Tag Archives: The English Game

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?

tagged in: , , , ,

Abbey days

With two new shows in the works, Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes and executive producer Gareth Neame look back on the period drama’s success and discuss their partnership.

Remember a little show called Downton Abbey? It’s hard to shake off the memory of a series that captured the hearts of audiences across 250 countries, picked up 12 Emmys and somehow got the average viewer interested in 20th century British social hierarchy.

Over the six years and six seasons that viewers followed the Crawleys’ lives, the series was a ratings smash hit and a gold mine for the broadcasters that brought it to our screens. In the UK, Downton reached an average of 11 million viewers over the duration of the series, while on PBS’s Masterpiece in the US it became most viewed drama of the past 45 years and reached an average of 13.3 million viewers per week at its peak.

However, for the brains behind the project – creator Julian Fellowes and executive producer Gareth Neame – there was an element of luck in getting the show off the ground.

“We were very fortunate that [former ITV director of television] Peter Fincham really believed in it despite everyone telling him he was mad, that the audience for period drama was dead and there was no one there to watch it,” states Fellowes, speaking at Content London at the end of last year. “There was something in it that just spoke to him. I love that because it’s nice when people are brave and go out on a limb and get rewarded.”

Neame, the executive chairman of Downton producer Carnival Films, is grateful to ITV for taking a chance on the show despite the broadcaster being in the midst of a difficult period when it was first commissioned. “Fortunately for us, they embraced it as soon as they saw the idea,” he says. “It was the middle of the advertising recession following the global crash and they had almost no money to buy new drama, but they committed to doing this, fortunately for us, and it all happened quickly.”

The exec producer admits he and Fellowes were caught slightly off guard by the show’s immediate success as they saw it spread across the globe, amassing devoted viewers along the way. A greater surprise came when the first season won four Emmys, including the Outstanding Limited Series prize.

Julian Fellowes (left) and Gareth Neame at C21’s Content London event

“We were there at the Emmys the first year and there’s no denying that, of the 3,000 to 4,000 people in that theatre, very few had actually heard of the show until it started to win all these awards,” Neame reveals.

“We were sort of warned that we wouldn’t win that year – ‘You mustn’t be disappointed, it’s marvellous to be nominated’ – and then we won practically everything!” Fellowes adds.

Critical acclaim continued and the series went from strength to strength each season. And as the show evolved, so too did Fellowes’ writing, with the Downton creator finding himself adapting the scripts according to the cast.

“The actors do change the writing  – not what they ask for or suggest, but simply you write [according] to their performances because you start to see their strengths and begin to understand what they will do best,” he explains. “Obviously, you try to make opportunities in which they will shine their brightest.”

The writing was also influenced by the fans, as Neame explains:  “We started to have very similar opinions to the fans. There were never any original plans to have Mr Carson [Jim Carter] marry Mrs Hughes [Phyllis Logan] – that was Julian responding to the chemistry those two actors had.

“So we were thinking the same thing the fans were thinking, that there was a great chemistry and it had to happen. There were many examples like that, and that’s what makes it all so fun – the inventions coming from all sorts of different places.”

Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan in Downton Abbey

As is often the case when a hit drama series comes to an end, viewers started asking about a possible feature-length adaptation of Downton, eager to see the Crawleys and co on the silver screen following the TV finale in 2015. Fellowes initially dismissed the idea, as he felt they had been able to tie all loose ends together and give the series a worthy send-off.

“I felt when I’d written the end, I’d made everyone as happy as I could,” he says. “We said goodbye and I thought it was goodbye. We all went to the Ivy Club and we cried and drank champagne and, as far as I was concerned, we’d come to the end of the road. But no, and gradually over the next year or two, the idea of a film took root and I finally came to see that it was going to happen.”

The plans finally came to fruition last year when the long-awaited Downton Abbey film hit cinemas across the globe, four years after the series’ conclusion.

