There can be hardly anyone who doesn’t know the story of George Best’s rise to stardom and fall from grace due to his problems with alcoholism, but this film, written by Bafta-nominated Terry Cafolla and produced and directed by Emmy award-winning Colin Barr, takes a different angle.
Best: His Mother’s Son reminds us that, while the cameras on and off the pitch were all pointing at Best, back in Belfast his family were affected just as dramatically by the impact of this young man’s talent for the beautiful game. And while Best had a very public alcohol problem, and was loved and lamented by so many fans across the world, his mother had a smaller, more private but no less devastating battle with drink.
The film begins in 1966 when Best is 19 and a star of pop star proportions after leaving Belfast four years earlier to pursue a football career in Manchester. Back in Belfast, his mother Ann is heavily pregnant and feeling the impact both of the loss of her only son, and of the passionate reaction in the streets of Belfast to his success. Reporters gather around the gate and the phone continually rings. When Ann bring home her newborn, George’s father Dickie buries himself in his work and Ann is left to cope with the impact of all this change.
Ann is teetotal. But when George fails to turn up to the baby’s christening, she decides to liven up the disappointed atmosphere and takes a glass of sherry. It will be the turning point of her life, and that of the whole family as Ann gradually comes to depend on alcohol more and more to handle the incessant attention – attention which changes mood as quickly as Best’s performance. Meanwhile, Best is overawed by the world now open to him and, as ill equipped as his mother to handle change, also starts to hide himself in drink.
This is a beautifully styled film, set mostly on the small-bricked estate of terraces where the Bests remained. The bright colours of the time contrast with a more muted, matt backdrop, where the troubles in Northern Ireland present a grimmer side of the swinging Sixties.
Real footage from Best’s career is slipped gracefully in amongst the action, and the film flips between Manchester and Belfast, showing a poignant mirroring between George and his mother. As he lashes out at another player and is suspended, Ann lashes out at a woman who calls her son a “wee fucker”.
As George sneaks out clubbing and womanising, his mum sneaks booze from bottles hidden in wardrobes and drawers. And as Best becomes increasingly slipshod at the thing he loves more than anything in the world, his mum starts to retreat from her family, stumbling home drunk, covered in bruises, unwilling or unable to stop herself spiralling.
No doubt the adoration – as well as his boredom off the pitch – contributed to Best’s motivation to party hard, but it is equally moving to see how the unthinking commentaries by the public on this Belfast son’s value as a human being affected his family. Watching the film, the viewer gets a real sense of the brutal side of celebrity, in a time when this hysterical sense of public ownership was relatively new.
And, just as it shows the public’s intense fascination with the footballer, the film also highlights how his success estranged a family who loved each other dearly. At the beginning, the Bests swap droll jokes, rib each other, and appear close-knit. As the action progresses they are separated by psychological states – Best, caught up with his very different life in Manchester, declines to see the change that is occurring back home, perhaps not wanting to lose his anchor. So too his family, concerned with their own problems, have hardly any idea of the real magnitude of Best’s drinking until it is too late.
Depressing though the subject matter is at times, this is a moving piece of work, skilfully done. Tom Payne (Waterloo Road) is endearing as Best – a beautiful, wide eyed man-child whose innocence was a huge contribution to his heartbreaking fall from grace. Laura Donnelly is also great as Barbara, a steady, sensible sister who refuses to stay and watch her mother fall apart. Also very watchable is Lorcan Cranitch as Best’s dad, the “stuffed shirt” whose hard work ethic can’t save his family.
But Michelle Fairley shines above them all as Best’s mother, managing to convey more emotion with her eyes than most actors manage in a mini-series. Her depiction of the decline into alcoholism is so convincing that you can feel her flinch as her husband says her name, a painful sign of her inability to cope with the demands of the world. It’s an important portrayal of alcoholism. For all of her son’s fame and beauty, it is unglamorous, this life that is falling apart. Ann is sad and tired and helpless and, the film suggests, once in, there’s no easy way out of this rabbit hole.
And so, having given up the drink and reached a brittle stability, she visits her son in his Manchester house strewn with bottles and sees the demons she has bequeathed her son. “I gave you up,” she says. “It was supposed to be your chance.” The film suggests it is this realisation which weakens her resolve, too.
This is an epic story on a small stage; a sad, beautiful and also strangely ordinary account, concluded, heartbreakingly with footage of the real George Best, interviewed by Parkinson not long before his death in 2005. Parkinson asks him whether he thinks about what could have been.
“I am still enjoying my life,” he says, looking like a little, lost boy.
Best: His Mother’s Son is available on BBC iplayer