The opening shots of purpleTV’s latest documentary exploring Scottish football, this time featuring Hibs’ great forward line known as the Famous Five, wrongfoots you the way Gordon Smith might have done in his pomp.
Presenter Alex O’Henley welcomes the viewer not to Leith, where one might have expected such a documentary to begin, but to Chicago. A recognisable sweep of city skyline stretches out behind him.
It’s an auspicious start since it immediately prompts the viewer to wonder what, exactly, have the researchers unearthed? Rather than brought up in west Edinburgh, nearer to Tynecastle than Easter Road as it happens, have they discovered that Lawrie Reilly was actually a foundling from the streets of the Windy City?
But, as a very familiar face fills the screen, it becomes clear there is no such exclusive forthcoming. Rather, we are in Illinois because Hibs daft writer Irvine Welsh has chosen to base himself there.
No offence meant to the articulate Irvine, but this merits slight disappointment – if also a little admiration at a budget stretching as far as a trip across the Atlantic in these days of savage media cutbacks.
The inimitable Welsh begins his take on the Famous Five by recalling a hat-trick of dubious distinction – he managed to get thrown out of three of the pubs owned later in life by members of the frontline being celebrated.
They are each introduced in the film, simply titled The Famous Five, in the order they signed for Hibs; Smith, Reilly, Eddie Turnbull, Willie Ormond and Bobby Johnstone.
Welsh likens his habit of being chucked out of pubs owned by legendary former Hibs players to Willie Ormond’s regrettable hat-trick of broken legs, misfortune which rendering what he achieved (Ormond, not Welsh) all the more impressive.
All five recruits, only one of whom cost money (Ormond, again, just 2000 quid from Stenhousemuir), were clearly very special, helping Hibs win three titles in five years between 1948 and 1952.
But before we get to such deeds we’re in Chicago hearing about young Welsh the “dipstick” (his word) being thrown out of pubs.
It isn’t the only time during this enjoyable hour-long documentary, premiered last night at the well-appointed Dominion cinema in Edinburgh, when something strikes you as being slightly incongruous.
The clips of five be-quiffed youngsters in period Hibs tops acting their thick woollen socks off as they attempt to re-create moves made by the Famous Five are shot not at Easter Road, but at Meadowbank stadium, not even the distance of a Turnbull thunderbolt away.
One thought niggles away: surely Hibs have not blocked access to Easter Road, which seems remarkably inflexible, especially considering there is brilliant colour footage, recently unearthed apparently, of the real Famous Five, and others, training at Hibs’ ground, with Arthur Seat gloriously visible behind the old Dunbar End.
But such concerns eventually do melt away when relaxing in the plush seats of the Dominion, where so many of the Hibee Nation gathered last night, to watch the first public viewing of the follow-up documentary to successful recent efforts on the likes of Jim Baxter and Jock Stein.
Later there comes comforting news that no, Hibs hadn’t barred the filmmakers from Easter Road. Meadowbank’s less modern, more open surroundings provided greater authenticity, more faithfully re-creating what Easter Road used to be like. But such obstacles underline the myriad difficulties involved in creating such a programme, certainly compared to those aforementioned productions on Baxter and Stein.
It is a far more testing task to create enough elbow-room for five personalities in the space of an hour, particularly when there is an acknowledged lack of footage freely available from the time they played. The programme on Baxter, for example, climaxed with him doing keepie-ups at Wembley. Sadly, there is no footage available of Gordon Smith heading the ball up the wing, as Reilly, in an archive interview, remembers him once doing in a game against Third Lanark. Reilly marvels at the Third Lanark players managing to resist kicking him. But that was the kind of respect the Famous Five commanded, then as now. As Valerie Low, Turnbull’s daughter, commented: “The Famous Five are something more than an Enid Blyton book”.
Pat Stanton is, as ever, a safe pair of hands, evocatively describing Reilly’s habit of shooting out of the tunnel before games with his head held high, “like a young bull entering the bullring, sniffing out the opposition”.
He, too, stresses the esteem in which the Famous Five were held.
During a question and answer session after the end of the film, Stanton recalls making his own debut against Dundee, and coming up against Smith, by then at the Dens Park club. Walter Galbraith, then Hibs manager, urges Stanton to let Smith know he’s there by kicking him. Stanton cannot conceal his reservations: “I have to go home and face my dad!”
Former Hibs skipper Murdo MacLeod, also present in Morningside last night, observed how interviews with the daughters of Ormond, Turnbull and Johnstone, as well as Smith’s son, Tony, reminded viewers that while possessing an almost otherworldly talent for football, they were also fathers – and much-missed fathers at that.
The remarkably well-preserved former defender John Ogilvie, now well into his late eighties, does a fine job of recalling anecdotes from the time. Reilly, meanwhile, proved a willing and enlightening interviewee up until his death in 2013, so there is plenty of material of him later in life to plunder.
Reilly was the last of the gang to go. While some have bemoaned living on a David Bowie-less planet for over a week now, Hibs fans might display a similar level of anguish at realising they have now inhabited a world where none of the Famous Five has been alive for almost three years. How did that happen?
So now seems as good a time as any to celebrate them, particularly since Hibs, although going great guns at the moment in Scottish football’s second tier, are in a less cherished chapter in their history.
l The Famous Five will be broadcast on Sunday 24 January at 9pm on BBC Alba.