Friday, 7 March 2014

On the sofa with film-maker Ray Hyland

Ray Hyland is a film-maker based in Dublin. I recently caught up with Ray to discuss his latest film Riffed to be released in April 2014.

(Above) New Talent: Irish Film-maker Ray Hyland.

DW: Hi Ray, I last interviewed you in April 2011. What have you been doing for the past 3 years?

RH: Hey Dan. Well since then I have done a few different things. I was living with a friend (Pat McKenna) in Dublin who has been an integral part of my movie making schemes since the beginning. Pat was keen on making a start on his own projects so I helped him as best I could. I also got back into the habit of writing for the first time in a long time. Finished a novel but probably need to 'fine tooth comb' it before it's ready for public consumption. I lived in County Kerry for a year from 2012 to 2013. It is on the South West Coast of Ireland and is renowned for its passions in Gaelic games, literature and fishing. The rain falls everyday but they didn't mention that on the brochures. I was there for a media studies course which I quite enjoyed. The course covered quite a bit including photo shop, illustrator and video production. I had been making various video projects since Swayed in 2010 and All About Andy 2011. These ranged from traditional Irish music videos to school plays and introduction videos for a University. I thought the course might help with aspects of my video production. I have since recognised how important it is to have as many skills as possible. 

DW: Let's talk about Riffed. I've watched the trailer and it looks original and exciting. Tell me about the origins of the idea?

RH: Okay this is going to long winded but stick with me! I usually have about 5 or 6 ideas floating around in my head but since 2011 I had actively avoided the topic of 'my next film' when people asked me. I was disappointed by the way the other projects had gone before. Swayed had plenty going for it but I shot it on a camera that was too old and didn't have the first clue how to get it viewed by people who wanted to see films like that. All About Andy was a good project but again we went down the road of using popular music which is a definite no no. I had been running short film nights since 2011 with Paul Halpin and we were getting in all types of films, good, bad and indifferent. I could see some films that were better than my own but couldn't figure out whether this was because of talent, access to equipment or the fact they had specific producers and tutors in their colleges who told them about upcoming festivals. It was too easy making excuses and the breaking point came when I wrote a script for this guy who wanted to see his idea come to life. It was while I was down in County Kerry and he turned out to be a complete time waster. No offence to him but it was a harsh lesson to learn. The only way you get better at making films is to make them. The concept of Riffed was borne out of a desire to have a guy walk along a corridor into work, shot on a nice smooth dolly, something that simple set it all off. I had worked in an office for about 6 years back in the noughties so I knew once I got in there all the bad memories would start flooding back and they did!

'Riffed is based around the time of the 2009 recession. A British company is closing its Dublin office due to the downturn and it's up to local area manager 'Glen' to decide who to keep'.

Ray Hyland speaking to IFM about Riffed.

DW: Riffed is filmed in black and white. Some critics might level arrogance at film-makers who chastise colour. In 2014, there is High-definition, Blue-ray disc and 3DTV, I'm interested to know why you made this decision? 

RH: I am not a particularly gifted photographer but some of my friends are. Just about everyone I know now have a DSLR camera, most of them better than mine. But two of my friends Gavin Herbert and Mo McDonald are totally committed to using film as opposed to digital. They have these old Minoltas and Pentax stills cameras from back in the 70s and 80s. I had been watching these guys use these for about the last 4 or 5 years fascinated by the results they were getting. Above all though their composition and use of light was something that stuck with me. I started filming Riffed in colour but it was always at the back of my mind that this dull uninspiring office location was ideal for a black and white film. I was confident that what basic knowledge I had for photo shop and light room would convert to video editing too. I think it conveys the mood of the story too, at least I hope so.

(Above) The character Lewis in Riffed

DW: I understand the film is 60 minutes in length. This is an interesting duration. An hour is longer than a short film and falls short of the normal length of a feature. Did you give the length any consideration beforehand?

RH: This decision was dictated really by the talent. After watching back the audition footage I got writing the script proper. The scenes were just flying onto the page. I think I wrote the whole first draft in two nights, 80 pages just like that. After a few weeks I cut it back a bit but I really wanted to see these guys in action as much as possible. I knew it meant I might be putting myself out of contention for festivals and stuff but in truth that really didn't bother me. 

DW: You have an impressive cast. How did you audition the talent?

RH: I met 80% of the cast at the auditions without really having a script to work off. They were invited to bring a short monologue that I hoped would convey their personalities well. I also got them to do some improvisation after this. I had written out a couple of pages of everyday office scenarios on small strips of paper and divided them into groups. It was a great way of finding out what they were like. Some actors bring more of themselves into an audition than others.

(Above) Actor Clide Delaney.

I had cast Neil Gorman first, that was over a cup of tea and a sandwich in a cafe. Neil was Alan Shepherd in Swayed and he was well received for that. I wanted him to be something completely different this time around. We had met years ago working together in an office and we got through many tough shifts by making fun of our bosses in their cosy little private offices. Emily Elphinstone then, well she plays Tammy who is the daughter of the millionaire businessman who owns the company at the centre of Riffed. She was cast because I had seen her in numerous plays where she was gentle and nice. I thought she might like a change of pace. There were a few others. Ban Kelly has been in a number of short films with me and gets better and better, he's a complete natural. Then Rebecca Grimes, who has a list of credits as long as your arm but was nice enough to come onboard when she could've easily passed. She is a pleasure to work with as were of all of them, I have been very lucky to get this band together at this moment in time.

DW: I read in an interview you did with IFM, that you used an EX 1 and Nex 3 for cameras, Zoom mic and Arri lighting kit. Tell me about the reasons for this choice of kit. You said in the IFM interview that it was 'probably more of a documentary inventory'. Was this a conscious decision?

