Shooting for Socrates Begins Filming

Director James Erskine and screenwriter Marie Jones tell the story of Northern Ireland's 1986 World Cup adventure

As a venue, Windsor Park in south Belfast is far more used to the sights and sounds of sporting duels. Hard-bitten football men, and women, of all ages routinely turn up at this draughty old stadium to cheer on Linfield or Northern Ireland. This week, however, the atmosphere was somewhat different, though the football theme was very much still in evidence.

In introducing their film Shooting for Socrates to the assembled press, director James Erskine and Belfast writer Marie Jones had chosen the most apt of locations. For it is here that the Northern Ireland football team set itself on the glorious path to the 1986 Mexico World Cup and a meeting in Guadalajara with the mighty Seleção – those golden-hued footballing supermen from Brazil.

Due for release in 2014 – in time, fittingly, for Brazil’s own version of the world’s largest sporting event – Shooting for Socrates uses as its seminal moment the meeting of two teams from different sides of the world – divided by size, culture, language and footballing ability.

Yet both sets of players could relate to political turmoil at home, and no man amongst Brazil’s frightening array of talent was more central to this melding of sport and politics than Socrates, the bearded, chain smoking midfield genius who subsequently founded a political movement to oppose the military junta in charge of his country.

It was Erskine’s chance meeting with former Northern Ireland international David Campbell that planted the seeds of the idea. ‘I met David on a boat in Cannes, which sounds rather glamorous,’ laughs Erskine, whose experience in depicting epic sporting drama is borne out by his documentaries One Night in Turin and From the Ashes. ‘I asked him what was the biggest football match he’d ever played in and he said his first match for Northern Ireland was against Brazil.'

For Erskine, Campbell's story was immediately compelling: ‘It’s the dream to play against Brazil. And a film would be a way of telling a really positive story about how you can come from a small, troubled island and get to play against these gods of men.’ In aiming for the gritty, yet good-humoured, sweet spot occupied by the likes of The Full Monty and The Commitments, Erskine hopes to produce an ‘enjoyable film about something, about life'.

There is a strong local flavour in the cast, an essential element if a film about this most unique of places is to feel authentic. Conleth Hill plays football commentator Jackie Fullerton and fellow Game of Thrones alum Richard Dormer has been cast as a Harland and Wolff crane operator whose personal story is set against the backdrop of the national team’s Mexican odyssey.

In addition, Bronagh Gallagher and Ciarán McMenamin appear alongside 12 year-old Art Parkinson (Game of Thrones’s Rickon Stark) as Dormer’s son. As legendary national team coach Billy Bingham, John Hannah will mould his Caledonian brogue into a more familiar Ulster lilt.

Jones amusingly recounts the story of Fullerton being provided with a picture of Hill in character. Fullerton, initially believing the photograph to be one of himself, contacted the makeup department to query it, only to be informed that the image was indeed Hill.

The similarity was remarkable, says Jones, who was eager to be able to play around with these kinds of iconic characters and ‘to write about real people that you know, that you’ve seen, who have such presence, such colour in their language. Like Jackie.’

If authenticity is key, then there are few better artists than Marie Jones when it comes to painting Belfast in all its forms, good and bad. With her award-winning play Stones in his Pockets due for re-release on Broadway next year, 2014 is shaping up to be a good year for Jones.

 

In sharing an agent with Erskine, it would seem to make sense for her to collaborate on a project whose subject is so near to her heart. Tellingly, her 1994 play A Night in November may have focused on the less salubrious aspects of the football terraces – Windsor Park’s in particular – but its message was one of hope rather than damnation. ‘I’m a big Northern Ireland supporter,’ says Jones. ‘I have been for many years. It was great to be asked to do this.’

In her view the chance to tell this story was ‘a no-brainer’. It is about a hopeful time in a period otherwise beset by violence and turmoil. ’To be able to do something really positive after so many films about the Troubles and a very negative side of this country – while they have a place and are very important – is just wonderful. It’s a really feel good story, a real David and Goliath story. It was a joy to write.’

This was not Northern Ireland’s first trip to the World Cup, of course, though it would be the country’s last appearance at either of the big two international tournaments. In 1982, Gerry Armstrong and friends had famously toppled the mighty Spain on their home turf, an event which remains, arguably, at the pinnacle of the national team’s footballing legacy.

Yet in 1986 the horrors at home made the side’s progress all the more poignant. While the players earned only a single point at the FIFA spectacle, their tilt with Brazil – undoubtedly the most successful purveyors of la joga bonito – represented a major, and uplifting, news story to those associated with Northern Ireland.

For 90 minutes at least, the world saw this country through the prism of sporting achievement and competition instead of sectarian hatred and public disorder. In essence, the national football team’s mere presence was enough. ‘They were there,’ says Jones, simply.

The dichotomy between these two faces of Northern Ireland is something that Jones and Erskine are clearly keen to accentuate and, in Campbell, they have a willing muse. The peerless Socrates was a footballer, a political activist, a doctor and even a philosopher. It was Campbell’s initial meeting with this talismanic figure that made such an impact on the film’s director.

‘You’re in this lineup to make your debut against one of the best teams in the world. That’s not bad for a young boy from Northern Ireland,’ explains Campbell, who now runs his own coaching school and is schooling the film's cast to convince as footballers. ‘In the tunnel, to my right was a young man called Socrates. He was the biggest player I’d ever seen in my life. He looked down and, I think because he knew it was my debut, he offered me his hand. It was an amazing experience.’

While the film is only in the early stages of production – it is being produced by New Black Films, and partly funded by Channel 4's 4Rights – Campbell is nonetheless proud of what has been accomplished so far. The finished article, he believes, should make both football fans and non-football fans proud of what can be accomplished in Northern Ireland.

Unfortunately for the national team’s loyal supporters, they have little reason to attend Brazil 2014. That said, if Shooting for Socrates does nothing else, it will at least ensure some level of local involvement in next year’s samba-tinted summer, a run likely to outlast even England’s routine search for footballing glory. How sweet would that be?

Shooting for Socrates is due for release in summer 2014.

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