A world with a different set of goals
The World Cup was not all action on the pitch. Football fever also raged quietly, in downtrodden back streets - and was caught on film.
Monday 07 December 1998
There's little doubt that television is the first medium to which we turn in order to feel part of an occasion as momentous as the World Cup. Nothing tastes worse, though, than regurgitated gobbets of a momentary national unity served up lukewarm by broadcasters months later. There is an alternative, however. Tomorrow night, Come On England!, a Modern Times documentary, will show that there's an entirely Des Lynam-free way to contemplate the World Cup and what it meant for one particular audience.
Richard Alwyn's documentary is simplicity itself. Over 50 minutes, we see 12-year-old Thomas watching the progress of his beloved England in his Everton home. He plays football with his friends in the surrounding streets and discusses his dreams and ambitions on aimless walks with his father. There's no narration, no probing interviews and hardly any football. In fact, by the action-packed standards of the ubiquitous docusoap, virtually nothing happens. Instead, the eye is drawn, restlessly at first, and then inexorably, from the familiar images of Owen and Shearer flickering on the family TV set to discreet clues about the world in which Thomas is growing up. Why are the streets in such a bad state of repair? Where are all the men? Is there nothing else for the kids to do than hang around on the sites of demolished houses? The ephemeral hysterics of the World Cup give way to the unspoken drama of life in one of the country's most deprived areas.
"To have gone to Everton, an extremely poor area of Britain, without that external narrative [the World Cup] would have made it more difficult for an audience to find a way in," insists the director of Come On England!, Richard Alwyn. "The common memory and enjoyment of the football allows people to recognise themselves in a situation which, to a large number of viewers of documentary, is fundamentally alien." This isn't strictly true. Places like Everton are all too familiar to audiences battered into submission by a certain type of television. Hard-hitting news reports and documentaries are always eager to cite people such as Thomas and his single-parent family (his father is estranged from his mother) as handy proof of certain social problems.
No one was more aware of this than Thomas's mother. Though a "robust, strong woman" and "a real matriarchal figure in the community", according to Alwyn, she sadly remains a peripheral figure in the film. "Because it's a very hard area," Alwyn believes, "it takes a long time for people to accept that you're not there on the usual agenda of drugs, crime, unemployment - the usual reasons why the media, with good intentions, come into areas like that. They [the inhabitants] more or less become a shorthand for the worst of post-industrial Britain."
This isn't to say that Come On England! remains entirely mute on the subject of Everton's endemic poverty - otherwise, says Alwyn, he'd have made the film in Weybridge. He hopes that, while Thomas rides his bike in the local park or sits watching the England vs Tunisia game with his father, certain standards of living the audience might take for granted will be conspicuously absent: "For those who look carefully, there are possible conclusions based on things which aren't overtly stated - there aren't many cars on the streets, for instance. Is the only way to make a film about post-industrial Britain to rub every fact in your audience's face?"
In its own gentle way, Alwyn's "hands off" approach works - it humanises his subjects even as it suggests their wants. Central to this human appeal is Thomas himself, a likeable, apparently happy child. Conversations between him and his father drift between England's next match, Dad's lack of money and the chances of the 12-year-old making it as a footballer. There's not a hint, though, that the film ever scoffs at the chasm between the dreams the World Cup is nourishing and the altogether more prosaic destiny that probably awaits him. The film is often melancholic. But, as the delightful Stephane Grappelli sound-track acknowledges, it's also keen to convey the innocence of Thomas and his mates.
The occasion of the World Cup itself is an obviously recognisable peg for the audience, but the production team chose its subjects carefully and was rewarded for its forethought. Alwyn had had an idea that a young Liverpudlian, Michael Owen, might figure prominently in the competition. Better still, another England star, Steve McManaman, is an old boy of Thomas's school. The easy identification of Thomas, his friends and indeed every football fan with their heroes owes a lot to a genre Alwyn dislikes.
"Football has more in common with documentary soap than this film has," he believes. "Everyone felt they knew what [the World Cup] meant through Des Lynam - well chosen bits of opera and the drama on, off and around the pitch."
Not that Alwyn's football-phobic, by any means. Like tens of millions of others in this country, he thoroughly enjoyed the World Cup and its coverage - he just thought that the competition could be used to explore more universal themes. Much the same is true of Alwyn's three previous films. However, what most obviously distinguish A Job For Life, A Pleasant Land and The Shrine from Come On England! are their darker premisses: respectively, the closure of the Grimethorpe colliery, the BSE crisis and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Alwyn's ruminative, hypnotic style is apparent in all his work. Thanks to news coverage at the time, everyone was aware of the issues of A Job For Life and A Pleasant Land. Alwyn's aim, however, was to observe "an internal psychological crisis in community" felt by the Grimethorpe miners and a small Dartmoor farming family. Fortunately, Alwyn was on hand at Kensington Palace in the aftermath of the death of Diana to bear witness to a psychological crisis on a nationwide scale. The result, The Shrine, was breathtaking. Ignoring the news media's ludicrous attempts instantly to gauge Diana's legacy, Alwyn chose to record the amazing thoughts, gestures and actions of the grief-stricken crowds that refused to leave Kensington Gardens for most of September.
Stephen Lambert, the editor who commissioned Come On England! counsels patience: "You have to work to watch something like Come On England! - but if you invest time in it, it will be rewarding." It's true that Alwyn's leisurely film is rather different from the quick gratification that characterised last week's prime-time World Cup recollections. It's also true that tomorrow night's documentary hasn't the impact of The Shrine. Nevertheless, it's an increasingly rare form of film-making and one whose pleasures are worth the viewing effort. Alwyn knows that the current broadcasting climate demands bums on seats, but he's also sure that there's an audience out there for Come On England! He even takes heart from his detractors: "One TV critic said she'd never watched such a boring documentary in her life and if she wanted to watch Eastern European cinema she could emigrate. Which I thought was a huge back-handed compliment - I was delighted!"
`Modern Times: Come On England!' will be shown on Tuesday, BBC2, 9.30pm
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