BBC Two’s two-part documentary Gazza from Western Edge Pictures and director Sampson Collins uses a blend of footballing action and cultural moments from the time, with unseen archive and personal home videos to tell the story of Paul Gascoigne’s life.
The production team talk to the BBC about the making of the documentary:
Why did you feel it was important to make this documentary series for the BBC?
Paul Gascoigne is an icon of 90s Britain. His is a story that most of the country feel they are familiar with – from the tears at Italia ‘90, to his dramatic descent, via the many extraordinary stories that only Paul could be at the centre of – all of it told through the pages of the tabloid press.
But there’s another version of that story, the very human story of what was going on behind the scenes of the narrative presented by the tabloids, one that bears all the supporting archetypes of a classical tragedy, and tells us so much about the evolution of modern Britain in the process.
Crucially, in seeking to tell his story, tabloid journalists became active participants in the inner workings of Paul’s private life, in so doing directly influencing the direction his life took.
Some of those key tabloid figures remain incredibly influential in the modern media.
The BBC is the perfect place to show ‘Gazza’, with its commitment to balanced and independent journalism and storytelling, and we are thrilled that they have been so supportive of the project. We hope this series allows the public to look at Paul in a new light, and that we have done justice both to his story, and those of the people around him.
Why did you decide to tell this story almost entirely through archive footage?
So much of Paul’s career was lived in the public eye, he spent so much time inviting cameras into his life and trying to tell the public how he was feeling, it was like he was the original reality show. Telling the story entirely through the contemporaneous archive felt the best way to reflect this.
We wanted the viewer to stay with Paul as much as possible on the journey from fresh-faced hope and relative innocence, to the troubled place in which the story finishes. This transition is stark and physically visible in Paul as the film progresses, and an important part of the storytelling, in that so many of his problems were visible for all to see.
Finally we wanted the viewer to feel immersed in the period in which this film was set; the finished episodes are filled with a colourful collage of 90s news media and that in itself tells us so much about where 2020s Britain has come from.
Archive storytelling, especially when working with a lot of pre-cut material, is a really complicated process and our editors Emiliano Battista; Graham Taylor and Ben Smith who came in to finish, helped by Blanck Mass’ powerful original score, have done a great job giving new life to the material and Paul’s story.
What would you say are the take home messages from this documentary?
Don’t become incredibly famous! There are a few things that spring to mind; How rare and inspiring true genius and authenticity is, how valuable that makes it, and consequently the pitfalls it can bring for those who possess it. The danger of unchecked greed and ambition, and how the scales are ultimately tipped in the favour of the rich and powerful.
There’s also a lesson for all of us, the viewers, or more pertinently the ‘consumers’ of all this information; be careful what you wish for. We bought those newspapers in our millions, in so doing we arguably gave a mandate that what we wanted was to read about the downfall of our ‘heroes’, people like Paul Gascoigne. If we can remember that these sportsmen, actors or reality stars are just people, often thrown into extraordinary circumstances which they have no experience of dealing with from a young age, then we can be a little bit more sympathetic to those in the same position today. Of course, while understanding the situation Paul found himself in, we have also been careful to show the perspective of other people in the story. Sheryl, Paul’s ex-wife, suffered terribly both
from the media pressure that affected Paul, but also from Paul’s at times abusive behaviour as well; we didn’t and don’t in any way want to excuse or condone Paul’s actions and the media at the time clearly had a role to play in calling them out, but they didn’t necessarily do that with her best interests at heart.
How did you decide which people from all aspects of Paul’s life to engage with for this documentary?
Our director Sampson Collins started by reading pretty much every book he could get his hands on written by the people around Paul during the 1990s, drawing up a spreadsheet of names and dates for key events in Paul’s story, and it quickly became clear who the key figures in Paul’s life were at this time, and was best placed to give genuine insight into what was going on as things began to fall apart.
What was interesting was when Sampson started initially looking for these people in the archive, they were often all there in the background of shots in key moments, but casual watchers would have been unaware of them or their significance to Paul’s story. We were lucky that we were able to get most of these key figures in Paul’s life to understand what we were trying to do, and agree to speak to us.
The challenge then was how to reflect the tabloid press involvement in the story, and interviews with journalists who covered Paul and Sheryl Gascoigne extensively over the 90s really helped to flesh out this aspect of the story.
Of those we couldn’t get to, we were really keen to give Paul’s wife Sheryl a platform to give her perspective – we are incredibly aware of everything she suffered in this period, that she was a victim of both domestic violence and the same tabloid practises that Paul suffered from – but unfortunately she declined to talk to us. We have sought to represent her viewpoint as best we can through interviews she has given over the few decades since.
How did Gazza come about, how long has it been in production?
