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