PM Pick

From the Beautiful Game to le beau jeu

Raphaël Costambeys-Kempczynski
The Art of Game by Michael J. Browne, 1997

On French footballers playing in England, and the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Perhaps the English need to feel that whatever they endeavour to undertake, success must always come against the odds. This gives them something to kick against. And if (or when) things go belly up, then it's just a case of 'told you so'. Being overtly good at anything just goes against the underdog spirit and breeds arrogance, a quality that a certain English contingency often associate with their cross channel neighbours (in fact, according to a study entitled Why the French are the Worst Company on the Planet by the professor of political and social communication Olivier Clodong and the journalist José-Manuel Lamarque it would seem that this view of France is shared amongst their European neighbours to the apparent delight of such French-bashing articles as The Daily Telegraph's 'Europe Unites in Hatred of French' where its author Henry Samuel claims that "the French refuse to accept what arrogant, overbearing monsters they are", but to great comic delight in Agnès Poirier's Guardian article 'You Love Us Really': "A country where trains arrive on the dot, the health system is still the best in the world, girls are beautiful (and thin), best friends of 20 years fall out over the European referendum and grammatical issues, people kiss endlessly almost everywhere, take to the streets at the slightest whim, discuss for hours the way to cook coq au vin, cry when they read Voltaire. How can they not be arrogant when they have so many reasons to be proud of their country?").

But back to England and its culture of disenchantment, a scenario in which the last thing you need is for pundits to agree that this is the best England football team for 'forty years of hurt', i.e., since the last time England won the World Cup. Things start to feel uncomfortable. Belief in the possible success of your country still makes you feel a bit dirty. It remains easier to discuss how flying the Cross of St George is a way of reclaiming the flag from the likes of such right-wing extremists as the British National Party, rather than admitting you are willing to unashamedly and ostentatiously express a basic notion of tribal belonging because of your strong belief in your nation's inevitable victory.

Talking as an Englishman of mixed heritage the best outcome would be similar to the Black, Blanc, Beur (Black, White, Arab) rallying neo-tricolour of France '98, where the English national flag is no longer seen as a symbol of exclusion but one of inclusion. Things appear to be moving in this direction as sales of the flag have doubled compared to the last World Cup four years ago. It has been attached to workmen's vans and politicians' bicycles, it has been hoisted above 10 Downing Street the official residence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (and not just England, though none of the other home nations have qualified for the tournament), and perhaps most fittingly of all: most of the flags sold in England are made in China. You see, even I am turning this into a socio-political debate rather than concentrating on what we're really talking about: believing that England will beat the rest coz we're the best (etc.).

The makers of the chocolate bar Mars have been perhaps the most blatant in cashing in on this new burgeoning self-belief with their 'Believe' campaign. So far this has included a believe-athon with 'popular psychic guru' Uri Gellar (I'm not sure which adjective deserved the inverted commas so I went with all three), as well as television ads where 'Bill Lever', the new John Bull with a dodgy pun thrown in, tries to convince people to keep the week of 11 July free so that they can enjoy the victory parade. Perhaps most sickening of all is that Masterfoods, the company that makes Mars, have actually changed the name of the bar to 'Believe' for the duration of the World Cup.

What will happen next? Will they push people to believe that those who don't eat Mars bars are partaking in a blatantly unpatriotic act? Get the crisp eaters! Maybe the manufacturers believe that the high levels of serotonin produced by eating vast amounts of chocolate will soften the blow when England eventually get knocked out. But perhaps where the advertisers have been really clever is in having a 'seed of doubt' section on their Mars Believe website, which includes a number of gags such as a world cup shape appearing on the wall of a burnt out pub called the Three Lions, and a trailer featuring Bill Lever's dad questioning his son's sanity in view of his naïve belief in England's chances.

But with all this dilly-dallying — not knowing whether to be cynical or undoubting — what a relief then when Wayne Rooney, the wunderkind striker, broke his toe last April. At last we can once again vent our pessimistic scepticism. The ensuing soap opera, the will-he-won't-he-be-fit-to-play saga, has allowed us all to start disbelieving again. Phew. So when a friend suggested that this might be a blessing in disguise because it would allow England to field a more integrated team rather than a team built around one man, I did what any mature rational man would do; I stuck my fingers in my ears and shouted 'I can't hear you' repeatedly.

This isn't the first time such an ailment has come to the rescue of English self-deprecation. In April 2002, David 'Metrosexual' Beckham broke the second metatarsal in his left foot, leaving the nation mourning for what might have been. He recovered enough to captain England in Japan, but was obviously far from fit. Having reached the quarter finals of the 2002 World Cup, England crashed out to a 10-man Brazil, leaving us with the familiar feeling that the England football team is just a bit rubbish.

If only Thierry Henry were English. The one footballing story that almost managed to eclipse Rooney's race against the clock to get fit, was another will-he-won't-he saga, this time featuring the Frenchman and his possible move from the London club Arsenal to Barcelona. Most would agree, men and women alike I'm sure, that the English Premier League would be much the poorer without Henry. Things came to a head when the final of this year's European Champion's League, possibly the world's greatest club tournament, pitted both clubs against each other, or perhaps more poignantly opposed arguably the two best players in the world: Henry and the Brazilian Ronaldinho. But the match posed a dilemma: this being the only major trophy Henry hasn't won with Arsenal, a win would surely offer him closure and signal his moment to move on. Arsenal fans, therefore, had the truly English sadomasochistic pleasure of revelling in a lose-lose situation.

