Cast: Edward Holcroft, Kevin Guthrie, Charlotte Hope
Director: Birgitte Saermose, Tim Fywell
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
The English Game, a six-episode Netflix 0riginal miniseries, resorts to freewheeling blend of fact and fiction to dramatise the emergence of modern football in a Lancashire mill town in the late 19th century on the back of two hired Scottish players. However, the ballgame that the sweeping period epic plays extends way beyond the football field and addresses the British class system and the social movement that led to the game being wrested for good from the control of the aristocracy.
The vast narrative canvas accommodates a range of realities: the dwindling returns of the northern England cotton mills, the hardships faced by the overworked and poorly paid factory workers, the indignities heaped upon women in the Victorian era, and the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. As social indices plummet, football becomes an escape route for the toiling masses, which, in turn, precipitates an overhaul of the game.
Small millowner James Walsh (Craig Parkinson), who fuels the transformation by acquiring the aforesaid two Scotsmen (both real-life personages) to strengthen the Darwen football club, says: “The game fills their souls when nothing else does it in their lives.” The series puts this all-encompassing phenomenon under the spotlight even as it probes the personal and social conflicts that the key players in the drama face.
Borrowing from Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James’ paraphrasing of a line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘The English Flag’ (“What do they know of cricket that only cricket know?”), The English Game could well be posing the same question with regard to football by dovetailing the pivotal point of the saga into a far larger narrative framework. There is much more to the game here than just a bunch of men chasing a ball around a playground. As football undergoes a transformation, an entire society also witnesses sweeping permanent changes.
Created by Julian Fellowes (Member of the House of Lords, Oscar-winning screenwriter of Gosford Park and writer and executive producer of Downton Abbey), Tony Charles and Oliver Cotton, The English Game has been directed by Danish filmmaker Birgitte Staermose (Episodes 1 to 3) and Englishman Tim Fywell (Episodes 4 to 6).
The plot swivels around two footballers from opposite sides of the class divide who drive the moves on and off the field that were to have far-reaching consequences and pave the way for the game going truly global. Many hurdles have to be crossed before the London elite, who are both players and rule-makers, deign to throw football open to the working class from up north.
Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft), the scion of a wealthy aristocratic London family that owns a bank, leads the Old Etonians team and has lifted the FA Cup as many as three times. Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie) is a skilled, slightly built working class Scotsman roped in by Darwen to bolster the Lancashire club’s chances of defeating the stronger southern teams made up of public schoolboys from Eton, Harrow and Charterhouse.
The film opens in 1879 when “football is in its infancy and dominated by the upper classes”. History is made that year because no working-class team had ever made it to the FA Cup quarter-finals until then. The contest between the privileged, entitled Old Etonians and the hard-working mill labourers from Darwen is unequal. The former are well-fed, well-rested boys who play football for the love of the game. The latter are lowly-paid, exploited workers who see the game as a means to climb out of their misery.
“Knock the posh bastards off their perch,” Darwen captain Tommy Marshall (Gerard Kearns) hollers to his lads before their first encounter against the Old Etonians. That obviously is easier said than done, but that is the only option left for the boys from Lancashire. The have nothing to lose.
Suter – called Suter the Shooter by his growing tribe of fans – is the difference between the two teams. Until the former Glasgow stonemason arrives in Darwen, football is a game only of strength. He brings tactics and tricks into the sport, initiating a complete change in approach to attack and defence. Just as importantly, Suter and fellow Scotsman Jimmy Love (James Harkness), are paid to play for Darwen, which makes them the first-ever professional footballers in history, and this at a time when FA rules permitted only amateurs to play the game.
Suter becomes hot property overnight. He is offered a higher fee and better terms by the chairman of another Lancashire club, Blackburn. He needs the money and, therefore, swallows the bait, knowing full well that he might not only be in violation of the then rules of the game but also in danger of burning his bridges with childhood pal Jimmy Love, his other teammates, and the loyal supporters of the Darwen club.
The Blackburn head John Cartwright (Ben Batt) is presented as the first club chairman who assembles a line-up of players drawn from other teams so that he can mount a campaign to be “the first working class team to win the FA Cup”. He even offers Darwen owner John Walsh 100 pounds as compensation for weaning Suter away to Blackburn – probably the first instance of a “transfer fee” being paid for a player. Before a Blackburn-Old Etonians clash, Cartwright exhorts his team to “show these toffs what working men are made of.”
While all this is transpiring, a lot a drama unfolds in the personal lives of Kinnaird, Suter and Love. Kinnaird’s wife Alma (Charlotte Hope), who suffers a painful miscarriage early in the series, drifts away from her husband, a personification of a football widow, and yet keeps chipping away at the man’s drawbacks as a person. Kinnaird’s outlook changes slowly and steadily as, to put it in the words he employs to explain his stance to his stern father, he begins “to understand the people who represent the future of this country”.
Suter, who has left his mother and two sisters at the mercy of an abusive father back in Glasgow, is gradually drawn into a relationship with Martha Almond (Niamh Walsh), an unwed mother who waits tables at the Cotton Masters’ Club in Darwen. If the mill workers are have-nots, the women whose lives depend on them are infinitely worse off. They have to reckon with constant moral policing and the pain of being stigmatised for the slightest of aberrations.
The English Game, notwithstanding the liberties that it takes with fact in the process of condensing events spanning a period of time into a single year of football history, is a well mounted, strongly acted and consistently watchable series.