The Saturday Movie Club: The Great Game (1945)
The British Council is a curious institution. Founded in 1934 to ‘to create in a country overseas a basis of friendly knowledge and understanding of the people of this country, of their philosophy and way of life, which will lead to a sympathetic appreciation of British foreign policy, whatever for the moment that policy may be and from whatever political conviction it may spring’, its origins rest in the financial depression caused by the 1929 Stock Market crash and the rise of extreme political ideologies in Europe. It exists, of course, to this day, promoting a wider knowledge of the United Kingdom and the English language, encouraging cultural, scientific, technological and educational co-operation with the United Kingdom, and facilitating access to education, skills, qualifications, culture and society. What the Britsh values are that it might represent in the twenty-first century, of course, remain open to question.
In 1945, of course, the world was a very different place. Emerging from the rubble of a ruinous war, the British Council released a swathe of films over the following years highlighting the fact that cultural life in this country was continuing, and The Great Game is their attempt to demonstrate the culture of association football to the rest of the world. Narrated by legendary BBC Radio commentator Raymond Glendenning (who couldn’t possibly have looked more “BBC journalist from the 1940s” had he tried), this half-hour long documentary takes us from the streets of middle England, through the professional up to the 1945 Football League War Cup Final South between Millwall and Chelsea, before stopping off at Manchester City and Bolton Wanderers and ending up at the War Cup Final between Chelsea and Bolton.
What we’re presented with here is a snapshot of football at the end of period during which its place in public life had been diminished. The Football League had ended after three matches of the 1939/40 season upon declaration of war against Germany (unlike the First World War, which had started at the same time of year but which saw both the Football League and the FA Cup continue for the duration of the 1914/15 season before suspending operations), but interest had remained high enough for the Football League War Cup to replace it, although travel restrictions initially restricted who teams could play against to a fifty mile radius and attendances for matches were at first limited to 8,000 and then to 15,000. The FA Cup would return for the 1945/46 season and the Football League for the 1946/47 season, and would find itself attracting record attendances as the game surged in popularity in the immediate post-war years.