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Fever pitch

Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes turns his hand to the origins of football in his latest period drama, Netflix series The English Game. DQ discovers why it will appeal to fanatics and non-fans alike.

With the sporting calendar on hold around the world amid the coronavirus pandemic – seeing some teams resort to ‘playing’ each other via games of noughts and crosses on their Twitter accounts – football fans, at least, will soon be able to turn to the most unlikely of sources to get their fix: the man behind Downton Abbey.

Arriving on Netflix this Friday is six-part drama The English Game, written by Downton’s Oscar-winning creator Julian Fellowes. The miniseries promises to reveal the true story behind the origins of the world’s most popular sport, taking viewers back to the 1880s and the much rougher game that would eventually evolve into what the Americans call soccer.

This being penned by Fellowes – who so expertly explored class via Downton’s ‘upstairs/downstairs’ dynamic and treads in similar territory with newly launched ITV drama Belgravia – issues of class are integral to the storyline.

The story is one that Fellowes and co believe will be unfamiliar to the majority of those interested in football. It delves into how a game that was originally the preserve of the upper classes came to be dominated by the working man, with mill owners forming teams consisting of their employees.

The drama centres on two real-life football pioneers from opposite sides of the divide. Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft) is the captain of the Old Etonians football team, versed in the established, rough-and-tumble style of the game, while Scotsman Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie), brought south of the border by a mill owner, brings with him a fresh, passing-focused approach.

Kevin Guthrie plays working-class Scottish footballer Fergus Suter

For the former, football is a gentleman’s pastime, while Suter is among the first people to be paid solely for playing the game.

As you might have guessed, Kinnaird and Suter find themselves on a collision course as they prepare for an all-important match between their two very different teams that means so much more than just the result.

“I don’t think I could really be described as a big football fan,” Fellowes admits with a knowing smile, revealing that it was the class conflict behind the story that drew him to the project.

“I didn’t know that there was this class war at the beginning of the game. The fact that the working class essentially won it changed the shape of the game and gave it to the world. It appealed to me because it was a drama-in-miniature of what was happening in the whole of Western civilisation towards the end of the 19th century.”

It’s not just on the pitch that class is tackled in The English Game, with Fellowes detailing how he regularly uses group dining scenes to explore the issue. “There’s usually a dinner or a lunch or something in most of the things I do, because then you can tell so many stories simultaneously,” he explains.

Edward Holcroft is Arthur Kinnaird, captain of the upper-class Old Etonians team

During one such dinner in the show, some of the upper-class characters lament the fact that workers are being paid to play football. “They’re saying it’s not fair, but Kinnaird points out that none of the workers have ever eaten a dinner like the one they’ve just eaten; none of them have the time to practice that they have; none of them have two or three days a week off – or even the whole week – to do what they like, so is that a fair balance? And the answer is, of course, no.

“You can say that visually very easily in a very lavish dining room full of flowers and silver gilt. You don’t even have to put the whole thing into words.

“It’s two sides against each other, but on each side you have a guy who comes to see the other’s point of view. That’s really the arc of the show.”

Unlike Fellowes, executive producer Rory Aitken is very much a fan of the sport, but he was equally unaware of the tale behind its origins. “I didn’t know the story either. And I hadn’t seen anything like it on television, so I was as excited as anyone to delve into the history and discover it,” says the producer from 42, the UK-based prodco behind the show.

The project had initially been conceived as a feature film, but the creative team eventually decided that the many layers to the story made it more suited to the longer format of a miniseries.

Julian Fellowes (left) on location with Rory Aitken

“It’s notoriously hard to make any drama films about sports, because you can see amazing dramatic sports on television every weekend, pretty much every weekday now,” Aitken notes, speaking before the coronavirus-enforced sporting lockdown.

“So really to see how it plays out in a dramatic context, other than on the pitch, is something that we realised could work as a TV drama. And Julian is as much of a historian as a drama writer, and really understood that period and how to dramatise it.”

One of the main challenges of featuring sports in drama is realistically recreating the action on screen. To that end, the production faced the unusual task of finding cast members whose acting chops were matched by their footballing ability.

“Actually, a very surprising proportion of actors are very good at football. I don’t know what the reasons are, but there’s a very high proportion of actors who say they’re good at football,” Aitken jokes, “so it was part of the audition process.”

Thankfully, in Holcroft and Guthrie, The English Game found leads who could back up their words. “The audition process was mainly about the scene work, but I’m fortunate in that I was quietly confident in my ability,” says Guthrie, who reveals he was a youth player for Glasgow club Celtic.