Like many people, Sampson, the director, and several of the production team got into football watching Paul at the 1990 World Cup – a lot of their formative football memories are in these films (and they and doubtless a few others can thank Paul for 30 years of suffering as Spurs fans!)
Sampson had wanted to make a film about the Gazza phenomenon for a long time, but understood it needed a new angle to elevate it from the familiar stories about Paul that have been told for decades; it was reading Sheryl Gascoigne’s book that he realised how close some influential figures in the tabloid press had been to Paul and Sheryl’s inner circle during this period, and the more he looked into it, the clearer it became that by telling this story, there was an opportunity to shed new light on a really important subject; the way that the tabloid press and celebrity became intertwined in the 90s UK – and the consequences of that.
Sampson began work on the idea in 2016 with Gareth Dodds, Keith Haviland (Haviland Digital) and Mark Stewart (Mark Stewart Productions) who were able to get things up and running, beginning the archive research and edit, recording a lot of the key interviews and making initial contact with Paul. This began as an independent film, which are – particularly archive ones – typically long, difficult, stop-start processes, and this has been no different. Western Edge Pictures – Vaughan Sivell, Will Kane, Tom Wood and Natan Stoessel – took over the project in 2019 and the challenge of unearthing the missing pieces of the jigsaw; particularly getting Paul’s full cooperation and support; working through the difficulties presented by the journalistic and investigative aspects of the story; and – while working with Sampson and an incredible edit team (Emiliano Battista, Graham Taylor, Ben Smith) – really crafting the dramatic storytelling and cinematic elements, pushing an incredibly complex and complicated edit to completion and crucially bringing in the BBC.
This really is a ‘warts and all’ documentary and doesn’t shy away from any subject matter – did you feel it was important to cover all areas of Paul’s life to ensure this didn’t look like a hero-worshipping programme?
Every aspect of Paul’s life has been covered in such detail – including in the several books Paul himself has written – that we felt any attempt to gloss over particular subject areas would discredit the film, short-change the viewer, and ultimately reflect badly on Paul himself.
We made a decision to finish the narrative proper in 1998, around the moment Paul stopped playing for England and checked into rehab for the first time. We wanted to redress the balance between Paul the footballer and the troubled tabloid commodity of the last two decades. Paul’s struggles from recent times are well documented, and we felt it was most important to focus on the possible roots of this earlier in his career.
We hear from a range of voices in both episodes, was there a reason behind not doing an in depth interview with Paul for the documentary?
We have spoken to Paul several times through the process, but decided pretty early on that we didn’t want to base the film around an interview with him – that had been done before. Given this was a story about the way he had been portrayed in the media over the 90s, it felt most effective to feature Paul as the public would have experienced his story; immersed in the footage as the situation unfolded, albeit interlaced with snippets of intimate family archive where relevant.
Those close to him give us their impressions of what was going on in his head, and help to move the story along, but we wanted to leave it to the audience to form their own sense of how Paul was processing what was happening to him, as it happened.
Do you see parallels with the tabloid media treatment of Paul and that of young sports stars of today?
One of Paul’s fatal, very human flaws was how much he cared what the public thought. Back then the tabloids controlled and arguably exploited that relationship between celebrities and the public, and that left Paul extremely vulnerable.
Now with social media the situation is different, but with the 24hr nature of modern news and the scope for everyone’s opinion to be heard it is if anything more volatile and complicated. Sports stars of today have more scope to control public opinion, and there are huge amounts of money to be made by those who do it successfully, but it remains a dangerous game.
The wider perception is that the tabloid influence has waned, but it has just adapted – in a polarised news climate where strong opinions sell, it is now less about the celebrity scoops and more about social media reach. Some influential journalists and commentators have millions of twitter followers, so they have a huge capacity to influence public opinion. Young sports stars with their high-profile platforms and huge followings remain easy fodder – good or bad – just ask Emma Raducanu and Marcus Rashford.
What were the challenges of making Gazza?
The first thing that comes to mind is working out what to leave out – there’s some painfully wonderful archive on that cutting room floor! There was so much going on in Paul’s life at this time that it was absolutely impossible to include everything in the film, both in terms of the literal time we had available and our responsibility to stop the film becoming incredibly repetitive. For example the Rangers fans who probably won’t see as many of the brilliant goals Paul scored in Scotland as they’d expect, our job was to look beyond the immediate goings on and highlight the overarching narrative buried beneath it.
Beyond that there are a series of things that while challenging are partly what makes a film like this so great to be involved in; building relationships with the key contributors, identifying and tracking down incredibly obscure pieces of archive, making it factually accurate, and most of all finding a way to tell the story that felt dramatic and cinematic. So many people have put hard work into making this series what it is over the last five-and-a-half years, we are incredibly grateful to all of them, and hope that this is reflected in the finished series.
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