In 1999, actor-producer-director Robert Elmer Balaban asked film director, Robert Altman, if they could collaborate on a country house murder mystery. Altman chose Julian Fellowes, British actor and writer, to prepare the screenplay. The result was the 2001 movie, ` Gosford Park.’ Besides being murder mystery, it was a study of the British class system of the 1930s as outlined by the owners of the country house, their guests – all of them upper class and wealthy – and the staff taking care of their needs. Featuring an ensemble cast, the film was a commercial success. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won Fellowes an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
Almost 20 years later, the Fellowes touch – reminiscent of Gosford Park’s class study – may be tangibly felt in the TV series ` The English Game,’ released on Netflix in March 2020. The series wherein Fellowes has contributed to both writing and production, examines British football of the 1870s. At that time, it was a game controlled by the upper classes with social confrontation brewing thanks to an army of talent assuming shape in the ranks of the working class. The upper class, cocooned in tradition and comfort, treats the game as an extension of their lifestyle and licence to dominate. The working class, struggling to make ends meet, sees it as avenue for self-expression, an opportunity to level the social field and increasingly, as means to move up in life. At the heart of that last option is the early lot of talented players, paid money to represent working class teams. Given prevailing rules (it is the years before professional players became acceptable), such deals have to be kept a secret and when eventually sniffed out, critics view it as contamination of sport by commerce. Today, professional players and club transfers are part of football. The story as told by the TV series unfolds through an array of characters representing the class divide along with three footballs teams illustrating the predicament – Old Etonians, Darwen FC and Blackburn.
I haven’t seen ` Gosford Park.’ But the urge to read about that film and catch what little I could of it from the Internet was pronounced because well into ` The English Game’ it became evident that it wasn’t about football wizardry; it was about showing us a stage in the game’s evolution in the UK. The beautiful game is here a vehicle for acquainting us with a slice of old history, well emphasized therein being the class divide of early football and how view of world by sport eventually shifts perspective for those loving the game. Talent knows no class and you cannot stop the march of talent. ` The English Game’ is a well-made, well-acted series that should additionally interest audiences in India for a small detail tucked away in two inaccuracies related to the sport’s history, cited on Wikipedia.
The first inaccuracy in depiction of historical facts relates to overall time. The series gives the impression that its narrative happens in one season while in reality Ferguson Suter – one of the two main protagonists – took six seasons to be part of a FA Cup winning side. Second at the time of the incidents portrayed, Blackburn (shown as one team in the series) had two teams – Blackburn Olympic and Blackburn Rovers. The former is noteworthy as the first team from the north of England and the first from a working class backdrop to win the FA Cup, the country’s leading competition. This occurred in 1882-83. But Blackburn Olympic did not enjoy such success afterwards. The following year Blackburn Rovers won in the final and in the year after that, Olympic lost to Rovers in the second round. When the Football League was formed in 1888 with rule alongside that there could be only one club from each town or city participating, it meant Olympic out and Rovers in for Blackburn. In September 1889, Olympic shut down. In 2010, the Indian conglomerate V. H. Group with headquarters in Pune, bought Blackburn Rovers for 23 million pounds.
All in all, ` The English Game’ is a series worth watching. It captures a period of transition in the game; a transition well encapsulated by Suter’s observation in the series that if Blackburn isn’t allowed to play (over hired players present in its line-up) then those suffering won’t be just the players but also working class supporters, who after days of arduous work look forward to world recast by the talent of their local football team. See this series for early English football and a sense of what changed it. Not to mention – amid the wealth and big stars of today’s football, the series reminds you who actually forms the bedrock of support for the game.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)