Television Review

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THE BBC TENDS to regard the archive as cheap filler to plaster over the cracks in the careers of Gaby Roslin and Terry Wogan, but there are times when it plunders its library of images more discriminatingly. The last time the BBC made a film abut the footballer Justin Fashanu was 17 years ago, when BBC Norwich broadcast a local programme about a young black footballer coping with money and fame. It must have seemed a fairly innocuous film at the time, but Inside Story: Justin Fashanu - Fallen Hero (BBC1) fell on it ravenously and gutted it with a ruthless purpose.

Even before he became the first black footballer to be sold for pounds 1 million, the foster mother who rescued him and his younger brother John from a Barnardo's home seemed grimly aware of the pitfalls that lay ahead. "I just hope we can keep his feet on the ground," she said. Buried in that harmlessly worded ambition was an unwitting prediction of ghastly accuracy. Earlier this year, like a minor character in an episode of Prime Suspect, Fashanu was found dangling from a rope in an East End lock-up.

A year before the BBC Norwich film, the perennial dogsbody Tony Gubba had schlepped up to Fashanu's home in Norfolk to present him with the Goal of the Season award. Some of you will remember the iconic goal; a left-foot shot on the turn which whistled into the Liverpool net. This riddle of a film had a far wider constituency than mere football fans, but anoraks may be pleased to note that on its looping journey the ball shaved the ear of future BBC pundit Alan Hansen.

Channel 5 was first to the tape with an autopsy on Fashanu, and while it delivered essentially the same what-went-wrong story of rags-to-riches- to-rags, programmes like this stand or fall on the strength of the contributors, and it failed to assemble as many pieces of the jigsaw. Inside Story assembled a dock-full of witnesses whose extraordinary disparity was testimony in itself to the shiftless, untethered way that Fashanu vaulted from life- raft to life-raft. There was the car sponsor who introduced him to Jesus, the nightclub owner who first sussed that he was gay, the boy from Maryland whose accusation of sexual assault proved the catalyst in his death, and the abbot who harboured him in a monastery in Leicestershire in the weeks before he hanged himself.

It just goes to show that, when indulging in tittle-tattle, it helps to have a 75-year-old brand name on the stationery. It was presumably because the BBC is the channel of record that John Fashanu chose this moment to give his side of the story. Though Justin was always a better footballer, John managed to get to the end of his career more or less without incident because he never discovered Jesus or boys. If Justin could just about handle being black and rich, he was done for when he lobbed homosexuality and Christianity into an already combustible mix.

Holding a mirror up to the story, the film found itself in a position oddly similar to its subject, in which it, too, didn't know which voices to trust. However articulate and thoughtful, John's testimony seemed to come with an agenda. When Justin came out as gay, his brother gave a graceless television interview saying he wouldn't want to get into a post-match shower with a gay footballer. He said here that he regretted that outburst, but that may sound more magnanimous than it actually is. The programme invited you to compare two contradictory reasons for John's concern about his brother's announcement. In John's selfless version, he worried that it would have a bad effect on the black community. But according to the manic football agent Eric Hall, John actually dreaded being barracked by fans.

Justin himself became a spinner of titillating yarns about the gay MPs he had cavorted with in the Speaker's Chair, etc. He began selling these fabrications to gullible newspapers to keep himself in pocket after his brother refused to bail him out. When charged with sexual assault, he counterclaimed that he had had consensual relations with his accuser, who had in fact tried to blackmail him.

But even as it read out the final protestation of innocence in his suicide note, the film quietly implied that, towards the end of his life, Fashanu was far more skilful at fantasy than at football.

Thomas Sutcliffe is on holiday