RH: Well yep it was as basic as all that really. When I was down in County Kerry I had met James Sullivan, an absolute gent if ever I saw one. He was a whiz at all things and reminded me of what I could be if I stopped going out partying every weekend. He came onboard as a cinematographer and I was planning to do the basic lighting set ups myself. This was standard three point lighting, real videography lesson two stuff, but it works. Anyway between the lack of funds and maybe even my own reluctance to get people to help out for free we didn't have too much of a crew so we didn't need that much equipment. Pat McKenna came in and helped out on sound and Gavin Herbert was our stills photographer. I double jobbed as a boom operator for the first weekend, which I didn't mind doing. The choice of equipment was budget based. The EX 1 is fine so long as you light your subjects well and then my own trusty NEX 1 works wonders with an 1980s prime lens. We did also use a dolly for a few key shots but it had a moody front axle so we couldn't utilize it as much as we would have liked. I would highly recommend to any film-maker the selection of ZOOM microphones available. Sony make good ones too but Zoom have a range from £80-£300 so they're very affordable, good quality audio recorders.

DW: I understand the premiere of Riffed will be screened this coming April in Dublin. I'm planning to make the flight over to watch it. What is the plan for the film? Are you going to get a distributor onboard? 

RH: Yes the screening is going to be on April 15th. I hope it will be well attended. I think it's important the cast and crew get to see the fruits of their efforts. After that I hope to enter it into some festivals. The ideal situation would be that even if we can't get a distributor willing to fund our festivals submissions that at the very least someone might point us in the right direction. Entries are expensive and it's heartbreaking to pay £50 to enter a festival and get a two line sorry message back without any further feedback. If I can pinpoint the right way to go I think we could be onto a winner. But it's the toughest part of making a film, real make or break stuff.

DW: I read somewhere that you produced Riffed on a budget of 2,000 euros. Would you have done anything different if the budget had been significantly larger, say 20,000 euros? Or do you think a film will only benefit when the stakes are in the hundreds of thousands, or even millions?

RH: If we had 20,000 I don't think the film would've looked dramatically different. Granted it might look a little bit more upmarket and polished but with that amount of coin I think the first thing I would've done is pay people. I might go off on a rant here so beware!

Nowadays in Ireland if a film-maker gets 20k it is either because he's got a healthy list of credits or that he's somehow managed to scrape it together with an internet funding campaign. The government run film board over here is not designed to finance films specifically to make a profit. In order to get financed you have to have a proper business plan with a breakdown of staff and how you want to pay them. The actual story, I would guess is pretty far down on their list of priorities. I don't think this is a bad thing. If people can get regular work in this business because of those well policed guidelines then good luck to them.

But the really well financed programming and film in Ireland is not indigenous. A big name from the US or Britain needs to come aboard before you start seeing the big money come in. This is a nation who happily entertained themselves for years before the advent of television. The glamour of America and the United Kingdom is something we can't really rival nor should we try to. I think that Ireland has had a fascinating few years but I don't see it adequately documented in film. I see the same thing time after time now, with us trying to mimic the big American productions with inferior budgets and more importantly inferior writing.

In all honestly this film was made because I wanted to make it. That's the bottom line. It's a hard life being 'just' a writer. You wait and wait for a break that might never happen and I know that some writers get a break because they know somebody on the inside that helps them along. That is the same of both the publishing world and stage and screen. Hell one of our country's most popular chick-lit authors is the daughter of a former prime minister (I wonder how that happened?) I wasn't going to wait around two years in the hope that one of my stories would be picked out of a pile. So now after making it you face the reality that most production houses and distributors don't know you, they see your film and see that it doesn't have their fingerprints all over it. They could argue that your little production isn't up to their standards and they would probably be right. But a pretty looking film does not a profit make.

We have an identity crisis as a nation and it shows up in the work that's out there in the mainstream.

DW: In our last interview, you spoke about the influence of the French New Wave. Is this still the case? Or have you identified other styles? For example, the Dogme95 radical film movement. Would you ever consider shooting a film which adheres to the Dogme95 ten rule manifesto?

RH: Well I must admit I wasn't too familiar with Dogme 95 until recently though unknowingly I have adopted their way or working on occasion. I don't know if that mindset would successful in Ireland in the modern age. Nor anywhere for that matter. I watched Festen which I thought was brilliant but persuading people to go and watch films like that is challenging. Not just for the film's subject but the way the films are made.They are not particularly cinematic and quite often the soundtrack can be inconsistent and I'm not sure people will put up with that. The thing that makes it different to the New Wave (I'm talking Wenders, Godard, Truffaut etc) is that there is no real planning done on the technical side of things. In the 50s and 60s most of the audio was put in afterwards, so you didn't note howling wind or fluctuating dialogue. I would put up with all these little annoyances for the sake of a good story but I'm not sure other people would. Plus the black and white thing, Godard knew his bananas went it came to cinematography. I didn't think so for a long time, now I do.

But Dogme95 was a beautiful concept, it came around just at the right time. Lars Von Trier has such a great mind that even if these films were not always technically great there was something in there worth watching. I wouldn't think it's something every budding film-maker should aspire to however. Not everyone is Von Trier.

Everybody has a camera now as I mentioned earlier. Everybody wants to be the hero in their own lives. Just look at the past week's Oscar ceremony. McConaughey, whose work I enjoy, admitted he is his own hero. I think this perfectly encapsulates the modern age. You see people spending 5,000 on wedding albums and videos. Fuck man, I could make you Ben Hur for that. 

Everyone is a little bit full of themselves and those who show any signs of shyness are easily ignored. If 500 people enter a film festival and most of them tell stories with the usual cliches you can bet the judging committee will get all hung up on the window dressing completely ignoring the fact the films they've picked are pretty much the same films as the previous years. Why do they do this? Well because there is that fear. Fear of the unknown. Don't get me wrong, I am not an avant garde director (not purposely anyway) who is going to film a four hour long video of a ketchup bottle and liken it to Samuel Beckett. But our base desires are so primitive and they need to be nurtured so that's why we see the same thing over and over again, just with slightly different packaging.

What the New Wave had going for it was it made film making accessible to those who didn't have a background in film or someone on the inside. It wasn't cheap to do however. I think the mistake most people make is that Godard and the like were some kind of beatniks who couldn't afford to make proper films. I think they actively worked the way they did because they wanted the audience to think differently in the theatre, not to spoon fed plots. Unfortunately many have missed the point lately and the internet is all but killing off this free thinking attitude. Without realising we are slowly conforming. Film schools are killing off the mavericks and the only way into the business on your own terms is to make a crazy music video which will probably be seen by nobody because hey, the music channel doesn't show music videos anymore!

