The Round Ball on the Square Box: Part Six - London

Many often make the mistake of thinking of Chelsea being an ahistorical club before the introduction of Roman Abramovich in 2003.  Though the Blues were generally not very successful in terms of winning things before 1997, in the early twentieth century they were a club which attracted large crowds and contained a few stars – one such was the star of the earliest known British feature film centred around Football called ‘The Winning Goal’ from 1920,  the humorously named Jack Cock.  The piece was a silent film shot at Brentford F.C.’s Griffin Park and set in Lancashire, involving fictional side Blacton Rovers.  Ten years later, Cock appeared in a second Movie called ‘The Great Game’ whilst a player for Millwall.

The film was based on a fictional side called Manningford F.C and shot on location at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge home and involved other footballers of the day such as Chelsea’s George Mills, Andrew Wilson, Sam Millington and former Arsenal player Billy Blythe.  Incidentally, the film was a first credited appearance for Rex Harrison, who appeared in other big name films such as Cleopatra, My Fair Lady and Dr Doolittle.  The first regular trophy winning outfit from England’s capital city however were Arsenal F.C., who - despite being relatively unsuccessful in recent seasons - with thirteen League titles to their name still have five more titles than all other London clubs combined.

Arsenal were also Britain’s first media savvy football club, mainly due to the involvement of George Allison first as director and then team manager.  Allison was initially a full time journalist and Sports representative for the Hulton Group of newspapers, which included the Sporting Chronical and the Daily Sketch. Allison was also the London Correspondent for the New York Post until becoming Arsenal manager in 1934.  In his broadcasting career, George Allison had been the BBC’s first Football commentator.  Arsenal also had the good fortune to be situated in close proximity to the BBC in Alexandra Palace and were involved in the first Radio broadcast against Sheffield United at Highbury in January 1927.  A game between Arsenal and Arsenal Reserves in 1937 became the world's first televised football match.


Arsenal’s dominance of Football in the 1930s means that the club have become intertwined in the public imagination with pre-war footballing values, as shown by Harry Enfield’s Mr. Chomley-Warner piece on Arsenal from the 1930s playing the Liverpool side of the 1990s.  

In 1939, the club were involved in the feature film the ‘Arsenal Stadium Mystery’.  The story centred on the murder of an opposition player who turned out for amateur side The Trojans and involved a speaking part for Arsenal boss George Allison.  The body doubles for the Trojans were Brentford F.C., who played Arsenal at Highbury on the final day of the 1938/39 season, in what turned out to be Arsenal’s last first class game before the outbreak of World War Two the following September, when the 1939/40 season was declared null and void after a handful of League games played.  

Arsenal also had the first player to exploit his image for commercial purposes in the shape of Denis Compton.  Compton had been both an outside left for the dominant Arsenal side of the inter-war and immediate post-war era, as well as during the summer months a professional cricketer for Middlesex and England and one of the finest batsman of his era.  In 1948, with Compton pre-occupied with England’s overseas Cricket tour of South Africa, he had asked his friend - journalist and Cricket writer for the Press Association, Reg Hayter - to help in organising a bulging sack of fan mail, some of which dated back as far as six months, in his absence.


Hayter was shocked to discover among the post several invitations to after-dinner speaking engagements and public appearances, but also an offer of £2,000 to write a column for the News of the World, that was later followed up with a further letter, written two months later, withdrawing the offer because the paper had not received a reply.  On noting the excessive volume of fan mail and commercial opportunities, Hayter proclaimed: ‘Christ, Compo, you're sitting on a fortune…I know just the man to handle this’ and had promptly put Compton in touch with Bagenal Harvey – who at this point had been a noted publisher, however changed his career path to manage Compton’s affairs.


Harvey didn’t directly deal with negotiating Compton’s contract with Arsenal, however handled what would be termed ‘peripherals’.  When Harvey had heard that a Stanmore-based company called County Perfumery were looking for a model to promote their Brylcreem product, he had successfully negotiated a ground-breaking £1000-a-year deal for Compton to advertise Brylcreem over nine years.  The deal was a proto-type ‘image rights’ deal, the work for which involved was three days’ photographic work and permission to use his image to advertise Brylcreem in newspaper, magazine and billboard advertisements throughout the country.

