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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (16/12/2022)

(Reviews of Lionesses: How Football Came Home; A Bunch of Amateurs; and The Felling)


LIONESSES: HOW FOOTBALL CAME HOME.


Regular listeners to the BBC Sounds podcast, Jill Scott's Coffee Club, will know that members of the England women's football team are an affably eloquent bunch who are passionate and knowledgeable about their sport. A hint of that wit and verve comes across in Poppy de Villeneuve's documentary, Lionesses: How Football Came Home. But this offers little that wasn't in the Beeb's summer celebration of the Euro 22 victory, England Lionesses: When Football Came Home, while the thumbnail reflection on the evolution of women's football in this country feels like an afterthought alongside the more thoughtful analysis provided in Kelly Close's When Football Banned Women (2017).


As broadcasters Nicole Holliday and Faye Carruthers put the tournament in context of national meltdown (in every way, with the heatwave), players Jill Scott, Leah Williamson, Keira Walsh, Fran Kirby, Mary Earps, and Nikita Parris recall the anxiety at the St George's Park training camp, while they waited for Dutch coach Sarina Wiegman to announce her squad. Williamson reflects on how she came to football, but there's no time to pause, as we hurtle into the opening group game against Austria at Old Trafford on 6 July.


A Beth Mead lob won the day, but the focus is on an Earps save that cues up her childhood journey and the debt she owes her parents. Following the rather corny reconstructions of a young goalie getting muddy, Williamson divulges the bond that she and Earps forged as unused squad members at the World Cup in France.


Relieved to have got off to a winning, if unconvincing start, the squad allowed itself to celebrate with the fans. But we don't move on to the second game, as author Carrie Dunn and some old monochrome footage take us back to the origins of women's football, which ran parallel with the men's game in the late Victorian era. Despite huge crowds watching matches during the Great War, the FA withdrew its support for women's football in 1921 and effectively outlawed the sport.


Rather than develop this thread, De Villeneuve pitches us back into the summer furnace, as Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak competed to succeed Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. Radio clips are used to remind us that other teams were also competing before the focus turns to England's encounter with Norway on 11 July at Brighton's Amex Stadium.


Boasting Ada Hegerberg in attack, the Norwegians had a proud pedigree. But the Lionesses were 6-0 up at half-time. Scott jokes that this lead allowed Wiegman to give the veteran a run out and she reminisces about her beginnings in a boys' team before moving on to Boldon Girls and Sunderland. Snapping back into the present, she avers that the 8-0 victory convinced the team that they were genuine contenders.


Once again, we dip back in time to see how women's football resumed in 1972 and assess the debt that today's players owe to the likes of Carol Thomas and Hope Powell. They tell stories of ill-fitting kits and inadequate facilities, as the England team operated on a part-time basis.


There's no time to delve any more deeply, however, as the Northern Ireland game has come round. Manager Kenny Shiels has made headlines by accusing women of being over emotional and Kirby vows to make him eat his words by inspiring the next generation to show they're every bit as good as the boys. Williamson remembers parents picking on her when she played for a boys' team and shudders at the memory of the gum shield that her mother had made her wear.


Despite Wiegman being in Covid isolation, England were hot favourites on 15 July at Southampton's St Mary's Stadium. They justified this with a 5-0 win, with Kirby's opener leading into a touching tribute to the lost mother who had devoted herself to helping her daughter fulfil her goals. Alessia Russo scored two fine goals, but her absence from the talking heads means they receive little analysis.


Spain loom into sight in the quarter final at the Amex on 20 July. A few desultory training clips are tossed together with news items about the scorching summer before unattributed voices warn of the threat the Spanish pose and the unpredictability of knockout football. Sure enough, England underwhelm and go one down. Time is running out, but Toxteth-born Parris recalls Scott telling her that a moment will arise. Supersubs Russo, Chloe Kelly, and Ella Toone made sure it did, with the latter's equaliser taking the tie to extra time.


The winner was a Georgia Stanway speculator and Parris and Scott came on to shut up shop. Walsh admits to being emotionally drained by the game, but the sense of belief was growing, as Spain had been a dangerous opponent. Suddenly, the entire country had Euro fever, which hadn't been the case in 1984, when England had played Sweden in the second leg of a UEFA final on a paddyfield at Luton Town's Kenilworth Road. Naturally, England lost on penalties, with Powell being the unlucky one to miss. Yet virtually no one outside the women's game even knew they had been a kick away from glory.