I would say the real revolution has been this digital era, specifically with editing software and cameras been something we can all buy now. That is great but there is little doubt that most films are awful these days. There is a reason why we are in this state. Exhaustion, brought on by marathon splurges of box set TV shows, designed by people who work out plot lines on graphs, figure out their target audience on pie charts and leave us all convinced our lives will be empty if we miss one vital episode. The key thing TV has done is make the most of the technology available. Sure it might rubbish you are watching, but it's the most beautiful looking rubbish you've ever seen.

The film scene is much the same, most films are safe bets, rehashed remakes or comic book nonsense. There are a handful of truly great directors out there whose work is appreciated. We should cherish them but instead they are treated like unwanted nuisances in multiplex theatres. It is very hard for newcomers to be creative under these conditions. 

It's a shame there isn't more of a revolutionary streak in people these days. They say the record companies and film companies really suffered with the internet, I just think there's a higher power at work now and we're even more at their mercy than ever. I'd rather be in a situation where I handed over my tenner and that was that, now it feels like I'm handing over my soul at times.

DW: What is next for Ray Hyland?

RH: I said earlier that I always have ideas running around my head. Films that could potentially work. For the next while I would really like to experiment with some things. Riffed is very much a dialogue driven piece. I would like my next film, whenever that is to be completely different. So if that takes two more years so be it. 

In the meantime I'll be staying busy. Writing obviously but also working on other people's projects. I'd love to be in a position where I could help other people along. Maybe make a few quid while I'm at it. That's the most satisfaction I would get, not the big pay day that'll probably never happen. Ideal scenario would that I'd buy myself a nice motorbike and go travelling but you wouldn't see me showing you around my crib on MTV!

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Besotted by Shaun Stafford

I have just finished reading transgressive writer Shaun Stafford's latest novel Besotted

The protagonist Benjamin Beerenwinkel is a moderately successful author who has been diagnosed with testicular cancer. 

Besotted follows Beerenwinkel on a harrowing journey into a world of broken relationships, terminal illness, alcoholism, gratuitous violence, unjust local policing, paternity results, gender dysphoria, incest and murder.  

The novel which runs to over three hundred pages isn't for the faint hearted. Beerenwinkel is a likeable character, but he is also a frightening individual. Stafford has created a central character who is put under pressure from the beginning. I couldn't help wonder if any reader who is brave enough to read this transgressive novel might identify with certain aspects of Beerenwinkel's character themselves. I certainly felt able to envisage plunging into the depths of despair which the protagonist did as his health and personal circumstances worsened. I think this is down to the intensity and power of the writing. On a personal level, as a fellow writer, I particularly enjoyed reading the passages about the protagonist's writing activities and the thought processes which occur in a writer's mind.

(Above) Besotted author Shaun Stafford. (Image taken from my interview with Shaun at the BFI London).

I also enjoyed the lesbian characters Katie and Anne. I thought they were believable, well developed characters. I liked the development of the teenage girl Sally. I thought Sally's blossoming character worked well in contrast to Beerenwinkel's physical deterioration. I did spot the father/daughter possibility early doors, but maybe this is because I read it as a writer, not a reader. 

The writing is slick. Stafford has also done his homework as far as the information relating to cancer is concerned. The descriptions of the condition reminded me of Houellebecq's impressive knowledge of his subject matter in Atomised

The ending of Besotted was explosive. It reminded me of Killer Joe by Tracy Letts. The final scenes of the novel had a real American gore factor, but it worked. 


Besotted has a dark, unsettling, dysfunctional feel about it - although I think there are extracts in the book which are so well written that it's almost cinematic to read. Admittedly, Besotted is not a feel good novel, but it certainly makes you think about your own mortality. If you've got a sturdy literary appetite then I'd recommend Besotted

Besotted is available here -

Thursday, 27 June 2013

An interview with Film Producer Shaun Martin (The Worst Crime)

DW - Hi Shaun - what is the thinking behind a production diary?  

SM - I guess what we wanted to do was generate some kind of interest in the film before it’s actually produced.   There are lots of people who’d like to get involved in film-making, but aren’t sure of what’s actually involved.  The production diary for the film lets people know that film-making can be fun, but it can also be quite stressful.

DW - The Worst Crime is part of a trilogy of thought-provoking films about crime in the UK. Do you see yourself as a political film-maker?

SM - I think people can make fun, entertaining films, but especially with the short film market, it’s important that you create an impact in, say, 10 minutes of screen time.  With the first film in the trilogy, “The Morning After”, I know for a fact that we left people with this feeling of, “What happens next”.  But more importantly, at the premiere, people were discussing the guy in the film and what’s just happened to him.  It made them think about the phenomenon of date rape.  In “The Morning After”, John Evans isn’t a hero.  He’s not an anti-hero.  He’s a guy caught up in a situation, and to be honest, we, the audience, don’t actually know whether or not he actually did commit rape.  Political film-maker?  I think once we get the third one in the trilogy completed, we’re going to try to make a film that’s less heavy going!

DW - The first film in the trilogy The Morning After examines the hard hitting subject of rape and consent, but the second one represents another moral panic in society which is drink driving. Why have you chosen these two areas and not for example human trafficking or paedophilia?

SM - I think you’re right when you describe drink driving as a moral panic.  I like that.  Yes, people have really got it in for drink driving.  Okay, it is a crime, but it certainly isn’t as reprehensible as human trafficking or paedophilia.  With “The Worst Crime”, we’re trying to show that you can actually have your life utterly ruined by committing that particular crime.  But when you scale it all down, drinking and driving is, essentially, a motoring offence.  The guy in the film, he’s been to prison, but he hasn’t killed anybody, he hasn’t injured anybody, and the only person who’s suffered as a consequence of him committing the crime is himself.  So we have the lead character, destroyed, trying to tell his friend that there are far worse crimes out there.  The lead character’s actually quite bitter!

DW - Authenticity is an important part of social realism. How much research did you have to do before agreeing to produce the film?

