‘I am not a man. I am Cantona’

With a brilliant and surreal turn from King Eric of Manchester, Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric is a film of unusual optimism.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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At first glance, Looking for Eric is not quite what you would expect from a Ken Loach film. Harsh, sometimes hopeless realism, yes; ad-libbed naturalistic dialogue, of course; but fantasy, an appearance from footballing icon Eric Cantona, and, incredibly, happy endings, perhaps not.

The film begins with one of its two eponymous Erics, postman Eric Bishop, at something of a low ebb. Broken is probably a better description. Closed off, and closed down, his life seems to have slipped away. His second wife has gone, his two sons are going, leading criminal or semi-criminal lives, and Bishop seems incapable of doing anything about it. Authority has been lost, control diminshed. Undelivered letters are stashed in wardrobes, local ne’er-do-wells smoke dope and gawp at porn films in his lounge, and – the ultimate sign of his dying light – he hasn’t been to watch his beloved Manchester United in 10 years. He is, he says in one of his frequent moments of self-reflection, ‘like a scabby old fucking dog’.

Lost and losing it, a request from his daughter – the product of his first marriage – pushes him to the car-crashing brink. Needing to finish her university dissertation, she enlists her parents’ help with childcare, meaning Bishop would look after her baby for an extra hour each day. This would be fine, except for one thing: Bishop would have to confront his first wife, Lily, a woman he hasn’t seen since he ran out on her over 20 years previously. The shame, indeed the regret, is too much to bear. Bishop misses his appointment with Lily and crashes his car.

This is Eric Bishop’s life as we first see it. Not that it’s entirely bleak. His workmates, seeing him struggle, rally round. And it’s here we get the first glimpse of Loach’s deeply social faith in others. There’s no office politics in Loach’s portrait of Bishop’s workplace, no self-advancing back-stabbery, or arrogant moaning about so-and-so not pulling their weight – just the simple, unabashed concern of mates. Solidarity prevails. They try telling him jokes, they try taking him to the pub, they even try a spot of psycho-babbling self-help, but, alas, it’s to no avail.

Fortunately for Eric, while seeking solace in a crafty spliff nicked from his eldest son and chief miscreant Ryan, divinity intervenes. Or as non-United supporters know him, Eric Cantona. Elliptical, enigmatic and with a French accent so thickly-thatched that it renders his advice about as comprehensible as that of Allo, Allo’s Officer Crabtree, King Eric, in Loach’s hands, becomes Counsellor Eric, a bearded font of occasionally gnomic, mainly comic wisdom. ‘I’m still getting over the bloody seagulls’, protests an exhausted Bishop.

It’s a lovely turn from Cantona, who takes the image of Eric Cantona football legend and manages to mock its grandiosity while somehow affirming it at the same time. Cantona is both ridiculous and great; ridiculously great in fact. In response to Bishop’s acknowledgement that it must have been difficult for Cantona following his nine-month suspension in 1995 for karate-kicking a fan, because after all ‘we forget you’re just a man’, Cantona puffs his chest out and harrumphs: ‘I am not a man, I am Cantona.’ After which he proceeds to play the trumpet, very badly. Cantona is just a man. But we’re in no doubt that he is also Cantona. The footballer. The hero.

Aided and abetted by the Francophonic genius, the film sees Bishop struggling to get his life back on track, and face up to his biggest regret: leaving his first wife, Lily Devine, a story that Loach handles beautifully, without melodrama or schmaltz.

At the film’s centre, however, is not so much Eric’s gently rekindling love for Lily, but something else, something that ties Looking for Eric to the rest of Loach’s work: its faith in others, a conviction most apparent in the camaraderie and friendship of not just the postal workers, but their extended lives as fans of United. It’s a portrait of a working-class community looking after itself, sorting out its own problems. There’s no external help required, no phoning ‘Officer Dibble’. It’s about supporting others, about trusting not suspecting them. Looking for Eric is a work of humanistic faith.

Football becomes a metaphor here. Asked what his most treasured moment at United was, Cantona chooses not a goal, but a pass to Denis Irwin, beautifully chipped with the outside of his right foot into the path of the onrushing defender to arrow past the then Spurs goalkeeper. What if Irwin hadn’t scored? asks Bishop. Cantona’s response is movingly sage: ‘If you can’t trust your teammates, you are lost.’ This is the turning point for Bishop, a realisation that he has to show a little more trust in those around him, his friends, his workmates, his fellow United fans. Little wonder the film opens with the quote: ‘It all began with a beautiful pass from Cantona…’ Because, as we see, for Bishop it really does.

This affection for the ties of a working-class community, of the workplace, the networks of mutual support and care, of struggle and aspiration, that undergird Loach’s portrait of football fans is not new for him. And neither is the focus on a fan’s hero. In 1968, a year before his breakthrough film Kes, Loach directed The Golden Vision, a play about a group of Everton fans and their then hero Alex Young, a will-o’-the-wisp of a player, quick-footed, deft and delightful, who, as my Everton-supporting granddad never tired of telling me, ‘was kicked out of the game’.

Interspersed with clips from actual games, and a behind-the-scenes look at Everton, the film’s focus was on those who did the lionising; that is, the fans themselves. In doing so, it portrayed the life of working-class men and women in 1960s Liverpool, from the pissed-up piss-taking in the pub, to the rapturous, cross-generational singalongs that climaxed around closing-time. They loved Everton, they worshipped Alex Young, as they had done Dixie Dean and they would Alan Ball, but most of all they loved each other. Neither over-sentimental nor over-forensic, it was a comic, loving work.

Looking for Eric is not ignorant of the difference between then and now. In a curiously stilted argument between fans of Manchester United and its anti-corporate FC United offshoot, many, we learn, simply cannot afford to go to the game anymore. ‘Look at the carpark on matchday. We couldn’t afford those types of cars’, says one disgruntled FC United fan. As Bishop remarks sadly to Cantona: ‘I miss going to the game, the only place where you could let it rip.’

But there are other changes afoot. The community is not what it was, a transformation embodied in the reign of a local gangster. Lacking both humanity and sympathy, this new generation is different. As Ryan explains to his stepdad, ‘They’re not like you or your mates. They don’t give a fuck.’ And that’s the point. Flash and arrogant, they don’t give a fuck about anybody. To this vain, self-seeking, ‘respect’-craving mentality, Bishop and pals are the antithesis, and as the film would have it, the antidote.

There are problems with this narrative. Attributing the demise of community to the force of gangsterism in its midst is a little simplistic, and the caricatured form in which it’s presented – all YouTube brutality and dangerous dogs – just adds to the slightly superficial approach, a battle between a nostalgic past and a fantastical, gang-ridden present. Still, Looking for Eric, insofar as it believes in the self-helping ethos nascent at the heart of a community, no matter how bereft it may seem, is a film of unusual optimism. So for fans of football and humanity, Looking for Eric, for all its occasional sentimentality and hopeful nostalgia, is a welcome antidote to the all-too-gritty fantasy of much contemporary would-be realism.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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