What is it about rooting for the underdog, cheering for the little guy? We all do it. Perhaps it's because there is something more human, more 'normal', more frail about an underdog. Something more like us. Success often appears to mean more if it's something that's 'not supposed' to happen. The underdog exerts him or herself more. They've had to make so much effort, even to come last. Perversely, it is because the odds are stacked against such figures that we convince ourselves they can win. Even when they don't stand a chance.
The universal desire for the no-hoper to triumph is the theme of new movie 'Eddie the Eagle'. I wept through it last night. Sentimental it is, pressing every button to get us behind the protagonist, who overcomes both physical disability and poverty to fulfil his dream of becoming an Olympian. We know the true story of Eddie Edwards, the first competitor to represent Great Britain in Olympic ski jumping. Back then, in Calgary, 1988 (my father was there, reporting for the late Independent), Eddie was our record-holder, finishing last in the 70m and 90m events. His perseverance, courage, lack of backing - other than money filched from his Mum and Dad's savings set aside to buy a new van - captured the world's imagination and gave Eddie his fifteen minutes. That quarter of an hour resonates sublimely to this day.
Eddie never qualified again for any championship or Olympic Games. But he had his moment. Books, videos, commercials and pop records followed. I remember accompanying him to Finland on a press trip (I was there for the Daily Mail) when his single 'Fly, Eddie, Fly' made it to Number One there. He was the nicest bloke. We had a laugh.
The dream faded fas. For all his opportunities, Eddie wound up bankrupt in 1992. His response to that was to study for a law degree, flying in the faces of those he felt had wronged and misrepresented him. He went on to present radio and TV, won the ITV diving show 'Splash', and commentated for Channel 4's ‘The Jump’. Last I heard, his wife had left him and he was back working as a plasterer, reluctantly retracing his father's footsteps. I hope this movie turns his fortunes around again. He should at least negotiate a new edition of his autobiography.
So they take creative liberties with the story. Nothing new, they do this with Shakespeare. The film's icing is heartthrob Hugh Jackman as Eddie's fictional coach, Bronson Perry, a one-time ski-jumper who fell off the side in every sense. He is reeled reluctantly into Eddie's orbit and given another stab at glory, if only reflected. Welsh young'un Taron Egerton (‘Testament of Youth’, ‘Legend’) captures Eddie's gauche, long-sighted determination. Keith Allen, another Welshman, as Eddie's dad, leaves the menace of the Sheriff of Nottingham behind to bring long-suffering and acceptance of one's lot in life to the part. Jim Broadbent delights as a BBC commentator, while Christopher Walken, he of the alien face and other-worldly stare ('Pulp Fiction', 'Hairspray') is a wrencher as Perry's old coach. The Eighties soundtrack, curated by Gary Barlow, is irresistible. They deploy every trick: 'Cool Runnings', the classic film about the Jamaican bobsleigh team at the same Olympics, is paid homage to throughout. I could hear echoes of my all-time favourite film, 'Field of Dreams'.
'Eddie the Eagle' flew all the way to the Sundance Festival in January, where it received its world premiere. Released in the US by 20th Century Fox, it's just out in the UK, distributed by Lionsgate. It stands as a metaphor for what it means to be British. My old Fleet Street cohort Sean Macaulay wrote the screenplay, more than a decade ago. As he says, of Hollywood, 'You never know what can happen if you play the long game.' Eddie's philosophy in a nutshell. We'd better keep at it.