SM - The guy who wrote the screenplay has been through what the lead character in the film has been through.  I guess he’s writing from the heart.  But as a film-maker, I’ve got to make the scenes look realistic on film.  We’re not shooting a documentary, so there’s an element of poetic licence, but it’s more a case of just making sure that what the screenplay says is actually true – i.e., you can actually go to prison just for committing the offence of drinking and driving, without there being any other aggravating factors.  When the lead character talks about life inside, I think that came from Shaun Stafford’s experience as a prison officer.  Basically, we’re relying on the screenplay writer to create realistic dialogue, and for the actors to also deliver their lines in a realistic manner.  So perhaps for that, research doesn’t really come into it from my perspective as a producer.

DW - Drink driving campaigns and adverts on television have been present on our screens for a number of years. Why do you want to produce this film now? 

SM - Short answer?  Those campaigns vilify drunk drivers.  This film, hopefully, shows that a drunk driver’s life can be utterly ruined without there being any third-party casualties.  It’s basically trying to say, okay, it’s a crime, it’s a stupid crime, but come on, is it really the worst crime a person can commit?  I’ve had this debate with friends and family before.  Arguments about it, even, so I guess as well as educating people who might perhaps commit the offence of drinking and driving, I like the idea of educating people who basically describe drink drivers as potential child killers.  I’ve looked into the statistics as part of the research, and I think it’s something like 93% of people who test positive for alcohol at the roadside have not actually committed any visible motoring offence (such as speeding, or having an accident).   It’s something like 5% of road deaths are caused by drunk drivers.  Okay, that’s a shocking statistic, but we’re also ignoring the fact that far more road deaths are caused by speeding, and yet I think most people speed without anybody considering that their particular crime is reprehensible.

DW - Do you think there is a profile for a typical drink drive offender? For example, child killers often have a similar back-story. Do you think anybody in society could become guilty of drink driving? 

SM - I think there are lots of people who say, “I’d never drink and drive” and there are also lots of people who admit that they’ve done it in the past.  Personally, I think it’s a stupid crime to commit.  I think there are safer ways of getting home after a night out – get a taxi.  There’s no excuse for getting utterly shit-faced and driving home.  It’s sheer stupidity.  But some people are actually caught the next day when they’re driving to work.  Is there a profile for a typical drink drive offender?  I don’t think so.  I think everybody has the capacity to be stupid, whether they have a professional career or whether they sweep the streets.  And because some people are caught the next day, when they still have alcohol in their system, I guess that widens the profile even further.  So I suppose that anybody in society has the capacity to become a drink drive offender.

DW - What do you want viewers to take away from the film? What would you say to someone whose loved one has been killed by a drink driver who shows genuine remorse? 

SM - As I’ve said previously, I want people to be educated, I want them to think about the crime of drinking and driving.  I’d like them to realize what they’ve got to lose if they get behind the wheel of a car when they’ve been drinking.  But I want people to consider that there are far worse crimes that a person can commit.  What would I say to some whose loved one has been killed by a drink driver?  Well, that’s a tough question.  A drink driver who’s killed somebody – that’s a whole different offence.  But I suppose the person didn’t get behind the wheel of a car intending to actually kill somebody.  Yeah, they should’ve realized the risks, but to be honest, people do very stupid things when they’re drunk.  They don’t think of the consequences because of the alcohol in their system.  I’m not saying people should be excused their crime because they’re drunk, and I guess if your loved one has been killed by a drink driver, you’re never going to be able to forgive and forget, and I wouldn’t be patronizing enough to expect people who have been affected in that way to take anything from this film.

DW - How difficult was it to get permission from Rutland County Council to shoot some scenes at the site of the former prison HMP Ashwell?

SM - Rutland County Council were actually very accommodating.  The guy in charge of the development of HMP Ashwell, Pritesh Parmar, was very helpful but also incredibly busy!  It’s only in the last week that we’ve managed to get the paperwork signed.  We’re only going to use the prison gate – there’s no scenes inside a prison cell – but we’re very grateful to Pritesh and the council for giving us permission to film there.

DW - The shoot commences in three days’ time on June 29th/30th. What is the biggest challenge as a producer during the final stages of pre-production?

SM - The challenges are pretty immense and pretty stressful.  Getting everybody involved in the production together on the days of the shoot – making sure that they’re all available – that takes some coordination.  It’s only in the last week or so that we’ve managed to finally get the locations tied down.  It’s like I’m telling the actors to be at HMP Ashwell on Sunday, but I hadn’t actually got the signature from Rutland County Council.  Okay, I knew it was just a formality, but even so, it’s quite stressful.  A lot of the work of producer is coordination – finding out when people are available, tying that in with locations, making sure there’s money in the kitty to pay people or, if they’re working for nothing, supplying them with food on the day of the shoot.  Even a micro-budget film can cost a lot of money to produce!

DW - Can you give us a 'teaser' of what is to come in the crime trilogy?

SM - I know that Shaun Stafford (the writer) is working on a short story called “The Night Before”, which kind of ties in with “The Morning After”, but as a producer, I don’t really want to revisit that scenario in this trilogy.  We have a screenplay ready to go which features a conversation between a home owner and a burglar – that’s the one we’re going to go with.  It’s called “His Home Is His Castle”.

DW - And finally, good luck with the shoot!

The production diary for 'The Worst Crime' can be found here:

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Review by short film critic Lee Hamilton

The review (below) is taken from short film critic and screenwriter Neil Hamilton's blog Shorts and T Shirts (17-02-12) -

Review of 'Bang Up Or Pay Back?' 

Length: 09:55
Written & directed by Dan Wagstaffe
Genre: Drama
Date: 2010
Rating: ★★★

Logline: The juxtaposition of one serial offenders life both inside and out of prison.

A thought provoking drama which presents what is possibly a reality to many men who are part of the prison system. This film doesn't sit on the fence and quite firmly portrays the view that prison is the "easy" option to living a "normal" life.

Paul Joseph takes the helm as the dimwitted con and does a good job of it too. The character doesn't have any direct dialogue as such but instead narrates the story in a series of small statements over related imagery. He not only becomes the pasty white physical embodiment of a long serving detainee but his dialogue is expressive and nicely understated too.

The film kicks off to a good start and I almost thought I was watching a music video at one point due to the extended music sequence and no speech. The camera work is excellent as is the picture quality. As much as the soundtrack sounds original and professional, I don't think it was a good fit tonally or functionally for the film.