Arsenal lost and Henry subsequently announced that he was staying on in England. For the English, beyond his athletic abilities, Henry epitomises French sophistication. Watching him play the beautiful game is a lesson in the art of seduction. But his style, touch, and flair, gelled together with the right amount of continental cheek, appear to be just as much a part of his character off the pitch. So when two Arsenal fans working on promoting the Renault Clio saw Henry, they immediately realised that here was the man that would redefine the maker's 'va va voom' slogan. And so began Henry's four year postmodern quest with the advertisers Gerry Moira and Ira Joseph to find the meaning of 'va va voom' and its French translation in a series of television adverts which had him driving through seedy neon-flooded streets in one episode and playing the drums with Animal in another repeatedly asking "Hey Bobby, what's the French for va va voom?" Of course, he never discovered the answer because in true postmodern-style, he himself was the French for va va voom.

As from this year he is no longer the face of the Renault Clio, but because he will forever be associated with va va voom, the longer he stays in England the longer the slogan will echo through him on the football pitch. The fact that Henry is staying on in London will have made the UK branch of the French carmaker give off a huge sigh of relief.

Thierry Henry was not the first French footballer playing in England to establish himself in the English cultural psyche enough to end up promoting non-sporting related products. David Ginola famously uttered a Gallic "because I'm worth it" to promote L'Oreal shampoo, and perhaps because of this deserves to be credited with single-handedly putting an end to any future possible comeback of the perm in sporting circles. Ginola was a maverick player, and like Henry was adopted by the English fans because he did what the English expect of the French: he favoured the beautiful over the game. His ability to make the ball move along impossible flight paths seemingly through the power of philosophical thought — he always seemed to prefer the arguments of skill over physical effort — saw him cast as the new-age guru of a retreat for the rich and famous called The Centre in a BBC spoof documentary. The parodic mantra of this fictional Wiltshire spa was 'Be Well, Be Safe, Believe.' The BBC were ahead of their time.

But no commentary on French footballers playing in England would be complete without mentioning the roi himself, Eric Cantona. Having retired from professional football almost 10 years ago at the height of his career at Manchester United, King Cantona is still a huge cultural icon in England. From his karate kick on a the fan of an opposing team after being sent off by the referee for a dangerous tackle, to his attempts at explaining it away with a seemingly philosophical statement ("When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea"), Cantona was admired for his Mediterranean passion (he is orginally from Marseille). But, away from not having been involved in adverts for non-sporting products, perhaps what sets his style apart from his compatriots was precisely his ability to mix the beautiful with the dirtily honest, or as Darren Tulett put it in his Observer article 'The Assailant' , to mix charisma with an edge of menace. He was perhaps the Paul Cezanne of football. And because of this, more than simply being the adopted son of the footballing nation of England, if he had wanted it, Cantona would probably have been offered a British passport.

It comes then as no surprise then that Michael J. Browne's 1997 painting entitled 'The Art of Game' Cantona holding the Cross of St George with the likes of Beckham at his feet and the Scottish Manchester United manager Alec Ferguson seemingly blessing his favourite son. Even Nike saw the potential of this growing cross channel phenomenon and cashed in with the the slogan '66 was a great year for English football. Eric was born.

Both Cantona and Ginola went on to have careers in cinema and one wonders what awaits Thierry Henry when he retires. I think he could be the first French James Bond. If there's a marketing man out there who thinks he can make that idea work, then I'll be first in the queue at the premier.

But back to the near future and the England football team's chances in this year's World Cup. To be honest, who knows?

But which of today's players could make up an English version of this holy trinity? The permutations would make for endless rants down the pub. Perhaps the first two that would spring to mind would be the England captain David Beckham as the Father, and Wayne Rooney as the Son. Rooney may be the proto-footballing athlete, built as he is like a powerhouse, but it would take some stretch of the imagination to qualify him as having a sense of French savoir-être. Beckham poses an interesting problem: his keeness to define himself along continental lines off the football pitch, by doing such daring things as wearing a sarong by the French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, has led to much confusion among sporting fans. After all, when he's on the park his primary role is as the quintessential English winger, crossing balls in from the right. He does this brilliantly, with ample sophistication, indeed, beautifully, but remains just a bit gauche when trying to transfer this sophistication to his life outwith football.

What about the Spirit? Steven Gerard? Frank Lampard? Joe Cole? In fact, it is in trying to resolve this issue that we come closest to England's answer to French sophistication. My choice for the English incarnation of the Holy Ghost has to be Peter Crouch. The 6'7" striker has already become hugely popular in England, not so much for his scoring ability but because of a robotics-style (the qualifier is defintiely required in this context) dance first performed in a World Cup warm up game against Hungary on 30th May. This truly was a vision to behold: the tallest man ever to have played for England personnifying the Arctic Monkeys' line "Dancing to electro-pop like a robot from 1984". Crouchy may not have the suave elegance of Henry, but doing a break-dancing arm wave like a wedding day father-in-law is a lesson in English self-derision that if reproduced on the world stage this month will guarantee him the status of World Cup cult hero. And if, or when, we find ourselves on the losing side, we'll at least be able to turn to Crouchy's antics, raise our pints, and cry 'mad dogs and Englishmen!'

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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