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'I definitely saw a bravery from him' - Poignant new film charts the battle of Jack Charlton's final days

Pete Thomas, producer of Finding Jack Charlton, explores how Jack and his family met the tragic challenge of dementia.

JACK CHARLTON’S SUCCESSES stemmed from his great skill for definition: he knew who he was and his strengths as a player; as a manager he went to the ’86 World Cup, saw how most teams played and defined Ireland to play in opposition to it. 

“That time with Jack defined my life simply because it needed defining”, says Paul McGrath in a new film, Finding Jack Charlton. 

Source: Telefy/YouTube

The film follows Jack in his final days, as he and his family attempt the final and fraught act of definition: seeing Jack Charlton as himself rather than the dementia that so coldly pilfered his extraordinary life. 

It’s a deeply affecting piece of work, weaving extensive archival work with scenes from the Charlton family home, as Jack is brought fishing and shown footage from those colour-kissed days of valiant glory with Ireland.

At times, his search for clarity of memory from the murk of dementia is heartbreaking.

“They think a lot of you in Ireland, don’t they?” says his wife Pat at one point.

Jack looks blankly in response and eventually says, “I have no idea.”

“It’s a difficult thing for people to live with and we wanted to demonstrate it”, says producer Pete Thomas. 

“But what made it less hard was Jack, right up to the end of his life, was still enjoying things in life.

“He loved being around his family, he recognised his family. And he loved the camera. If we had been filming with him and he didn’t know we were there, then it wouldn’t have felt right. But his eyes would light up. He looked at the camera and he talked to the camera, and it genuinely felt like every time he was in front of the camera he was comfortable and enjoyed it. 

“That helped us get across that he still had the glint in his eye, he still had those moments where he was Jack.” 

There’s an A-list cast of talking heads, with Bertie Ahern and Larry Mullen telling the familiar tales of how Jack helped take Ireland from the monochrome misery of the 1980s, but the dig through the archives is remarkable. 

A long-lost interview with Jack and Bobby amid Italia ’90 showed the genuine warmth that could break out between two very different brothers, while the film also unearths old camcorder footage among the squad the night they were knocked out of that World Cup. 

With the sun rising behind them, players and Jack tell tales and sing songs as Chris De Burgh serenades the group with a version of “Hey Jack” to the tune of Hey Jude. The footage radiates the candour and love that underpinned all of the players’ tributes to Jack on the day of his passing.

“It summed up that team and Jack and how comfortable they were, how united they were”, says Thomas. 

Pete made another remarkable discovery. 

“I happened to be up with Jack and his wife Pat, and I asked Pat, ‘There isn’t anything we haven’t seen, is there?’ and she said, ‘Oh, there is this one thing’, and she brought out this old envelope stuffed full of notes.” 

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The family kept virtually every scrap of paper Jack ever scribbled on, and so we see some of his notes on opposition teams and scouting reports of his own players. It’s a treasure trove, but most significant are a bundle of notes effectively to himself, which, when assembled, read like a charter for how he wanted himself to live his life and do his job. 

Know what you want and go after it. 

Protect your own. 

You must enjoy it. 

Honesty, self-belief, bloody mindedness.

Be a dictator. But be a nice one.

Anyone who took even a cursory look at his career with Ireland would know he made those ideas manifest. 

jack-charlton-celebrates Jack Charlton, pictured celebrating Ireland's qualification for the 1990 World Cup. Source: Alan Betson,©INPHO/Alan Betson/INPHO

But how to reconcile the cruelty of this story? That this man who gave millions of people some of their best memories spent the final months of his life struggling to find those same memories? 

“The thing for me were these moments of clarity that would happen”, says Thomas. “You never know to what level or depth they go, but he definitely still had moments where he was there in the room with you.

“Those things kept you feeling there’s still a light burning. It’s still Jack. And even if he can’t remember the details, he can connect with the feelings.

“I had that sitting with him watching a couple of games, old Ireland matches from World Cups. He would really enjoy it even if he didn’t necessarily remember all that happened. And he would still remember an odd player, and say, ‘Is Ray Houghton playing, or Paul McGrath?’ 

“I definitely saw a bravery from Jack in that he still wanted to be around people and still wanted to do things with his life. I saw a brilliant way of living with dementia, in terms of his wife and son, and the way they approached it. It was matter-of-fact: let’s focus on what you can do and enjoy all the things you can in life. That brought an awful lot of joy to Jack. That was the biggest thing I learned. To really focus on the things you can still do, take massive joy from them and love doing them. That was what he did right to the end.” 

And Pete’s favourite memory from making the film? 

“We were round with Pat and Jack – we weren’t filming – but I was giving them an update on how we were doing. I had a cup of tea with Pat, and Jack left to watch something and later came back into the room and said, ‘Are you still ’ere? 

“I was being told off, but my grin was off the charts. I was so happy I had been told off by Jack Charlton.” 

Finding Jack Charlton is available on Digital Download from all major online outlets including iTunes, Amazon and on DVD from all major grocers / retailers from 23 November.

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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