, and we know what his reputation is, but we didn’t want to beatify him.

“The first thing Doris said was that I reminded her of Billy Connolly, and I said I wished I had his money. That was the ice-breaker. Then I said the play was going to be called Smile, and Doris laughed. My first question was to ask if Jim was vain about his hair, and that famous comb-over he had, and Jim and Doris’ younger son chipped in, and we talked. But if the family had said they weren’t comfortable with what we were doing, then that would’ve been that. But they’ve seen every draft of the script all the way along. And Doris loves the theatre. She goes to Dundee Rep all the time.”

With his family on board, those currently in charge of Dundee United have lent their support to Smile, and have given the play’s director, Scot Squad star Sally Reid, and actors Barrie Hunter and Chris Alexander a grand tour of McLean’s former kingdom.

“I love all the behind the scenes stuff at the coal-face,” says Differ. “The club’s been great, but I’d like to think supporters of other teams might go along to see the play as well. Regardless of who you support, there’s a lot of respect for Jim McLean in terms of what he did for football. But in terms of the play, football’s the back-drop, but you don’t need to know anything about football to come and see it. It’s a play about a human being.”

McLean was in charge of Dundee United for a staggering twenty-two-years between 1971 and 1993. His reign continued as chair until 2000, when he resigned following an on-air attack on TV reporter John Barnes. Despite this, Differ’s praise for McLean’s prowess is unequivocal. He puts his subject alongside Jock Stein and Alex Ferguson as one of the greatest managers in Scotland’s footballing history. Like his peers, McLean was a maverick, who came from a time before serious money transformed football into the millionaire’s playground it has become. Football itself back then, Differ points out, was much more rooted in the lives of the equally obsessed fans who watched it every week.

“It’s about community,” he says. “For the fans, that ninety minutes of the game is so important, and that was the community that Jim McLean grew up in and was part of. His legacy is turning Dundee United into a great team and taking them into Europe, but there’s a lot more about him going on as well.”

While it’s unlikely that McLean will see the play, it will likely be filmed, with the possibility of a screening at a later date.

“I don’t know what that might spark,” says Differ, “but it would be great if everything came flooding back. He’s the star of the show, after all. He’s the man.”

Smile, Dundee Rep, February 18-March 7.

The Herald, February 8th 2020

ends


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Clybourne Park

Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy Four Stars
It’s a case of whoops, there goes the neighbourhood twice over in Rapture Theatre’s revival of Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which opens in 1959 in the same Chicago suburb where Lorraine Hansberry’s drama, A Raisin in the Sun, which appeared that year, is set. Here, Robin Kingsland’s Russ and his wife Bev, played by Jackie Morrison, are preparing to move out of their now almost empty des-res following a family tragedy.
Unknown to them, the bargain basement price tag has enabled a black family to move in, with Jack Lord’s uptight Karl a self-appointed spokesperson for the entire ‘hood. Russ and Bev’s black maid Francine (Adelaide Obeng) and her husband Albert (Vinta Morgan), meanwhile, bear witness to a barrage of everyday racism. Fast forward half a century, and a white family are trying to buy the same house, albeit with a heap of proposed changes which the black couple representing the block’s now much more diverse community aren’t…

Michael Rother - Sterntaler at 40

"There's so much to do," says an uncharacteristically flustered Michael Rother. The normally unflappably beatific German guitarist, composer and former member of Neu! and Harmonia, who also had a stint in a nascent Kraftwerk, is packing for live dates in Russia and the UK, including this weekend's show at the Queen Margaret Union in Glasgow.
"It has always been my choice to take care of these things myself and not have a manager," he says. "Somehow for me the independent aspect of doing things is really important, but it has its disadvantages."
As well as playing selections from Neu! and Harmonia, the trio he formed with Dieter Moebius and Hans Joachim Roedelius of Cluster, Rother's Glasgow date will see him play a fortieth anniversary rendering of his second solo album, Sterntaler, in full. Rother will be accompanied by guitarist Franz Bargmann and drummer Hans Lampe, the latter of whose musical involvement with Rother dates back to Neu! days, …

Big Gold Dreams – A Story of Scottish Independent Music 1977-1989

Disc 1
1. THE REZILLOS (My Baby Does) Good Sculptures (12/77)  2. THE EXILE Hooked On You (8/77)
3. DRIVE Jerkin’ (8/77)
4. VALVES Robot Love (9/77)
5. P.V.C. 2 Put You In The Picture (10/77)
6. JOHNNY & THE SELF ABUSERS Dead Vandals (11/77)
7. BEE BEE CEE You Gotta Know Girl (11/77)
8. SUBS Gimme Your Heart (2/78)
9. SKIDS Reasons (No Bad NB 1, 4/78)
10. FINGERPRINTZ Dancing With Myself (1/79) 
11. THE ZIPS Take Me Down (4/79)
12. ANOTHER PRETTY FACE All The Boys Love Carrie (5/79) 
13. VISITORS Electric Heat (5/79)
14. JOLT See Saw (6/79)
15. SIMPLE MINDS Chelsea Girl (6/79)
16. SHAKE Culture Shock (7/79)
17. HEADBOYS The Shape Of Things To Come (7/79)
18. FIRE EXIT Time Wall (8/79)
19. FREEZE Paranoia (9/79)
20. FAKES Sylvia Clarke (9/79)
21. TPI She’s Too Clever For Me (10/79)
22. FUN 4 Singing In The Showers (11/79)
23. FLOWERS Confessions (12/79)
24. TV21 Playing With Fire (4/80)
25. ALEX FERGUSSON Stay With Me Tonight (1980)

1. THE REZILLOS I Can’t Stand My Baby (Sensible FAB 18/77) If it wasn’t for T…