BT Sport Films in 2021: “We take viewers on a journey of discovery”

Sally Brown, Executive Producer of BT Sport Films, on an unparalleled 2020, how to find the perfect story and why her documentaries must stand the test of time.

By Tim Williams Published: 22 March 2021 - 10.07am

“Our type of storytelling has particularly been impacted because we like to go on a journey and that’s a problem,” Sally Brown informs me.

“What I’m proud about at BT Sport is that we aren’t mavericks in the way we’re trying to film,” she says. “I’m really proud that we are looking at the biggest picture here and making sure that every single person is safe and nobody can argue about that.”

Executive Producer and Commissioning Editor for BT Sport Films, Brown leads a lean team responsible for producing best-in-class sports documentaries.

From intimate portrayals of transcendent figures past and present, to compelling explorations of the symbiotic relationship binding sport and society, they scratch beneath the surface to bring to life stories you didn’t know about.

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The widely lauded series has taken viewers from Papua New Guinea to Sao Paulo, via Harrogate and Merseyside, providing a unique snapshot into remarkable moments in history.

The release of Greavsie last February, an engrossing portrait of one of England’s greatest footballers and most revered personalities Jimmy Greaves, was welcomed by critics and seen as the perfect way to kick-start a prolific 2020. It generated interest which ultimately helped him be recognised with an MBE in the New Year Honours list.

But by the time Greavsie was released, coronavirus was embedded in communities across the UK and transmission was rampant. Within weeks the nation was plunged into lockdown with stay at home orders prohibiting non-essential travel. 

“Greavsie, we’d been working on beforehand so that wasn’t at the mercy of Covid issues or anything, so that was a good way to start the year,” reflects Brown.

“Then it was very difficult during Covid because we obviously realised due to the lockdowns and restrictions that non-live programming wasn’t top of the agenda.”

The team successfully transitioned into creating archive-based programming in the first lockdown, before gradual relaxations of restrictions in the summer permitted them to return to the day job.

“Then the team were thinking what could we do that would mean we would not really have to film and how could we work with someone else who could do the filming for us,” she says.

The result was Proud To Be Town, the life-affirming story of how non-league Harrogate Town navigated through the Covid crisis. Filmed and produced in lockdown while adhering to social distancing guidelines, it features self-shot contributions led by manager Simon Weaver and his players.

The method of production was markedly different but the outcome was the same, and for Brown its success was underpinned by one factor: trust.

“The only way to make this sort of thing happen is to develop a relationship and to speak every single day,” she says.

“Because everyone feels we’re invested in it and as we’re making sure we’re communicating every day, they feel like they’ve got some direction. The brilliant thing is they were starting to get it.

“There’s a bit in the film where Simon takes a walk in the woods and suddenly he’s this philosopher talking about how the roots that get in the way are like the issues that Covid poses! It was magic and he wasn’t told to do that. It just came from him really understanding what elements would be nice for a film.

“It felt like a real first. No one else had seemed to have done this and we also tried to tell the story of lockdown. It happened to be that sport and lockdown were the vehicle, but really it was a bigger story about what the whole nation was going through so that was a real success.”

From the boutique northern spa town to the Belgian municipality of Liege, BT Sport Films brought the curtain down on an unprecedented year with the release of Bosman - The Player Who Changed Football, the story of the eponymous hero behind the ruling that redefined the sport.

Presented by former French international David Ginola, 25 years after the landmark ruling, the evocative portrayal shines a light on Jean-Marc Bosman who was callously discarded after his actions empowered players to move freely within the European Union when their contracts ended.

He describes himself as “a man without a face” and the magnitude of the harrowing tale isn’t lost on Brown. “I was pleased with the response and I was glad we managed to do something for Jean-Marc and, most importantly, that he was happy with it because it felt like an enormous responsibility to take on his story when he’s very fragile. But he is very happy,” she says.