Ironically, Sweden also stood in the way of the 2022 bid, as the semi-final took place on 26 July at Sheffield's Bramall Lane. Earps needed to be alert in the opening phase of a physical game. But a let off when a header hit the bar sparked England into life and goals by Mead and Lucy Bronze were followed by the Russo backheel that caught the public imagination. A Kirby chip was the icing on the cake, although the Swedish keeper should have done better. Unlike Earps, whose early saves had provided the platform.


Back on 10 September 2009 in Helsinki, Hope Powell led Anita Asante and her teammates to the Euro final against Germany. The manager took one look at the bench and knew her side didn't have enough and a 6-2 defeat duly followed. Not a single journalist greeted the squad on its return and Powell bemoans the fact her partner had to wash the kit, as there was so little support from the FA.


All was very different ahead of the Wembley final against an equally formidable German team on 31 July. Huge crowds awaited the coach after a night in which several players had been woken at regular intervals by the remote control curtains in their rooms. A VAR check for hands after the ball hit Williamson on the shoulder kept the 87,000 on tenterhooks, but the first half ended scoreless.


After more Earps heroics, a Toone goal on the hour convinced the crowd that this was England's day. But a Magull equaliser took the game into extra time, where a Kelly winner with 10 minutes to go sealed the win and made her an instant icon for her shirt-twirling celebration. The closing moments were cannily managed and an eruption greeted the final whistle. Williamson speaks eloquently about her emotions and the extent to which the victory had been for those who had come before.


At the press conference, Wiegman had just finished paying tribute to her late sister when the team burst in singing `Three Lions'. Bronze and Earps danced on the table before they sashayed out for a night of revelry. But the humility with which Scott and Walsh sum up their contribution to cementing a legacy epitomises the team and makes its triumph all the more significant.


Indeed, the victory was so special that it deserves a better encomium than this. It doesn't help that Wiegman is missing, along with such key players as Kelly, Mead, Lauren Hemp, Ellen White, Rachel Daly, Millie Bright, Toone, Stanway, Bronze, and Russo. Absentees will always be inevitable in the case of projects with such a truncated production schedule and those that did sign up provide plenty of insider insight. But there is a gnawing sense that the big names got away.


The focus also feels rather narrow, with the teams that England didn't face being overlooked completely. This was a tournament, after all, not a procession and the debuting De Villeneuve might have been advised to have checked out some of the official films on the FIFA website. A photographer with a clutch of music shorts and commercials to her credit, she is somewhat let down by her producers and editors, as the flashback segments are clumsily integrated, while the dubbed match commentaries by Lucy Ward and Vicki Sparks are utterly devoid of immediacy.


Fortunately, Williamson exudes the spirit of Bobby Moore and speaks with an honesty and generosity that makes her such an admirable role model. No doubt, there will be more considered evaluations of the Lionesses's achievement in years to come. But this one is entitled to reflect the rousing exuberance that had lifted a nation a mere five months before the wheels came off.


A BUNCH OF AMATEURS.


In her seminal 1995 New York Times essay, `The Decay of Cinema', critic Susan Sontag opined, `If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead too.' In profiling the ageing members of the Bradford Movie Makers group that has met every Monday since 1932, Kim Hopkins's poignant, but thought-provoking documentary, A Bunch of Amateurs, expands upon this contention by considering how the passing of a once-prevalent form of film buffery will impinge upon the very future of the production and consumption of motion pictures in this country and beyond.


As we learn from the opening montage, Bradford Movie Makers (formerly the Bradford Cine Circle) have been producing documentaries, dramas, and holiday films like Formation of the Home Guard (1939), Boadicea (1963), and Knaresborough (1969) for decades. In 1983, the club produced a thriller, Chew, and a 50th anniversary celebration, Jubilee. Today, however, only a few stalwarts remain and they, like their backstreet meeting place (with its broken weather vane), have seen better days. But their weekly rendezvous are more important than ever, as they provide an escape from the grimmer realities of getting old.


Retired carpenter Colin Egglestone can barely make it up the stairs to the screening room. But he revels in the showing of Fred Zinnemann's Oklahoma! (1955) and is intrigued by Harry Nicholls's desire to duplicate the scene of Gordon MacRae singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'".


Harry Nicholls has fond memories of the film, as it was the first one he saw with his wife, Mary, who is now bedridden at home with dementia. We see him taking the title role in the self-directed Captain Marvel (1979) and his sense of adventure remains strong. Colin understands his situation, as his wife, Shirley, is in a care home with the same condition. She looks in his direction when he tells her how much he misses her being around the house.


