Once upon a time in Britain a game was played with a round ball. It was a rough game, sometimes involving mob-like throngs kicking and following the ball. Then in the Victorian era, at private schools, the game became more regulated, but haphazardly. It spread beyond the schools, and many clubs and societies were formed to play the game. It was called football.
Then in 1863, the Football Association was formed to impose an agreed set of rules and regulations. The game thrived, especially in working-class areas where teams of men – and women – from factories and mills used it as recreation and a community-building outlet. The private schools still played it and dominated the tournaments. What they all played was still called football, which then became, to the vast world, fútbol, le foot, voetbal, soccer or whatever you want to call it yourself.
That this snippet of history would be fodder for the creator of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, might seem odd. But it is his full preoccupation in The English Game (streaming on Netflix), a lavish new six-part series that is a bit demented and wholly enjoyable. It appears that after all that adoration of the very wealthy and the landed gentry in Downton, Fellowes figured that working men battling toffs on the playing fields would be a bloody good yarn.
It is, even if it creaks with the weight of cliché about honest, hard-nosed labourers and well-off, entitled chaps, who reluctantly come to understand that they don’t actually own the world. At six episodes, it is a charming, uncomplicated distraction. And ideal for fans of British period-piece drama.
The English Game chronicles one year in the life of Darwen FC, a real club, anchored in the cotton mills of Darwen in Lancashire. It’s 1879 and Darwen has reached the quarter-final of the FA Cup, a game in which it plays the toffs at Eton College. It is the first working-class team to get to this stage and the mill’s owner, James Walsh (Craig Parkinson), has imported two fine players from Scotland, Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie) and Jimmy Love (James Harkness) to help win the game. He’s paying them, making them the first professional footballers. The Old Etonians believe this is outrageous and caddish behaviour.
What unfolds isn’t quite what you expect. If you expect, that is, the ultimate triumph of the underdog. It is to the credit of Fellowes that the storyline isn’t that predictable. Suter and Love, who are also real figures and important in the early history of soccer, have actually thought about the game. To them it isn’t about strength. The Eton team is made up of young men bigger and fitter than them. Suter, in particular, sees it as about tactics and skill. In that first game, Suter roars at his teammates, “This game is about space. Let the ball do the work.”
On the Eton side, the top man is Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft), an outstanding athlete and an arrogant twerp. “This is a game for amateurs and gentlemen,” is his defining statement. Interestingly, when his hubris is finally challenged, it is because his wife finds his ostentatious strength and arrogance insufferable.
What you get, really, is another upstairs/downstairs drama, but played out as two teams playing soccer. In the mill town of Darwen it’s all cloth caps, comely women who are motherly, and reams of workers worried about their jobs and livelihood. In the drawing rooms inhabited by the Old Etonians, it’s all formal dinner-wear, servants, and ladies in fine gowns scuttling away so the chaps can talk manly talk over port and cigars.
There is melodrama galore, with love blossoming and hard lessons learned about loyalty and friendship. However, at its centre, The English Game is about one theme – you see, Suter is an intellectual who has thought deeply about this game of football, and Kinnaird is an unthinking brute who must learn humility.
Reviews in Britain have been mixed. And understandably, because the series is rooted in some facts and isn’t entirely fiction. But best put skepticism aside; the series is a sweet, nicely made diversion. And highly recommended as such in these grimly bewildering times.
Finally, at the suggestion of many readers, this column continues with a “Stay-at-home-period daily streaming pick” for the next while. Today’s pick is Black Summer (Netflix). It is an unheralded little masterpiece of the zombie-apocalypse genre. Don’t be put off by “zombie apocalypse.” This is not like The Walking Dead or any of its spinoffs. It’s formally brilliant, politically loaded, terse and terrifying. No less than Stephen King called it, “Existential hell in the suburbs, stripped to the bone.”
It is all that. The stripped-to-the-bone element is one reason why it’s breathtaking. Some episodes are 20 minutes long. Others come in at about 45 minutes. Dialogue is often sparse and the pacing is relentless, often using hand-held cameras to speed up the scenes. Sometimes, more is said in the title-cards that describe episodes and sequences than in the full drama that unfolds.
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