Peter O'Toole and rugby league


Peter O’Toole, who died yesterday aged 81, grew up in Hunslet playing rugby league. If his 1996 autobiography Loitering With Intent is to be believed, he gained local fame as as a speedy twelve years-old back playing for a side known as Raggy-Arsed Rovers against opponents such as Chip Shop Wanderers and the Silly Army. As he explained, their rugby balls were of a rather inconsistent quality; patchworks of leather pieces were inflated by a bicycle tyre inner-tube, newspapers or just rags. At the worst, an unlucky player would ‘volunteer’ a shoe. To say the least, as O’Toole recounted them, his childhood games were rugby league at its rawest:

Two or three matches between teams from various clusters of streets were played simultaneously. One sometimes found oneself straying into others’ matches. Goalposts were a premium. If the pair had already been snatched, often a player’s younger brother, ‘our kid’, would find himself elected as a post. Kit was irrelevant. A familiar figure with the ball, you supported him; an unfamiliar, you downed the bastard.

- adapted from Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain (2006), p. 41.

Walter Camp on rugby league

In 1906 Stanford and California universities switched from American football to rugby union. Both the 1905-06 All Blacks and the 1908-09 Wallabies played matches in California on their way back home from their European tours, and an American Universities team had toured down under in 1909. Walter Camp, known as the 'Father of American football' was not impressed, as he made clear in a 1911 article:

A first class Australian league team or a team from the Northern Union such as journeyed to Australia last summer from England would outpass the Californians in many ways. Of course, in these Northern Union teams lost time is paid for, which although it does not rate the players as regular professionals, detracts from their amateur standing. 
The Northern Union game, especially in Lancashire and Yorkshire, would be a revelation to many of those who have merely seen the more mediocre play. The men who form these teams are of excellent physique, strong and powerful, putting up a hard, vigorous game with tackling that is earnest enough to be severe. The business is business far beyond the notion of those who have never seen it and is rendered even more strenuous by the fact that all the games are in competitive league series. (‘Rugby Football In America’, Outing Magazine, 57 [March 1911], p. 710.)

The experiment with union didn't last. By 1919 Cal, Stanford and the other schools that followed them had gone back to the gridiron game. For more on Walter Camp, the origins of American football and its relationship to rugby, take a look at my article on the origins of the gridiron game, Unexceptional Exceptionalism.






Broken Time 'not an issue' in the 1895 split?

There's a discussion on the TotalRL forum about the fact that the clubs that formed the Northern Union in August 1895 actually resigned from the Lancashire and Yorkshire county rugby unions in July 1895 over fixture arrangements for the following season. Does this mean that the split was about fixtures and not about broken-time? Or that the split actually took place not on 29 August but a month earlier? Have historians misunderstood the causes of the 1895 split?

The answer is no, as the following extract from Rugby's Great Split (p. 119) explains:

From its formation in 1892 the Yorkshire Senior Competition (YSC) league had been a self-elected body, entry to which could only be granted by a vote by its clubs. The subsequent creation of the second, third and other junior Yorkshire leagues had put pressure on the YSC to allow automatic promotion for the winners of the Second Competition - and consequently relegation of the bottom side. While accepting the principle in theory, the YSC had voted against any changes at the end of its first season in 1893.

Unsurprisingly, this did not go down well with either the Second Competition clubs or the Yorkshire Rugby Union (YRU), which had taken up the cudgels for the smaller clubs in order to reassert its own power. When the same thing happened at the end of the 1893/94 season the YRU pressurised the YSC to accept the playing of a test match between the bottom YSC club and the top Second Competition club to decide the issue.

However, when the YSC came to incorporate this change into its own rules, a rider was added stating that a club finishing at the foot of the table because of “unforeseen circumstances” may be excused the necessity of playing in the test match. In truth, this clause was added to guard against a club finishing at the bottom of the table due to its suspension for professionalism, as almost happened to Huddersfield and which was to happen to three Lancashire clubs the following season.

This dispute allowed the defenders of amateurism to pose as the protectors of the little clubs - speaking at a Liberal rally during the 1895 general election, Castleford’s Arthur Hartley, a future President of the RFU, railed against the “unelected House of Lords which the YSC has become” and denouncing its refusal to accept the YRU’s call for “equal rights for all”. 