“I’m trying to find stories within stories. Something that’s not quite as obvious”
- Sally Brown

An unforgettable year befitting the most chaotic narrative arc concluded with a positive resolution for Brown and her team, who are plotting their biggest year to date in 2021.

“What’s turned out to be three films, which is far fewer than we wanted, means we’ve got eight to ten in development. We’ve got another five that are ideas but they’re solid ideas that I want to be developed when there’s time to develop them,” she says.

“In a way, it’s like we’ve got some sat on the shelf that are already thought through. It’s like the moment one is done we’re onto the next one.”

The new year was supposed to mark a brave new dawn in the global effort to suppress Covid, but with mutant strains on the rampage and a weary UK population ordered once again to stay at home, it heralded only familiar frustrations.

For an operation whose desire to get to the heart of sport is predicated on travel and human contact, the impact on BT Sport Films has been particularly profound.

“We quite like to take our viewers on a bit of a journey of discovery,” Brown explains.

“I’m not particularly interested in commissioning either externally or internally something like Man United: The Treble or something that’s just a linear historical tale that you could get the information out of a book or probably off Wikipedia.

“I’m trying to find stories within stories, perhaps something that’s not quite as obvious. Perhaps a slightly journalistic take on something.

“So for us we often need to travel with people. That means a crew travelling with people. That’s likely to mean that the author is taking us on the journey.

“For example, it would have been Brian O’Driscoll in Shoulder to Shoulder [a nuanced and compelling look at how rugby unites a partitioned Ireland]. He’s got to be interacting with people and then you’ve got the whole issue of social distancing.

“The second problem is with our archive-based films,” she continues.

“We’re doing a film on Aston Villa when they won the European Cup and all the players are older and we’ve realised how vulnerable people feel. When we were allowed to film they all got a bit nervous and we didn’t want anyone to feel nervous about filming so people want to wait until they’re vaccinated. We of course have to make sure everyone is happy.

“We just have to be patient but travel and age are the two things that have affected us.”

“All our films, I want them to have legs. I want people to be able to enjoy them if they find it a year later”
- Sally Brown

So what can we expect in 2021?

First up is Ours, a powerful analysis of the role of fans in an uncertain era for football. Written and narrated by award-winning journalist Michael Calvin, it offers a unique insight into the modern game away from the Premier League.

From Bury AFC to Portsmouth and AFC Wimbledon to AFC Rushden and Diamonds, it asks searching questions about identity and belonging, and finds hope in clubs that are run by, or heavily influenced by, their supporters.

Pandemics permitting, it won’t be the last BT Sport Film to arrive on the small screen this year.

From a colourful look at Villa’s European Cup winners to an examination of how sportsmen cope post-retirement, there’s a veritable feast in the pipeline.

“We’re so excited about that one. I’m desperate to get it out there because I think it’s great but this has been on a pause for quite some time now so we need restrictions to be lifted for us to move around more freely for that one,” Brown says of the latter.

“We’re going to link up with a men’s mental health charity with that, but we’ve got quite a unique approach.”

But that’s not all. “We’ve got a film on blind football coming up,” she says. “It’s really going to be about understanding what it's like to live with a disability. I think it could be something really special.”

Goalie will strive to debunk the myths associated with goalkeepers, while Game of Two Halves will follow Martin O’Neill on a personal journey across Irish sporting and political history.

Speaking to Brown on the cusp of a golden period for BT Sport Films, it’s not difficult to comprehend how they have commandeered such a competitive marketplace. What’s the secret? It’s all in the shelf life.

“All our films, I want them to have legs. I want people to be able to enjoy them if they might find it a year later or two years later.

“There are films that stand the test of time like No Hunger In Paradise and Rocky and Wrighty. It’s a human interest story, a lovely story and it can be enjoyed year after year.

“I think that’s quite key for the titles I look for, that they’re not essential to play a week before the game and then they’re irrelevant.”