The plot has both depth and symbolism. Time seems to become the bane of his life on the outside as opposed to the timelessness of a no responsibility prison sentence. Repetitive imagery too also gives stark reflection on mundane routine. Unfortunately, much like the main character's lack of any real focus, the film too has a tendency to drift and flounder. Especially in the second half where pace lessened and narration was thin. Overall, a refreshing perspective which isn't afraid to speak up.

Best Bit: For me, picture quality and minimalist dialogue.

Worst Bit: Drifts and loses momentum.

Final thought: No wonder he wants to get back into prison. And I thought my flat was a cowp.

Neil Hamilton on Twitter -!/shortsntshirts

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Alan Smith - a football Narnia

Alan Smith - a football Narnia begins on a bitterly cold day in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, England. The date is 4th February 2012 and a football match is being played between Huddersfield Town and MK Dons in the third division of English football. Despite the bleak financial climate and high levels of unemployment, almost 16,000 people have turned up to watch the game. There's nothing unusual about the fixture, apart from the fact that one of the visiting players is booed every time he touches the ball. The player's presence is upsetting the home supporters. A pantomime villain isn't a new concept in society; crowds of people have enjoyed booing the baddie for centuries, but on this occasion the hostility seems genuine. The noise reaches fever pitch and in the 66th minute the player is substituted. A deafening chorus of boos arrives from the terraces. The resentment is aimed at a thirty-one year old leaving the field of play. This might not seem like anything unusual, performers have been booed for decades, but this isn't any other footballer. The player in question is earning three million pounds a year! 

'Alan Smith earns 130 times more than a junior doctor, almost 15 times more than the prime minister and 7.5 times more than a leading heart cardiothoracic surgeon'

The player's name is Alan Smith. Firstly, I want to put Smith's earnings in context. So far this season, he's played four matches, but his current salary is almost 15 times more than the prime minister, 271 times more than the minimum wage, 173 times more than a UK soldier, 158 times more than the average UK salary, 130 times more than a junior doctor, 120 times more than a nurse, 100 times more than an experienced teacher, 60 times more than the highest earning police officer, 46 times more than a prison governor, 40 times more than a solicitor, 20 times more than a self employed barrister, almost 10 times more than the Queen's husband Prince Philip, 7.5 times more than a leading heart cardiothoracic surgeon, 6 times more than a prolific stock broker and 3 times more than a successful QC. In fact, the player earns almost half as much as the Queen who is paid £7.9 million a year by the state to do her job, but a lot of her money is spent on paying her staff's wages. In short, Smith is paid £60,000 a week regardless of his performance or physical fitness.

The above statistics might seem alarming, bordering on immoral, I don't disagree, but there's another side to the argument. There's a general consensus in society that there's a need for role models, a need for talented performers who entertain the masses, allowing them to escape the drudgery of their day to day lives; actors who touch people's lives with mesmerizing performances on the silver screen, musicians whose lyrics and live performances take audiences into a seamless dream of euphoria, not to mention world class sports stars who give pride back to their respective nations. I don't think the person on the street has an issue with Hollywood pay cheques awarded to performers whose achievements change lives and affect millions of people. And I don't think people have an issue with lucrative rewards being given to those who make a significant difference, but in a day and age where footballers have personally become the equivalent of multi-million pound business operations, it can only be expected that agents, sponsors and PR agencies will promote and endorse their clients whose names perpetually exist on luxurious contracts whether their client is delivering or not. 

I want to look at this football Narnia through the lens of Alan Smith's career. But why? I was there at the beginning. In early June 1995, I received a letter in the post (below):

On Wednesday 26th July 1995, I remember arriving at the residential school where Leeds United were holding a three day trial. However, I didn't know that I was about to witness the beginning of a seventeen year story which related to another of the teenage hopefuls. I remember being aware of Alan Smith's antagonistic presence early doors, but I passed him off as an irrelevant trouble causer. However, I did ask one of the coaches if they were planning to sign him and he said 'Oh we've already done that.' I remember being surprised. I also remember the other players being annoyed about Smith's confrontational attitude and his lacklustre attempts to cross decent balls into the box during a training exercise. I didn't think for one minute that I was in the presence of a future England striker who'd go on to earn £25 million over fourteen years! However, I do remember a large group of players following Smith around the training pitch as though he was the pied piper of confidence. 

I heard a rumour that one of the players had been invited to join the FA National Academy of Excellence at Lilleshall, but I couldn't work out which player they were talking about. It wasn't obvious as far as ability was concerned, but it turned out to be Alan Smith. One evening, I joined half a dozen other players, some of whom had already signed for Leeds on a walk into the village, but by the time we got back, the coaches had locked the doors and we were left outside. Anyway, just as it was getting dark, Alan Smith appeared from his bedroom window with a huge knowing grin on his face. He knew that we'd face the wrath of the coaches if we got caught outside so he made a point of teasing us. And it soon became clear that he wasn't going to open the door for us. Eventually, one of the Leeds players Gaz Hurley decided to risk life and limb by climbing up a 30ft drain pipe towards Alan Smith's bedroom window. I remember another player Daniel Jackson (who went on to play for Leeds in their successful youth cup winning team) pleading with Hurley to climb down, but he refused. It was a risky situation. I remember the atmosphere being tense as myself and others looked up in disbelief. If Hurley fell, he would have died, yet Smith found it hilarious. Amazingly, Hurley managed to climb through Smith's bedroom window, despite Smith's attempt to shut the window against him. A scuffle ensued in the bedroom, before Hurley ran downstairs and unlocked the back door. I remember, several players chasing Smith through the corridors of the residential school. It's fair to say that the future England international wasn't leaving a good impression. 

The following day, I saw a bit more of Smith's ability and it became clear that he could play. At fourteen he was small, but he didn't miss the target once. He was quick, verbally abusive and confrontational. He was like an aggressive whippet, but he was the quickest and nastiest player I'd come up against. There was some class players at the trial and they'd come from all over the country, in fact I remember a goalkeeper who'd come all the way from Canada, but to my knowledge none of them were signed, including myself. The coaches said they only planned to keep one or two players, one of whom would prove to be Alan Smith. I didn't know it at the time, but Smith was one of the subjects being filmed as part of a Granada TV programme which aimed to chart the journey of young footballers who'd joined Lilleshall in the autumn of 1995. 'The World At Their Feet' (ITV) looked at how these players would be groomed to be the best. 