Although this issue became a bitter struggle, which some have claimed was the real reason for the 1895 split, and directly resulted in the YSC clubs resigning en bloc from the YRU in July 1895, it was in fact a battle for position before the inevitable showdown over payment for play.

This was demonstrated by the moves by Lancashire clubs in the First-Class Competition (the Lancashire versions of the YSC) to assert control over promotion and relegation to their ranks following the suspensions of Leigh, Salford and Wigan in 1894. Although automatic promotion and relegation had been accepted from the start of the Lancashire league system in 1892, the suspensions and the placing of the miscreant clubs at the bottom of the First-Class league meant that clubs found guilty of professionalism found themselves facing economic ruin through relegation and the resulting loss of attractive fixtures. Perhaps not as prescient as their Yorkshire counterparts, the First-Class clubs now fought a rearguard action to avoid being picked off one by one by the Lancashire authorities. Eventually, in July 1895, the First-Class clubs, with the exception of Salford and Swinton but with the addition of Widnes, resigned from the competition.

These resignations effectively cleared the way for the formation of a rival rugby union, the necessity of which was underlined on August 12 when the RFU published a draft of the new rules on professionalism which it was to present for ratification to that September’s annual general meeting. They were simply a more thorough rendering of the previous year’s manifesto [which had stated that clubs accused of professionalism would be suspended until they proved their innocence] and, despite hopes by some in the YRU that some arrangement could be reached, represented the RFU’s final nail in the coffin of compromise.

Nevertheless, the waverers in Bradford, Leeds and Huddersfield still remained to be convinced. Bradford’s hand was forced by their players threatening to strike if they did not join and by petitions, many of them prominently displayed in the pubs of Bradford players, raised by their supporters calling on them to support the new union. At Leeds a special general meeting was held which voted decisively to support the splitters, resulting in the resignations from the club of WA Brown and James Miller, current and former secretaries of the club respectively. Any hopes the vacillators may have had of a sympathetic hearing from the Rugby Union were dashed by a letter from RFU secretary, Rowland Hill, which told them that even if they remained loyal they could not expect any fixtures with the leading southern clubs.

Faced with their two allies joining the rebels and, like them, fearful of being unable to generate sufficient revenue to protect the large investments made in their ground, Huddersfield issued a statement announcing their decision to join the new union, blaming it on the RFU’s new laws against professionalism, which they characterised as “too drastic in nature, and make an apparently small offence magnified into one of the gravest kind.”

At 6.30 pm on Thursday 29 August at the George Hotel in the centre of Huddersfield, representatives of Batley, Bradford, Brighouse Rangers, Broughton Rangers, Dewsbury, Halifax, Huddersfield, Hull, Hunslet, Leeds, Leigh, Liversedge, Manningham, Oldham, Rochdale Hornets, St Helens, Tyldesley, Wakefield Trinity, Warrington, Widnes and Wigan met and unanimously adopted the resolution “That the clubs here represented decide to form a Northern Rugby Football Union, and pledge themselves to push forward, without delay, its establishment on the principle of payment for bona-fide broken-time only.” 

Although not at the meeting, Stockport were asked to join and immediately dispatched a representative to take part in the gathering. All the clubs present, except Dewsbury whose committee had not had time to discuss the matter, handed their letters of resignation from the RFU to Oldham’s Joe Platt, who had been elected acting secretary, for him to forward to Rowland Hill. There was now no going back - the game of rugby was utterly and irrevocably split.

'Where’s George?': League’s Forgotten Feature Film

Mick Martin’s play Broken Time is the first dramatic treatment of the historic events that led to the 1895 rugby split. 

It’s the latest in a small but highly important series of dramas that have rugby league at their heart, most notably David Storey’s The Changing Room, Alan Plater’s Trinity Tales and John Godber’s Up and Under. The most famous of course is the 1963 film adaptation of This Sporting Life

But long before any of these landmarks in film and theatre, rugby league hit the silver screen with Where’s George?, a 1935 comedy starring the comedian Sydney Howard. 

Unlike those that came after it, this production did not aspire to be a work of art. It was a typical 1930s British comedy, firmly in the tradition of George Formby, Will Hay and Gracie Fields. And, as always in British comedy, class was central to the plot.

Talking sport

Where's George?.jpg

Where’s George? was the latest in a series of British films that sought to appeal to the northern industrial working classes. The introduction of talkies in the late 1920s had highlighted a particular problem for the British film industry. 

