In the opening sequence of the newly released biopic George Best: All By Himself, a car is driving through the night time rain with its wipers in action. A woman’s voice describes seeing a man wandering along the road. 'Oh my God that poor homeless tramp.' she says. 'And then I realise it is my husband, drunk as a skunk'. Angie Best is speaking of her then husband, George.
In that moment I was reminded of a public talk I hosted with the late Gordon Burn as part of the 2006 Belfast Festival at Queen’s. He had recently published his book Football, Fame and Oblivion – an examination of the respective careers of two famous Manchester United players, Duncan Edwards and George Best.
On that occasion, Burn spoke of a not dissimilar incident. On his way to a meeting at Best’s luxury apartment, he recalled a ‘down and out looking man in ill-matching tracksuit top and bottoms and filthy trainers’ lurching across the traffic. George. As for the luxury apartment, Burn was shocked by the threadbare floor, empty fridge and collection of empty bottles.
And that, sadly, is how the world remembers the latter part of Best’s life. While Duncan Edwards' death came swiftly on a freezing cold February day in 1958 in Munich, George’s was a lingering demise fueled by infamy, alcohol and debt and covered right to the end by the media’s feeding frenzy – a hospital bedside photograph taken by his agent Phil Hughes showing the emaciated figure connected to an oxygen supply and various intravenous feeds, marks his final hours on earth.
Twelve years later and under the direction of documentary filmmaker Daniel Gordon (Hillsborough) and the capable skills of Brendan Byrne of Fine Point Films (Bobby Sands: 66 Days), George Best: All By Himself is going on general release to an audience that may not have fully appreciated the gifts possessed by the scrawny kid from East Belfast who headed to Manchester’s Old Trafford, and eventual stardom, in 1961.
'I felt that the story as a whole had never been done in the cinematic way,' explains Gordon. 'The documentaries, Senna and Amy, have made people more open to this kind of film than they would've been ten years ago.'
Byrne recognised the tragic, Shakespearean nature of the George Best story. 'Here we had one of the greatest Irish footballers who was a chronic alcoholic who wrecked other people's lives,' he says. 'The challenge was to balance the glory of the football and the devastation of the personal life. George was a genius but we could not forget his imperfections and brush them under the carpet.'
The filmmakers have trawled the archives of the BBC, UTV and other sources for material that in some cases has not been seen for up to three decades. Re-digitised black and white footage is combined with colour footage and what Bryne describes as ‘wobbly video and Super 16’ to give the film ‘a distinctive kind of quality and nostalgic feel’.
For Daniel Gordon, who worked at Sky Sports at the same time that Best was a regular TV pundit, the documentary has given some of those really close to George the opportunity to rationalise his life. Contributions from friends and rivals including Eric McMordie, Pat Crerand and Harry Gregg alongside George’s ex-wives Angie and Alex are set beside the voice and archive footage of Best.
'I wanted to give them the ability to look back and be a bit more honest and to go into places where they may never have been before in relation to George,' explains Gordon. 'I needed them to be able to trust me. I wasn't only going to take all the good stuff. There was going to be an element of both sides of George.'
As the movie draws to a conclusion, we are bombarded with footage, taken from various angles, of Best’s famous extra time goal from the 1968 European Cup Final victory against Benfica at Wembley.
'That was the high point of his career,' says Byrne. 'We have tried to find as much footage as we could to capture and merge that moment in its black-and-white and colour formats. That evening was George Best’s Everest. From then on he was only ever going to go down hill.'
And through the prism of the cinematic experience audiences accompany Best on that swift slide into what was always destined to be his personal oblivion. There was no escape for George, nor is there for the audience.
'In the cinema the audience has to sit there, engage and watch. They cannot go surfing the internet, reaching for their smart phones or the remote control,' says director Gordon.
Best (George Best: All By Himself) is in cinemas across Northern Ireland from February 24. Visit www.georgebestfilm.com/showtimes to book tickets for showings in Belfast, Newry and Derry~Londonderry.