With global soccer shut down these days, fans desperate for a fix of the beautiful game may find it from a rather unlikely source — the creator of the stately “Downton Abbey.”
Julian Fellowes has created and co-written the new Netflix series “The English Game,” a six-part look at the origins of a onetime British gentleman’s game that has become the most popular sport on the planet. The series begins Friday.
“There are certain sports that cut right through society and appeal to people at every level. And that seems to me to be a wholly good thing,” Fellowes says.
The series is set in 1879 and focuses on the first full-time professional players and how they infused the game with new tactics and passing strategies. But this being a Fellowes project, there’s plenty of drama off the pitch, too: the rise of both the working class and women’s rights.
Fellowes actually knew little about the origins of soccer when he began the project, but he was aware of it’s force firsthand: His son, Peregrine, is a rabid fan of Manchester United and, as a boy, decorated his pillowcases, duvet covers and lampshades with the team’s crest. Father and son attended games, and the elder Fellowes soon grew to admire the athleticism of the players.
“When you watch anything — and I do pretty well mean anything — being done superbly, it generates an interest even in the hearts of someone who is not particularly concerned with that subject,” he says. “Watching Man U coming down the pitch, running like a sort of Russian ballet, was extraordinary.”
“The English Game” is based on real events and centers on Fergus Suter, a Scott regarded as the first full-time professional. He was lured to the mill town of Darwin in England’s Lancashire region to join the local team, the first player to earn a salary for his skill.
It was a time in England when the rules of soccer had been codified by the elite — bankers and lawyers who wore white tie and tails for dinner and considered the game something only gentlemen participated in.
But it was attracting fans across the social spectrum and especially finding root in industrial towns among factory workers. They were challenging the elite not just on the pitch but also in the streets, demanding better treatment, higher wages and unions.
What Fellowes found was that social changes in Britain at the time mirrored the changes in soccer, with each reinforcing each other. “I thought this is kind of playing out in miniature of what was happening in Western Europe on a grand scale.”
On the pitch, working men from Lancashire teams like Blackburn Rovers were increasingly beating teams made up of upper-crust Eton College alumni, using speed and passing to beat their better-nourished class rivals.
Soccer was also helping industrial towns bind together, creating a sense of community and eventually spurring workers to demand changes together in the way they were treated.
“Here was something that would bind them into a unit, that would bind them into a community,” he says. “Most human beings spend their lives trying to feel they belong to something that has value. And here it was just given on a plate.”
Rory Aitken, the executive producer of “The English Game,” calls Fellowes as much a historian as a drama writer and credits him for unearthing the little-known origin of a sport that has some 4 billion fans.
“It’s not just a narrow football story. It’s a big, period epic that tells us about the history of the world while telling it though the medium of football. Who would have expected that?” Aitken said.
Fellowes is a busy man of late. In addition, to the new series, he’s got “The Gilded Age,” a show about New York City in the 1880s, for HBO, and “ Belgravia,” a drama based on his novel of the same title on Epix. Plus, there’s a second “Downton Abbey” film.
“The English Game” is filled with Fellowes’ brimming sense of humanity and respect for all sides. He may in real life be a Lord, but that hasn’t stopped his sympathy for the working class.
“My philosophy is a simple one, really,” he says. “I believe that most men and women are doing their best. Whatever they have been born to, whatever they’ve given, they’re trying to do their best. Of course, there are some people who are not trying to do their best, but they are very much in the minority.”
He credits his wife, Emma Joy Kitchener, for his hopefulness. “I live with a tremendous optimist. And I think an innate pessimism has been sort of disciplined by her,” he says. “She is an optimist about absolutely everything. And I think I have caught it a bit.”