Would you forgive me if, purely en passant, I mention Gary Lineker? I promise that it’s only on the way to somewhere else.
You see, it was in the early rounds of his bout with the BBC (a fight that will go the distance and end in a mutual knock-out) that various thespian denizens of the Twittersphere, cleared their throats, did their breathing exercises and projected to the back of the theatre in his support.
Among them was Robert Lindsay, known to most d’un certain age, as Citizen Smith, anti-hero of a suburban John Sullivan sitcom in which he played a backroom revolutionary forever raising his fist to the skies and promising “Freedom for Tooting!”
Smith was, of course, laughable, harmless but, at his core, likable. The best, you know, only really play themselves. Though I do summon in defence the compensatory memory of Lindsay doing a darkly effective Richard III at the Savoy.
What it did intertwine, however, was the increasing similarities between sportsmen and actors. They meet in the need for an audience, the thirst for approbation, their stage the theatre of dreams whether stage or screen, stadium or arena. “Are you not entertained?” as Russell Crowe’s Gladiator demands of the crowd.
The association is not a new one. Johnny Weissmuller, American swimmer, famously transferred his Olympian physique to rescuing Jane from crocodiles as Tarzan. Acting is, of course, about appearance and anybody who has seen the pec-flexing of the rugby dressing room or Christian Ronaldo’s eagerness to show his abs will know that narcissism is not confined to the main set at Warner Bros.
The villainously ugly also get a look in. Fiery France and Bègles front row forward Vincent Moscato had a lengthy film career in enforcement before taking his brilliantly entitled One Man Chaud on a theatre tour. At home, Wimbledon’s hard man defender, Vinnie Jones, cropped up in variants on his self-aware “Bullet-Tooth Tony” persona in Guy Ritchie gangster films.
Some have been born actors who merely happened to find their stage on grass. Cod-philosopher, enigmatic, charismatic footballing genius Eric Cantona of Manchester United and France being a case in point.
His easy transfer from the six yard box to the box seat has seen him play a Tudor ambassador in Elizabeth, a retired rugby player in Le Bonheur Dans le Pré, his phantom self in the Palme D’Or nominated Finding Eric and, recently, the put upon corporate outcast Alain Delambre in the superb Netflix mini-series Inhuman Resources. Not to mention his winking self-parody in ads for Kronenbourg 1664.
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Others have been the reverse. Actors against their will. Richard Burton, whose writing on sport is well worth a spot on the nightstand, once said he “would rather have played for Wales at Cardiff Arms Park than Hamlet at the Old Vic.” Fellow hell raiser Richard Harris, meanwhile, was a gifted youth rugby player starring for Munster and Garryowen before being laid low by TB. His restless soul and raw-edged physicality combined perfectly in his portrayal of rugby league player Frank Machin in This Sporting Life for which he won best actor at Cannes and earned an Academy Award nomination.
Not to be outdone, Oliver Reed, another blessed with natural physical prowess, would occasionally turn out for Rosslyn Park, bought them their floodlights and who, back when such jolly japes and jests were winked at, once led a nude fitness run across the local common.
All three, however, were men haunted by self-loathing and their alpha antics seemed almost compensatory for their work in a trade they ultimately viewed as a bit effeminate. As Burton himself said: “An actor is something less than a man, while an actress is something more than a woman.”
Daniel Craig, meanwhile, who recently departed from his role as the ultimate masculine fantasy character in 007, used to play for Hoylake RFC while former England and Lions lock Martin Bayfield loaned his 6’ 10” frame to play Hagrid in the Harry Potter franchise.
The cross-over is, of course, an easy one. Sport is drama and drama is sport, replete with its heroes and villains (any England team), its redemptive paths to glory, its risings from the canvas both literal and metaphorical, its capricious gods and comic relief. Both are absorption, recreation and diversion, the reviews pawed over, the critics reviled, the tickets and popcorn overpriced. Both joke over the make-up or Vaseline of “the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd.” And both are performance arts.
But what sportsmen have to face, that actors don’t, is the remorseless beat of time. There is no King Lear for the athlete. For all their complaints that there are “no parts for the aged”, Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Harrison Ford forge on. Bond is in his fifties, Jamie Lee Curtis crops up in an Oscar winner. Brian Blessed booms advertising voice-overs.
So when it’s over sports folk increasingly dress-up as actors. A trade long ago too used to having a stage from which to voice their largely predictable views to a captive audience while confusing prominence with authority. Add social media for extra reach.
It’s the last habit sport should adopt. It used to be grounded by mud, blood and bruises. A Saturday of shared passion not the tedious divisions of our polarised times. When it’s done, its fans look back through a nostalgic haze and “in their flowing cups… remember with advantages what feats you did that day.” They won’t include your tweets. Unless you’re François Pienaar, they won’t include your political achievements. So don’t be sorry it’s over. Be grateful you had it all. “Drama queen” isn’t a compliment.
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