Why We're Entering A Golden Age For Sports Documentaries

Building Jerusalem is the latest in a line of British sports films you need to see

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James Erskine, the director of new rugby documentary Building Jerusalem, has pulled a last-minute winner out of his locker: a total reboot of one of the most iconic moments in British sporting history.

Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal to win the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final is right up there with Geoff Hurst scoring with some people on the pitch, Ian Botham hitting a six into the confectionary stall during his Ashes and Andy Murray sinking to his knees after winning Wimbledon.

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Genuine milestones all, but with the same five seconds of broadcast footage repeated so often on clip shows and pre-game build-ups, their familiarity can almost be contemptible. (Almost: their random appearance during a late-night channel surf can lift the mood.)

For Building Jerusalem, Erskine dug in the archive for the raw feeds of the Australian TV coverage of the final in Sydney, and used them to build tension into what is essentially tension-free.

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We know what Wilkinson does with that kick, yet the unfamiliar images make for a rousing finale to a fine film that tells the tale of England’s win from a starting point of rugby turning professional in 1995, and through the viewpoints of Wilkinson, Martin Johnson, Matt Dawson, Sir Clive Woodward and Australia’s losing captain in the final, George Gregan.

Five years ago, this film would not have existed. Back then and for a long time before, UK sports documentaries were for TV only, much shorter than feature length and made to fill the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year show, rain breaks at the Test match and the pre-match pre-amble before the FA Cup final.

Any hour-long standalone sports doc would be of the 43 Best England Goal Kicks type, talking-headed mainly by comedians and fleshed out only with the second-rate footage a bare-bones budget would allow.

Three things helped turn around around this sorry state of affairs.

In the US, in October 2009, ESPN broadcast Kings Ransom, a documentary about Wayne Gretzky, ice hockey’s greatest ever player.

It was directed by Peter Berg, director of Friday Night Lights (the film and the pilot of the TV show) and Lone Survivor, and was the first in the sports network’s 30 For 30 series of documentaries marking its 30th birthday, that has other cinematic, well-funded films by the likes of Spike Lee and Rain Man director Barry Levinson.

In the UK in 2011, motorsport docs TT3D and Senna, made for the big screen, were box-office and critical successes. Asif Kapadia’s no-talking-heads, no-voiceover retelling of the life of Ayrton Senna in particular suggested a new breadth and life for sports docs outside of existing boundaries.

Thirdly, in both countries, the rise of catch-up TV and streaming services gave a more permanent home to these kinds of films, where the discerning sports fan could, at his leisure, watch new films like Venus and Serena or Pantani: The Accidental Death Of A Cyclist, or find old gems, such as moving basketball epic Hoop Dreams, that for a long time could only be enjoyed on an imported DVD.

“How we consume media has changed so much. People want high-end programming all the time,” says Grant Best, senior channel executive producer for BT Sport. Best oversees BT Sports Films, a strand of original documentaries inspired by ESPN’s 30 For 30.

“We’re making original films with strong stories because we think our viewers will enjoy them and because our documentaries and films give us a bit of personality that I don’t think is running on other channels with the same business model as us.”

BT Sports Films has a long way to go before catching 30 For 30, which has gone way past the original remit to number over 70 – include shorts and offshoots and it’s more than 100, many of which are shown on the BT Sport channels. (There is a superb two-hour documentary about the Hillsborough disaster that can’t be aired in the UK until the inquest into the tragedy is complete.)

So far it has a slate 13 strong, including films about the Bradford City fire, the Crazy Gang years at Wimbledon FC and TT legend Mike Hailwood, with more to come. “The more we make,” says Best, “the library grows. Original programming is where we want to be. And as well as us, more people are trying to make more of these sorts of films, and that’s great.”

Building Jerusalem had a one-day-only cinema release on September 1 before going to home formats; a similar release pattern to Gascoigne in June this year.

Gary Lineker, a talking head in that Gazza biopic, last year launched a production company called Goalhanger Films, which in August had a film about the boxer Carl Froch in ITV’s documentary strand Sports Life Stories and in May had a Lineker-fronted magic-of-the-Cup doc shown on BBC One in primetime in the week before the FA Cup Final.

The production company Sunset + Vine is releasing a DVD of this summer’s Ashes win, hoping to recreate at least some of the success of its 2005 Ashes boxset, which, with 630,000 copies sold is the best-selling sports DVD in the UK. Death Of A Gentleman, a film about the money-power axis in Test cricket, made it to arthouse screens in the summer.

Asif Kapadia, after doing for Amy Winehouse what he did with Ayrton Senna, is rumoured to be working on a Diego Maradona documentary that may or may not contain footage of the Argentinian’s off-field exploits during his years at Napoli. That one could be pretty good.

Building Jerusalem is available to stream and download on September 11 and on DVD and Blu-ray on September 14. Go to www.facebook.com/BuildingJerusalem for details

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