MARCO JACKSON is transported back to a time of Britpop, lad culture and Cool Britannia to experience love and the heartbreak of penalty shootout defeat.
The past is a foreign country, as LP Hartley noted, and they do things differently there. Even a year as recent as 1998 can feel completely alien and My Summer With Des, broadcast that year but set two years previously, is a crystallisation of a football that is long gone. Much had changed in the time that had elapsed between setting and broadcast.
While it is ostensibly a love story set within a football-themed romantic comedy, Des is an immediate time-capsule back to a summer and a mood that disappeared quickly, at least in England.
The film tells the story of Martin, played by Neil Morrissey, and his experiences over the course of Euro 96. Martin is an England fan above all, but perhaps more importantly, just some hopeless person (“like we all are”, he muses at the site of one of his many failures).
In the very first scene, in Paris before World Cup 98, Martin himself notes how much has happened since 1996; “before Poor Di, before New Labour, before beef on the bone, even before the Spice Girls and Teletubbies.” There are some precise dating points for students of British social history in that list.
Even so, Morrissey’s presence in the lead role dates Des as much as anything, though his co-stars Arabella Weir and John Gordon-Sinclair have not been televisual staples this side of the millennium, either. It is worth noting, too, that Des is not Gordon-Sinclair’s first dip into football on the screen. Gregory’s Girl is utterly different to Des, for both good and bad.
For extra comedic value, Des is interspersed with clips not just of the BBC’s coverage of Euro 96, but also the titular Lynam’s presenting quips. This combination ensures already, and perhaps necessarily, that Des was a period piece. So much of it would already have been nostalgic, even in 1998.
As well as Terry Venables’ England side, Martin is beguiled by Rosie, played by Rachel Weisz. She flits in and out of the early scenes, producing some of the most non-sequitous one liners one might hope to hear. She muses, at different times, on the death of Shakespeare, the difficulty in bi-lingual intercourse and sometimes even deigns to discuss the football itself.
For as much as it tells the story of a feckless England fan shambling his way through a month of football, Des tells the story of one of the most fondly remembered England sides, too.
The film sets its stall out quickly and easily. Within five minutes, we are up and running. A debonair Martin is waiting for the start of the World Cup of France 1998, and begins reminiscing about his favourite tournament – Euro 96.
One of the big difficulties one can have when intending to be fully absorbed in a tournament is work, but we see a more decrepit-looking Martin memorably resigning from his job because a conference he was asked to attend clashed with the opening game; England v Switzerland. He describes his boss Angus (an underused Graeme Garden) as a ‘melon arse’ and storms off to the pub to the pealing chords of Roll With It.
To compound Martin’s misery, and really set us up, we learn that not only is his best friend a Scot, he has just been dumped by his girlfriend. He is not handling this well – ending the first night in the gutter singing show tunes at her former window. This is where Rosie comes in. Ethereal at first and with a twinkling theme every time she appears on screen, she is Martin’s guardian angel.
She sends him staggering home, where he spends the rest of the next day festering – England’s draw bringing a number of ‘banterish’ answerphone messages from Gordon-Sinclair’s Cameron. The answerphone was a staple of 90s TV comedy (as any Seinfeld fan would attest), yet is barely imaginable now, another dated aspect.
She guides him through what is clearly a difficult break-up, and she helps him come to terms with the fact he is jobless and seemingly without plans beyond the end of the tournament.
Eventually, Rosie takes a stable enough form that Des’s main storyline grows into the development of Martin’s relationship with both her and the England team; one of which comes to a couple of comedic climaxes. One in sync with England’s 4-1 win over the Netherlands, and the other in a portakabin outside Wembley.
It is worth noting that Martin does most of his viewing of Euro 96 on television. This being a BBC broadcast, it makes sense for them to grant importance to that medium even if a World Cup in France is always more likely to see fewer fans travelling to the games.
There are sweet and witty moments throughout in almost equal measure. Furthermore, somebody must have spent a long time in the BBC clipping room, taking snippets of Lynam, Jimmy Hill and the 1996 punditry vintage to fit with the scene just watched – the best perhaps being Hill’s “he’s a naughty boy, but he’s a class act”.
Equally, there are some moments that illustrate the watershed that Euro 96 may have been for English football. The only all-European football on television at that time would have been Serie A on Channel 4; with Sky’s La Liga coverage set to begin in the Autumn. UEFA’s club competitions existed, but there was not the same hunger for non-British teams as exists now. British viewers were seldom exposed to continental clubs except when in direct competition with their Premier League counterparts; 1995/96 had been a pretty disappointing year in that respect – Nottingham Forest reaching the UEFA Cup Quarter Final was as good as it got.
Therefore, the players and teams involved were not just best-known for their Premier League players, but almost exclusively so. There is a scene in Des that illustrates this; Martin is talking to a Bulgarian man at a house party.
He praises Gheorghe Hagi – then of Barcelona – to curry favour. ‘Hagi is Romanian! I am Bulgarian!’ he protests. It is a mistake that is unthinkable now; equally the fact that Hristo Stoichkov was the Bulgarian’s star player.
Perhaps that is the real nostalgia that My Summer With Des has left us with; Euro 1996 was directly on the cusp of football becoming mainstream entertainment, which allowed the runaway success of Baddiel and Skinner’s ubiquitous Three Lions, but had not yet become the constant on the schedules that it is today.
That increased appetite for live, and not just British, football after Euro 96 is clear in the jump in TV rights values for Champions League football from just £2m in 1995/6 to £36m in 1996/7; a huge leap.
Perhaps seeing Europe’s best players on their doorstep alerted the British public to the talent beyond their shores. After finding their minds closed in the post-Heysel European ban, suddenly everything was new, colourful and bright. Euro 96 might not have been singularly responsible for this, but it certainly marked a dividing line.
As such, looking back on Euro 96 was almost immediately to look back on a football that had changed immeasurably. Des could only ever be a period piece. Even as soon as 1998, 1996 was a world away.
For a film that followed the tournament fairly faithfully, demonstrating the ebb and flow of building up to increasingly important games, Des ends somewhat abruptly. Perhaps that is in-keeping with England’s departure from the tournament, the agonising penalty shoot-out miss from Gareth Southgate and accompanying grimaces that are shown countless times during the film.
Suddenly, bereft of Rosie, bereft of England and bereft of hope, Martin does what all Englishmen do in that situation. He looks for a pub. On finding one, ‘wonderfully open’, he realises that Rosie’s last, and most important, gift to him was just five words.
Returning to the present, we are told that the money he won in a bet saved him and we leave Martin where we found him, in France just before the World Cup was due to start there.
The five words? “2-1, first goal Berger”.
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