The deal however was to have unexpected sporting drawbacks, as in the early 1950s Cricketing umpire Frank Chester once explained that on a train journey to London - he had been confronted by Compton's image at Crewe, Wolverhampton and Birmingham and that: ‘I said to myself, 'I'm sick of the sight of that bugger. First chance I get tomorrow, I'm going to get rid of him’.  True to his word, that day at Lord’s Cricket Ground he duly gave Compton out.  Also, neither Arsenal nor the FA gave their permission for the deal and flatly refused for Compton’s Brylcreem ads to involve his wearing either an Arsenal or England Football shirt, through fear of ‘vulgarising’ the sacred colours.

Another one of Compton’s ‘peripherals’ was starring in a film called ‘Small Town Story’ in 1953, alongside Kent Walton (more famous for his days as ITV’s Wrestling commentator on the Saturday afternoon sports show ‘World of Sport’).  Walton plays a Canadian serviceman, who returns to the English town of ‘Oldchester’ where he was stationed during the war and plays for the club’s side who are chasing promotion, yet gets spotted and signed up by Arsenal.  The film was not a critical success, with one review complaining that: ‘The film may find sympathy among incorrigible football fans (the matches are neatly staged and efficiently photographed) but the inadequacy of both script and direction severely limits its appeal’.  Due to its lack of success, it was on the BFI’s ‘Missing believed wiped’ list, before reappearing a few years ago.


Aside from Highbury, there had also been an outing for Brentford’s Griffin Park at the movies.  1952 film ‘The Great Game’ (not related to the 1930 British football film of the same name), centred around the chairman of a top-flight English football club making an illegal approach to a rising star of a rival club, who once this is discovered is suspended by the football authorities.  The film starred Thora Hird and Diana Dors, as well as featuring a guest cameo appearance from Tommy Lawton – then turning out for Brentford, just ahead of a transfer across town to Arsenal.  

Highbury was undoubtedly the place for Hollywood glamour during the inter-war and early post-war years.  Due to George Allison’s U.S. connections during his time as the New York Post’s London correspondent, notable visits to Highbury during this time include American Baseball star Babe Ruth, silent film star Buster Keaton, as well as other Hollywood icons Jean Harlow and Mary Pickford.  By the time of the swinging sixties however, Arsenal were no longer dominating English football and on the glamour front were now being usurped by Chelsea F.C., due to their proximity to the fashionable Kings Road and the presence of actor turned film director Richard Attenborough at Stamford Bridge.


Attenborough’s association with the club started in the late 1940s.  On being selected for the acting role of young gangster Pinkie in the film ‘Brighton Rock’.  In order to improve his physical condition, he had training with the Chelsea players for a fortnight and remained a fan for the rest of his life, even joining the board in 1969, where he remained before Ken Bates’s takeover in 1982, where after he was appointed the club’s Life Vice-President.  ‘Dickie’ brought many stars of the film industry down to the Bridge on a regular basis, which included Laurence Olivier, John Mills, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen.  The A-Listers turned out each match day at the Stamford Bridge ‘Tea Room’ where US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was once spotted among the likes of Michael Caine and Michael Crawford.

The most famed of the Hollywood visits would be Raquel Welch attending the Bridge to see Chelsea play Leicester, which was captured by LWT’s ‘The Big Match’ in 1972.  On recalling the event, Chelsea’s John Hollins recalled in an interview with the Daily Mail: ‘I don’t remember the game at all. I couldn’t tell you who we were playing or what the score was. I don’t think anyone was interested after that.  I do remember she was very tall and beautiful and wearing tight trousers and all the lads were all looking, thinking: “How the hell did she get into those? She walked out with Jimmy Hill and she was waving and shouting to Ossie (Peter Osgood) and he’s going: ‘Do me a favour, leave it out, I’m playing here’.

If Chelsea was British football’s Hollywood in the early 1970s, the British Film industry was like Brentford.  Ironically, Griffin Park would be used on location in 1972 for the film ‘Four Dimensions of Greta’ – a British comedy ‘sexploitation’ film which was the very first Brit film to be filmed in 3D, about a missing German au pair girl in London. The film starred ‘Confessions’ star Robin Askwith, as well as Richard O’Brien of the ‘Rocky Horror Show’ and ‘Crystal Maze’ fame, as well as Bill Maynard who later starred as Greengrass in long-running 60s based drama ‘Heartbeat’.  Brentford’s Griffin Park would also be used on location for an episode of ‘Minder’ which centred on the black market touting of tickets for an England v Scotland game at Wembley. 

