The English Game arrives at a good time for two reasons. One, the 21st century has really been lacking in great sports movies that so dominated the 1980s and ‘90s. Two, sports are cancelled right now because of the spread of coronavirus. So why not settle in and watch some pale but fit English lads run around the pitch in what is essentially Chariots of Fire: The Series?
What separates The English Game from being Chariots of Fire primarily is that it swaps religion for class warfare, which in this current climate, feels like another well-timed consideration. Taking place in the 1870s, the 6-part miniseries (from Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes) introduces us to the true story of two players from opposing sides who will change the game in critical ways. The first, brashly handsome Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft ), has dominated the field for years playing for the Old Etonians—whose team has not only won four FA (Football Association) cups at this point, but who also double as FA board members and chairman. (You see the problems already). The second, Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie ), is a wee Scottish powerhouse who has been brought to play for Darwen FC, a northern mill-town club, before being wooed by Blackburn.
This sets up a number of conflicts, many of which are still being considered in football (a.k.a. soccer) today, beginning with professional versus amateur teams. At the time, football was considered a “gentleman’s game,” one where toffs who didn’t need to work for a living could keep in shape and have some fun with friends (they are also the ones who made the game’s rules official after about a decade of arguing over it). But with the introduction of the FA Cup tournament, any team who wanted to be a part of the game could, which led to an increase in working-class teams. Suddenly, the FA Cup was growing exponentially, with some of its most ardent fans—and best players—coming from the poorest parts of England.
Fergus, and his friend Jimmy Love, are early examples of ways that some team managers skirted the rules by offering players jobs with additional wages to play—essentially, bringing in “professionals” to what was rule-bound as an amateur sport. But as The English Game makes clear, that’s a necessity in situations where workers couldn’t afford to even travel to games or find time to practice otherwise. And yet, the Old Etonians were quick to note that could easily lead to the team with the most money hoarding all of the best players—something that is in living practice today.
But the larger question that The English Game tackles (pun partially intended) is one of inclusion. Who is this game for? It was crafted by wealthy Englishmen, but are they the future of it? We know they answer is no, but it’s something in the 1870s that was only just beginning to become clear. Fergus and Love—two of the best players in the game—are Scottish and working class. This is already revolutionary. But their play style is also evolving from the one the Old Etonians employ. Fergus encourages his teammates to move out farther and pass more, something we’ve seen Spanish players in just the last decade take to an exceptional art form.
For football fans, there’s a lot of history that is fascinating to watch unfold, but like any good sports story, the play itself is restricted to just key events on the pitch. The rest of the time is spent diving into the personal lives of the players, including a beautiful partnership between Arthur and his wife Alma (Charlotte Hope) who struggle after a late-term miscarriage to define what their lives look like now. Whereas so many stories focus on the romance leading up to marriage (which we do get in Fergus’ romance with another independent and forward-thinking woman, Niamh Walsh’s Rapunzel-haired Martha Almond), the Kinnairds give us a rare view of a young married couple, their very different struggles, and how they lean on one another.
Arthur must also contend with his snobby friends, played with panache by Henry Lloyd-Hughes and Daniel Ings, while Fergus must win over the suspicious and closed-minded Darwen players who first resent him for taking over the team, and then ostracize him for leaving. In that way, Arthur and Fergus’ stories are not just parallel but destined to collide. As two good men who are driven to do the right thing no matter the cost, they use that strength to fight against the injustice of those who resist the changes already happening.
The English Game would feel very much at home on PBS as family-friendly content, although don’t mistake that to mean it’s not wonderfully entertaining, and full of sharp portrayals. Like all of Fellowes’ work (including the upcoming Epix miniseries Belgravia), there is a certain lack of nuance to the proceedings, and yet, it’s also endlessly charming and emotionally satisfying. If the series is to be dinged for anything, it’s overly-shaky camerawork off the pitch, and bizarre choice to do sudden zooms on characters in dramatic moments—a tactic usually reserved for single-camera comedies to hammer home a punchline.
That aside, the series has stocked its cast with a host of incredibly compelling actors in all roles, perhaps particularly Richard Dixon as the manager of Darwen who first brings Fergus and Jimmy to play. And while Arthur and Fergus both present stoic characters who are easy to root for, enough cannot be said about the show’s supporting cast, especially its women. Though The English Game doesn’t have a lot of time to explore these characters more deeply, the actors provide so much in their portrayals that tell us all we need to know. Some storylines may get dropped as Fellowes’ eye is (as always) drawn more to the comings and goings of the upperclass versus his working class heroes, and that is a shame. But really, how can we not spend additional time with a posh cotton mill owner who goes by Monkey?
The short run and miniseries format (one that is a true miniseries, with a very clear end) make The English Game an easy investment, and one that everyone can enjoy while under quarantine orders or beyond. But it’s also a story whose questions are still very relevant today (regarding hooliganism, playing for money versus pride, the role of amateur clubs). Its answers are, too. Who is the game for? That is clear enough: Anyone who loves it. When speaking of the growing numbers of supporters in the stands or those anxiously sitting at pubs waiting for scores, characters note again and again that it “gives them hope and pride and so much more.” And that’s what makes it not just The English Game, but the beautiful one.
The English Game premieres Friday, March 20th on Netflix.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.