Black and White and Colour and Beckham and Blair

It’s a shame Butterfield had to be called Butterfield. To a modern ear the name suggests diet yoghurt or an ersatz spread. Butterfield’s core idea – that the past is valuable for more than what it tells us about how we got here – is one football badly needs right now. And it’s just football’s luck that the man sounds like a Harry Enfield invention.

Beckham’s escape to America is a case in point. The bigotry, cruelty and downright viciousness of his treatment by fans in 1998 says more, to my mind, about the English national character than any talk of passion and commitment. Part of his jettisoning by England was about demonstrating a new passion and commitment for… passion and commitment. Only subsequent events have proved that if it really is passion and commitment that you want, you need someone like Beckham. Better luck next time, chaps.

While he was captain of England, to some extent he was the face Britain showed to the world. There was, I admit, an element of celebrity to it. But don’t tell me that the British don’t like celebrity. If they don’t have it, they’ll create it. Beyond Beckham’s interest in fashion, which the English decided was a bad sign, there were other things: openness, willingness to learn, to fail in the attempt, artistry, skill. If there is rejection of Beckham tout court, then rejection of those things follows. I don’t think that’s happening outside football. Matthew Parris, long time foe of Tony Blair, recently wrote that Blair’s greatest achievement was a change in the national mood and outlook to a more tolerant, humorous tone, and I agree. Beckham had his part in that. Football might want an opt-out from all of that, at least for now.

In any case, it’s been interesting to watch Beckham’s career being rewritten by the press over the last day or so. I find some of these accounts hard to recognise. 1998 seems a long time ago sometimes. 1997 even more so.

But not as long ago as some of the football vidcaps and clips we’ve been looking at here recently. Part of the problem, of course, is that they are all in black and white. Monochrome is mentally distancing, powerfully so. Sometimes in my office I’ll ask someone to represent an emotional experience from their past to themselves in their mind. I don’t say “visualize” as that’s a red herring, but most people will experience some form of visual awareness of the experience, and if you then ask them to imagine it in black and white, in most cases the emotional impact of the experience is dramatically lowered.

So it is with football clips. A few years ago, there were a number of television series based on colour film of World War II – the British one was narrated by John Thaw. I found all of these visceral and shocking – “suddenly what I’d heard about was real”. Everything looked more familiar in colour – more like now. Later, film from the Great War was colourized, and the same thing happened again.

I’d like to have some of the Edwardian football footage treated similarly. One of the things I most notice about unusual or early colour film of this kind is the imaginative possibilities it opens up for the past. Sometimes history can look so much like history – everyone running about being Tudor or Viking or Nazi or Victorian with so much energy and relish that they never seem to stop to catch breath. It’s one of the supreme clichees that happiness writes white. Boredom writes whiter. Imagine someone standing outside that first England-Scotland international, not caring about the proceedings, kicking stones and staring into space and wanting to be somewhere else altogether. No?

Colour makes the recollection of boredom more easy. But it’s still extremely hard, because the past has this terrible habit of being interesting to us, and so we lose the ability to reflect on this important part of our emotional lives, this thing that perhaps even dominated all and every one of the spent, finished lives that throng a Mitchell and Kenyon factory scene.

Here’s an excellent sequence taken from the Friese-Greene colour films of the early 1920s. It won’t bore you, but you might just see some bored people in them.


UPDATE: here’s some of the WWI colourized footage. I can understand why they might have started here, rather than with the 1911 FA Cup Final, say.

And, more familiar, perhaps, Nazi Germany immediately prior to WW2: