Most club players will recognise the situation. Your team went out drinking the night before the game, and now as you muster at the ground three of them are missing, including the captain, who was last seen being thrown out of a pub and wandering tearfully around a graveyard clutching a bottle of scotch. The opposition is looking restless, and there’s just a hint that your opening bowler is stoned.
Horace Ové’s film Playing Away has a brilliant eye for the dynamics of a cricket team – in this case, The Conquistadors, a Brixton-based outfit made up largely of Jamaicans. Take the moment before clambering into their bus in London, when their captain, Willie Boy, tries to persuade them to pose for a team photo; it’s raining, and just getting them to stand still for a few seconds is almost more than his leadership can handle.
The chances are, however, that you haven’t seen this comic gem, in which Willie Boy’s team are invited to play a fixture in a village as part of a well-intentioned yet hopelessly flawed attempt at sporting cross-culturalism. Its 1986 release was given a 15 certificate – presumably for a couple of uses of the F-word, since the rest is less racy than an episode of Midsomer Murders – and that cannot have helped its reach. Certainly you tend to meet more cricket lovers who claim to have watched all three hours 45 minutes of Lagaan than have even heard of this British indie, which came out around the same time as My Beautiful Laundrette, with similar backing from Channel Four.
Playing Away rarely shows up in cricket-in-the-movies listicles: given that The Lady Vanishes usually gets a spot for a background conversation about the score in the Manchester Test, that’s more than injustice, it’s an embarrassment. Even this paper, little more than a decade ago, ignored Ové’s work with its claim – our claim – that The Final Test was “Britain’s only significant cricket picture”.
You can rent Playing Away on BFI Player right now for £3.50; it has been available on DVD for years. It hasn’t gone anywhere and it hasn’t got any less relevant. If anything, some of its humour feels even spikier today, not least the opening shot that tracks lovingly over a Tudor timbered hall before resting on the notice pinned to its door: “An Evening in Africa with Marjorie Matthews”.
“Godfrey was always fascinated by the athleticism of the Masai,” Matthews is telling her bored slide-show audience in her earnest, genteel tones. “So was I. They were very colourful.”
Matthews is an expat who has not considered the tactlessness of inviting a Caribbean team to Sneddington as part of the village’s “Third World Week”. Sneddington’s captain is a toff who commands neither the respect nor goodwill of his working-class teammates. The visitors are suffering from their own internal divisions, and Willie Boy is at odds with his daughter over whether they should return home to Jamaica.
Racial integration, the nature of belonging, what we do with our unfulfilled hopes – it is a film that explores a lot of territory, and does so with impressive empathy. The script was written by Caryl Phillips when he was in his 20s and, funny as it is, almost every scene crackles with some kind of latent politics, be they of class, race or sex. It is also a rare sports movie where women have their own voices and storylines – there’s a telling moment when one is drafted on to to the Conquistadors team and her own teammate complains: “This equality shit’s gone too far!”
The cast, meanwhile, is loaded with talent, much of it instantly recognisable: Norman Beaton, Joseph Marcell, Suzette Llewellyn, Nicholas Farrell, Ram John Holder, not to mention Neil Morrissey and Ross Kemp, who play antisocial youths in the one moment that spills over into genuine horror. Ové has a long history of encouraging and enabling black creatives: Kwame Kwei-Armah has apparently said it was his first job for Ové, as a 15-year-old, that helped pay for his education.
In 1975, Ové was the first black British filmmaker to direct a feature film. Pressure, about Trinidadian British brothers in west London who join the Black Power movement, was then banned for two years. It is only in recent years that Ové’s work has begun to receive the wider recognition that it has always deserved. In 2019 his son Zak, an artist, curated a show at Somerset House called Get Up, Stand Up Now that was built around Ové’s archive. “Some of his best work has vanished,” says Zak, “so I started pulling his stuff out of storage because otherwise it was going to be lost, and it’s really important to people like me, of dual heritage in Britain.”
What is particularly noticeable throughout Playing Away – and evident in the sporting action that provides its climax – is that it is never a story about one team or the other. Ové uses cricket to reflect the complex power struggles and communication failures of humans from all different environments.
“It’s his favourite subject!” agrees Zak Ové. “Something about that film that’s neglected now and was very important to Horace was that black filmmakers don’t get caught in the trap of only making films about their own kind. Horace’s philosophy was that as West Indians in Britain he had to know your world as well as you in order to survive it.”
Some time ago, when the director Gurinder Chadha was asked which filmmakers she considered most underrated, she named Ové, and referenced Playing Away in particular. “So few people saw it,” she said, “and it was a tragedy that it wasn’t given a wider release.” The good news is you can go watch it right now.
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