When acclaimed Belfast playwright Marie Jones decided to write the screenplay for Shooting for Socrates, one of her overriding concerns was setting the proper tone.
Coming from a family of ardent football fans, she felt real pressure to deliver a script that paid proper homage to Northern Ireland’s time at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. ‘I thought, "Oh God, if I make a balls of this, they’ll kill me,’ Jones admits. ‘It was very important for me to do it how I wanted it done.’
Prior to a nationwide release of the film on June 12, the Belfast Film Festival hosted the film’s UK premiere at the Waterfront Hall at the weekend, an event which also featured an appearance by players from the 1986 squad — including Pat Jennings, Sammy McIlroy and Gerry Armstrong — and the gilded World Cup trophy itself. Given the intense local pride that fuelled those halcyon days, Belfast seemed a good place to start.
That title of the film sounds suitably cinematic, if nothing else, inspired by an account given to the film’s director, James Erskine, by former international midfielder David Campbell.
Encountering each other on a yacht in Cannes, of all places, the pair struck up a conversation. Asked to recall the biggest match of his career, Campbell’s answer was unequivocal. He spoke of his debut for Northern Ireland at the World Cup and a meeting with the mighty Seleção, the Brazilian national football team, in Guadalajara. Chief among those golden-shirted footballing supermen from Brazil was the man directly facing Campbell: the gliding, bearded, chain-smoking playmaker, Socrates.
As soon as she was approached to build a plot around this experience, Jones saw the connections between two otherwise disparate global entities. The scope for drama was obvious, she says. ‘It’s a David-and-Goliath story, a real journey.’
Northern Ireland may have been relative minnows, Brazil near deities in the art of jogo bonito, yet both countries were well acquainted with domestic political strife; Socrates, ever the maverick, even founded a political movement to oppose the military junta ruling his nation. Northern Ireland, too, had long suffered the toxic strain of politics attempting to infect events on the field.
By contrast, in the Brazilian talisman there existed the very essence of those components, melded together to bring joy to the oppressed, to lend them a voice. As Jones points out, ‘Brazil as a country was going through a very tumultuous time, as were we. And, so, here you have these two teams, particularly Brazil, and Socrates, that were highly politicised. I thought he was such an interesting character, put against our own boys and what was happening to them back home.’
Jones even discerned classical elements in one local icon to underpin a narrative already rich in pathos. ‘Greek dramas are formed with the Greek chorus, which in our case is Jackie Fullerton [played with aplomb by Game of Thrones star Conleth Hill]. As a commentator, he’s so poetic, and there were a lot of those strains in naming the film after Socrates.’
Writer and director have form in this arena. Jones’s play A Night in November traces its roots to USA 1994 and the adventures of the Republic of Ireland in the sweltering cauldrons of an America summer. Erskine, meanwhile, has had success delivering sports documentaries; both One Night in Turin and Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist studied men on the competitive edge.
It sounds like an appropriate mix, and Jones speaks positively about their partnership. ‘The important thing for me was doing the story right, getting the dialogue down. I’d be very dialogue heavy, because I write plays, but he was able to offer guidance:.“We don’t need this, we can visualise that.” I really learned a lot. We collaborated on everything. There was nothing in it that we disagreed on, it was brilliant.’
There is more to this picture than football, of course. In 1986, the Troubles raged on throughout Northern Ireland and against this chaotic backdrop, a human tale takes form.
Richard Dormer portrays Arthur, a fervent admirer of both Greek philosophy and the beautiful game. Using these as his guiding principles, he steers his young son, Tommy (Dracula Untold’s Art Parkinson), through a society ripped apart by sectarianism and violence, efforts which culminate with the youngster’s tenth birthday and the biggest date in Northern Ireland’s sporting history.
Jones found much to work with there, crafting a journey of discovery and triumph for her characters. ‘For me, this is about ordinary people fighting against the odds, doing things you would never think would happen,’ she suggests. ‘The world this boy lives in is full of turmoil. This [the matchup with Brazil] could be something to believe in, something that’s good, positive, and so he gets totally hooked into his team’s progress in the midst of all the madness.’
There is a quote that Jones attributes to Billy Bingham, Northern Ireland’s manager at the time, in which he highlighted the importance of their mission to many watching from across the Atlantic. ‘He said, for that night, for that time, nobody was thinking about anything else.’
Bingham's players, who were drawn from both sides of the community, might have fallen to a 3-0 defeat on that hot June afternoon – exactly 29 years before the film’s upcoming general release – but the significance of that fact has faded over time. ‘Against everything that’s happening, something good can still occur,’ says Jones in conclusion.
‘When Davey Campbell came off after the game, he was crying. Big Pat Jennings looked at him and said, “What are you crying for? It really doesn’t get better than this. The whole world’s watching.”’
Shooting for Socrates goes on general release from June 12.
By Matthew Coyle