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More than Football: The Universal Appeal of The English Game

by John Finnegan |

I rarely discuss episodic series in these blog posts, but I couldn't resist doing a post about Jullian Fellow's latest period piece, The English Game. As will become apparent throughout this post, I really enjoyed this show, but I'm writing about this because I think there's a lot to be learned from the storytelling here.

Set in the 19th Century, The English Game follows the early days of the F.A. in Britain, in particular, the clashes between the Old Etonians, the elite of the sport at that time, both in terms of economic standing and sporting prowess and Darwin Football Club, a scrappy underdog team comprised of the local mill workers. By this point in the story, no working-class team has come close to winning the F.A. cup until two Scottish players come down to play for Darwin and give the Old Etonians a run for their considerable wealth.

Throughout the six episodes, the story preaches the virtues of an equal playing field, both literally in the game and metaphorically outside. The mill workers, as well as the community at large, are being squeezed tighter and tighter by the guilds and revolution is afoot if things don't improve. At the same time, the opportunity for glory on the pitch tempts our Scottish protagonist out of this working-class community and must question what these people mean to him.

As you can tell, this is a story about far more than football. It's about community, equality, class warfare and family. The lines between protagonist and antagonist are blurred quite quickly as the captain of the Old Etonians, and our working-class hero's main rival, becomes an ally to the people of Darwin. His wife, grieving over the loss of her unborn child, becomes a champion for the struggling single mothers who find themselves pressured to give up their children. In just six episodes, Fellowes expertly covers all corners of this period, ranging from the economic divide to the gender one.

As someone who has no real interest in football, I was curious as to how the show would hold my attention. But, in the same way that Moneyball isn't so much a film about baseball as it is about evening the odds against those who can buy their way to victory, The English Game is a story that challenges the status quo and questions why the sport is so important to our communities, peeling back the layers to get the answer. In this sense, the story is universal. It could, just as easily, be about any sport.

The timing of The English Game's release makes it very relevant for audiences who are, more than ever, finding themselves experiencing social divisions. It's this combination of transcendence beyond just a story about football and a release window that helps the audience find the parallels to our own experiences today that makes The English Game a success.

So, what can screenwriters learn from this:

  1. A story should never be about one specific thing (football, for example). There should always be a universal and identifiable underpinning thread.

  1. In some cases, being able to rationalise why your story should be told now, as opposed to five years from now, can make all the difference in getting your work produced. It's a natural marketing strategy that is embedded in your story.

The English Game is a timely, wonderfully written and, frankly, a very positive story that is sorely needed at a time where we have grown accustomed to the so-called 'cruel universe' stories (Game of Thrones, Vikings, Westworld, etc.) that have dominated our screens for so long.

(Image copyright: Netflix)


John Finnegan is an Executive Producer at The Script Department and a Senior Lecturer in screenwriting at Falmouth University. Find him @johnfinnegan247


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