JIM KEOGHAN delves into a world where wild fantasy meets naked realism, through the eyes of a lovable scally from Liverpool.
Back in the 1980s, when Britain last had a long and unsettling relationship with austerity, working class communities were as decimated then as they are today. Unemployment, hardship and a narrowing of horizons gave those living in these communities the sense that the system had not just let them down but had actively sought to make their lives a misery.
But although most of the mainstream media remained unsympathetic (much as it is today) at least back then there were elements that seemed to care; most notably Channel 4. The early-to-mid-1980s was Channel 4’s experimental heyday when the shades of grey that permeate working class life were treated without melodrama, without bluntness, without the sense that the audience requires simplicity. Whenever the channel explored the plight of the working class, it did so in a way that was subtle, nuanced and even-handed. It did so in a way that was everything Benefits Street isn’t.
Scully, Alan Bleasdale’s 1984 comedy/drama, which told the tale of a brief yet telling moment in the life of young Francis Scully was part of this exploration.
Franny was a scally. He robbed, he vandalised, he approached authority with barely veiled contempt. But he was also more than that. There was kindness, there was love, and there was talent. But more than anything, there were dreams. Hope that despite the system’s best attempts to thwart him, to negate him, to crush his spirit, he could amount to more; escape his surroundings, make something of his life, transcend the role that Thatcher’s Britain was shaping for him (unemployment, crime, despair).
For Scully, the dream was football and a contract with Liverpool FC. The transformative power of football is palpable throughout; its capacity to wrench working class lads from obscurity and launch them into a life of wealth, fame and comfort beyond anything they could have thought possible.
Scully is so consumed by his dream that it leeches into his real life. He is troubled by visions; the intermittent appearance of his idol, Kenny Dalglish, who seems to come to him in moments of despair with a rebuke to both question and inspire.
As an Evertonian, I am no fan of Dalglish but his appearance speaks of an almost forgotten world of football, a time when the Gods of your local team, even a side as big as Liverpool, were more accessible. Could you imagine a producer approaching the club today and telling them that he had a piece of gritty social drama ready to broadcast but would like Sadio Mane to appear in it? The American overlords would surely recoil in horror.
When we meet Scully, his life is in transition. Resolutely residing in the nether regions of the academic stream, on probation and facing the rapidly approaching end of school life, there is a sense of time running out.
His lot is compounded by a local ‘bizzie’ hellbent on his incarceration (Isaiah, so named as he has one eye higher than the other), a collection of mates unburdened by Scully’s wit, intelligence or self awareness and a fragmented family life blighted by drink, fecklessness and adultery.
His wider world is instantly recognisable to anyone who grew up in a big city in the 1980s. The crumbling schools with inadequate teachers, peeling paintwork and frightening scallies, the sense of disconnection for those too young to drink but too old to continually play ‘three-and-in’ down the park, and the transient joy of a bag of chips, a loose ciggie or the furtive attention of the opposite sex.
A few dodgy accents aside (you can always tell a ‘thesp’ who’s trying to slum it) Alan Bleasdale’s words provide an illuminating snapshot of Liverpool in the 1980s. Although his prose might occasionally be too flowery, his jokes signposted from some distance away and some of his characters disappointingly one dimensional, there is a charm to ‘Scully’ that is hard to resist.
It helps enormously that Andrew Schofield in the titular role perfectly captures the blend of world weariness and smart-arseness that Bleasdale is seeking his lead to convey. Despite his manifold faults, Schofield makes Scully a likable character, and when he breaks the fourth wall to bring you into his confidence it’s a journey you’re happy to take.
Although Scully dreams of Anfield (the title sequence shows him running out to bask in the adulation of the Kop), he has other talents, notably a gift for the stage (a likely nod to Bleasdale’s belief in the transformative power of the arts). Those teachers that still believe in him want Scully to take part in the school panto, viewing it as a medium to tap into his talents and provide a way to engage him in something, anything.
To overcome his resistance, they entice him with the offer of a trial with Liverpool, a deal that Scully eventually accepts. A lesser writer would have made a successful trial the vehicle by which the lead character transforms his life. But Bleasdale, as he consistently illustrated in his earlier TV work, Boys from the Blackstuff, was never one for easy or comfortable resolutions.
The trial is a disaster. Despite his self belief and tacit references to his ability on the pitch, Scully is no player (at least by Liverpool’s standards). In a pivotal moment, as his dreams collapse around him, the real Dalglish appears on the touchline. Anger and frustration pours out of Scully towards his idol, the moment that childhood fantasy is confronted by cold hard reality.
What unfolds in its aftermath explores the nature of hope for those for whom horizons are limited, the idea of engagement for the kids that education often leaves behind and the frustrations of the many who felt nullified in the face of Thatcher’s brutalism.
For a city like Liverpool, one in which football stands at the heart of the community, the choice of that sport as the medium for ‘dreams’ in the drama made sense. But really, any similarly transformative medium could have stood in its place. It would have worked just as well had Scully longed for the life of a musician and been haunted by visions of Ian McCulloch or Julian Cope.
As an Evertonian, that might have been preferable. Few faces are as repellent to us Blues as that of Dalglish’s. He is part of a lamentable band of brothers (which includes Tommy Smith, Emlyn Hughes, Ian Rush, Alan Hansen, Graham Souness and Steven Gerrard) whose grills elicit an involuntary sensation of nausea whenever they appear. One of my abiding memories of watching Scully is my Ma’s expletive laden mutterings each time Dalglish brought his charisma-less presence to a scene.
That said, the fact that Evertonians, a group pathologically hostile to the Liverpool number seven, could still enjoy Scully is testament to the quality of the writing. Bleasdale has produced better work, notably the peerless Boys from the Blackstuff and the excellent GBH. But although both of those might have garnered more critical acclaim, been sharper in their critique and enjoyed greater long-term appeal, Scully remains an entertaining and interesting example of his work.
Although it might have been better at the drama than the comedy, Scully still provided an honest take on what was happening in working class communities in the 1980s. The light and the dark were on show here without judgement. The humanity of those left behind carefully handled. The criminality of a system without mercy or compassion keenly exposed.
There might have only been ‘One Franny Scully’, as the Kop sang, but he was representative of so many at the time. He was one of us and his story needed telling.
Jim is the author of ‘Highs, Lows and Bakayokos: the Story of Everton in the 1990s’ and ‘Punk Football: The Rise of Fan Ownership in English Football’. His next book, Everton’s Greatest Games, is out in October. Follow him on Twitter @jimmykeo