All of its stars spoke with upper-class English accents (‘received pronunciation’) and there were almost no stars with whom the millions of people in northern cities could identify.

Comedy and sport were felt to be the best ways to appeal to this huge market. Numerous northern comedians found themselves making films that were basically vehicles for their stage personas. Films with sporting themes were particularly popular with film producers.

The first of these genre films seems to have been the 1931 Up For The Cup, in which a soccer supporter from Yorkshire comes to London for the FA Cup Final but loses his ticket. The plot, insofar as there is one, revolves around his inevitably comic antics as he tries to find it. This was followed, perhaps inevitably, by Up For The Derby.

The most popular of the sports comedies in the 1930s were those featuring George Formby. Born in Wigan, Formby was easily the most bankable British star of the 1930s. In 1935 he was a rider at the Isle of Man TT races in No Limit. Two years later he was a boxer in Keep Fit and in 1939’s Come on George he was a jockey. 

So it was perhaps not surprising in 1935 when the British & Dominions Film Corporation decided that they wanted to make a comedy centred on rugby league.

Losing the plot

Where’s George? was modeled on 1931’s Up for the Cup. It was directed by the same person, Jack Raymond, and featured the same star, Yeadon-born Sydney Howard as Alf Scodger. 

Howard had started as a music hall comedian in the early 1900s and came to fame during World War One, but by the 1930s had become a regular in low budget comedies, including Up For The Derby.

Most interestingly, the script was written by Walter Greenwood, the Salford novelist who had achieved overnight success with his 1932 novel (and later film) Love on the Dole. Where’s George? had none of the social commentary of Greenwood’s other work.

In fact, it is difficult to find anything of Greenwood in the script. The plot revolves around Scodger’s attempts to outwit his overbearing wife. As a consequence, he accidentally discovers a talent for rugby and turns out for his local Yorcaster club against Lancastrian rivals Oldcastle.

The George of the title is a foal that Alf buys and then loses. However, while playing in the match, Alf spots George in a neighbouring field and as he runs towards the foal, catches the ball and scores the match-winning try.

The benevolent local dignitary - obligatory in almost all comedies featuring working-class characters - attends the match and sees Alf triumph, which leads to Alf and his wife being reconciled.

The Clark connection

Despite clearly having little knowledge of the game, the film’s producers did make links with rugby league. Both Walter Greenwood and Sydney Howard were fans of the game.

In early 1935, the producers had asked the RFL if two sides could go down to London to film action sequences. The RFL, mindful of the deep economic depression that gripped the north, especially the mining regions, asked if parts of the film could be shot in the north.

So in the summer of 1935 the film crew went to Featherstone to record crowd scenes. Two hundred unemployed miners were hired as extras for crowd scenes at the rate of ten shillings a day, which was probably more than most of them received in unemployment assistance. Rovers and Huddersfield players were used for the action scenes.

There was one more connection too. Carver Doone, a six feet, eight inches tall Devonshire wrestler, played the unfeasibly large full-back around whom Alf has to dodge to score the winning try (oversized rugby league players were a cartoon staple of the day). But Doone himself was a highly successful wrestler who fought Douglas Clark, the English All-In Wrestling champion, no less than six times.

Duggie Clark was of course better know as the Huddersfield and Great Britain prop forward, hero of the 1914 Rorkes’ Drift test match and a future member of the Rugby League Hall of Fame.

Wrong time, wrong George...

There is an unconsciously surreal quality to the plot, which appears to have crammed as many cliches into the film as possible. It is a veritable compendium of cliche - harridan wife, cutesy animals, unassuming northern male, upper-class patron, dim-witted northerners, all of which appear bang on cue.

The film’s publicity material reveled in its stereotypes. Howard, it claimed, was a ‘lovable, homely Yorkshireman with a large appetite for roast beef and Yorkshire pudding’.

It’s difficult to know what audiences made of it. George Formby’s films were wildly popular and made millions, but Where’s George? seems to have been a flop at the box office.

It did suffer from one unforeseen problem, however. It went on general release in late 1935 but just a few weeks later, in January 1936, the reigning monarch, George V, died. 

Posters asking ‘Where’s George?’ were not felt to be appropriate in the circumstances and the title of the film was quickly changed to The Hope of His Side.

Thus renamed, the film sank without trace.

 [This post originally appeared in Forty-20 magazine in 2012]