‘The English Game’ preview: What to expect from ‘Downton’ creator’s new series

Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes makes his Netflix debut this month.

Set in 1870s England, the Oscar-winning screenwriter’s new six-part period drama will dramatise the origins of football.

The English Game tells the story of how modern football came from a joining together of Etonians and factory workers to create a sport now played by 250 million in more than 200 countries.

Leading the cast are 31-year-old Scottish actor Kevin Guthrie as Glasgow native Fergus Suter – often considered to be the first recognised professional footballer – and 32-year-old English actor Edward Holcroft as Arthur Kinnaird – known as the ‘First Lord of Football.’

The pair may be familiar to British period drama fans, with Guthrie previously featuring in Dunkirk, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Whisky Galore, while Holcroft has appeared in Wolf Hall, Alias Grace and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Holcroft commented: “There’s a certain passing of the baton from Kinnaird, who’s slightly towards the end of his career, to a boy [Suter] that he sees is going to take the game where it needs to go.”

Fellowes explained: “He did really change the game, Fergus Suter. He brought the passing game down into England, but before, [football] was much nearer rugby. And they played quite violently. In the show, you know, when you’re watching them play at the beginning, you think, ‘My God, this wouldn’t be allowed for five seconds now!’.”

Executive producer Rory Aitken (Traitors) added: “You get the irony that it’s the upper-class characters who are playing a brutal game, but the workers from the mill are playing this elegant passing game. So it’s a complete role reversal on the pitch.”

Revealing what first excited him about the project, he said: “I’m a football fan and I didn’t know this story. I hadn’t seen anything like it on television, so I was as excited as anyone to delve into the history and discover it.”

Aitken continued: “The fact that the sort of social changes in Britain and the changes in football mirrored each other – well, that’s incredibly interesting. Because it’s notoriously hard to make any drama or films about sport, because you can see amazing, dramatic sports on television every weekend and pretty much every weekday now.”

The ensemble cast also includes Henry Lloyd Hughes (Parade’s End), Craig Parkinson (Indian Summers), Sam Keeley (In the Heart of the Sea), Joncie Elmore (Downton Abbey), Gerard Kearns (Shameless), Charlotte Hope (Game of Thrones), Kate Phillips (The Crown), Kate Dickie (Game of Thrones), Sylvestra Le Touzel (Titanic), Ben Batt (The Village), James Harkness (The Victim), and Niamh Walsh (Jamestown).

Discussing the challenges of finding a cast who could also convincingly play football, executive producer Rory Aitken commented: “Fortunately, we did have a very talented bunch of actors, but they all had to train [to learn] all of the moves that we had in the show.

“In some ways, that was probably one of the most challenging parts of the shoot, because shooting football is slow and technical. So it was months of training – and also they weren’t only learning all the movies, but they were training to play in the style they would have played in the 1880s, which as incredibly different to how it is now.”

Writer Julian Fellowes concluded: “I think that football fans will learn an incredible amount from this series. It’s a massive education.”

The English Game premieres exclusively on Netflix on Friday 20th March.

The limited mini-series is  directed by Birgitte Stærmose (The Spanish Princess) and Tim Fywell (Grantchester).

Also coming up from Julian Fellowes is Belgravia on ITV, HBO’s The Gilded Age, a new adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, and a sequel to the Downton Abbey movie.

The Downton Abbey movie is available on DVD on Amazon.