Floodlights review – this harrowing drama about sexual abuse in football is so, so valuable

·5 min read

The story of Andy Woodward – whose Guardian interview led to the jailing of youth coach Barry Bennell – is terrifically acted, full of dark resonance and breaks the silence and shame around male rape


“By the way, Woody,” says Barry Bennell, “do you think you’re good enough to be one of my boys?” The football coach is visiting Andy Woodward’s parents’ house to recruit their son for Crewe Alexandra’s youth team, but, for us viewers, the line, like so many others in Floodlights (BBC Two), has a darker resonance.

Bennell is on the hunt for new talent. He can’t stay long, he tells Jean and Terry Woodward, adding: “I’m scouting under-10s in Buxton at six o’clock.”

Matt Greenhalgh’s terse, harrowing script tells Woodward’s story, in particular how what Bennell did to the boy cast its long shadow over the man.

In 2018, Bennell was jailed for child sexual abuse offences against 22 boys. The number of his victims is widely believed to have run into three figures, the youngest of them eight years old. Bennell had served earlier sentences for similar crimes but this time was jailed for 34 years. This conviction was made possible by Woodward, who waived anonymity in Daniel Taylor’s 2016 Guardian interview, detailing how he was raped by Bennell during his three years in Crewe’s youth team. His testimony, as a former professional footballer for Sheffield United and Bury FC, encouraged other victims to come forward.

Jonas Armstrong as Bennell plays this scene with extreme oiliness, leaning casually on the door jamb of the Woodwards’ living room as he grooms both parents and son like some diabolical Dickensian benefactor in flammable athleisurewear. The Woodwards are sunk deep in their three-piece suite as he commands the room, dangling before them possibilities of four-figure weekly pay cheques, Man U contracts and England caps. His smile reminds me of Michael Fassbender’s, his curly locks like those of Paul Usher as sinister scouser Barry Grant in Brookside.

In another bitterly resonant scene in a post-match changing room, Bennell tells his pre-pubescent charges about the glorious triumphs that will be theirs if they follow his regimen, all the while taking his clothes off. His nakedness becomes an emblem of his power over the boys, and, as they exchange worried looks, suggestive that something, though they can scarcely explain what, is terribly wrong.

All the child actors are terrific, but none more so than Max Fletcher as Woody, a gangly shy boy with big, angelic eyes. “It was the softer, weaker boys he targeted,” Woodward said of Bennell in his Guardian interview and, while the self-recrimination that may be behind those words makes me queasy, Fletcher’s portrayal of the young Woody as gentle and gauche bears out the remark.

When we meet grown-up Woodward, it’s a shock. The angel has gone, leaving, in former Shameless star Gerard Kearns’s affecting performance, a broken and sad-eyed man. Kearns’ grief-racked face, like clouds before a Mancunian downpour, looks to be damming an ocean.

The drama accelerates rather too quickly through Woodward’s post-football career. In 2003, he retired from the game early after being hobbled by the trauma Bennell visited on him. He became a police officer specialising in child protection. This development is fascinating enough, but we skate over it and find that Woodward was dismissed from the force for having an inappropriate relationship with a relative of a witness. Greenhalgh’s script spends too little time on this part of Woodward’s story and too much depicting one of his football team managers, Neil Warnock, as a bully needing anger management training.

After he is dismissed from the police, we see Woodward move back in with his mum and dad. His marriage seems to be over; his life is in tatters, his worldly goods in two bin bags. One night, while he is scrolling Facebook, a friend request pops up from someone called Richard Jones. He is being cyber-stalked by his abuser. “Jones” is really Bennell, who is out of jail after one of his shorter prison terms and, the photos show, sunning himself somewhere nice. “He’s out and about enjoying life,” Woodward tells a friend just before he makes a suicide attempt. “I’m not. Not one bit. Not for ages.”

Greenhalgh repeatedly focuses on Woodward’s self-abasement. “Why was I his favourite?” he keeps asking, as if there was some fact about him that made him deserve to be, as his police statement said, raped and molested, forced to watch and read hardcore pornography, forced to give and receive oral sex. Which are things nobody should endure. Nor, having been forced to do them, to feel ashamed.

Related: Andy Woodward: ‘It was the softer, weaker boys he targeted’

“I have five sons who love me, and I love them,” he tells the Guardian. “They think I’m a real man.” “Why aren’t you a real man?” asks the reporter with gentle incredulity. “Because real men don’t get raped.” I yearned for the scene to close with the reporter telling him the truth. Real men do get raped. Silent suffering only keeps such myths alive. And that’s the reason why this drama is so valuable: it breaks the silence and shame around male rape, and puts the blame where it belongs.

After the end credits roll, I wonder what the real Andy Woodward looks like. I get a shock. Guardian photographer Chris Thomond’s portraits make Woodward look very different from Gerard Kearns’s interpretation of him. He looks soigné, handsome, untroubled. Let’s hope the camera doesn’t lie.

  • In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

  • Information and support for anyone affected by rape or sexual abuse issues is available from the following organisations. In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support on 0808 802 9999 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, or 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). Other international helplines can be found at ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html


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