I rarely write television reviews, though as a teacher of English, I theoretically have the ability. However, as Clive James demonstrated so long ago in the Observer, and as Aidan Smith shows in his contemporary pieces in The Scotsman, there is a particular skill to deconstructing a television programme while writing about it in an accessible and readable style.
Now and then, though, a programme speaks so vividly and resonantly to matters close to home that you feel the need to comment.
Though we’ve all been grateful for the fluffier areas of television in this past year, Reith’s original intent that the medium should “inform and educate” remains a creditable aspiration. It’s hard to take pleasure in the sweetness of the icing if the cake below is without solid foundation.
The three episodes of “Football’s Darkest Secret” on BBC1 this week, in their measured and unsensationalised approach to the topic of historic sexual abuse in football clubs, demanded some kind of reaction.
I should admit to some personal reference points.
One of its executive producers is my oldest friend, with an award winning history of well crafted programmes which have “made a difference” and hit home with the viewers. My own background as a teacher, working for two decades with a Child Protection remit, and now operating in education and welfare with a top football club, means that the subject matter is both familiar and visceral to me, and a reminder of some of the most challenging moments of my school career.
The criteria for success for such a programme lies in its ability to balance the horror of its content with an accessibility that guarantees it will be widely viewed. The top level technical and creative skills required to adopt such an approach should not be underestimated, especially if its essential message is to have the powerful impact to which the victims and their families are entitled.
Technically, the three episodes, divided into the historical abuse cases, the struggle for them to be addressed, and the eventual deployment of justice, were excellent. From the voice behind a blank screen at the very start, to the use of archive footage and interviews, and to achingy beautiful establishing shots of Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Winchester and elsewhere, the production team accomplished what might seem impossible – they made the most heart rending of stories eminently watchable, with never the slightest hint of sensationalism or diminishment of the crimes at the heart of the investigation.
Throughout, footage of young lads lost in the joy of football – back in the eighties or in more recent times, set the whole affair in context.
But, as is only right, the story of this series is one of humanity –the contrast between the scarred and troubled victims and their families, and the dysfunctional psyches of the perpetrators, seemingly devoid of empathy or remorse. It is a level of tragedy and evil that few since Shakespeare have managed to capture dramatically, but this is not drama but reality. The power of these programmes was that the strength and resilience of the victims was allowed to speak for itself in the superbly edited interview sections – contemporary pieces to camera, police interviews, and archive footage harking back to Deborah Davies’ work on “Disclosure” back in 1997, and the Victoria Derbyshire show’s original response to Andy Woodward’s initial revelations in 2016.
The skills and empathy involved in enabling the victims to speak on camera about their experiences can never be underestimated – surely no more difficult task can be imagined by a broadcaster, or, of course, their interviewee.
As viewers, we inevitably struggled to understand fully the impact and damage caused by the abuses detailed by these brave men, but they were faciliated to the highest level possible, and each allowed to reach their individual levels of articulation. Some, notably Ian Ackley and Dean Radford, spoke with a riveting fluency, no less painful for its eloquent recall; others, like David White and Paul Stewart struggled to contain their emotions and find their words, in a poignant contrast to their ease of movement on the football field.
The families, and particularly the mothers of men now in middle age, struggled to come to terms with their sons’ pain and distress, only revealed to them in later life. In their faces could be seen the awful reality of one of the abusers’ strongest levers – that the closer the victims are to their parents, the harder it is for them to disclose what has happened to them. “I should have known” was the refrain that highlighted the ripples of despair that spin out from each of these cases and wreak their havoc for whole lifetimes.
The football authorities, the clubs, and the justice system were all called to account by these programmes, and have been for years. They were part of a time in society when it was somehow possible to avoid halting or even challenging abusive behaviour which was carried out in plain sight and seemingly known to many. All of these institutions have had no choice but to change their ways to prioritise safeguarding and to restore trust.
There were no heroes in this series, because, in the end, nobody won a victory, only the strangely ambivalent “result” of due process being followed, and some perpetrators being called to account for some of their crimes.
There was plenty to admire, however, and it was well represented by the programme makers. We saw the initial bravery of Andy Woodward whose decision to speak out, in public, and foregoing anonymity, brought realisation to hundreds of victims that they were not alone in their agony. There were the other victims who joined him, despite half a lifetime of trying not to focus on what had happened, determined to protect others from the same fate, whatever the cost to themselves. We seldom talk of nobility these days, but surely these men embodied it.
And, let it be noted, there were the women – police officers and journalists – who fought for some kind of justice, who let the men know they were being heard, who took up the fight against all those odds lying buried under years of silence and tactical avoidance. Their strength, empathy, and commitment, perhaps inadvertently, pointed out the dangers of organisations which exist in an exclusive aura of toxic masculinity – and, sadly, we have been there before in recent years.
I recently published a book about my introduction to football spectating as a child in the 1960s. Like all memoirs, I thought of it as a kind of vanity project. We all like to believe our experiences are unique to us, but will prove fascinating to others. Mostly, of course, we are wrong.
But, I was staggered by the response I received to the book – from folk who shared those years at that club, and were enchanted by the opportunity to relive those childhood memories, share their own recollections, and enjoy a brief reconnection with the children and young people they had been, at the start of their journey to now.
The word most often used was “joy”.
And I thought as I watched these three programmes this week that, apart from the physical, psychological, and emotional pain imposed on those victims of abuse at football clubs, they had been left with the long term damage of memories destroyed, whole areas and times of life which are no longer reachable in any kind of positive recall for the victims. The possibility of that joy has been forever shattered. The dreams they had of a football career, or even just the pleasure of their technical and physical skills with the ball, have been destroyed forever.
The best of television leaves us with scenes or words echoing in our ears, and sometimes, for better or worse, imprinted in our hearts.
Two sentences will not leave me after this week’s programmes:
“I am only ever 80% happy – the other 20% is always sad.”
“I try to handle it, but it’s your stuff, isn’t it? You have to carry it around with you.”
Paul Stewart, Ian Ackley, David White, Dean Bamford, Billy Seymour and the others involved in this programme struggled to describe their emotions after those who abused them were found guilty and imprisoned. There does not seem to be an adequate word to elucidate what they have suffered and the journey on which they have been forced to travel.
Their faces reflected lifelong bewilderment and a resigned acceptance of ongoing struggle, as they spoke of their desire that, if nothing else, their bravery in speaking out would provide some hope and protection for the other victims out there.
As viewers, I know we were all echoing these aspirations.
A television programme’s impact is always limited, but, if nothing else, “Football’s Darkest Secret” taught us the importance of listening and hearing, believing and understanding, acknowledging and supporting.
It served the men and their families well, and it did so by employing the powers of creativity, technical expertise, and journalism at the highest level. It was a credit to the empathy and perseverance of the entire production team.
Football is not a matter of life or death, but protecting the vulnerable often can be.