YESTERDAY’S news that Sir Alex Ferguson intends to retire as manager of Manchester United, after decades of unrivalled success, could hardly be better timed for a programme reflecting on arguably his great triumph before he joined United: namely the 1983 winning, with his then club, Aberdeen, of the European Cup-Winners’ Cup.
Tonight, BBC ALBA screens Gothenburg ’83, at 2100.
Here, Margot McCuaig, company director of the programme’s makers, purpleTV, explains all…
Who commissioned the series?
Following a purpleTV submission to the MG ALBA commissioning round in January, the programme was commissioned by BBC ALBA. MG ALBA head of content, Alan Esslemont, was executive producer and really engaged with the concept. It was terrific that the channel were able to understand the vision of the programme and appreciate that we were making a programme of social significance, not just talking about the football match.
Explain the thinking behind the production’s ‘look and feel’
This is a programme documenting a football event but I wanted to make sure that the narrative embraced more than just the game.
This is a programme about people, about social history, and of course about a spectacular and memorable victory that gave the North-east of Scotland great cause for celebration.
It’s a story embedded in folklore; the memories are cherished by fans, footballers and their families. I wanted it to be fundamentally about the narrative that they shared. The football action is pivotal in the programme, it unfolds the drama in a real and dramatic way, but the memories of those that shared the journey – the players and the fans – is key, their journey is just as important as the winning goal in the final.
To that end, I wanted the documentary to convey a social community; it is, in a sense, a snapshot of Aberdeen in 1983 and celebrates its population as they gather to embrace a season-long journey of an unforgettable adventure. It’s a fairytale that ultimately comes true as the narrative unfolds on screen.
I wanted to avoid shooting the programme in a way that feels exclusive in any way, hence the priority was on an intimate use of the second camera, and the injection of humour, emotion and a sense of the passion that was driving fans, players and management alike.
The fans’ involvement was key, it was important that their experiences sat alongside those of the players and management team.
Aberdeen FC’s European Cup-Winners’ Cup win in 1983 was an historical event but I wanted to shoot the story in a contemporary way, making sure to give it its status as an event that is as relevant now as it was then. I wanted the programme to feel alive.
Who are the key personnel? How were they recruited?
The programme was made by an incredibly small team: myself as producer / director, Alex O’Henley as presenter, Neil MacConnell on camera and Sara Jack, as production co-ordinator, who had the difficult task of making sure our really tight schedule was realistic and workable as we ploughed our way through it. Our exec producers, Allan MacDonald and Alan Esslemont, were also on hand if I was looking for any advice.
What kit and software?
We shot the programme on two EX1s and cut the programme on Final Cut 7 (Kevin Maguire was editor). It was dubbed using Pro Tools. In terms of the colour grade, the programme was ingested into an Avid Symphony Nitris DX system and a ‘film effect’ plug-in was also added to give the programme that lovely glossy feel.
What have been the main production challenges?
Firstly, the main challenge was the very quick turnaround. Delivery to BBC ALBA was at least three weeks before transmission, so from agreement of editorial spec to programme delivery I had a very tight schedule.
Our first shoot day was on the 6th of March and the finished programme was delivered on the 9th of April.
In between, we had to orchestrate 14 contributor interviews, travel to locations up and down the country – and of course never in a logical way that would make sense – as well as shooting in Sweden. Fortunately, our PC, Sara, is Swedish so that end of the production was a lot easier than it might have been! We also had to transcribe almost constantly along the way so we could keep on top of the content.
It’s also never easy dealing with contributors who have incredibly busy schedules – we had to be on stand-by to be ready to interview Sir Alex Ferguson at a moment’s notice and in the end we had to rejig a really busy filming schedule to accommodate the morning he was available. It was worth the wait. Our ten-minute slot turned into 45 minutes of really brilliant chat!
We also only had a very short window to negotiate rights for archive footage and photographs, and that can be quite complicated when dealing with material from 30 years ago. But we got there and, in the end, hopefully got the balance right between action and oral testimony.
There was also an abundance of really great material from the interviews that didn’t make the programme and I had to quickly learn to push sentiment out of the window – every comment had to have its place to ensure the best impact in the narrative. I still hanker after a few fabulous lines, particularly from Sir Alex, but maybe they’ll find a home somewhere else in the future.
What did you most learn and enjoy from the experience?
I learned that if a small team gels and works well together then the rewards come in abundance.
I enjoyed the whole process immensely; it was intense from beginning to end but in a way it was good to be totally submerged in the project.
I love telling stories, it’s my absolute favourite thing to do, so this was a real joy. I learned a lot about Aberdeen FC and the people of the city and that was a great experience. I’m a football fanatic and have written and produced a lot of programming about Celtic FC so it was nice to step out of my comfort zone and embrace a fantastic achievement with a different club in a different part of the country.
purpleTV is a small company, we’re only a year old, but the style and pace of this programme says a lot about what we want to do, which is make high-quality, energetic and innovative programmes that tell incredible stories. In fact, watch out for another wonderful narrative coming soon in a documentary about women’s football…