Three years later, I was lying in the bath on a Saturday afternoon. It was 14th November 1998 and Leeds were trailing Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield. I remember my dad shouting upstairs 'Leeds have equalised.' I replied 'Who scored?' My dad replied 'Someone called Smith.' I remember thinking 'Smith? I don't know any Leeds players called Smith.' And then it dawned on me - Alan Smith! The 18 year old had been taken to the Liverpool game as a squad member by David O'Leary and thrown on quite unexpectedly half way through the game. Smith scored at the Anfield Kop with his first touch in professional football. It was the stuff of Roy Race. Leeds went on to win the game 3-1 and I remember watching the baby faced Smith celebrating his goal on Match Of The Day later that night. 

'Alan Smith's amazing rise to stardom at Leeds was the stuff of Hans Christian Andersen'

The follow up documentary to The World At Their Feet aired three years later and provided answers to many of the questions posed in the first documentary. The ( - 09/12/01) said 'Alan Smith's amazing rise to stardom at Leeds was the stuff of Hans Christian Andersen', whilst the (Independent - 28/02/99) reported how 'Sixteen kids, the cream of young English talent, arrived at Lilleshall, but The World At Their Feet featured only seven, six of whom are progressing nicely. What about the other nine? Are they flipping burgers, or signing on, or perhaps even finished by injuries? It may be that the film-makers did not know. Or perhaps they - or the FA - did not want us to know.' 
Smith's incredible start at Leeds continued in the next game with a goal against Charlton Athletic and it wasn't long before he found himself a first team regular. At the time, Leeds were introducing lots of talented young players into the first team and Smith played his part. During this period, Smith was awarded his first England cap as a substitute, and in typical Alan Smith fashion, he scored his one and only international goal on his full debut. As an 'England international' this would add a great deal of weight to any future contract and although Smith quickly picked up an abysmal disciplinary record, the Leeds coaching staff seemed to tolerate it. And then in 2003, Smith made headlines again for all the wrong reasons when he threw a bottle back into the crowd which ironically hit a Leeds supporter during a high-profile game against Manchester United. Smith was questioned and released on police bail where a police spokesman said a file would be passed to the Crown Prosecution Service. I always treat 'word of mouth' stories about footballers with caution, but I recall a mate at university telling me how he'd once encountered Smith in a Leeds snooker club. Smith allegedly walked past my mate's table and picked up one of the balls before rolling it back down the table. An ex girlfriend told me how Smith had once approached her in the VIP lounge of a nightclub and blurted out, 'Do you know who I am?' It was becoming clear that Smith had a high opinion of himself. 

'Smith battled hard in front of forty thousand people every week, he scored goals (and often celebrated by kissing the badge and performing a crucifix style goal celebration) and gave the supporters a lot of enjoyment during this period'

Over the next few years, Leeds received a reputation for giving lucrative contracts to their regular players, but this reckless period in the club's history, under chairman Peter Risdale, soon landed the club in severe financial trouble. Due to a lack of success on the pitch, Leeds couldn't afford to justify these salaries and the club fell into debt which meant they had to sell their assets. This included Alan Smith who was the last of the big earners to leave. Smith was reportedly earning two million a year in his final season. This might seem like a preposterous amount of money to pay an employee who was a member of a relegated team, but in fairness to Smith, he was idolised by the Leeds fans and ran his socks off in every match. Smith battled hard in front of forty thousand people every week, he scored goals (and often celebrated by kissing the badge and performing a crucifix style goal celebration) and gave the supporters a lot of enjoyment during this period, so in my opinion, he was justifiably rewarded. However, Smith wasn't one of the biggest earners under chairman Risdale's incompetent reign. Smith's remarkable earning power took off because he did a lot of running about in an abysmal Leeds team and therefore earned a reputation which towered above his actual ability.

'He was carried off the pitch like a war hero'

Smith's future reached new heights when he scored for Leeds against Manchester United at Old Trafford in 2004. The fan's favourite had put one over on their hated, arch rivals and the club whom Smith said he'd never play for! At the time, I was working at an establishment opposite the Leeds training ground and I remember the first team coach returning from Old Trafford. Daylight was fading, but the light above Alan Smith's career continued to shine brightly. Smith's name was on the lips of the footballing world and despite Leeds' relegation a few months later, he was carried off the pitch like a war hero. But in the Summer, Smith made an incredible U-turn and made his way to Old Trafford for a transfer fee of seven million pounds and a reported twelve and a half million, five year contract. I couldn't help but cringe. Smith had proven himself to be a decent, professional footballer, but playing for the biggest club in the world was a different matter altogether. Smith scored on his Manchester United debut, but the trouble with a great start was that it had to be continued and Smith was unable to maintain any level of consistency beyond the opening games. 

'I have never been more impressed with a young player' - Sir Alex Ferguson

Sir Alex Ferguson had a problem. He suddenly realised that he had a player on a long term, lucrative contract who he couldn't play. And it didn't help matters that one of Manchester United's greatest players Roy Keane was approaching retirement and there was a hole in the team which needed to be filled. When Smith signed for United, Ferguson quoted 'I have never been more impressed with a young player, (Smith's) desire to play for Manchester United is fantastic...certain young people come along with a special determination, and after speaking to him I expect that from Alan Smith. That desire will take him a long way.' Smith had clearly made promises to Ferguson before signing and convinced him that he was the right man to carry the club forward. Remember, this is a football club who gave rise to the Busby Babes, Duncan Edwards, George Best, Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona! The problem with this sort of outburst is that when you're paid twelve and a half million pounds, you're expected to deliver - there's no hiding place. Sir Alex Ferguson has a reputation for being a shrewd judge of footballing ability, but bizarrely took Smith for his word and decided to groom him to succeed Roy Keane. Smith was given the opportunity, but did so with little impact which resulted in several embarrassing defeats and a heavy criticism by Roy Keane on MUTV. The Keane interview was deemed too critical to be aired and it was banned by club officials.

