Read an Excerpt
Ray Winstone the Biography
The Story of the Ultimate Screen Hardman
By Nigel Goodall
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2011 Nigel Goodall
All rights reserved.
In The End
Ray Winstone is gutted. It was 1 July 2006, the day England blew their chance to win the World Cup, and, like every other supporter, he couldn't get over how on earth they had been knocked out of the most important football competition of all. Was it really possible that England, the favourite team to win in many people's eyes, had just lost out to Portugal in the quarter-finals with a 3–1 defeat in a simple penalty shootout? It seemed it was.
In the lead-up to the match, not surprisingly, Ray, like most English fans, had been feeling very confident of victory over Portugal. 'They have got a great footballing side but we have a team to match and better them. We will beat them comfortably enough. Sometimes you get a little feeling. The players have no fear. I was impressed with the way the training went, the way Steve McClaren coached the boys, the respect they clearly have for Sven. We have been scraping through but doing a job. The Italians have been doing the same thing for years – not been playing that well but getting results – that is what wins a World Cup.'
Three months earlier, Ray had rolled into his agent's office in Soho to meet Observer journalist Lynn Barber with his friend, the writer Tony Grounds. They claimed they had been working in the dubbing suite, but Barber was not so sure. She thought that they had been having one of their 'jolly' lunches instead. She had just watched Ray playing a terrifying football manager in a preview of his latest Channel 4 telefilm All in the Game. Like most others who get to interview him, Barber was kind of expecting to find him quite intimidating, all bulging eyes and bursting violence, but actually, she wrote, 'he is a polite and thoughtful interviewee'. Even so, she still had the impression his heart wasn't in it. 'He tends to gabble and half -tell anecdotes without ever finishing them. He doesn't seem to have the self-obsession you can usually rely on with actors. He'd much rather be in the pub with Tony and his mates, talking about football.'
On top of that, Barber thought it quite ironic that Ray had just been appointed spokesman for the Football Association's anti-hooliganism campaign. Ironic that is, when you consider that All in the Game was days away from being screened in the Thursday-night peak-hour viewing slot.
According to the Guardian, Ray was heading up the Alltogethernow 2006 campaign, to build on the impressive behaviour of the England fans at the World Cup 2002 and Euro 2004. And that, he explained, was what it is all about. 'I am proud to be an England fan and enjoy nothing more than joining in with the crowd to get behind the team, but, let's get this straight, causing trouble at a football tournament is unacceptable. I'm as passionate about being an England fan as the next man, but the moment you get involved in violence you let down the team and the country.'
Run by England fans and the Football Association, the campaign was aimed at showing a positive image of England fans to people in Germany and around the world, demonstrating that the stereotyped image of anti-social and violent behaviour is not a true reflection of genuine England supporters. Before and during the World Cup, a range of initiatives took place around England and in Germany, organised primarily by the fans for the fans and supported by the FA. They included road shows, regional competitions, player messages, ambassador visits to Germany and a variety of media events.
And it couldn't have been better timed as All In The Game premiered on the small screen at around the same time. Written by Tony Grounds, the telefilm portrayed the very worst side of Premiership football. Not bad behaviour by the fans, but by the management, agents and players. All up to their necks in dodgy deals, bungs and betting scams. Although Grounds insisted that it wasn't based on any particular club or individual, it certainly had the feel of insider know-how.
Both Grounds and Ray claim they taught each other all there is to know about football, having met as teenage West Ham supporters. Despite Ray bailing Grounds out when he was arrested for causing a nuisance, they both still support West Ham. 'The way we look at football, people my age,' says Ray, 'is, if you came from West Ham, you supported West Ham, and you probably grew up with some of the players. But today kids who come from London support Manchester United or Liverpool and I can't understand that. Football's moved on – I haven't.'
As if to prove the point, he set aside the whole of June to go to Germany with his mates, as he put it, to watch England win the World Cup, make a video diary of his trip, and talk to all kinds of people to find out what they really think about the English, rather than how stereotypes are portrayed in the media. It seemed, by all accounts, he had the time of his life. 'We have done some camping, gone back to our roots. We have had a blinding time and meeting the players has been the icing on the cake.' But there was a downside during the second week. 'My mate's partner he works with was taken very ill while he was away and he had to come back early, so I made a different kind of film really, just a film about the World Cup. It isn't the film I wanted to make, but we got enough for the kids to see their two dads out and about and misbehaving and all that sort of stuff.'