Actors playing footballers had to go through a long period of training to shoot the match scenes

“So for sure there’s a background there, and I play football a lot, as a lot of actors do. We’re in and out of work, so that’s probably the reason why.

“The most challenging thing was actually dumbing the skills down a bit, as arrogant as that sounds – being able to make just passing the ball look difficult.”

Holcroft faced different physical requirements as the captain of the Old Etonians, whose version of football he describes as “more like a relaxed version of rugby.”

“There wasn’t a great deal of skill. When we did the audition process, I remember that it got down to about two or three of us for the role, and that’s the worst time for an actor, because it can either go so well or it can be crushing. And then I kept getting calls [from the casting team] in the next few days going, ‘Can we just find out – how good are you at football?’

“It really freaked me out, because I was thinking, ‘What if they want someone who’s professional?’ But actually, when we started, it was like, ‘Forget everything you know – forget all the football you’ve learned.’”

The English Game debuts on Netflix this Friday

With the cast in place, an intense and prolonged period of training was needed before the production could shoot the tightly choreographed match scenes. Football experts and historians were brought in, and the production team were allowed access to Manchester United’s Carrington training facility to fine-tune their preparations.

“They all had to train all of the moves that we had in the show. In some ways, that was the most challenging part of the shoot, because shooting footballers is slow and technical. It was months of training,” Aitken explains.

“Also, they weren’t only training all the moves, they were training to play in the style they would have played in the 1880s, which was incredibly different to how it is now. The equipment was different, the boots that they wore… In fact, only the Old Etonians had actual football boots – the workers played in their work boots.”

Describing training at Manchester United’s facilities as “exciting,” Aitken adds: “One of the trainers there is a football historian himself, so he immediately knew who everyone was [playing].”

The meticulous preparation apparently paid off. “When it came to filming, they were incredibly well drilled,” Aitken says. “There weren’t too many takes, and you’ve got to be precise because otherwise you’re filming everything 15 times.”

All this helps to realistically bring to life a story that Fellowes believes will appeal to both football fans and those with no real interest in the sport.

“You know, it’s true. I always say, when the stories are true, they have a kind of resonance,” the writer says.

Having clearly enjoyed delving into a different subject, who knows – maybe more sports-origin series will come from the Downton scribe. Bog snorkelling, anyone?

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Seeing is believing

As visual effects become a more prominent – and expensive – part of television, DQ hears about how writers and producers are aiming to meet cinematic standards in high-end dramas and how VFX can enhance storytelling.

Until recently, visual effects (VFX) in television series were a luxury rather than the norm. But the advent of epic shows such as HBO’s dragons- and magic-infused fantasy Game of Thrones has changed the paradigm in terms of what programmes can offer and, perhaps more importantly, what audiences now want from their high-end dramas.

Game of Thrones (pictured above), which came to an end this week, has employed numerous high-profile VFX firms over the years, including Primetime Creative Arts Emmy-winning teams at German firms Pixomondo and Mackevision. With this stamp of quality comes an obligation for VFX outfits to continuously improve the quality of their work. “It doesn’t matter if they’re playing Call of Duty, in the cinema or watching Netflix on their phone, audiences expect it to be of the highest quality,” says Richard Scott, CEO and co-founder of UK-based Axis Studios.

It’s a point picked up by Louise Hussey, executive producer at the UK arm of Lucasfilm-owned VFX outfit Industrial Light & Magic, who says VFX, a “longstanding part of film,” are fast becoming integral to TV. Hussey joined the company in 2018 to set up ILM TV, the company’s new London-headquartered television branch, having previously done the same for fellow VFX firm Double Negative (DNEG).

“We still don’t have the budgets that feature films have, but the fact we can harness a lot of the technology and development that’s been going on within film and bring that to bear in TV VFX is really key. That’s why we’re driving forward on all of those fronts, with creative and tech at the minute,” she says.

The War of the Worlds’ big effects sequences were figured out early on in development

While conceding that the US is more advanced than the UK in this space, Hussey believes the shift from cinema to TV – in terms of both consumer habits and the migration of talent – is being felt domestically and globally. While projects she had been looking at during her tenure at DNEG had been “very much constrained by the budgets that were available,” the upswing in the popularity of series, fuelled by premium drama on streamers like Netflix and traditional broadcasters like the BBC, has helped open the coffers for VFX. And off-screen talent has benefited as much as viewers.