As the seventies progressed however, Stamford Bridge would rapidly lose its glamour, as top flight football was replaced by second tier doldrums.  With it, the clientele of glamourous Hollywood film stars would be replaced by far right hooligans.  Even in the old Second Division however, Stamford Bridge saw a visit from ‘Minder’.  The show’s wheeler dealing star Arthur Daley would look to make a nice little earner through facilitating a newspaper scoop on the private life of fictional Football star Danny Varrow (played by future ‘Brush Strokes’ and ‘Eastenders’ star Karl Howman).  The show probably goes some way to prove that mercenary footballers certainly existed long before the introduction of Roman Abramovich, or even the creation of the Premiership.

Chelsea's association with coming into riches would first be formed in the 'Hancock's Half Hour episode called 'The Football Pools' from 1959.  Hancock gains seven draws on the pools and needs an eighth to bag the jackpot with a floodlit evening kick off between Chelsea and his local side, the fictional East Cheam United.  Ironically, Stamford Bridge would also be a place attracting shady businessmen too by the early 1970s, if LWT’s popular comedy drama series ‘Budgie’ is anything to go by.  In this 1972 episode, the show’s archetypal villain Charlie Endell tells the show’s downtrodden Fulham supporting hero (played by former early sixties crooner Adam Faith) how loyally supporting one Football side is a mug’s game.  Throughout the show’s run, Delboy ancestor Budgie often spouts football related cockney rhyming slang such as the ‘Bobby Moore’ (door), ‘Bertie Mee’ (wee), Georgie Best (guest) and ‘Bob McNab’ (cab), as well as other less politically correct words which might unfortunately sound quite uneasy to the ears of viewers in the late 2010s.    

As Fulham slipped down the divisions during the 1970s, any young football fan would be forgiven for thinking they were a fictional side invented by Television for downtrodden comedy characters to support.  During the decade, the Cottagers boasted three of the era’s biggest Sitcom/Comedy drama heroes.  As well as Budgie, there had been Terry McCain from ‘Minder’ and Wolfie Smith (played by Robert Lindsey, who later starred in ‘My Family’) from the BBC’s John Sullivan penned hit show ‘Citizen Smith’, based on a radical left-wing urban guerrilla from Tooting.

Budgie however wouldn’t just stick to Craven Cottage and in one episode secured tickets for a West Ham game against Spurs at the Boleyn Ground, which opens with Budgie threatening to report his long suffering partner Hazel to the race relations board for switching off Brian Moore’s ‘On the Ball’ which was showing a goal from West Ham’s Bermudan forward Clyde Best.  Unfortunately for him, on the way to the ground he gets shot at by a marksman aiming for his dodgy friend Charlie Endell in the backstreets of Upton Park, in an episode which included an appearance from Joan Hickson of Miss Marple fame. 

The most famous televisual association with West Ham however would be fictional Hammers fan Alf Garnett.  Below is a 1972 episode titled ‘Up the Hammers’ centred on Alf’s love for his side.  It includes guest appearances from England World Cup heroes Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Alan Ball.  Many often confuse Johnny Speight's satirical comedy as a celebration of racism, however the juxtaposition of his daughter and father in law (played by Una Stubbs and Tony Blair’s future son in law, Anthony Booth) often showed a more liberal counter position.  In this episode, Alf also drunkenly abducts his grandson and takes him to the Boleyn Ground terraces, while feeding him alcohol, which shows that Speight hardly intended to portray Alf as a hero of any kind.


At the other end of the political and educational scale, the Monty Python’s Flying Circus team set up a televisual first with the intellectual giants of Marxism to ask them the vital question – ‘the Hammers is the nickname of which English football team?’

The undisputed king of Working Class London comedy however has to be Only Fools and Horses, written by John Sullivan, which first came to British screens in 1981 through the BBC.  On the subject of football, it’s difficult to guess as to where the footballing loyalties of the Trotters lay.  Throughout the first series, a Crystal Palace scarf can be seen hanging up in the Trotters’ Nelson Mandela House abode in Peckham.  In the opening episode, Grandad mentions that: ‘Your dad always said that one day Delboy would reach the top, there again he always said one day Millwall would win the Cup’.


