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The Other Morrissey – Euro 96, TFI Friday and My Summer With Des

By Guy Mankowski.

The Euro ‘96 football tournament saw England’s view of itself start to coalesce. Shared national agency has often been driven by a sense of achievement in our representatives, and the flair and character of the England team during this era, re-emerging for the first time since 1966, had an invigorating effect on the nation. In turn, the invigorated nation further invigorated the team. In 2018 it is hard to imagine the national team showing the sheer audacity Paul Gascoigne was displaying. Passing to players with back-heels in matches against Switzerland, or outrageously lobbing players before scoring with a searing volley, as he did against Scotland in Euro ‘96.

As the tournament began, with England mindful of the spirit of ’66 as a host nation, the land was in a state of joyful rebellion against its own dourness. The private male spaces of the pub and the couch became public performative spaces. Baddiel and Skinner’s Fantasy Football League reclaimed the layout of a living room on match day as a studio setting, inviting the audience in on the private jokes exchanged between friends during a match. TFI Friday exploded the idea of a pub, making it a visual enterprise in which the audience – as Chris Evans held court behind a pint- became part of the action. The audience would be drawn into in-jokes that became regular features. Items such as ‘Freak Or Unique’ and ‘Fat Lookalikes’ suggested a playground bully marshalling weaker personalities in relentless pursuit of his own amusement. If no one was quite sure what they were laughing it, the overriding sentiment seemed to be to ‘get over yourself and join in.’ It was all deeply laddish and subtly subversive, but whilst it was fun no one objected. By inviting lesser-known indie bands to perform for huge audiences on his show, and in making Jarvis Cocker a household name simply by referring to him as ‘Jarvis’, Evans became one of the era’s tastemakers.

Pride in being English, and pride for the national football team became less about covert pride and more of a defiant statement. It even became about agency- with the middle classes at this time starting to perform their sense of earthiness with exuberant support for a team they had previously overlooked.

Paul Gascoigne’s ‘Dentist Chair’ celebration after he scored against Scotland in the tournament’s group stage typified this development. Just as teammates had sprayed alcohol directly down his throat during a post-match drink fest, Gascoigne conspicuously replayed this private behaviour as a public spectacle after scoring for England. We all wanted to be in on the joke, to perform our affiliation with this team.

The TV series My Summer With Des has archetypal nineties lad Neil Morrissey narrate a summer of romance and eventual heartache as he follows the England team through their glorious tournament performance through to the obligatory penalty shootout. Playing the role of a time-jumping muse who refuses to answer questions, Rachel Weisz’s Rosy is his object of desire. She also arguably personifies the out-of-timeness of Morrissey’s elusive sense of satisfaction. When England beat Spain in a quarter-final penalty shoot-out, Morrissey’s character is so excited that he demands that Weisz takes them forward in time, to the semi-final against Germany. ‘Would you not rather enjoy this time?’ Rosy asks, with a tone that betrays that she knows that the dream will end at the next match. Arthur Smith’s portrayal of the feminine in Rachel Weisz’s character is curious, heavily freighted as it is with the vague aspirations of the era. Culture always idealises what it hasn’t yet focused in terms of ambition, later lending period pieces a curiously doubled nostalgia. In many ways, Rosy represents the archetypal ‘English rose’, with the petite cardigans, the prim demeanour. But there is an added layer of psychic mysticism woven in – she is also a poet. ‘You’re a city boy, Martin,’ she says, ‘you need the sadness of the streets’. In her insight, her empathy and her maturity she is far more interesting than our centre-stage protagonist, who responds to her poeticism with ‘I’d like to see every city in the world. Except Birmingham.’ Having been shunted from the limelight by a boy-child it is her ability to down a pint and enjoy the game which Morrissey’s character finds devastatingly attractive. In the series there is nothing incongruous about these various character components. For a brief period of time, under the banner of ‘ladette’, women’s identity was being conspicuously renegotiated. My Summer Of Des shows a curious time in which it was morphing, unapologetic in its clear lack of resolve. But the incompatibilities are there, waiting to be an issue. When Rosy encourages the protagonist to take a more positive perspective on life, he snarls that she is talking ‘hippy crap’, and their shared bubble instantly bursts. 

The series portrays a brief moment in time. When England’s baser enthusiasms – for beer, patriotism and football – had coalesced to exert pressure on those who did not buy into them as mean-spirited and dour. Even though Morrissey’s character at the start of the series (from the vantage point of 1998) bemoans the contemporary presence of sleaze, Teletubbies and New Labour he does not realise what halcyon days of fleeting hope he is living in. A brief time in which the slovenly behaviour and lack of ambition of the English ‘lad’ could credibly elicit the affections of a woman like Weisz’s character. As England perform on the pitch, their followers perform to each other their identity with a lack of apology that is almost charismatic. But – like with pop songs – the football match only exists within narrow boundaries, even with penalty shootouts or encores.  As exuberant as the supporters are they cannot shape what occurs in the field of play. The duration is a conceptual space in which the personal can be conspicuously performed until the sanctioned time comes to an end.

Despite a valiant attempt to stretch the performance until the finale the England team fall short, are knocked out by Germany, and new failure becomes part of an old English mythology. The national identity that was in flux builds into itself the idea of glorious failure, a rather unshakeable feature. In time, the overarching framework of hope felt by the country would buckle. New Labour would crash amongst the wreckage of broken promises and recriminations about the Iraq War. Viewed in retrospect this era seems charming, given its bolshiness and its naivety. But as an era it also now is also a touch unnerving given its subtle but precise exclusiveness.

This extract is part of a collection out for review, entitled ‘Albion’s Secret History – Snapshots of England’s Pop Rebels and Outsiders’.

Guy Mankowski is an academic whose PhD concerned post-punk literature. He is also the author of Letters From Yelena and How I Left The National Grid. His latest novel, An Honest Deceit, was re-published in 2018.

(Author portrait by Rebecca Burdon.)

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 22nd, 2018.