Despite being home to the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford has allowed its cinema heritage to go to pot. Old theatres have long been converted, but they remain standing like the BMM clubhouse, which has become a popular spot for fly-tippers. They owe five years' rent, as secretary Andrew Cockerill is keen to keep the coffers as full as possible. But members are aware, BMM is teetering.


As Harry films a white horse for his MacRae homage, Phil Wainman shows a small audience his first film, It Came From Somewhere Else (1999). He also made Nice Jam (2001), which he discusses with Joe Ogden, a disability support volunteer who enjoys being a part of something creative, as it helps him fend off depression.


Joe shows his new camera to girlfriend Jeanette Wilson, while Phil takes care of his brother, Chris, who has cerebral palsy. He argues with Harry over the club's tendency to take on too many projects at once. But they join forces on Appointment in Walthamstow and agree that Phil's cackle as the Grim Reaper lacks menace.


DJ and events manager Marie McCahery joins the club and proposes some money-making schemes that will also get BMM so much-needed publicity. While she spins discs at a pub rock event, Harry shows Mary some old home movies, Colin struggles to plant bulbs in his sloping garden, and Joe and Jeanette watch Harry and Meghan's wedding on the telly.


Phil and Joe compare the MacRae scene with Harry's white horse footage and worry how they're going to integrate the shots with studio cutaways. Nevertheless, they shoot Harry lip-synching against a green screen and pulling on some makeshift reins to add some authenticity. There's a bit of bickering, as Phil fusses over the lighting and Harry sweats in his plaid shirt. But everyone is pals again by the tea break.


Marie has an idea for a dance and old movie night in a local pub, while Ian is working on a promotional film to attract new members. Joe and Harry shoot their speeches, but the latter falls out with Phil (as they often do) and insults are traded. Yet Phil and Joe still do their best to make the Oklahoma! scene work, as they know how much it means to Harry. They also rally round when Colin comes to the Monday meeting with the sad news that Shirley had died earlier in the day and he couldn't bring himself to stay home alone.


While Marie goes on the publicity trail, Phil tries to tidy up the area around the clubhouse and Joe starts work with Keith Wilcock on Wicked & Lazy. Phil shoots more scenes for Walthamstow and the fun side of the club comes to the fore, as actors corpse and crew members suppress sniggers. But Colin damages his shoulder during a night shoot and they have to call an ambulance. He remains in good spirits, however, and is touched when BMM come to his house so he doesn't have to miss the Monday get together.


Christmas is coming and Phil is feeling the strain. He shows off an award he won for the effects on The Haunted Turnip (2015) and regrets that he won't be able to stay for long at the annual party. A stairlift has been fitted to help Colin and he's happy to be back with friends. It's a small affair, but the sense of camaraderie is readily evident.


Joe works with a digital editing programme to place Harry's head on the horse rider's body. But not everything works out so well, as Marie's movie night doesn't attract a single customer, with even the pair who paid in advance staying away. Andrew reports to the AGM that BMM is on its uppers, but Colin insists on painting the door to remove the graffiti and make the clubhouse look respectable. All he makes, however, is a blank canvas for someone to contribute a phallic daub.


Harry is grateful to Phil and Joe for realising his dream scene, which is finished just before Mary passes away. They had been married for over 60 years and he shows off some keepsakes from their photo album, when his BMM friends call to express their condolences.


Some fear the end is nigh for BMM and there is reluctance to close down when the Coronavirus pandemic strikes, in case they never open again. However, they abide by the rules, start video diaries, and master Zoom conferencing. What's more, they discover they are entitled to a Covid grant and use the £10,000 to build a wall to thwart the tippers and renovate the clubhouse. They worry that organisations like BMM will soon be obsolete, but also share a concern for movie-going in general, as audiences decline.


There's a solid turnout for the outdoor awards ceremony off Little Horton Lane and a closing caption reveals that Harry's Oklahoma won the comedy prize at the Burnley Amateur Film Festival. His hilarious green-screened Superman plays over the closing crawl and ends the film on a positive note by affirming that, where moving images are concerned, anything is possible.