During Rodney’s wedding ceremony to Cassandra, it was revealed that Rodney’s middle name was Charlton as his mother was a fan of Charlton Athletic, but in the 1986 Christmas special also was planning to take the Duke of Maylebury’s daughter to watch a game at Stamford Bridge. So quite who the Trotter clan actually supported is anyone’s guess.

A real life ‘Delboy’ style sharp witted cockney wide character in English football would be Terry Venables.  Tel spent the overwhelming majority of his footballing career within London, having played for Chelsea, Spurs, QPR and Crystal Palace between 1960 and 1975.  It’s a little known fact that Venables co-authored five novels under the pseudonym ‘P.B. Yuill' with a sports writer called Gordon Williams, one of which was ‘Hazell’, about a cockney private detective who actually describes himself in the novel as ‘the biggest bastard who ever pushed your bell-button’.  It was turned into a twenty two part one hour series by Thames Television, which ran from January 1978 to July 1979.


Venables's involvement in writing however was curtailed when he became manager of Crystal Palace.  Allegedly, Leon Griffiths (who was involved in the script editing process) developed on the series' mixture of black humour, cockney charm and delinquency when devising ‘Minder’, which was produced and aired on Thames the same year as the final series of ‘Hazell’. 

For ‘Minder’ however, on Christmas Day 1985 there would be a feature length episode called ‘Minder on the Orient Express’ on ITV, which centres around Terry McCann cracking the code to a bank account number based on Arsenal players' shirt numbers from the 1971 FA Cup Final.  The episode also had guest appearances from Adam Faith, Honor Blackman and comedian Tony Hawkes.  This episode however had been scheduled up against the ‘Only Fools and Horses’ episode ‘To Hull and Back’, just around the time in which Del and Rodney were beginning to replace Terry and 'Arfur' in the national consciousness and after this episode Minder had disappeared from British TV screens for the next three years (though did continue without Terry McCann until as late as the mid-1990s).

Arsenal meanwhile had a poor first half to the 1980s, losing footballing prominence in the North London area to Spurs and Watford just over the border in Hertfordshire.  One of the Gunners' biggest cultural claims to fame in the early 1980s was an Arsenal bag carried by former Sex Pistols lead singer John Lydon, in a rare film acting role as Leo Smith in the film ‘Corrupt’ alongside Harvey Keitel.  The film is about a serial cop killer and Lydon playing a disturbed youth who tricks a cop played by Keitel by convincing him that he is the serial killer.    

At the polar opposite of the musical scale to punk John Lydon are ABBA.  The Swedish group sided with Arsenal long before the days of Anders Limpar and Freddie Ljungberg, as seen from this pic of vocalist Anni-Frid lyngstad in Arsenal shirt for a concert performance at Wembley Arena in November 1979.  Her husband Benny Andersson also appeared on the BBC Saturday morning kids show 'Saturday Superstore' in November 1982 taking viewers questions on the telephone while wearing an Arsenal shirt.  Their allegiance to the Gunners, most probably as a result of the huge popularity of the English game in their native land, as a result of regular weekly live Saturday afternoon matches beamed back to Scandinavia from 1969 onwards (a good fourteen years before live weekly League fixtures were shown in England).  

Arsenal had a trophy-less eight year stretch between 1979 and 1987.  During the mid-1980s, the Gunners side appeared in an Aerial advert with the club’s kit washer Ethel Donnelly.  The odd thing about this piece is that it aired in 1987, though from the Arsenal kit and the inclusion of players such as Chris Whyte, Brian Talbot and Pat Jennings who had already left Highbury (and in the case of the latter, retired from football altogether by this point) it must have been filmed at least three years earlier.  By 1987, a new broom in the shape of George Graham had already been bringing about sweeping changes at Highbury.

By 1987, Arsenal also acquired a high profile celebrity fan in the shape of Stavros – the North London Greek Kebab shop owning character which made Harry Enfield famous – from Channel Four’s ‘Saturday Live/Friday Night Live’.  Enfield ironically made his next major ‘Friday Night Live’ character, the coarse mammon worshipping painter and decorator Loadsamoney, a Spurs fan.

