Friday 26 February 2016

Death Of A Gentleman: My Part In His Downfall

Earlier this week, Death Of A Gentleman, Sam Collins' and Jarrod Kimber's film about the eternally sexy subject of cricket administration, won Best Documentary at the Sports Journalists Association Awards. Sam was there to collect the trophy, which was a nice moment. A small glint of reflected glory shone down when I saw the Tweet.

Almost three years ago, I had a call from Sam about a film he was directing. I'd never met him, but I'd seen the Two Chucks vlogs he and Jarrod made for Cricinfo, and I sort of vaguely knew Jarrod from blogging and writing for The Cordon. Sam asked me to come and look at some of the footage he had with a view to maybe helping to script it into something. At the time he had a small, pay-as-you-go office in a building at the back of Waterloo Station where he and his editor, Graham Taylor, had been hold up for months. The office had Graham's bike in one corner and colour-coded post it notes stuck all over the wall. There was an amazing view of The Shard out of the window - when the sun hit it from a certain angle it looked like something out of a Ballard novel, futuristic and alluring.

It transpired that Sam had hundreds of hours of footage that Graham had somehow got into a three-hour assembly. The idea was to make a film about Test cricket and whether it had a future. I hadn't written a film of any kind, so I immediately began bullshitting about writing books, which was something I had done (admittedly with limited success). Sam regarded me with a raised eyebrow.

But the footage was, I thought, sensational. They had interviews with Chris Gayle, Kevin Pietersen, Michael Holding, Ian Chappell, Tony Greig, Rahul Dravid, John Sutherland, Haroon Lorgat, Lord Woolfe, Harsha Bhogle, Eshan Mani, Jonathan Agnew and lots of others. They had Gideon Haigh as their wise and gentle guide. They'd been pitchside at the IPL and followed a four-Test series between Australia and India. Sam and Jarrod were an engaging on-screen double-act and Sam sometimes dressed up as Hansie the anti-corruption lion, which leant those scenes a lovely, unreal air.

Best of all, they had a nascent star in Ed Cowan, the Australian opener who made his debut in the India series and had then gone to West Indies and on to England as part of the 2013 Ashes squad. I told Sam about three thousand times that the moment I realised he had a film was when I saw the footage of Ed Cowan at home, picking herbs in his garden and describing the dinner he was going to cook with them (baked salmon, from memory). Here was a thoughtful, clever, gentle guy who just happened to be good enough at cricket to open the batting for Australia. Sam and Jarrod had sat in the stands of the MCG with Ed's wife Virginia as he made a half century in his first Test innings. Virginia had put her own successful media career on hold to help Ed fulfill his dream and the camera held her face as he did so. Ed's dad was a star as well, telling stories about the young Edward, pride shimmering in his eyes. Ed was a symbol of everyone who'd ever dreamed about playing the game.

They had antagonists, too - although at the time we didn't know how antagonistic they were to become - in Giles Clarke, the ECB Chairman, who'd given Sam a couple of interviews in which he'd been haughty and dismissive, and N. Srinivasan, head of the BCCI, who everyone said was impossible to reach but who Sam had found via the neglected tactic of phoning him up. Then there was Srinivasan's sworn enemy Lalit Modi, exiled in luxury in central London and plotting his revenge, conscious of what a film like Sam's could do for someone like him - someone with a very definite agenda to get across.

It seemed obvious that the film should be a journey of discovery for Sam and Jarrod, with the story unfolding in front of them. And also that Ed Cowan could be its heart - his induction into Test cricket, the fulfilment of a lifetime's quest, out there on the same field as Tendulkar and Dravid and his personal hero Ricky Ponting, having the ultimate high of a Test hundred and then the crushing low of being dropped during the Ashes. I wrote a rough, 30-page outline and we argued and fiddled and re-wrote and by the end of all of that, it was still three hours long and Sam hadn't yet finished filming.

After a few months, the lease on the office ran out, Graham was under pressure to go back to the other editing jobs that he'd been winning awards for, and the production shifted to Sam's flat, outside which I got many parking tickets. The film was good because the material was good, but it had no natural end and it was still three hours long. There was, for example, a brilliant, heart of darkness trip that Sam and Jarrod made with a sinister Sri Lankan adminstrator that frustratingly didn't really fit the narrative however we played around with a shape that might allow it in. One day, after another endless discussion about the importance of Lord Woolfe or a bloke called Christos or maybe it was the trees outside the Adelaide Oval - something that Sam desperately wanted to feature anyhow - I charged home, savagely cut as much of the script as I could and sent it back. I rang him a few days later.