Kim Hopkins has made some splendid documentaries, including Folie à Deux (2012), which followed the efforts of Helen Heraty to turn Grays Court in York into a boutique hotel. Chronicling another battle against the odds, her second sojourn in the county is equally engaging and raises some troubling points about film culture in the UK. While running a film society in Oxford two decades ago, it was clear that the audience for old films was on the wane and this has been confirmed since by the growing timidity of the programming by the city's arthouses. The communal appeal of cinema-going has also diminished, as streaming has made spectatorship a more individual pursuit.


All of which keeps groups like Bradford Movie Makers on the endangered list and the sequence in which the home movie night draws a complete blank is heartbreaking (where as the Media Museum when it was needed?). The Covid grant has seemingly kept the wolves and the fly-tippers from the door. But it must be a concern that there are no eager youngsters in the club to pass the torch to the next generation.


It would be interesting to know how many other amateur enterprises like BMM are still in existence. Film societies have their own national federation and Hopkins might have explored BMM's links with bodies like the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers and such other bands of enthusiasts as Burnley Film Makers. But the focus on the BMM's activities is deftly punctuated with affecting, but undewy-eyed asides on the difficult domestic situations facing several of the members. The bereavements serve to emphasise the club's social value and speaks volumes about the fragility of community ties across the country. As does the vandalism and the tipping, which contrasts with the magnanimity of a landlord whose relaxed approach to rent kept BMM afloat. Let's hope that if this ever comes to DVD, the extras will include full-length versions of some of the extracted titles. Some are dotted around the Internet and are well worth tracking down. One can only hope there are many more to come before BMM celebrates its centenary in 2032.


THE FELLING.


There's a lot to explain in Eve and Richard Wood's documentary, The Felling. Consequently, much of the opening few minutes is taken up by captions outlining how the debt-laden Sheffield City Council (SCC) entered into a 25-year PFI deal worth £2.2 billion in 2012 with the Spanish construction company, Amey.


During the first five years, Amey planned to resurface 3000 miles of roads and pavements. In order to complete the task, Amey and the council agreed that 6000 street trees would have to be cut down by the end of 2017. However, a band of concerned residents challenged the scheme through a series of petitions and a court injunction to prevent the felling. On failing to secure legal redress and dismissed by council officials, the protesters embarked upon a course of non-violent direct action that included standing beneath targeted trees to protect them.


As the screed continues, Amey and SCC conspired with South Yorkshire Police (SYP) to crush the opposition by launching Operation Testate in November 2016. It's then we descend upon Rustlings Road, where police officers knock up residents at 5am in order to move their cars so that tree surgeons can start work. In a TV news clip, Deepa Shetty from the Sheffield Tree Action Group (STAG) reveals that cars were towed to facilitate the felling of seven mature trees. We also learn that two female pensioners were arrested under Part V, Section 241 of the 1992 Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation Act) for trying to guard the trees.


Even Sheffield MP Nick Clunegg felt moved to express his outrage. It was then that local photographer, Jacqui Bellamy, started chronicling the protest and her footage features heavily in this passionate, provocative, and unashamedly one-sided film.


As the charges against the elderly ladies are dropped, Green Party councillor Alison Teal and STAG founder Dave Dillner address supporters about their determination to win the battle. But 4200 healthy trees have already been felled by early 2017 and STAG vow to protect the remaining 1800. Paul Selby, Calvin Payne, Chris Rust and Paul Brooke become prominent campaigner, as Jarvis Cocker appears on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme to accuse SCC of being `daft'. Moreover, barrister Paul Powlesland provides STAG with evidence that SYP was misusing Section 241.


Brooke recalls how SYP vanished from the scene and social media was used to report from the Amey depot, follow trucks, and organise volunteers to stand under threatened trees. Sean Crump was proud to belong to this `Flying Squad' as it proved a thorn in Amey's side. However, the company complained that it couldn't fix the city's roads unless they remove the trees damaging pavements and Paul Billington, the (unelected) Director of Culture and Environment for SCC, starts taking a harder line. He becomes the villain of the piece for campaigners like Gary Stimson, along with Amey Account Manager Darren Butt, SCC leader Julie Dore, and Councillor Brian Lodge, who insists that saplings will be an adequate replacement for mature trees.


What annoyed Brooke and fellow campaigners like Alice Fairhall was that Amey and SCC colluded in photographing the protesters and sending them threatening letters with attached snapshots in an effort to intimidate them with threats of damages claims that could cost people their homes and savings.


When SCC took nine campaigners (including Brooke, Fairhill, and Teal) to court, it won the right to threaten future protesters with fines or arrest for standing beneath trees marked for felling. Dillner suggested that something sinister was going on because the full disclosure had been blocked regarding the contract between SCC and Amey.