If nothing else, All in the Game was remarkable for having the highest count of abusive language that one could ever imagine would be allowed on television. Asked if all the 'fucks' and 'fuckings' were in the script, Grounds claims they were. 'Ray's very good. He plays every word as written. But we had a meeting with the Channel 4 producer about a week before we started shooting and he had the script and there were about a thousand stickers in it – blue, yellow, green, pink – and I said "What's all that?", and he said, green is fucking, yellow is cunt, blue is racial abuse or whatever, and he said, "We should have a cunt reduction." But it's part of the culture, part of the natural flow of the language. And Ray knows how to swear.'
In short, it was the story of Ray's character Frankie, who, in his words, 'is old-style, he comes from football when it was a "sport". When it was great to play football, when there was no money in the game, but you played for the love of the game. And that was Frankie's dream, but his world has changed. He's ended up in a world of corporations and is now surrounded by young kids who earn a lot of money.
'For Frankie, football has become a game of money, it's all money. He's ended up in a sport that's not a sport any more but a business run by the people who sit upstairs and the TV moguls. I guess that's where a kind of bitterness sets in for Frankie. They're all earning money out of it, so he might as well earn money out of it too. Frankie's put enough years into it. That kind of grief comes from the destruction of the game as he knows it, but that's the beast that the sport has become. He wants nice things for his family too. He's got the big house and all the trappings – he wants to live the life and for his family to have the things that he never had. But Frankie has created a monster in his son Martin (played by Danny Dyer). By sending his boy to a posh school and getting him an education, he has created his own Frankenstein. It is the downfall of Frankie, a moralistic man. But he's ripped his morals out and has forgotten what the game is all about.'
Not everyone, however, liked the sound of it. One of those was the Radio Times critic David Butcher. 'If any youngsters tug your sleeve and ask if they can stay up to watch this football drama starring Ray Winstone, on no account let them. Apart from the fact that Winstone swears like a rabid docker throughout, it's a very long way from Roy of the Rovers territory. Winstone plays Frankie, a blood-and-guts manager of the old school and hero to his club's fans. But behind the scenes, he and his son Martin, a player's agent, are bung junkies, feathering their own nest at the expense of the club and its beleaguered chairman. The plot doesn't so much progress as unravel via various betrayals that leave each character more or less wrecked. It's not easy to watch, but its portrait of football as a giant pigs' trough is horribly powerful. By the end, Winstone's fevered performance as the tormented anti-hero reaches an intensity that feels more RSC than ITV. And boy, can he swear.'
In fact, it was the concern over the bad language that seemed to be at the top of every critic's list for disapproval. Andrew Anthony's review in the Observer certainly echoed that sentiment. 'Winstone is a blinding actor but here he was mostly just effin – though, to be fair, the "c"-word also got a rare double-airing. He swore at everyone and anyone, including his chairman. It was a grotesque performance completely out of scale with the rest of the production. It was as if his character from Nil By Mouth had turned up in an episode of Dream Team.'
There were, however, a handful of reviewers that were a lot more favourable to Ray's performance than to his scripted dialogue. The general consensus was weighed up pretty accurately and fairly by Ray Bennett writing in the Hollywood Reporter. 'Ray Winstone at full throttle is like a force of nature, and he's firing on all cylinders as a passionate but corrupt English Premier League soccer manager in this scalding sports drama. It's Winstone's show, however, making the manager swaggeringly, charmingly and obnoxiously unforgettable.' But again there were references to the dialogue. 'Granada International is handling international sales, and it might need subtitles for some of his authentic Cockney slang. Crude, uncouth, and bitter, Frankie talks and begs in order to get his way, with every second word having four letters. It's a blistering performance.'
But, as The Sunday Times correctly noted, perhaps there is an intrinsic design flaw in being Ray Winstone, which is that nobody else is Ray Winstone. 'It's very, very difficult for anyone else to act on the same small screen as him. The hugely popular persona has grown so manically into an operatic cockney Abanazer that he sucks up all the available atmosphere, completely overwhelming the rest of the cast, who, in this case, tiptoed around him as if he were a bee-stung boar in a farrowing pen. The dialogue was all written for Winstone's benefit. He didn't just get the best lines, he got them in rhyming slang. And it was bravura stuff, but it played the rest of the production to a standstill. This was a drama of two halves, both being played simultaneously. One was a Winstone masterclass in baroque-ney; the other was with everybody else. The grand comeuppance finale was weirdly like Don Giovanni meets EastEnders.
'Winstone is a big draw, one of the few actors who can guarantee to deliver a primetime audience. But he can also almost promise to squash every other performance in the same frame. When he does play it sotto voce, we feel sort of cheated. I think the answer is that he should only be cast alongside actors who are as generous with their personalities as he is.'
