The new Netflix original series “The English Game” from “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes is many things. It is well written and sharp, features wonderful acting performances, is shot beautifully but it also simply, flat out doesn’t work. The six nearly hour-long episodes are frustrating to watch precisely because there is so much untapped potential in the series, which is supposedly about the creation of professional soccer in England in the 1880s.
The problem is that “The English Game” is barely about the English game at all; soccer quickly fades into a background of pregnancies, and romances, class struggle and labor strikes. And that would be fine if the series had not been structured with the game of soccer as the protagonist, but it was. From the earliest scenes we learn of a new style of soccer emerging from Scotland and see the controversy over paying players in what had been an amateur gentleman’s sport.
The transformations in paying style and tactics are merely hinted at in the series, never developed and explained. We hear vague phrases that this new style involves passing backwards, playing with more space, letting the ball do the work. But we don’t see it, which is a huge hole in the story. This move away from running in packs around the ball to spreading out and playing a “combination game” invented modern soccer, the beautiful game that would over the next century seduce the entire world.
The series does a little better exploring the foundations of professional soccer and its emergence as a popular entertainment. But this also gets buried under a broader avalanche of class struggle involving the mill workers who make up the working class teams trying to compete with the Old Etonians. Add a whole bunch of soppy love story and a few fancy, slightly awkward white tie dinners and soccer is so far from the center of the story that the series could really be about any industry in Victorian England.
Part of what is on display here is a blind spot in the adaptation of “social history” to drama. In the latter part of the 20th century social history, which spreads its focus around all classes and actors began to overtake the great man/great event theory of history. Whatever one makes of the merits of the historical debate, for dramatists choosing either social history or the great man theory has a huge impact on how the story is told.
In “Downton Abbey” the social history approach worked fantastically well. It was, after all a story about the interaction of different classes. Historical events such as World War One were used to buttress the basic concept of the show, but that concept was always centered on exploring the role of class in Edwardian England.
In “The English Game” the social history approach fails miserably precisely because we have been given a subject, a very fascinating and important one, literally the creation of the most popular sports entertainment in the world, and then that subject is starved to death. When the subject is the historical event, diluting the storylines of the people who drove that event with a broader portrayal of social struggle just leads to a confusing and muddy mess.
The cast offers fine performances anchored by Edward Holcraft and Kevin Guthrie who respectively play historical figures Arthur Kinnaird, the toffee Lord gentleman soccer star, and Fergus Suter, the working class magician of tactics. But the same problem that infects the whole series limits them. We are told in the story that soccer is their driving passion, but we just don’t see it.
Why Julian Fellowes chose to make a series about sports without having much, well, sports in it, is something of a mystery. Perhaps the idea was a show that “Downton Abbey” and Premier League fans could watch together. That would have been worthwhile, but it just doesn’t come off which is a shame because the concept had a lot of promise. Die-hard fans of Fellowes style should get a kick out of “The English Game,” so to speak, but for soccer fans who stumble on it, it is likely to be a real disappointment.