'How much did that get out, then?'

'A minute.'

The problem was that the story, such as it was, wouldn't stay still. For every one thing we took out, the change seem to necessitate putting something else in. Films (and books and probably paintings and everything else) are slightly Chimeric in that you're expressing a vision that exists only in your head - and it is always better and more complete there than it is in reality.

And there was a story in Sam's head, a story in Jarrod's, in Graham's, in mine... With the footage that existed and the ideas that we had, we could have cut another three, entirely different three-hour films, screened them all side by side and still argued about them.

We needed the real world to coalesce and take hold, and finally it did. The story narrowed to a point. Jarrod, who still had to work full time as a cricket writer, heard about an imminent ICC meeting in Dubai at which world cricket was going to be carved up between the Big Three. This was the end-game, and surely the ending for the film we'd been waiting for. Sam somehow found the money to get out there the next day, and he and Jarrod ended up as two of the (I think) eight members of the media who were present when the dirty deed was announced.

Between them, they also coaxed on camera two brave whistle-blowers, Tim May, who had been elbowed out of his position as head of the Federation of International Players' Associations, and David Becker, formerly head of legal at the ICC.

I'd sort of done my bit by then. Sam kept going. Every now and again I wondered how he was getting on and whether he'd ever finish it - or even stop filming more and more stuff. About a year later he rang.

'We've got a cut'.

'How long is it?'

'One hour forty minutes...'

He'd pulled it off somehow, distilling the story and learning the visual language he needed to tell it. Film-making at that level is entirely self-sufficient. If you want, say, a pick-up shot of Subbuteo cricketers to fill a voiceover hole and save money, then you have to buy the set from e-Bay, set it up in your living room, and then light and shoot it. If you want a scene that explains the complex connections between Srinivasan, India Cements and the IPL via an easy to follow diagram that you'll draw yourself, then you have to find a location and a chalk board, get permission to film, and then light and shoot it. And hey, if you want a cup of tea, go and make that yourself too and so on, ad infinitum. It's not easy.

At the IPL and Test matches, non-rights holding broadcasters like Sam and Jarrod can shoot the crowd but can't turn the cameras towards the pitch. You want cricket footage for your film, guess what... find the rights holder and pay them for it. And it's not cheap, so you string it out and cut it in such a way that you get every penny's worth. You need to do that, because like most independent films, the financing is tenuous and dependent on the goodwill of your investors.

With the help of Dartmouth Films and some very skilful producers, with great editing and wonderful music (composed by Chris Roe), the film existed, and more that that, it said something important about cricket and what it meant to people.

There was a premiere at the Sheffield Documentary Festival, where the audience actually booed at Giles Clarke's final screen appearance, and clapped at the end. In the pub afterwards, I realised how many people that I'd never met had made amazing contributions to the film, and how big a project even an indie film like this one is. There was a screening at the BFI where Lalit Modi sat a few seats away, paying rapt attention to his on-screen appearances and then doing a hilarious Q&A where it became apparent that - to Lalit anyway - he was the hero of Death Of A Gentleman. The ECB's PR man watched it open-mouthed. There was an official first showing at the beautifully restored Picture House near Piccadilly Circus, where the cinema was full and Michael Holding and Gideon Haigh did a Q&A too. 

Some people felt (and feel) that the film has no 'smoking gun', and to the extent that it's not a Scooby Doo 'if it wasn't for you meddling kids' expose, that's true. And yet DOAG weighs against it a kind of cumulative force that comes from its moral outrage at seeing the sport carved up by its richest participants. It points out a direct link between the (then) most powerful administrator in cricket, N. Srinivasan, and corruption in the IPL. It refocusses on Lord Woolfe's damning critique of ICC governance dismissed on screen by Giles Clarke - who was about to move to the ICC. And it has heart, from Sam and Jarrod and their friendship with Ed Cowan, who lives the dream and then the nightmare, and reacts to both with unflinching honesty.

'What do you think the public think of you?' Sam asks him at the end of the film.

'A battler... An Aussie battler, but ultimately, not good enough'.

And then he says: 'But would I do it all again? In a heartbeat...'

Amen to that.


Rog said...

Nice one. (*2013 Ashes though for Cowan)

The Old Batsman said...

Good spot, have amended, cheers!

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