“What’s incredible is the ambition of the storytellers and the ability writers now have to put things down on paper – that actually there is a chance [their ideas] can happen. Instead of writing themselves into a budgetary corner, they’re able to have a vision,” Hussey continues.

The forthcoming BBC adaptation of HG Wells’ classic sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds is a case in point. The miniseries, coproduced by ITV Studios-owned Mammoth Screen and Creasun Media in association with Red Square, uses VFX to complement the drama. Peter Harness, who penned the adaptation, says that although writers are “hard-wired into [thinking about] what things cost,” and therefore manage expectations on the page, he still prepares a first draft unfettered by budgetary constraints because it galvanises VFX teams to consider his vision from the outset.

“You are making a statement about the scale you are aiming for, even if you can’t afford all of it,” he says. “It’s quite helpful for people to get that and be a bit terrified by it and start thinking about how these things can be achieved.”

Harness reveals he already had an image of The War of the Worlds’ “iconic” Martians in mind, adding that conversations with director Craig Viveiros, designers and effects producers early in the process helped achieve the spectacle he was going for, removing the threat of eating into the budget with false starts.

Netflix and the BBC’s recently reimagined Watership Down was made by 42

“One of the biggest wastes of money is not having enough time or doing things on the fly. With The War of the Worlds, the one thing that didn’t change from script to script was the big effects sequences,” he explains. “We said, ‘We’re locking these so people can start building effects, storyboarding, looking at locations.’”

However, Harness admits the production did end up having to go without one effects sequence it had storyboarded, meaning he had to think up a scene with “the same impact for no money at all.” It became two people walking down a smoky road and hearing a baby crying in an abandoned house.

“I actually think it’s the most horrifying sequence in the [drama], and we basically got it for the cost of a smoke machine and a sound effect,” he says. “Budget constraints force you to be more creative.”

Rory Aitken, co-founder of management and production company 42, which is behind the recent BBC/Netflix animated adaptation of Richard Adams’ seminal novel Watership Down, says there was a “huge focus on getting the script right,” and notes the tensions between TV drama and captivating visuals. Given the steep costs of producing animation, Aitken says the whole process of making the series was turned on its head.

“You realise, when you’re shooting live action, what you get for free with a camera and actors is huge. You get the sun for free, you get houses for free if you’re filming on the street; someone’s figured out the drainage, someone’s figured out the actor’s haircut,” he says.

“With animation, you edit first and shoot later because it’s so expensive. Any second of animation you have on the cutting room floor is just a massive waste of money. We’ve delivered a four-part, 50-minute show and there’s not one second on the cutting room floor. The actual animation is the very last bit. You’re kind of flying blind up to that point.”

Kiss Me First combines live action with CGI sequences set in a virtual world

Dan May, co-founder of UK design studio Painting Practice alongside Joel Collins, says art departments and VFX teams often enhance a series that is renowned for its writing. Painting Practice was the driving force behind the look and effects of the first 13 episodes of Charlie Brooker’s sci-fi anthology drama Black Mirror, on which May served as VFX art designer. The series had initially apportioned very little for visuals but as its popularity grew and it became a Netflix show with higher budgets, VFX progressed as a key part of its fabric and USP.

“Often, Joel and I will work from the very beginning to get the visuals to go with the writing and the script, to get the project greenlit,” May says. “Then we’ll do a lot of concept art to get people excited. We’ll feed those concepts to the writers, and some of that will go into the scripts, some of it won’t. Then you go into production but you’ve got a lot of that pre-planning done.”

UK pubcaster Channel 4’s recent cyber-thriller Kiss Me First required constant interaction between VFX teams and producers from the start. The series, produced by UK prodcos Balloon Entertainment and Kindle Entertainment, tells the story of a 17-year-old girl who is addicted to a fictional online gaming site, and combines live action with computer-generated sequences set in a virtual world. Axis Studios was brought on board at pilot script stage because of its previous work with the gaming industry.

“We essentially fed our animation process into the writing process; the scripts were being developed at the same time we were boring out sequences,” Scott says. “Some of the sequences were established as being animation, and we could start working on those while the rest of the script was evolving.

“We were working on the animated sequences, designing the world, the costumes, and they hadn’t shot a single frame of live action. We did motion capture with all the actors and it was the first time they’d ever acted together. It was an upside-down production from that perspective.”

Clearly, VFX has transitioned from its perennial associations with fantasy and the big screen and is now being implemented as a tool in numerous premium dramas. As budgets continue to fuel its uptake in television, the migration of audiences from the cinema to the living room is likely to speed up.

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