A new TV film drama, Floodlights, pulls no punches in depicting the childhood sexual abuse of Andy Woodward. Shilpa Ganatra reports
It is the dilemma for any hard-hitting drama: how do you tell a horrific story while persuading viewers to keep watching? That was the guiding question of Floodlights, the feature-length dramatised version of events surrounding Andy Woodward’s sexual abuse as a young footballer.
The game-changing story came to light in 2016, when Woodward, a former player at lower-league Bury, went public in The Guardian. He revealed how he was repeatedly abused by former youth coach Barry Bennell between the ages of 11 and 15, playing for Crewe Alexandra in the 1980s.
The revelations had a cataclysmic effect on the national game. At the last count, 800 further victims had been uncovered, with more than 340 football clubs and 300 suspects implicated.
The scandal was laid bare last year in BBC One’s three-part documentary Football’s Darkest Secret. But that occupied a different space in the telling of Woodward’s story than a real-life drama, says Colin Barr, creative director of factual and factual drama at Expectation, who is the executive producer of Floodlights.
“A documentary can gather the experiences of 10 or 15 men and build a picture in a way that drama can’t, whereas drama has to zero in on a single story and focus on it. That means it can put you right back in that moment in a way that a documentary can’t.”
The challenging part of putting the audience “in that moment” is that it is inevitably a very uncomfortable place for any viewer. To mitigate this, the project moved from the idea of three episodes charting, in turn, Woodward’s experiences as a boy, as a man and as a survivor to a single feature-length film.
Writer Matt Greenhalgh (Control, Nowhere Boy) says: “We felt this move would allow the biggest audience for something like this. And you do have to open this out if there are lessons to be learnt.
“It’s weird to call it entertainment,” he says, “but we are in an industry where we can reach more people. So we’re motivated to get the message out to kids as well as parents and football clubs.”
Viewers are spared the recreation of those countless nights that Bennell abused Woodward and others, but the point that it happened is made effectively. Try as you might, it is not possible to unhear Gerard Kearns (The Last Kingdom, Shameless) as Woodward, reeling off Bennell’s offences in a shaky voice loaded with years of suffering: “It consisted of French kissing and molestation. Forced to receive oral sex. Forced to give oral sex to ejaculation. Forced to watch and read hardcore pornography. And rape. This happened daily for almost three years. And I felt there was nobody I could tell.”
Those who have followed Woodward’s story in the newspapers and in his book, Position of Trust, know it to be one where truth is stranger than fiction. Though not covered in the programme, there was an added twist that Bennell married Woodward’s sister. And, later, Woodward came forward with another near-unbelievable story involving his family’s suffering at the hands of the Bennells: in the 1970s, his pregnant aunt was raped and murdered by Bennell’s cousin.
While those shocks are loaded with emotional currency, the team agreed that the best way to keep viewers engaged was to focus the story on the aspect that resonated the most: Woodward’s survival of the abuse and his uncovering of the truth about the youth football system.
For Barr, Woodward’s story held a significance that will be relatable in homes throughout the country. “I’d played football in Glasgow as a teen, and several of the coaches that I’d played for found themselves being convicted of sexual offences against boys. While nothing had happened to me, I’d been struck by that. I understood completely how coaches in that world would be able to do the things that they did, because they were sort of untouchable. I remember how much I wanted the attention of the head coach in the team I played for, and there were no women anywhere to be seen.”
Discussions on making a drama began soon after Woodward went to The Guardian. Barr and fellow executive producer Sue Horth met Woodward for breakfast in King’s Cross, London, where “he just talked and he talked and he talked some more. I thought there was a whole story that hadn’t been told in the press about how Bennell had managed to groom the whole family.
“And there was something about the way he described being an 11-year-old boy in the world of football that was so powerful. It felt like the kind of story that only drama could do in a truly visceral way.”
Woodward’s input continued throughout the production, down to supplying the trophies in his depicted childhood bedroom. “Needing Andy to talk to us about those events again and in great detail asked a tremendous amount of him,” says Barr. “We were sensitive to the danger of being another trial for him to get through. But, at the same time, Andy is the kind of guy who, once he commits to something, commits to it completely.”
The BBC had already greenlit Football’s Darkest Secret but then decided the seriousness of serial paedophilia warranted finding space for both types of storytelling and so commissioned Floodlights, too. “Throughout, both productions were in communication with one another. We felt it was better to know what the other was up to, to make sure there was space for both,” says Barr.
Though Greenhalgh finished the script in late 2019, the pandemic stalled production until December 2021 – with children involved, it was one of the last paused productions out of the traps. At that point, they had brought on Nick Rowland (Calm with Horses, Hard Sun) as director. “I could feel the fire in his belly and that’s what I need in anyone,” says Greenhalgh.
More than just another creative endeavour, the production held a special significance for cast and crew because of its weightiness, says Rowland. It was filmed in and around Manchester and, he says, the subject matter “created this energy on set with the cast, with all the heads of departments, all the way down to the caterers. Everyone came to set every morning with a real purpose.
“We needed that to carry us through because it was a very challenging shoot, it was only 20 days or something. It was tough, but that collective purpose was the best experience I’ve had in my, admittedly short, career.”
The “emotional relentlessness” that Rowland discusses and the sensitive nature of the shoot meant that there were more welfare considerations than usual. Joining the cast and crew were intimacy co-ordinators, an on-set welfare officer, counselling support and a consultant clinical psychologist.
“The key in all of this is that you need to be able to talk to someone who doesn’t feel that they’ve got a responsibility to the production, who sits outside of all of that,” says Barr. “We’re increasingly realising that you need welfare producers on documentaries, as well as intimacy co-ordinators on dramas. More and more, the focus on welfare is changing the shape of how we do the job for the better.
“Of course, it’s not just that what we were asking of Max [Fletcher, who plays the young Woodward], was difficult. Asking Jonas [Armstrong] to play the part of Bennell with a boy as young as Max is incredibly hard, and he needed to be supported through that as well.”
With the drama to air this month, Greenhalgh reflects on the goal he laid out at the start. “I wanted to tell a hero story,” he says. “Andy revealing himself took a massive amount of bravery and courage. And for a lot of men across the board, this environment needs to be talked about and spotlit whenever you can, because that’s the only way people will know about it and prevent it from happening again.”
Floodlights will air on 17 May on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer.