Bury: Bringing Football Back – BBC makes admirable attempt at the modern football documentary

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At what point, during the fall and rise of a football club, do you set the cameras rolling – and at what point do you shut them off? When a club’s demise is as catastrophic as Bury FC’s, and when the ensuing underdog story is as compelling as that of Bury AFC, these questions can get difficult to contend with.

BBC Three’s latest football documentary, Bury: Bringing Football Back, makes an admirable if at times poorly paced attempt at presenting a comprehensive account of incompetent chairmen, absent regulators, and a group of resilient fans. It follows the story of the phoenix club’s rise from the ashes of the original club’s dramatic downfall, ending after AFC’s first professional match.

All the essentials of the modern-day football documentary are present – there are echoes of the All or Nothing series, Sunderland ‘Till I Die, and the Leeds United catastro-flick Take Us Home. The rapidly edited montages are here, as are the talking head interviews with various club executives and wide, broody shots of empty training grounds. Although this particular programme suffers from looking and feeling relatively similar to those being pumped out on a seemingly weekly basis by Amazon and Netflix, it is rescued by the sentimental appeal of the Bury fans’ experiences.

As with all good teatime television, the stories of real, everyday people shine through. Owners of a Bury pub lament their fortunes, the daughter of club legend Les Hart is the subject of audience sympathy as she clings on to residual hope of the “real” Bury FC’s return, and the phoenix club’s chairman Chris Murray is a likeable everyman at the centre of the 47-minute piece. In fact, those minutes pass at a quicker and more entertaining pace than some of the aforementioned football series, with several months of turmoil packed into under an hour of viewing.

All the essentials of the modern-day football documentary are present.

However, BBC Three’s offering does suffer for this pace, with a number of stones left unturned. The true bewildering nature of the original club’s ill-fated chairman, Steve Dale, is avoided almost entirely. Given the nature of Dale’s press releases (covering a range of topics including fraud, the Proms and even Voltaire) it’s a wonder the programme’s creators weren’t even a bit tempted to stray into the lions’ den.

Whilst not strictly omitted, the period between Bury AFC’s founding and its first professional match seems not to have been explored to its full potential. The cameras did get an insight into the hiring of the club’s first manager, and bore witness to early training sessions, but there is untapped potential in the lack of coverage of the logistical side of a group of volunteers building a football club from the ground up. The goodwill and emotional investment of Bury’s fans is well-represented in the documentary, however these aspects left little room in the film’s slender timeslot for the likely fascinating challenges of bringing together all the moving parts of a football club.

The true bewildering nature of the original club’s ill-fated chairman, Steve Dale, is avoided almost entirely.

Ultimately, this is where the central question of timing returns. Bury: Bringing Football Back spends comparatively little time on the return of football to Bury, with only one competitive match fully covered on-screen. You can’t help but wonder what sort of documentary might have emerged if the cameras stuck with Bury AFC for a few months longer; months of rainy non-league away days and financial turmoil in the North West Counties League could have added a bit of character to a documentary that otherwise appears a bit cookie-cutter at points.

Fair enough – it’s great to see the BBC putting a bit of funding towards these sorts of projects, and the credits demonstrate that a fairly small team was responsible for producing what was ultimately an entertaining almost-hour of TV. If deadlines and COVID disruption led to the film being a somewhat condensed experience, so be it.

There’s no doubt that if Chris Murray and his team achieve anything like Hereford FC and AFC Wimbledon have done before, the TV crews will come calling again. This edition of the Bury tale might not have had Russell Crowe narrating or the David Brent-esque wonder of Sunderland executive Charlie Methven, but what it lacks in flair it makes up for by depicting the admirable devotion of Bury’s fans.

Image: Surreykraut via Creative Commons

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