On surviving in a male dominated world
MARGOT McCuaig, one of the world’s top sports documentary-makers, is currently working on the story of Motherwell FC’s Scottish Cup triumph of 1991. Last month her study of the life of the Celtic and Scotland footballer, Tommy Burns was premiered on BBC Alba, the Gaelic medium channel which increasingly each year seems to be filling a space left by the mainstream television outfits’ coverage of Scotland’s cultural life.
The independent production company she heads, purple TV, is making ground-breaking and award-winning documentaries on an assortment of subjects principally set in the grimy world of Scottish football. This, though, is only the top layer of what often becomes a well-crafted and sensitive portrayal of a world often disparaged by the country’s cultural elites.
Deploying the term “world-class” here is done after due consideration. It does not spring from that Glaswegian trait of over-promoting the work of others who spring from this city that specialises in megaphone hyperbole about its successes and achievements. On the BT Sports channel you will find a collection of documentaries collected under the banner 30 for 30. These often feature the work of top US independent programme-makers with huge budgets whose documentaries are mainly about the historical quirks and controversies of elite US sports. Few of them, though, possess any of the emotional depth and intensity of those created by McCuaig and purple
TV. Her stories certainly celebrate the lives and careers of some of
Scotland’s most vivid sporting icons but they also seek to understand the values of
the working class communities that produced them and the challenges that many of them never quite overcame.
McCuaig, an eloquent and politically-savvy feminist, has prevailed in worlds which you wouldn’t immediately associate with progressiveness: professional football and the media industry that feeds on it. Scotland’s women’s international team may have reached the World Cup finals in 2019 but no sponsor or senior football club in this country has yet seen fit to divert any of the commercial cash into a single, solitary professional playing contract for a female player. They are realms where “toxic masculinity” have traditionally flourished. McCuaig acknowledges this. “There is an element of Scottish male culture that is indeed toxic and there’s a damaging element to masculinity.
“In football, men have typically been in dominant positions of power. In my film-making experience though, I’ve found that the interviewees are very willing to open up and express their emotions and show a different side, one that is at odds with this concept. This suggests to me that a
I’ve been in meetings where male executives have attempted to talk over me before the penny drops that I know what I’m talking about
whole range of male identities is at play in a football context and not all of them are toxic. It’s been incredibly interesting to witness and something I wasn’t expecting to see.”
She recalls interviewing Graeme Souness, a gifted footballer who captained Liverpool, Rangers and Scotland but one who often specialised in the practice of “getting your retaliation in early” if he felt that a tousy on-field situation required to be tidied up with extreme prejudice.
“We were making our documentary about Jock Stein,” says McCuaig, “and Graeme, who had grown close to Jock, became very emotional while discussing him.
“This happened a lot in the making of these films. It’s as if football and football heroes give men an opportunity to invest some of the emotions that they feel uncomfortable showing in other aspects of their lives. Thus, it has the potential to be a great bonding tool between men and among families.”
McCuaig was brought up in Glasgow supporting her beloved Celtic FC. “I was one of three girls in a family of five but my dad knew I shared his passion for Celtic and never thought this was unusual. One of my earliest and warmest memories of this time was him guiding me through big crowds and making sure I always felt safe.”
McCuaig would go on to work with Celtic in their burgeoning media department before moving to Setanta Sports, the Irish television company that won the contract for live coverage of Scottish football in the early 2000s.
She is also now executive producer for Nemeton TV, the independent production company which has the BBC Alba sport production contract. “Essentially I look after all the sport that goes out on BBC Alba.” It might seem unusual for a woman to flourish in an industry which now preens itself for just recently permitting women to present programmes and comment on male professional football one-and-a-half centuries after it was established.
You quickly gain the impression, though, that she was never going to let her gender stand in the way of a career in this game.
“I’ve been in meetings where male executives have attempted to talk over me before the penny drops that I know what I’m talking about. Then they realise that I have just as much passion for football and knowledge about it as anyone else in the room.”
Graeme Souness was not alone in shedding tears while discussing football greats like Jock Stein. All over social media, male football supporters have readily admitted to being moved to tears after watching some of the other films that purple TV have made.
The Tommy Burns film recounted the story of a talented footballer who grew up playing football in the backyards of the tenement closes of Glasgow’s east end, but it also bore witness to the role that Burns’s family and faith played in his life before his tragically untimely death in 2008 at the age of 51.
The purple TV film about Jim Baxter, the outrageously gifted Rangers player and one of the finest footballers of his generation, won the Royal Television Society Scotland Award for Best Sport Film in 2016 while “Jock Stein” won the same award the previous year.
The documentary on Jimmy Johnstone, Celtic’s greatest-ever player, was premiered in the IMAX cinema in Glasgow in September 2016.
There have been films about the Hibs “Famous Five” forward line of the 1950s; of Aberdeen’s mighty team which won the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983 and the Dundee United side who beat Barcelona home and away in their run to the 1987 UEFA Cup final.
Third Lanark told the story of how a great football club on Glasgow’s south side was allowed to die in the mid1960s by financial mismanagement and chicanery and the sense of loss felt by many of its supporters to this day.
Motherwell’s 1991 Scottish Cup success happened as the town, built on steel, fell victim to the Tories’ clinical destruction of working-class communities with the forced closure of Ravenscraig.
It’s impossible to tell the football story adequately without reference to this social and cultural catastrophe.
“Very often you find that the fortunes of football clubs become very important in communities that have seen their
heavy industries disappear,” says McCuaig.
This theme of football and its heroes springing from their local communities and representing their sense of pride is a thread running through much of her work. To regard them as mere tributes to old footballers is to ignore the subtle messages about community and social cohesion they carry; of how passion and emotion can be expressed in communities unaccustomed to baring their souls.
As such, McCuaig is also a chronicler of a way of life that is fast disappearing but which is still manifest in the hallowed names of football clubs and their local heroes who made the challenges of a hard life a little easier to bear. She is particularly proud of Honeyballers, her 2013 documentary about the pioneers of women’s football in Scotland.
During the First World War these women footballers provided highly competitive and skilful football matches to crowds of more than 50,000.
When the men returned from the trenches though, the Scottish Football Association effectively shut down the women’s game. As late as 1971 the SFA was the only national football association in the world to vote against women being granted full membership of FIFA, world football’s governing body.
“The Honeyballers were pioneers and the first to show that football could be played at a high level by women too,” says McCuaig. “I am very proud of that film and the way that it changed some attitudes to women’s football and challenged a great deal of ignorance about its history.
‘‘And I was so proud that BBC Alba decided to provide live coverage of fixtures in the Scottish Women’s Premier League this season.”
BBC Alba’s coverage of the SWPL increases the possibility of attracting the sponsorship required to fund a clutch of full-time professional women footballers. Almost a century after their predecessors captivated wartime crowds, it is long overdue.
Margot McCuaig, film-maker and pioneer, will have played her part too.
Above: Steve Kirk and Motherwell manager Tommy McLean lift the Scottish Cup Above right (from top): Motherwell players parade the Scottish Cup; Davie Cooper and Steve Nicol listen to manager Jock Stein; Graeme Souness