But, then again, it should not be that surprising that Grounds had come up with the script he did, especially when you consider that it was Ray he had in mind for the role ever since he thought of the idea. 'I've always loved Ray. He was around 21, 22 when he did Scum and he was always a hero and a figure to emulate for a lot of us growing up. He done something that we were all so proud of – and all my friends still feel the same. So, as soon as I could, I wrote something I could put him in.' That 'something' turned out to be The Ghostbusters of East Finchley for the BBC in 1995. It probably worked so well because, 'I understand what Ray likes to do, and he understands my writing.'
Ray agrees. 'He's got a great ear, he gets the speech patterns and the way people talk, and if you don't know that, and you change the words round, it don't sound right. It's almost Shakespearean in a way – it's got that rhythm about it, it's like poetry.'
Ray and Tony share far more than just a working relationship. As Ray points out, 'We knock about together, me and Tony, he doesn't live far from me and I understand his dialogue. He understands the way I think and I understand the way he thinks. Although he is completely off his trolley, we have the same passion about football. We both support West Ham as that's where we're both from, so it's part of our identity and culture. It's funny, mostly when you make films about sport, the good ones, you don't actually see the sport – it's what's going on behind the scenes. This drama is like that. It's like making a film about a painter; you don't want to see him paint a picture, you know what a picture is. You want to know what he was all about. All in the Game has its funny moments and humour in very dark and black times. I think it will keep you glued.'
But he laughs at the suggestion that one journalist made that he would make a good football manager. 'I would shoot them. I would be the worst fucking football manager. If my lot hadn't done what they were supposed to have done and lost, then I would line up those prime bits of beef running about and shoot them, but I'd probably regret it the next week.'
Although he enjoyed playing the character, he still reckons the real job is much harder than it looks. 'I think every football supporter thinks he's a manager. I think I know everything about football but, when it comes down to it, none of us could. Yeah, I'd love to be a football manager but I'd love to be a player more than anything else.'
Even if Ray had got a taste for being a football manager, then it would have surely been the scene he filmed before a real live match at the then all-new 32,000-seat Ricoh Arena at the Coventry City Football Club. Certainly, walking out on to the pitch to a full stadium was something he wasn't going to forget in a hurry. 'The big thing is when you look down that tunnel and you get in the stadium, which is banged out with people, the atmosphere there is unbelievable. For a minute you have to hold your buttocks very firmly together because if you farted you'd follow right through! Then you go, "Right, you've really got to go for this, Ray." Either you're going to go out all sheepish and get it – you expect a load of people to go "ahh, you cockney bastard" – or you've got to just go for it. And I did.
'I went for it and you know what? I wanted to do it again! It's the only time I've wanted to do a take again. I had to come out as Frankie literally just before the real match. The fans were fantastic because they all went with it and they were cheering and screaming, it was fantastic. I actually thought I was a football manager for a day. You know I came back in off the pitch and went in the home dressing room and saw the Coventry team (it was Wisey's first game for Coventry) and I said, "Stuff it right up them, I fancy your mob today." He got booked within two minutes, but they won 6–1. So maybe they should have me back there every week!'
It was while the finishing touches were being put to the filming at Coventry City's new Ricoh Arena in April 2006 that Grounds, sitting in the empty stands, while Ray ranted through a scene behind him, explained to journalist Jim White what had motivated him to write such 'a dyspeptic assault' on something he and Ray have been in love with all their lives.
'It's been simmering in my mind for years. Being a fan and seeing the changes in the game I just got more angry. I know the world has to move on, we can't go back to Bovril and rattles, but there was a time it was rooted into a community. It felt like the clubs were ours then. I love the game, but I'm not sure I recognise it now. If you go to football, you meet people; Ray's character in the film is a bit of all those old-style managers. I think it's better if the research isn't precise; 51 per cent of what Ray does comes from my imagination. It's a sad indictment of the state of the game that it's from the wilder stretches of your imagination and everyone thinks it's the truth.
'And yeah, the language is very strong. That's important. These days football is presented as so happy clappy, foam hands and Sky TV, yet everyone knows that, in the stands and in the dugout, everyone's screaming, "He's playing like a cunt." Set among this splendour of lovely facilities and canapes and poshness, there's someone effing and blinding. That jarring of the worlds is football. If you were writing a play about the army or the City, it's the same, it's all a group of men together, the language is ripe. For me, too, it's important that it's Frankie who does most of the swearing. He swans into corporate hospitality, swearing like a trooper, embarrassing his chairman, embarrassing his son. He's a dinosaur in this nice air -brushed world.'
Excerpted from Ray Winstone the Biography by Nigel Goodall. Copyright © 2011 Nigel Goodall. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.