“We didn’t want the show to go stale and wanted to quit while we were ahead. Having the possibility of the film sweetened the pill for the millions of fans around the world who didn’t want it to end and who really loved those characters. The idea that they weren’t lost forever was definitely positive,” says Neame.

The exec producer adds that while “it wasn’t a massive leap to take it to the big screen,” there were still obstacles to be overcome, particularly in ensuring the show’s stars were fully on board with the project.

“There were a lot of challenges in getting all of the cast back. Everyone had a sense they wanted to do it, but that’s not quite the same as saying you are going to commit,” he says. “Getting everyone to make that commitment did take an awful lot of work, but I was pretty determined to do it.”

The Downton Abbey cast, including Maggie Smith, reunited for last year’s movie

That desire to get the film off the ground paid dividends, with the Downton movie grossing more than US$190m globally, making it Focus Features’ second highest-earning film ever. Does this now mean Downton devotees can expect a second feature-length instalment?

“We said at the time we launched the film that we would like to keep going with it if it works, and fortunately, it has worked. The actors enjoyed doing it. So hopefully we’ll find a way to come back for more,” Neame teases.

“We’ve done it once, so I suppose we can do it again,” adds Fellowes, although nothing concrete is in the works at present.

Since the show’s conclusion, Fellowes and Neame have busied themselves with a number of different projects, including working together on two new period dramas: ITV and Epix copro Belgravia and HBO’s The Gilded Age.

Premiering this month, the former is based on Fellowes’ novel of the same name and follows the lives of the nouveau riche Trenchard family and the aristocratic Brockenhurst dynasty. For Neame, the decision to adapt the work to the screen was a no-brainer.

“When I read it, I thought it was fairly obvious that we should turn it into television. If I didn’t, there was going to be a queue of people who would want it,” he says.

Fellowes and Neame’s next ITV period drama Belgravia

Fellowes says the new projects have benefited from the fact the creative duo have honed their working relationship over the years, enabling them to work more swiftly.

“I’m pleased with the way Belgravia turned out. Obviously Gareth and I have now made quite a lot of television, so in certain areas we have developed a kind of shorthand. It doesn’t mean we always agree, by any means, but we don’t waste time trying to find out what the other one thinks, because it’s pretty clear what they think. It makes it quicker and easier.”

The Gilded Age, meanwhile, is set in the boom years of 1880s New York as the city experiences an influx of wealth and the establishment of a new bourgeois class. At first glance, it looks to be in a similar vein to Downton, but Fellowes is quick to point out the differences between the projects.

“Downton was quite deliberately the dramatisation of what was bound to be the decline in power of the British upper classes,” he explains, “whereas in Gilded Age, they’re going full steam ahead, they’re right in the middle of it. In fact, they haven’t yet reached their golden years, it’s still pouring in, and that seems a different dynamic and rather fun to approach.”

The new shows represent further additions to the period drama genre with which Fellowes has become synonymous, but being chiefly associated with historical series doesn’t bother the writer. “I seem to have become someone who does period drama,” he admits. “I don’t feel particularly committed to doing period drama but, on the other hand, when doors open for you, you’ve got to go through them. Usually you have to get known for doing something to then try to build on that and do slightly different things.”

The English Game focuses on the origins of football

Like many other major players in the industry, both Neame and Fellowes have found themselves getting into bed with Netflix. Neame, who is working with the streamer on ongoing historical drama The Last Kingdom, says: “It’s really been an excellent experience. Every creative wants to be completely supported and feel that encouragement when you deliver the episodes, and that’s exactly what they’ve been.”

Fellowes’ project, meanwhile, is another period drama, but this time focusing on a somewhat surprising topic. Dramatising the origins of the modern version of football (soccer) in the late 1800s, The English Game will launch on Netflix later this month.

Described by Fellowes as “charming,” Netflix will surely be hoping Downton’s army of fans will be there for the show’s kick-off.

 

tagged in: , , , , , ,