David Beckham tackles acting. Will he be the new Eric Cantona – or Stan Collymore?

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Two questions spring to mind following the news that David Beckham has been given a cameo role in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur movie.

Historians will know the answer to the first one. Would it be inaccurate for the knight he plays to strip down to his Y-fronts, disclosing enviable musculature and more than 30 tattoos?

The second question is even more pressing: Do sports stars have anything to offer acting other than short-term capitalisation on their former celebrity in clunking bit parts and fatuous comedy turns? Alan Shearer is a case in point. If you think the Newcastle United and England striker is the last word in wooden on Match of the Day, then you haven’t seen him in the 2000 football movie Purely Belter which, according to the Guardian review, features a “heart-sinking cameo to add to his similar performance in last year’s appalling British comedy, The Match”.

This second question was very much on Beckham’s mind recently when he revealed his acting ambitions to the Times: “I am very aware that many sportsmen and other celebrities have turned their hand to acting – and failed.” Good point. Consider Michael Jordan. The former Chicago Bulls basketball star appeared opposite Bugs Bunny and Marvin the Martian in 1996’s Space Jam, but returned to shooting hoops soon afterward. That said, the movie pulled in $230m and even more if you including merchandising (I’m sure I still have some Space Jam PJs somewhere).

A more hopeful inspiration for Beckham is Man U team-mate Eric Cantona. Part of the genius of casting the Frenchman as Monsieur de Foix in Shekar Kapur’s 1998 biopic Elizabeth, opposite Cate Blanchett, was that he was playing against type. In life the maverick forward was divertingly short-fused (think of that kung fu kick on a fan); in the movie, he was a suave diplomat. In his best dialogue in the film, Cantona excelled in sotto voce slimy sexism about our virgin queen …

De Foix (in French): “She is a woman, Sire. They say one thing but mean another. No one can unlock their secrets.” Duc d’Anjou (also in French): Unless they have ... a very big key!” (Laughs loudly.) And they say Gallic diplomacy is an oxymoron.

Cantona was even more compelling in Ken Loach’s 2009 Looking for Eric, in which he played a version of himself tasked with getting an invertebrate, sad-eyed postman to grow, as the French put it, des couilles. The superb scene in which Eric schools his pupil in the power of saying “Non!” is worth the admission price alone. And his acting career continues. Today you can see him in that beer ad and, if you suspend your disbelief, think he is really going to swim the Channel.

But there is a problem. Sports stars’ former personas are as ineradicable as Lady Macbeth’s spots when they try to become actors. That’s why competitive swimmer Esther Williams’ acting career in the 1940s was skewed so much towards “aquamusicals”, featuring elaborate synchronised swimming routines. That’s why Ally McCoist was typecast as a striker in Robert Duvall’s 2000 film A Shot at Glory. True, neither this theory nor anything else can explain why Villa and Liverpool talisman Stan Collymore was one of Sharon Stone’s victims in the superbly silly Basic Instinct 2, but let me say this: Collymore seems now to have turned his back on acting in favour of that less demanding mistress, soccer punditry.

In securing a free transfer from sport to acting, Vinnie Jones is an outlier. And yet few can follow his path. Arguably, the Wales and Wimbledon hard man started playing the role of psychotic enforcer-cum-panto-villain so early that it is hard to say when – or if – he ever actually was a footballer in the true sense. Did you see the menace with he snatched Gazza’s crown jewels in the 1988 Newcastle-Wimbledon FA Cup tie? Directors would kill for just that kind of terrifying Joe Pesci-meets-Robert de Niro nutjobbery. And that’s why he was perfect a decade later as the shogun-toting debt collector Big Chris in Guy Ritchie’s Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels.

Here’s a third question – this time for for philosophers: In the 1981 film Escape to Victory in which a team of putative Allied PoWs stick it to their Nazi captors on the football field, were Pelé, Osvaldo Ardiles and Bobby Moore really acting? In the same sense, comes the most sensible reply, that team-mates Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone were playing football. The debate about Escape to Victory’s historical accuracy rumbles on in the learned journals. If its story is historically plausible, scholars ask, why were there so many Ipswich Town cloggers in the PoW team?

Back to Beckham. He, at least, has previous as an actor. And not just in those stirring underwear ads in which he ran around in his scanties (thus prefiguring the central conceit of the Lego Movie’s sitcom, Where are my Pants?). Last year, he appeared in an Only Fools and Horses sketch for Comic Relief special (if I had a pound for every “Beckham goes to Peckham” headline, I’d have enough to replace Christian Benteke as Villa’s centre forward). In it, Del Boy and Rodney are trying to sell “signed” pairs of David Beckham’s “Golden Balls” underwear on their market stall, before being joined by the iconic footballer in a café where, as they say, hilarity ensued.

“We have to say we’re rather impressed with his comedy acting,” decided the Huffington Post. They liked the way he tried to lean against a crate and fell past it and how he gave Rodney modelling tips. But in that sketch, Beckham was playing an amiable send-up of himself. There’s more to acting, as Golden Balls knows, than that. “I wouldn’t want to push myself forward too soon,” he says, “without learning more about it and doing a lot more practice.”

In any case, you’d suspect, the criticism was muted because the sketch was for charity. At the time, critics forebore from mentioning his deficiencies, including that high-pitched voice. Whether he will be so lucky next time is a moot point. The portents are not good. Reportedly his King Arthur character fancies himself as a big player in the story but gets disgruntled when he can’t pull Excalibur from the stone. Apparently, footballing puns have been written into this scene. But that’s no good: if Beckham is to succeed as an actor, he must set aside the balls once and for all.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Stuart Jeffries, for theguardian.com on Monday 7th September 2015 17.38 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010