21 March 2020 02:31

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The English Game: Football’s class conflicts under the spotlight in Netflix’s new drama

Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey and Belgravia, has turned his talents for period drama towards the birth of association football in a new six-part series for Netflix called The English Game. Centred on two real-life figures who played significant roles in the establishing football as the nation's most popular sport, The English Game is a classic Fellowes mix of high drama and romance, all played out to a background of social upheaval and a class divide. Suter moved to the northwest of England to play for Darwen FC, a side made up of workers from the cotton mills, which introduced a new passing game to England. On the opposite side of the class divide is Ed Holcroft (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), who plays Arthur Kinnaird, the son of an MP and banker who played for the Old Etonians in nine FA Cup finals, winning five of them. The English Game charts the contrasting stories of Suter and Kinnaird, and shows how their lives overlap both on the pitch in a battle of skills, as well as off the pitch in a tussle for control of the fledgling sport between the ex-public schoolboys at the governing body, the Football Association, and the factory and mill workers across the north of England.

BT TV caught up with Guthrie and Holcroft to talk about behind-the-scenes secrets from the series, their own football skills and the amazing true stories of Suter and Kinnaird. "Characteristic-wise, the thing that struck me about him - forget about his background and class and the fact he was one of the best professional footballers of his time - was that he was just a young man trying to find his way. He found that life wasn't the way he had been told and that courage is what I took away, along with the fact that he was exceptionally talented as a footballer." Who was the real Fergus Suter? I spent a lot of time walking around the streets he walked and then Darwen, to explore the shift he would have experienced." Explaining why Suter became such a figurehead in the game, Guthrie believes it was the footballer's understanding of using "reasoned argument and a reasoned idea" to bring about changed on and off the field. "He also recognised Kinnaird's wonder and ability on the pitch and the fact Kinnaird started the conversation about the mill teams playing in the cup.

Landing on Netflix rather ironically in a period when professional football has ground to a halt, historical drama The English Game documents the origins of the sport, in particular the roles played by two men – tough tackling toff Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft) and spirited Scot Fergus "Fergie" Suter (Kevin Guthrie). However, much of the interpersonal drama seen in the series, including Arthur's love of football causing tensions with wife Alma (Charlotte Hope) and his father (Anthony Andrews), appears to be invention by Fellowes, along with specific incidents like Kinnaird being pursued by angry mill workers after their pay is cut (as seen in episode two of The English Game). Suter was indeed a footballer in the early days of the game and the first recognised professional player, earning a wage for his participation. As with Kinnaird, much of the Suter family drama in The English Game – including the specifics of his relationship with his abusive alcoholic father – are an invention of Fellowes, as are the details of his romance with Martha (Niamh Walsh). But much of what we see Alma get up to in The English Game again appears to have been invented for the purposes of drama, including the sub-plot in episode four where, having lost a child of her own, she helps a bereft mother recover the baby she previously gave away.

It's documented that Fergus Suter married Martha, his love interest in The English Game, but the lack of information surrounding her life means that, again, much had to be invented for the series. There's certainly little evidence to suggest that, prior to their marriage, she and Suter were caught up in a love triangle with the manager of Blackburn Rovers, who'd previously fathered Martha's child, as seen in The English Game. Though parts of how The English Game portrays the run-up to the FA Cup final is based on truth – the Football Association was investigating clubs for paying players, which was against the rules at the same – the outcome of the match itself has been massaged… In the 1882 final, Blackburn Rovers, with Suter as part of the team, did indeed play against Arthur Kinnaird's Old Etonians, but actually lost the game 1-0. The English Game, though, ends with the Rovers beating Kinnaird's team, allowing for a storybook ending where Suter lifts the FA Cup – which, in real life, he would go on to do in 1884, when Blackburn Rovers beat Queen's Park. The English Game, Netflix, review: The birth of professional football told through the lens of class The new Netflix series is created by Julian Fellowes, who wrote Downton Abbey and Belgravia The Old Etonians represent the upper class of football in The English Game (Photo: Netflix) Anyone planning to spend the next few weeks glued to Sky Sports will be feeling a little bereft at the moment, thanks to the postponement of the Premier League, the Euros, the EFL and the FA Cup. However, while it offers nowhere near the same level of excitement or camaraderie as in a real match, Netflix's latest period drama, The English Game might go some way to fill that gap.

From the mind of writer Julian Fellowes, the House of Lords peer responsible for the exceedingly popular Downton Abbey and ITV's latest lavish series Belgravia, The English Game charts the story of how football went from an amateur hobby to the national pastime - and for many, a professional career. Kicking off in 1879, we are introduced to the captain of the Old Etonian team, Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft, Kingsman: The Secret Service), who was very much the David Beckham of his day. That honour falls to Glaswegian Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie, Sunshine on Leith), a former stonemason who moves from Scotland to the tiny town of Darwen in Lancashire with his teammate Jimmy Love to join their local team of working-class mill worker players. The English Game charts the beginning of professional football (Photo: Netflix) If you've seen Downton or Belgravia, you'll know that Fellowes is preoccupied with the upstairs/downstairs class system of the 1800s and The English Game is no different. While the Old Etonian team enjoy public adoration and post-match dinners, the Darwen lads struggle to pay for their train up and down the country to play games. There's surprisingly little football in the first episode, but the mounting tension between the elite players who use brute force and underhand off-pitch tactics and the more skilful but rule-breaking working class team is interesting enough to propel the story along. A NEW Netflix series called The English Game tackles football's class dynamics in the late 19th century, a pivotal period of the sport's development. In the 20th century the sport would come to be called, albeit romantically, 'The People's Game', as the world's working class took football to heart. The English Game is written by Julian Fellowes who had a huge hit with Downton Abbey and has become known for focusing his attention on stories of the privileged elite and the working class with whom they share uneasy social space. While viewers might expect such nuances, along with historically faithful period costumes and evocative settings, it will be interesting to see if The English Game affords similarly complex and accurate depictions of wider social and economic reality. Football has older 'folk' origins, but it took a particular class-infused unfolding of social, cultural and economic processes to produce the game that would go on to enchant much of the world. In this era, supporters have often campaigned against rising ticket prices, games being moved to suit TV audiences, profit-hungry club owners, and other features of contemporary football they feel exclude the traditional working-class fan. For now, football's working classes appear to accept that power within The English Game resides somewhere above. This month, Julian Fellowes, king of English period drama, is back with two well-timed new series. Over on Netflix, The English Game marks Fellowes's first foray into streaming, a six-part series that traces the inception of professional football in the Victorian era. Darwen's 'mill team,' pictured, goes up against the Old Etonians in The English Game (Carnival for ITV) The English Game might not seem like classic Fellowes territory, but five minutes in and it's easy to see what has attracted the chronicler of class to this particular story. Belgravia continues Sundays on ITV from 9pm; The English Game is available to stream on Netflix now