The Phantom of the Open screenplay writer, actor and comedian Simon Farnaby brings the hilarious, heartwarming and unbelievably true story of Maurice Flitcroft to moviegoers
Sony Pictures Classics new movie The Phantom of the Open hit theaters in June and tells the true story of Maurice Flitcroft, a laid-off crane driver who at the age of 46 chanced his way into the British Open in 1976 having never played a round of golf in his life. He would shot the Open's record worst score of 121.
Actor, comedian and author Simon Farnaby wrote the screenplay for The Phantom of the Open and co-wrote the book in 2010 along with sportswriter and author Scott Murray. Farnaby joined WBGO Studios podcast SportsJam with Doug Doyle to talk about the film, his career and his love for the game of golf and Flitcroft's legendary story.
Farnaby grew up around golf and first remembers hearing about Flitcroft when he was around 11 years old.
"My dad was a greenskeeper at Ganton Golf Club (Scarborough, UK) northeast of England, which is quite a prestigious golf club but I don't know what it's like in the (United) States but greenskeepers are sort of seen as the lower echelons. You know golf clubs are like little sorts of parliaments. They're like little governance. You got your president and it goes all the way down to the lowest rung which is the greenskeeper. I sort of fell in love with golf. My dad taught me and I was really good but I couldn't understand why the members looked down on me, on the juniors really. In those days, the juniors and the women were sort of second class citizens. You were allowed to tee off for about five minutes every other Tuesday (laughing). It's a bit different now. So when I first heard of Maurice (pronounced Morris), he was like one of us. We didn't know much about him but all the senior members hated him and they hated us too or so it like like so he was one of us. He was like a folk hero to us juniors because he gave a little kick in the ass to the senior members and we liked that."
Maurice Flitcroft, who died in 2007, came from the England port town of Barrow-in-Furness, decided he would try to take a shot at the British open after watching the sport on television. After he and his wife Jean decided to put him down as a "professional" on the tournament application, through and administrative error, his dream came true and he played in one of the world's greatest golf championships. Farnaby says Flitcroft's journey is amazing considering where he came from.
"One of the things we noticed when Scott and I were researching the book, you got the Barrow and there's still not many jobs there, a very poor area. In the 70's there was a big shipyard there and that was the only job. I guess you would call it a docker in the U.S. but that was the only option. They'd call him shipyard fodder. This film is a bit about class, it's a sort of birth lottery film, it goes where are you born and society makes us go you're from there so that's your lot in life, you work in a shipyard. Maurice just didn't want to do it. He actually tried a few different things before he found golf. He was a comedy high diver, he was a stunt diver and he couldn't do that either. He tried to play a hand other than what was dealt to him. He didn't know anything about golf. He didn't have anyone to tell him you're really not very good because golf is a game you can play on your own. He'd seen it on the TV and fell in love with it, got some clubs from a catalog, practiced on the beach and he thought hey this looks like this a similar to what I've seen on the TV, so I think I'm ready for the Open."
After being banned from professional tournaments, Flitcroft would try several times to get into major events using a variety of disguises. It worked. He entered one tournament as General Hoppy of France, wearing a drooping moustache. He and wife Jean came up with the idea.
Academy and Tony Award-winning actor Sir Mark Rylance portrays Flitcroft in The Phantom of the Open. Farnaby says he and director Craig Roberts got the perfect actor for the role.
"I think Steven Spielberg said Mark Rylance is the best actor in the world. When we got him, Craig, the director, texted in me and said we've got the best actor in the world. Mark said I've never been offered a comedy before, so we thought 'Oh God', but of course he's brilliant. He's a great sort of clown. He gave Maurice that dignity and failure that he needed. Another performer might have played it more for laughs, making fun of Maurice, but Mark played him like a god of failure."
Academy Award-nominee Sally Hawkins plays Maurice's supportive wife Jean. Farnaby knew what to expect from Hawkins.
"I worked with her in the Paddington movies and before that we go way back. We used to do live stuff on stage together many moons ago. And Craig knows her from a film he wrote and directed called "Eternal Beauty" so thankfully Sally liked the script."
Farnaby is a member of the British Horrible Histories troupe in which he starred in the TV series Horrible Histories, Yonderland and Ghosts. He has written and appeared in films such as Mindhorn and Paddington 2, and in the BBC sitcom Detectorists.
In 2017, Farnaby co-wrote Paddington 2 with Paul King. Farnaby also had a small role in both the first film and its sequel, before subsequently appearing alongside Paddington Bear and Queeen Elizabeth in a short film broadcast as part of the celebrations for the Queen's Platinum Jubilee in June of 2022.
In 2020, he wrote The Wizard in My Shed.
Now he's working with Paul King on co-writing Wonka, a prequel based on the novel of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.
"I loved the book, Roald Dahl's book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was a kid. It was one of my favorite books. I love the character (Willy Wonka), love the sort of magic, the chocolate, I mean just great. No disservice to the Tim Burton film, but I adore the Gene Wilder film, the 1973 version (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) even all the sets were made of plastic".
Farnaby admits he would have liked to be the leading man in his early acting days but he realized people thought he was funny and so he chose to enter the comedy side of the entertainment world. He kind of sees himself in Maurice Flitcroft. So do many others who have dreamed of pursuing a career in something they just don't have the skills or means to achieve the goals.
"I've tried to work out what it is about what we really love about him. I think it's because for most of us, humiliation is our worst nightmare. I often dream of having been an actor on stage and not knowing my lines and that's the equivalent of what Maurice was doing. He was in somewhere he didn't belong. He wasn't skilled. I mean he didn't know he wasn't those things but even when he found out he was like 'well you know I gave it my best shot, I gave it a go'. I love that about him as well, but just the sheer fearlessness I suppose. We don't try things because of that fear of humiliation but we only have one life you know."
Farnaby and Scott Murray's 2010 book The Phantom of the Open: Maurice Flitcroft the World's Worst Golfer is from Yellow Jersey Press.
You can SEE the entire SportsJam interview with Simon Farnaby here.