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Television Review: The English Game

The English Game (Netflix; 2020 – Present)

On his YouTube channel Renegade Cut, video essayist Leon Thomas refers to English television writer and House of Lords peer Julian Fellowes’ hit historical drama Downton Abbey as “aristo-trash”, a dramatic subgenre that includes Netflix’s popular prestige series on the British Royal Family under the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, The Crown. Media products such as these series are critiqued by Thomas as providing rose-tinted, humanizing portraits of super-rich privileged elites such as the Windsors of The Crown and the Crawleys of Downton Abbey “for the purposes of capitalist apologetics and propaganda”. They also invariably include idealized friendly, respectful, and even loving relations between the rich and the poor, even while emphasizing the common humanity of members of the irreparably separated classes on either side of the still-widening divide of socioeconomic inequality by exploring their personal struggles in a tonal manner that suggest their broad similarity and shared humanity.

Furthermore, they present the radical politics of change and redistribution of wealth and privilege as an immature trifle of youth to be outgrown and left behind, when they aren’t depicting such politics and their frequent accompanying behaviours of protest and confrontation as outright violent and dangerous. The rare elements of progressive change that slip through this tight net are consistently attributed to the magnanimous generosity of enlightened philosopher-king individuals, exemplars of the elites at their best charitably giving to the less-fortunate of society. The sum affect of this presentation of class relations serves to re-entrench tradition power structures as positive and benevolent, their exploitations, oppressions, and inequalities elided or explained away or more often entirely absent. For an Old Tory like Lord Fellowes, a cultural text like Downton Abbey buttresses the wealthy upper-class elite to which he belongs and whose interests he seeks to shield and safeguard from progressive threats.

The English Game is a new series for Netflix co-created by Fellowes (with Tony Charles and Oliver Cotton), who also co-writes all six episodes. Set in Britain in 1879-1880, the series focuses on a key, semi-fictionalized turning point in the history of association football (a.k.a. soccer), when the sport that would one day become the world’s most popular pivoted from an amateur leisure pastime of overgrown boarding-school gentlemen to an athletic communal religion of the working class featuring paid professional players bought and sold by wealthy, ambitious, competitive club owners. The English Game (its title referring to the nationalistic nickname for football but also punning on the social and economic negotiations of the class structure) shares Downton Abbey‘s upstairs/downstairs dichotomy of rich and poor experience, and its dramatic and emotional stakes are not uninvolving or unpersuasive. But make no mistake, this is aristo-trash par excellence, full of soft-focus illuminations of upper-crust benevolence and upright, honourable working folks living vicariously through the glories of the local footie club.

In 1879, football had been an organized sport with rules of governance for just over 30 years, and somewhat wider-scale agreement on those rules was much more recent (the sport now widely known as rugby only split off into its own codes of play in 1871, for example). The Football League (the world’s first) would not be founded until 1888, and so the only real national footballing competition at the time was the FA (Football Association) Cup, which had been dominated since its beginnings in 1872 by the amateur private school teams whose players had agreed upon its rules and largely populated the positions of control in the FA. These figures kept the game strictly amateur, professionalism being seen as common and vulgar and grounds for expulsion from cup competition, as well as of course threatening their clubbish dominance of the fledgling sport. But a growing number of football clubs from the Midlands, the North, and Scotland were springing up and challenging the old boys of the game down south, these teams often run by mill owners or other businessmen who began to secretly pay the best players from other such clubs to join their own squads. From some of these clubs also emerged new tactics based on quick passing and speed, rather than the rugby-adjacent packed rushes and rough physicality of the well-fed and well-rested school alumni teams. The game was changing. Would its wealthy and privileged gatekeepers change with it, or be left behind?

At least this is how The English Game presents the conflict in the sport in this period; more knowledgable historians of the game may quibble with specifics, and it feels like the on-field tactical shift in particular is likely oversimplified (on more than one occasion, large-scale tactical innovations are made in quick conversations at halftime), but in broad strokes, it’s probably relatively accurate to what was happening in football at the time (also, the balls they use look really, really hard). At any rate, this is fertile ground for the kind of highly-skewed class relations drama that Fellowes favours, and he mostly doesn’t waste it. His central contrasting figures and dual protagonists come from each side of the class divide in Victorian society and in Victorian football. There’s Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft), aristocratic heir to a wealthy, lordly financier father (Anthony Andrews) who disapproves of his scion’s childish footballing obsession, husband to Alma (Charlotte Hope) and hopeful father-to-be, FA principal, captain of perennial FA Cup contenders Old Etonians, and perhaps the first nationally-known star player in the sport. Aligned against Kinnaird (but ultimately coming to a position of mutual respect and admiration with him) is Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie), a diminuitive but highly talented Scot who moves to Northern mill-town team Darwen FC from Partick Thistle in Glasgow along with his on-field running mate and best friend Jimmy Love (James Harkness); both are paid under the table to play while working a cover job at the textile mill (the real Suter was a stonemason) of Darwen FC owner James Walsh (Craig Parkinson). Suter struggles to balance his on-field ambitions with his quick-hardening fondness for and loyalty to the town, as well as his developing feelings for local woman Martha Almond (Niamh Walsh) and his concerns about the well-being of his family back in Glasgow, who fear the violent rages of his alcoholic father (Michael Nardone).