Smith suffered a freak injury in 2006. He broke his leg and dislocated his ankle and it was believed that he'd be out of action for a year. Despite his absence, Manchester United won the league cup and afterwards paid tribute to Smith by wearing T-shirts emblazoned with 'For you Smudge.' Smith received a League Cup winners medal because it was believed that he'd have been a member of the squad. He was lying on the sofa at home, but continued to pick up a lucrative salary and medals despite not playing. Smith was now a 'trophy winning Manchester United player' which would add digits to any future contract. 

Smith made a comeback in 2007 and after begging Sir Alex Ferguson to play him, he was selected to play in the Champions League quarter-final where he incredibly scored an early goal, his first for 18 months, in an emphatic 7-1 victory. And despite not qualifying for a league winners medal, the league in unprecedented fashion granted special dispensation for Smith to receive a medal on the last day of the season. Smith was now a 'league title winner' and this was followed a week later with an FA Cup runner-up medal after a late substitute appearance. Alan Smith was now a trophy winning Manchester United and England player, but it was obvious that there wasn't a future for him at Old Trafford. Sir Alex Ferguson decided the timing was perfect to offload Smith, especially on the back of his Champions League goal and if there's a club who idolise a hard working number nine who tells supporters what they want to hear, then it's Newcastle United! And for this very reason, Smith found himself heading up to the North East for a transfer fee of £6 million in the Summer of 2007. 

Smith's move had similarities to another transfer which occurred ten years earlier, when another Alan (Shearer) signed for Newcastle United and made the following statement, 'The money won't change me - I'm only a sheet-metal worker's son from Newcastle.' Shearer's transfer fee was £15 million, but despite Newcastle being a city which suffers from high levels of unemployment, the supporters felt privileged to have an England striker wearing the famous black and white stripes. Shearer went on to have a hugely successful career at Newcastle scoring 148 goals in 303 matches. Shearer's world class performances at Newcastle contributed to the local economy and enhanced the prosperity of the region. Smith was sold to Newcastle on the premise that he was a title winning, Manchester United and England striker and quickly signed a mind-boggling contract worth £15 million over five years, under the ownership of business tycoon Mike Ashley who reportedly once lost a million pounds in an hour during a trip to a casino. The truth is that Sir Alex Ferguson performed a master-stroke by getting Smith off Manchester United's payroll and away from the club whilst recovering most of the initial transfer fee. After sustaining the terrible leg break in 2006, Smith knew he was never going to be the same player again. One option would have been for Manchester United to compensate Smith and payout the remainder of his contract and allow him to retire gracefully (and still extremely wealthy) or to give him the option of dropping down a few leagues and play at a realistic level on much lower money. But this didn't happen. I don't blame Sir Alex Ferguson, I blame Smith's greed and Newcastle's naivety. After all, it's the Newcastle supporters who have since suffered.

But, Newcastle believed they'd bought an England striker. Smith arrived on Tyneside with as much swagger than ever before, even reminding the press who asked if he hoped to get back into the England squad that he'd actually been named in the previous one - but the press had forgotten! As usual, Smith's Newcastle debut started in fairy tale fashion with a goal against Sampdoria in a friendly at St.James' Park, and shortly afterwards Sam Allardyce made Smith first team captain which further raised his profile at the club. In addition to this senior position, the owner Mike Ashley started to wear a Smith jersey whilst standing on the terraces. Smith didn't score again in a Newcastle shirt, but still continued to be named in England squads. Smith is a member of the richest generation of English footballers to play the game 'labelled the golden generation' (ironically because of their perceived abilities as opposed to their multi-millionaire status) who'd promised to deliver so much, but flattered to deceive over and over again. 

Smith was a member of Steve McLaren's England squad who caused embarrassment to the nation after the 2-3 defeat to Croatia in November 2007 which meant the country failed to qualify for Euro 2008. I remember Smith who'd been left out of the squad making a point of rallying the England players as they left the pitch, but this gesture was quickly forgotten when a model Sophie Bovington-Kerr claimed that she'd had oral sex with Smith in a toilet at the team hotel on the eve of the game whilst attending a photo shoot for breast cancer awareness. Smith's career took a further nose-dive when Newcastle, like Leeds five years earlier, were relegated in 2009. 

Smith's remarkable earning power remained unaffected despite his below par performances and he continued to thrive under a personal brand of 'the grafter who works hard for the team.' However, a damaging twitter expose threatened to cast a negative light on him in May 2011. Smith's ex girlfriend claimed that she'd hacked into his twitter account and intended to dish the dirt on the real Alan Smith. Smith's representatives quickly denied any link to the player, but the revelations appeared genuine. However, if the denial by Smith's management company was true, then whoever was behind the alleged expose clearly knew a great deal about the player and intended to damage his reputation. 

The twitter account AlanSmith17 which quickly changed its name for legal reasons claimed that '(smith) doesn't care about football, he doesn't care about anything apart from his ££...HE wanted to join Man United, he wanted money and trophies and he was shocked they (Manchester United) wanted him!...Just had a call from Gavin (his brother) apparently he's taking this further...He never returned to Leeds to get his belongings as he was worried he would get abuse and sent his brother...He doesn't think lufc fans would take him back and is worried he wouldn't shine again...Oh he wants to finish his career in the US as he can play till the late 30s and still get good money and a good lifestyle...Alan had the chance to go play for Man Utd or Tottenham, Man Utd offered more money and you see where he went...Just been left a voice mail 'am a footballer, they will believe me over you so say what you like'...' The supposed ex girlfriend concluded by stating 'Footballers live in a bubble and they live in a different world to everyone else.' 

'Footballers live in a bubble and they live in a different world to everyone else'

The claim that 'footballers live in a bubble and they live in a different world to everyone else' hasn't always been the case. The gulf between footballers past and present couldn't be better illustrated than the case relating to Manchester United and England legend Nobby Stiles, who was recently forced to sell his world cup winners medal and European cup winners medal, plus other sentimental memorabilia in order to leave his sons an inheritance after his football career finished. Stiles sold his entire football collection including priceless England caps, shirts and medals for £425,000. Almost, the same amount that Smith earns every seven weeks! Stiles, who lives in a semi-detached house near Old Trafford earned £3.25 a week when he first played for Manchester United in the late fifties. 