After a decade of mostly disappointment, Arsenal ended the 1980s on a high by winning the League title was the last kick of the season.  Also, football was beginning to woo the North London literati with Nick Hornby’s semi-autobiographical book ‘Fever Pitch’.  By 1997, a dramatization of the book with a storyline centring on Arsenal’s 1988/89 season and its dramatic climax, also titled ‘Fever Pitch’, was released.  The film starred Colin Firth, however as by this point the Taylor Report had meant that Arsenal’s ground had gone all-seater.  Terrace scenes therefore needed to be shot at Fulham’s Craven Cottage.  The film was adapted for the American market involving Baseball and the Boston Red Sox and starred Drew Barrymore.    

As Arsenal moved into the 1990s, they began to attract a new bourgeois breed of fan.  This phenomenon was lampooned by BBC2 sketch show 'The Fast Show' with Roger the Nouveau football fan brilliantly played by John Thomson, who also starred in 'Cold Feet' and 'Men Behaving Badly' 

The main Highbury hero for much of the 1990s was Ian Wright, who joined from Crystal Palace in 1991.  The former Palace star was granted his own chat show by LWT called ‘Friday Night’s All Wright’, where he interviewed Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, as seen below.  For Wrighty, there would also be an appearance in the 2011 independent Brit/Romanian film ‘Gun of the Black Sun’.

Ian Wright’s venture into acting had been following in the footsteps of former Wimbledon star Vinnie Jones, whose acting debut had been in the Guy Ritchie directed ‘Lock, Stock and Smoking Barrels’, followed by another Ritchie directed flick ‘Snatch’.  Jones’s first Football related acting role had been ‘Mean Machine’, where he starred alongside Jason Statham, Danny Dyer and Vas Blackwood (most famed for playing the ‘Shadow’ in the ‘Longest Night’ episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ in 1986, as well as appearances in the 'Lenny Henry Show', 'In Sickness and In Health' and 'Lock Stock and Smoking Barrels').  In the film, Jones plays an ex-footballer who previously captained England, but had been sent to prison after being banned from Football for life for match fixing.  Jones’s character trains a team of prisons to take on the prison wardens in a game of football.

‘Mean Machine’ was based on an American film called ‘The Longest Yard’, though real life Footballers playing Prisoners on film was the subject matter of ‘Escape to Victory’ from 1981.  In the film Ossie Ardiles of Spurs, as well as Pele, West Ham’s Bobby Moore, Ipswich Town’s Russell Osman, Kevin O’Callaghan, John Wark, Kevin Beattie and Paul Cooper and former Man City stars Mike Summerbee and Kazimierz Deyna all appeared.  Hollywood A-listers Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine, as well as Tim Piggott-Smith also appear in the film.

A more modern example of a Spurs player appearing in an acting role is Robbie Keane appearing in ‘Mrs. Brown’s Boys’ as an American Mormon alongside snooker player Ken Doherty in 2004 (@01:14:32).

Keane followed in the footsteps of another Spurs forward in the shape of current day ‘Match of the Day’ host and Twitter’s liberal conscience Gary Lineker, who penned a series called ‘All in the Game’, about an English striker moving abroad to Barcelona as Lineker himself did back in 1986.  An Arthur Smith play penned around the backdrop to England’s Semi Final against West Germany in 1990, called 'An Evening with Gary Lineker' had been adapted for television in 1994.  The TV adaptation starred Clive Owen, Martin Clunes, Caroline Quentin, Paul Merton and a non-speaking part by Gary Lineker himself.

Tottenham Hotspur have long had an association with the Jewish faith, as a result of being situated in close geographical proximity to many of North London’s Jewish communities.  Back in 2006, a comedy-drama film called ‘Sixty Six’ was released that was based on the true life story of the bar mitzvah of the film’s director Paul Weiland, which clashed with the 1966 World Cup Final which England reached and beat West Germany 4-2.  As a result, the poor thirteen year old had very few attendees for his big day.  It’s a shame for him and the rest of the nation that his big day wasn’t held on any weekend over the fifty one years that have since followed, as he would have had no such dilemma!   

*Follow us on Twitter@Upstart_footbal

The Box Set of previous editions of Red Ball on the Square Box can be found here

*Published August 14th 2017