Although Fellowes works here with co-creators and co-writers (Thomas points out in his video essay that Fellowes has a solo writing credit on all but three Downton Abbey episodes, whose credits he shares, as well as the capstone movie, making the work a rare-enough example of a single authorial voice in filmed media), The English Game has all the hallmarks of the aristo-trash style. Everybody, rich and poor, has humanizing issues and personal struggles (at least partly for the purpose of equalization and erasure of socioeconomic difference), and these form the numerous subplots unwinding behind the core progression of the FA Cup tournament towards the inevitable meeting between Kinnaird’s and Suter’s clubs in the final. Arthur deals with his father’s disapproval of his sporting focus and tries to prove his mettle to the old man as a capitalist, all while tiptoeing his way to a stronger marriage with Alma (who suffers a traumatic miscarriage and transmutes her loss into meddling in the affairs of a lower-class mother who has to give up her child for adoption).

Kinnaird also serves as the focal point for Fellowes’ aristo-trash pro-elite propaganda, witnessing and sympathizing with the strike actions and protest marches of Darwen’s mill workers, which include Suter’s teammates. He thus becomes a benevolent champion for working-class rights in politics, society, economics, and football, a personification of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s idealized “Tory men with Whig measures”. This predilection sets him at odds with his more arrogant, power-playing Old Etonian teammates in the FA, namely the show’s chief villain Francis Marindin (Daniel Ings; no relation to the former Liverpool and current Southampton forward of the same name), who is eager to expel their competition from the North from the cup for hooliganism, professionalism, or whatever else suits his purposes.

The English Game includes a subplot about wage cuts for factory workers and labour unrest, and Fellowes approaches it exactly as his aristo-trash leanings would lead one to suspect he would. As Kinnaird watches and Suter resists an attempt by the ringleaders to leverage his on-field notoriety to the strike’s benefit with mild calls for unity and understanding, incendiary speeches about workers’ rights lead to a torch-wielding mob that marches threateningly on the house of the head of the cotton guild, Colonel Jackson (Richard McCabe). Vandalism and a perceived threat to the lives of Jackson and his family ensue, and after Darwen FC keeper and aspiring capitalist Ted Stokes (Joncie Elmore) slips into the house to warn the colonel and his family, police mistakenly arrest him and cruelly shoot his dog dead. Only Arthur Kinnaird’s compassionate interceding in the trial and accompanying pledge to finance Stokes’ proposed football-shirt manufacturing concern saves an innocent (indeed, heroic) man from unfair incarceration. Labour agitation, Fellowes is saying, is nothing but trouble, and only by protecting the owners of the means of production as Stokes does can any improvement in one’s standing be achieved, through the kind generosity of those owners.

The ultimate thesis of The English Game is even more grimly platitudinal in its cynical upholding of traditional, uneven class relations as transmuted through capitalism. Kinnaird and Suter combine forces in a pivotal meeting with Marindin and the FA leadership to get Blackburn (the club Suter has moved to from eliminated Darwen in order to have a shot at winning the FA Cup) reinstated to the competition following a hooliganish riot caused by an injury to Love in an exhibition match between the club and rival Darwen. This stated reason is only a sideline concern for Marindin, who is really seeking to root out illegal professionalism and expose Suter as a paid mercernary. As Kinnaird predicts the spread of football worldwide with ludicrous geographical accuracy (“Then we’ll grow corrupt and shiftless, and the Brazilians will eat us alive!”), Suter repeats a point that he has made locally in Darwen and Blackburn numerous times up to that point. The British working class needs football, and feeds ravenously off the weekly exploits of their heroes on the pitch to get them through the dull, dehumanizing drudgery of their grinding manual labour jobs and poverty-stricken existence. To deny them that in order to preserve the upper echelons of the competitive game as a private leisure retreat for the ultra-rich patriarchal class is not only churlish and snobbish and unfair, but even undemocratic and above all fruitless when arrayed against the inevitable advance of the sport’s progress.

This is presented as a proclamation of inspiring egalatarian hope, but it’s really dark as hell. The English Game understands football’s role in the United Kingdom as the ultimate opiate of the masses, the regular diversionary valve of emotional and aspirational investment that keeps the country’s poor docile and contented with their squalid lot and occupies the energies that might otherwise have been expended in the dogged pursuit of radical social, political and economic change. The proletariat doesn’t need reform, and certainly doesn’t need messy, costly revolution, to improve their conditions when they’ve got the Merseyside Derby. The English Game sets passionate commoners against arrogant rich men, with enlightened mediators in between, with the future of football and indeed of the nation at stake. But its insidious subtext is that in pivoting to professionalism and a related growth in popularity, the sport also became one of the most powerful mechanisms of social control for the British elite class. That this elite needed to be dragged kicking and screaming to the realization of not only the inevitability of this change but also of the benefits to their position, their power, and their profits that would come with it is as revealing a glimpse into their mindset as Lord Fellowes could have provided.

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