The English Game: How they made the 1880s Netflix drama about the birth of football

The show’s lead actors Edward Holcroft and Kevin Guthrie reveal behind-the-scenes secrets from the making of Julian Fellowes' new 19th century sporting drama.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 11 May 2020 - 12.51pm
Oliver Upton/Netflix

Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey and Belgravia, has turned his talents for period drama towards the birth of association football in a new six-part series for Netflix called The English Game.

Centred on two real-life figures who played significant roles in the establishing football as the nation’s most popular sport, The English Game is a classic Fellowes mix of high drama and romance, all played out to a background of social upheaval and a class divide.

Kevin Guthrie (Dunkirk, Sunshine on Leith) stars as Fergus Suter, a gifted Scotsman who is recognised by many to be the first professional footballer.

Suter moved to the northwest of England to play for Darwen FC, a side made up of workers from the cotton mills, which introduced a new passing game to England.

On the opposite side of the class divide is Ed Holcroft (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), who plays Arthur Kinnaird, the son of an MP and banker who played for the Old Etonians in nine FA Cup finals, winning five of them.

Arthur Kinnaird, played by Ed Holcroft, shakes an opposition players hand before a match Netflix

The English Game charts the contrasting stories of Suter and Kinnaird, and shows how their lives overlap both on the pitch in a battle of skills, as well as off the pitch in a tussle for control of the fledgling sport between the ex-public schoolboys at the governing body, the Football Association, and the factory and mill workers across the north of England.

BT TV caught up with Guthrie and Holcroft to talk about behind-the-scenes secrets from the series, their own football skills and the amazing true stories of Suter and Kinnaird.

The art of playing football on film

Ed Holcroft runs with the ball, playing Arthur Kinnaird in The English Game Netflix

The hardest part of portraying any sport on film or TV is in capturing its authenticity. How do you bring the crunching tackles, silky passes and the chaotic mix of sweat and passion to life within a medium more used to structured storytelling?

And how do actors avoid falling flat on their face or hoofing a ball in the wrong direction as soon as the camera rolls?

“I think a lot of the time, when you imagine yourself mucking up on camera, that’s because you feel pressure. And you feel pressure because it’s something you don’t enjoy or are nervous about,” explained Holcroft.

“But when you love football, which we both do, you can’t wait for the camera to roll because it means you get to play. There aren’t nerves when you do something you enjoy – it was a luxury.”

Guthrie described himself as a “pretty good footballer” and “quietly confident” about his ability to play the role, which was helped by his likeness to Suter.

Kevin Guthrie as Fergus Suter Netflix

He believes the idea of shooting lots of 'free play', rather than choreographing the on-field action, that meant they were able to capture realistic footage from the pitch.

“In the free plays we could really express ourselves,” said Guthrie. “We had to stay within the context of the period and the style with which they would play the game. But it did allow us to loosen up a bit and that was often where the magic happened on camera. A lot of the free play ended up in the final cut.”

Holcroft agreed. “Like Kevin said, everyone who was playing had a pretty solid foundation of football,” he said.

“And there wasn’t a camera on us trying to do 20 keepy-uppys or anything.”

The true story of Arthur Kinnaird

Ed Holcroft as Arthur Kinnaird in The English Game Netflix

Holcroft and Guthrie spent a lot of time exploring the backgrounds of their characters and were assisted by two key books.

“There was a book by a man called Andy Mitchell called The First Lord of Football, which was basically a biography of Arthur Kinnaird,” explains Holcroft.

“Characteristic-wise, the thing that struck me about him - forget about his background and class and the fact he was one of the best professional footballers of his time - was that he was just a young man trying to find his way.

“It’s a situation we’re all in – what kind of person would you like to be? What kind of person would society like you to be, balanced against who you would like to be. He’s a deeply empathetic guy, who was trying to be himself, which is hard when you’re in the upper class.

There are set ways of doing things and how you should behave and what jobs you should do. And he didn’t want to do any of that. It takes a great deal of courage to do those things when you know it will cause great conflict with family and friends. He found that life wasn’t the way he had been told and that courage is what I took away, along with the fact that he was exceptionally talented as a footballer."

Who was the real Fergus Suter?

Kevin Guthrie as Fergus Suter Netflix

“There is a brilliant book called The Underdogs by Keith Dewhurst and it charts the period in history that we started to tell in this story,” explains Guthrie.

“It tells how the cotton mills influenced the game and how factories influenced the fame. How Sutter and Love came down from Glasgow and changed the game. It gave really detailed descriptions of what Fergus was like on the field and off the field from interviews and speaking with journalists from the time. There was a lot of folklore around Sutter.

“I also spoke to a historian who works across the Scottish FA and the English FA. We solicited his advice for information as well.

"I also used my own knowledge, because I know that part of Glasgow particularly well. I spent a lot of time walking around the streets he walked and then Darwen, to explore the shift he would have experienced.”

Explaining why Suter became such a figurehead in the game, Guthrie believes it was the footballer’s understanding of using “reasoned argument and a reasoned idea” to bring about changed on and off the field.

“He also recognised Kinnaird’s wonder and ability on the pitch and the fact Kinnaird started the conversation about the mill teams playing in the cup.

“The protection of his mother and sisters and the determination to find a new life, I found all those characteristics quite wonderful,” Guthrie added.

Playing football in cricket whites

The Old Etonians in The English Game Netflix

One of the most striking parts of The English Game's matchday scenes are the kits the teams have to wear while doing battle on the pitch.

From hefty clonking boots to heavy thick jerseys, they look impractical, uncomfortable and a world away from the modern era of sports science modelled kit.

“Arthur Kinnaird was infamous for wearing cricket whites trousers. I couldn’t find out why, but every record of him playing, he had them on,” explains Holcroft, looking back at the costumes.

“That was a challenge in itself. We filmed in Manchester in the summertime and cricket trousers and moleskin became pretty warm.

“It’s very different to playing in the modern kit. Everything is much heavier, much harder to run in, it’s tighter and you get hot.

"Given that the game was a very physical game back then, it was quite demanding. It made me appreciate the work of sports technology. You can apply that to any sport: the way tennis rackets have evolved, the way football boots have evolved, everything is so lightweight now.

“Of course you have to have massive amounts of talent, all those other things have to be there, but we were blessed to live in a time when we get all this kit. It was a different ball game back then.”

The first football celebrations

Behind the scenes on The English Game Netflix

From the Klinsmann dive and Gareth Bale's heart to the Roger Milla shuffle, unique and personal football celebrations are part and parcel of the modern game.

But The English Game reveals that back in the 1880s, Kinnaird was inventing one of the very first – an impressive headstand.

“When I got the role, they told me I had to start practising head stands,” laughs Holcroft.

“He only did it once. He did it once at that game and that was it. From what I read, he never did it anywhere else.

“It did surprise me, because although he was a fierce competitor, to perform a headstand in front of the pavilion of the losing side was quite unsporting. It was quite out of character.

“In the National Football Museum, there is a full size statue of Arthur Kinnaird doing the headstand. So although he only did it once as far as I can tell, the writers latched on to that very quickly.”

The English Game is streaming now on Netflix.

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