With the injunction in place, Dillner led a blockade of the Acorn Environmental Management Group's depot to prevent the vehicles from leaving. Brooke also led a park protest that defied the injunction specification regarding trespass on the highway. However, Billington photographs Payne inside an exclusion zone and SCC insists upon a prosecution that results in a 12-month suspended prison sentence.


When STAG recommended that people stood against house walls to prevent barriers being erected behind them, SCC and Amey responded by erected Heras fences to prevent these `Geckos' from thwarting them, but they had a legal right under the terms of the injunction to occupy any part of the pavement beneath a tree that was outside a security zone. Moreover, they recruited a force of `stewards', who were advised to use appropriate force to remove anyone hampering the fellers. As they were wearing yellow hi vis jackets without any identifying insignia, the protesters questioned their legality and Butt was taunted when he came to supervise, while Amey Operations Manager, Jeremy Willis, was gently ribbed by the omnipresent Dillner about things not going as smoothly as they might.


Stubborn resistance continued over Christmas 2017, as Amey resumed their pre-dawn raids to start lopping upper branches before anyone was awake. The fury turns to sadness, as one woman laments the loss of a tree her late mother had loved. By January 2018, the cause has been joined by troubadour Benoit Compin, who vaults a barrier to read a poem to the contractors on Meersbrook Park Road.


Shortly after a man was arrested for supposedly assaulting an SYP officer trying to remove him from blocking a truck, other cops opted against intervening when stewards started prising the fingers of protesters (some of whom were elderly) from the park railing, as they were attempting to gecko behind the safety barrier. Camera phones recorded the assaults before Brooke pushed down a section of Heras fence and the crowd surged forward to surround the tree.


Media stories started circulating about the thuggish tactics of the stewards. Yet Martin Young was arrested for purported GBH on one of those tackling the railing grippers. SYP then launched Operation Quito to remove protesters under the Highways Act. When regular and community officers were challenged over their tactics, they appeared disinterested in investigating claims of strongarm force being used by Amey's stewards. The council backed the new initiative and STAG warned supporters that SYP were now playing by different rules.


This was evident in Abbeydale Park Rise in March 2018, with as many as 30 cops a day keeping protesters at bay. No one was willing to say whether SYP was protecting the public or the Amey workers sanctioned by SCC. Moreover, the contract remained shrouded in mystery and questions about who was footing the bill for the operation were ignored. South Yorkshire Crime Commissioner Alan Billings put in an appearance to justify police methods, while Dore admits on camera that she hadn't seen the Amey contract, as news leaks that the PFI deal called for the felling of 17,500 trees. Lodge went on the offensive denying the figure, with the local media now scenting a story.


A few days after a woman is arrested for tooting a plastic horn, the Forestry Commission declares an interest in the Sheffield situation and questions the legality of the felling. It sends Billington an email asking why he believes SCC is exempt from Felling Licence regulations. The same day, captions inform us, SCC decided to suspend activities because of `the actions of a handful of people unlawfully entering the safety zones'. Three weeks later, the Forestry Commission informs Billington that because SCC has failed to provide it will suspend the programme and conduct an inquiry into the culling of healthy trees.


Despite having its knuckles rapped, SCC still attempts to prosecute Brooke, Compin and Simon Crump for breaching their injunction. The latter pair are given 12-month suspended sentences, with costs, while the case against Brooke was dismissed. His efforts led to 14 of the 18 trees on his road being saved, while around 300 were saved across the city. By provoking the suspension, they also claimed to have preserved some 12,000 of the street trees designated for destruction.


A swiping caption notes Billington's early retirement in May 2019. It also laments the Forestry Commission's decision not to prosecute SCC for a lack of evidence. But a report to the Ombudsman results in SCC being forced to apologise to the citizenry in October 2020 for misleading them over the felling initiative.


A lot of people in Sheffield have a great deal to be ashamed of over the SCC/Amey deal and how it was implemented. It's a shame that a few more can't be named in this exposé, especially from among the stewards and police officers whose behaviour is clearly shown to be reprehensible (not that this will come as a surprise where South Yorkshire Police are concerned to anyone who has followed the Hillsborough tragedy and its ramifications).


However, there are also numerous members of the public who can feel proud of the way in which they stood up to intimidation and aggression in the face of council arrogance and ineptitude. Along with the surviving trees, this bullishly edited documentary stands as a monument to their commitment, courage, and sense of right.


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