Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Oscar goes to Tannadice

Scottish football's great cinematic triumph?

Perhaps not Ally McCoist's turn in A Shot at Glory, the underwhelming dénouement of Robert Duvall's odd fitba' flirtation.

What of John Wark's monosyllabic scene stealing in Escape to Victory?

Or the sainted Gordon Smith's experience of being an extra as Hitchcock directed Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief?

Maybe not. Better, perhaps, to travel back to 1930s Dundee.

Then, as now, a two team town. But in the 1930s Dundee United toiled in the Second Division and in the shadow of their city rivals.

In 1936-37 Dundee finished ninth in the First Division while United were a rather listless 14th in the second tier.

So far, so unremarkable. But even in the interwar years it was unheard of for clubs to be led by an amateur.

A player's vote, however, had decided that United's captain for the season would be a 21 year old amateur from Greenock who had studied law at the University of Edinburgh.

Neil Paterson played 25 games that season, his nine goals including a hat trick. But, perhaps like Willo Flood after him, here was a United player with a hinterland to explore.

The first amateur to captain a professional club in Britain, Paterson decided the pen was mightier than the football boot and left Tannadice to take a job with DC Thomson.

War service intervened but by 1947 he was an award winning writer and his 1948 fictional biography The China Run was anointed "book of the year" by Somerset Maugham in the New York Times.

1950's Behold Thy Daughter became an international best seller and grabbed another "book of the year" nod, this time from the Evening Standard.

The Kidnappers, an adaptation of a Paterson short story, tasted Oscars success in 1953 and his "taut and tense" writing - "the "the best story-teller Scotland has produced since Stevenson" - seemed a perfect fit for the cinema.

And it was as a screenwriter that he became the first and, with the future career of David Goodwillie still undecided, so far the only former Dundee United player to win an Oscar.

1960 was the year of Ben-Hur. A film so long that many Academy members agreed to vote for it simply to make good their escape from the picture house as Charlton Heston led the charge to an unprecedented 11 Oscars.

But not 12.

Neil Paterson stood firm between the rise of Christianity and a glorious dozen.

His adaption of John Braine's Room at the Top snatched the Best Adapted Screenplay award, beating both Ben-Hur's Karl Tunberg and Billy Wilder for Some Like it Hot.

It also spearheaded the growth of British New Wave cinema, bringing a different Britain to cinema screens.

Realistic, gritty, uncompromising, often harsh. It might not have been far removed from a 1930s Second Division game at Tannadice.

Paterson himself didn't move far, eschewing Hollywood for Perthshire where he retired to golf and serving the Scottish arts community.

A Scottish Oscar winner is rare. An Oscar winning amateur captain of Dundee United will be forever unique.

Neil Paterson died in 1995, sadly too early to avenge Dundee's dominance of the 1930s by giving a cinematic sweep to their managerial farce of the last few days.

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