A spokesman for the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association said: 'If he (Stiles) had been a player in today's era, he would have earned millions without ever having won a thing, but his time was before the beautiful game was corrupted by these riches.' At a club like Manchester United, one of the main reasons why the club has become the capitalist force it is today is because of its history and its rise from tragedy to become a footballing super force. However, the families of the Munich disaster victims were not compensated until the 40th anniversary of the disaster when a charity game was arranged after much negotiation and saw a million pounds raised, still not a large amount once divided up amongst the families. In the 1950's players were limited to a maximum wage and couldn't move without their club's permission, in fact players often had another job as well as playing football. 

'If he (Stiles) had been a player in today's era, he would have earned millions without ever having won a thing, but his time was before the beautiful game was corrupted by these riches' - Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association.

The bizarre nature of Alan Smith's career at Newcastle continued through the pages of tabloid newspapers in self-confessional pleas for acceptance. The following quote appeared in the (The Sun - 06/01/12) 'Alan Smith...went round rallying his team-mates as they prepared for battle...Smith then strode up the tunnel towards the famous St James' Park turf but, instead of going straight on, he turned right, zipped up his coat and sat down beside the bench...Match days for the 31-year-old rarely involve kicking a ball...the midfield scrapper trains like a dervish every day...and is not about to give up on football for a good few years yet...After watching Alan Pardew's men win 3-0, Smith admitted: 'I've been more like the head cheerleader this season. I go into the dressing room before games, speak to the lads and get them going.' 

'Match days for the 31-year-old rarely involve kicking a ball'

However, Newcastle supporters quickly picked up on Smith's situation and vented their own frustrations through fans' forums. A few examples from and are below: 

'In the relegation season, Smith was nothing more than a glorified cheerleader. Smith's input on the pitch was minimal, he's a grafter nothing more...I don't think any team would be happy to pay someone 60k a week for five years and get six months of decent play out of him' - (Sophomore 08/01/12).

'The lad got away with murder in our colours'

'Why do people confuse passion with being a nutter who slides into poor challenges, gets booked, then swears or sneers at the ref, clenches his fist whilst trotting four paces left, then five paces right on the toes of our defence then trying to convince people that he's now a defensive midfielder. The lad got away with murder in our colours, best scrubbed from our history asap...he was part of the reason we got relegated, he only stayed because no other club would come near the contract he had here. He is one of the worst signings ever made by our club' - (Faustino).

'His whole passion and commitment thing is a myth'

'Alan Smith is the last thing we need on a football pitch for NUFC, in any game, ever. We had enough Championship players on the pitch on Saturday without having a League One standard player too...Smith was awful in the Championship. It was only once we got him out of the side and replaced with actual footballers that we started running away with the division convincingly. His whole passion and commitment thing is a myth. Instead of imposing himself on games and trying to influence them, he shirks from possession of the ball...and makes up for it with reckless and often dangerous challenges. He's THE worst signing we have made for a long time...The fact he has cost us so much money in fee and wages just makes it all the worse. I go to watch Hartlepool semi-regularly and I've always maintained he would struggle to get a game at the Vic' - (Sewelly).

'On the last game of last season...he came on and the whole game plan went to pieces...Smith looked lost out on the pitch. Slow, ineffective and unable to read the pace...Smudger has been nothing more than a 60k a week motivational speaker at the club' - (Ross McLaren). 

'He ran around lots, I could do's not a skill and it should not be praised...I prefer to think that anyone who is prepared to sit on their arse for two years just to pick up an inflated salary, is not especially a noble person'

'Five years, six million in transfer fee and something like fifteen million in wages later, an entirely fair analysis is this: 1) a forward who didn't score once, 2) an attacking midfielder who couldn't pass, nor possessed pace or skill, 3) a defensive midfielder who looked seconds away from a reckless tackle and red card at all short, he stands among our worst signing of all time...He ran around lots, I could do that, so could any of us, so could the youth team, it's not a skill and it should not be praised...And whilst one can praise his passion, I prefer to think that anyone who is prepared to sit on their arse for two years just to pick up an inflated salary, is not especially a noble person' - (Guy Maxwell). 

'Smith's hiding from the ball was especially noticeable during the West Brom collapse on the last day of the season. It'll be interesting to see how he copes in League One' - (Matt).

'He is one of those lieutenants who police the training ground for you' - Alan Pardew

The feedback is severe, but I don't think any of the above comments about Smith are personal. I think they're the thoughts of hard working, disillusioned fans who during a national recession are struggling to come to terms with an exorbitant salary given to someone who isn't actually playing for their club. Newcastle often tried to justify a case for Smith's presence with quotes such as this from Alan Pardew. '(Smith) is one of those lieutenants who police the training ground for you.' But what does this mean? A counter argument from supporters might be 'We don't want a lieutenant policing the training ground, we want a player who'll give us value for money.'

The MK Dons manager Karl Robinson said after the Huddersfield Town match, 'I was going to take Alan off after 65 minutes, but I thought why not wind the crowd up as well and you could see that Alan loved it - and he said that when he came off' - (The Huddersfield Daily Examiner - 06/02/12) but the only reason why MK Dons can afford Smith is because Newcastle are reportedly paying £57,000 a week towards his weekly salary, despite him not playing for the club.

In summary, there's no doubt that Alan Smith had a few good seasons at Leeds United and it was a big achievement to win 19 England caps, but instead of looking smug in the MK Dons dugout, Smith might want to think about the Busby Babes or Nobby Stiles (who wept over the sale of his 1966 world cup winners medal), or even Neil Webb, the ex Manchester United and England midfielder who picked up a career finishing injury shortly before the introduction of the Premier League and needed to find employment as a postman. 

UPDATE (20-05-12):
I haven't updated a blog before, but on this occasion I'm going to make an exception to the rule. Why? The reason is simple. Three months after publishing the above article, Alan Smith was 'punched, kicked, spat at...' by Huddersfield Town supporters on the pitch after the division one, play off semi-final, second leg at the Galpharm Stadium, Huddersfield on 15-05-12. 

There's no place for violence in football. However, I don't think Karl Robinson's comments in February were helpful. Robinson said (The Huddersfield Daily Examiner - 06/02/12) 'I thought why not wind the crowd up as well and you could see that Alan loved it - and he said that when he came off.' There's also claims that Smith spat at Huddersfield Town supporters before the attack. It would appear that Robinson's post-match outburst in February did little to help the unfortunate scenes which followed.