The Damned United is a British drama adapted from the acclaimed novel by David Peace about the controversial football manager Brian Clough and his turbulent 44 days in charge of Leeds United in 1974. Clough took the position when Leeds’ legendary manager Don Revie departed for the England national team, his decision motivated as much by a desire to prove that he was a better manager than his bitter rival Revie as the opportunity to lead one of the most successful clubs in the country. But Clough’s abrasive style came up against players who worshipped Revie and who resented the newcomer’s intention to change the way they played. Michael Sheen plays Clough, adding to his list of film portrayals of real-life personalities such as Tony Blair in The Queen and David Frost in Frost/Nixon.
The Damned United was a fairly straightforward film to classify since one issue – strong language – determined its category within which all other issues were accommodated quite comfortably. The BBFC Guidelines at 12A/12 state that ‘The use of strong language (for example, ‘fuck’) must be infrequent’, a requirement which was clearly not met by the thirty-plus uses of the ‘f-word’ in the film which established its classification at 15 where the Guidelines allow for the ‘frequent use of strong language’.
The film also contains some moments of mild sporting violence as we see some foul tackles and players fighting on the field, both in dramatised form and in television footage of games, which includes a shot of a player with blood on his leg being carried from the field on a stretcher. None of this is particularly strong or detailed and is familiar from what can be seen in televised matches today. As a classification issue, the violence would have been containable at PG and required only minor consideration at the 15 category at which the film was passed.
An interesting side-issue in the film, albeit not one that informed the BBFC’s consideration of the category at which it should be passed, is the presence of cigarette smoking. We see the characters of Clough himself, as well as players of the time, smoking on a frequent basis - which seems quite startling to a modern audience accustomed to the impeccable fitness regimes of today’s athletes.
There is a clear concern in the public’s view of portrayals of smoking in films, especially those that have significant appeal to children, and a film about football could reasonably be assumed to have some attraction to young boys. But the film is set in the 1970s and, although it deals with real football personalities, these would not be very familiar to a young audience of today and so the potential for the smoking being overtly glamorised or promoted is greatly diminished.
The Damned United is different from the Goal! trilogy of films which tell the story of a contemporary young man’s rise to football stardom and include appearances by some of the most famous modern footballers of the modern era, including David Beckham. The three Goal! films were all passed at 12A/12 and clearly carry considerable appeal to children; smoking is not an issue in these films, but had it been then, although it may not have had a bearing on the categories given, the BBFC might have considered signalling its presence in the BBFCinsight - the additional information that accompanies classification decisions in order to warn parents concerned about the issue.
Had the language issue in The Damned United been of a nature that allowed the film to have been passed at a category below 15 then it is likely that the smoking, even with the allowance given to the ‘historical’ setting of the film and its relative lack of appeal to a younger audience, would have been highlighted in accordance with the BBFC’s Guidelines which state that ‘Where smoking, alcohol abuse or substance misuse feature to a significant extent in works which appeal to children, this will normally be indicated in the BBFCinsight'.