Gazza: story of a footballer mercilessly used and abused by tabloid press | Barry Glendenning
It’s no great spoiler to reveal that, apart from Gazza’s opening and closing scenes filmed near a Hampshire fishing lake, it is comprised of archive footage. The subject of this two-part documentary, to be shown on the BBC, had been booked to participate in a Q&A after a London press screening on Thursday, but despite being spotted at the venue was a no-show. The appearance of the footballer’s latter-day incarnation proved even more fleeting in “real life” as it was on screen.
Paul Gascoigne, we were told, did not feel up to facing the press and had adjourned to his hotel. While there is no suggestion his decision to abscond was rooted in any particular mistrust of the fourth estate, this film chronicling his stellar rise and subsequent fall from grace demonstrated that any misgivings he might have had would have been entirely justified. Whether intentional or not, the underlying theme of Gazza is one of venal treachery. It is the story of how one man was mercilessly used and ultimately driven to madness and the brink of suicide by the scurrilous and often illegal machinations of the tabloid press.
“I always love the mythical notion that there’s nothing newspapers like more than to build them up and knock ’em down,” says a young tabloid editor Piers Morgan in one of the documentary’s closing scenes. “We build them up, they knock themselves down. And if they make the wrong choices then they pay the price of their fame.”
Hmmm. There is no doubt that Paul Gascoigne made no end of wrong, often inexcusable choices during the turbulent period of his life chronicled by Gazza, from his early days as a gifted teenage midfielder to his admission to the Priory after his omission from the England squad before the 1998 World Cup. However, it is difficult to disagree with the conclusion of Gascoigne’s sister, Anna, that his life might have been a lot less chaotic had he boasted considerably less fairy dust in his boots.
It is a 16-year window in which Gazzamania swept a nation that became besotted with the likable, eager-to-please young geordie who seemed to have the world at his feet, only to develop a pernicious dependence on alcohol and become one of the most high-profile celebrities to have every indiscretion from a deeply troubled private life trumpeted from the front pages of the tabloid press.
In the midst of the star-obsessed circulation war between Rupert Murdoch’s News International and Robert Maxwell’s Mirror Group, Gascoigne became a sometimes willing but often unwitting pawn. Gazza, made by Sam Collins for Western Edge Pictures, is as much an exploration and examination of the underhand methods employed by the UK’s bestselling tabloids during the 1990s as it is a reminder of how its subject’s life quickly unravelled before completely falling apart.
While a postscript to Gazza reveals that Morgan, along with his then tabloid rival Rebekah Brooks (née Wade), who both feature prominently in the film, were approached to contribute and declined, there was no shortage of former employees who were happy to oblige.
As Gazza’s popularity began to soar in the wake of Italia 90, when England were knocked out on penalties at the end of a semi-final in which he had been reduced to public tears by that famous yellow card, the Sun signed him up on a one-year deal worth £250,000. “We started to notice, pay enough money and Gazza would turn up at the opening of an envelope,” said Neil Wallis, who was acquitted of phone hacking in 2015. “There was nobody who was interested in Paul Gascoigne’s welfare. We were worried because we’d got so much money invested with him. How long could this last?”
Self-interest masquerading as concern in Gascoigne’s welfare is a recurring theme throughout Gazza, in which various former tabloid reporters reveal the manner in which, before the advent of hacking, they would set up networks of informants close to the player and then pay them to sell out their friend. At one point during Gascoigne’s troubled time in Italy with Lazio he parted company with his personal assistant Jane Nottage, who promptly wrote a tell-all book that was serialised in the Mirror.
Also documented: his marriage to and subsequent divorce from Sheryl Failes, a period when he missed the birth of his child while out on a bender and then became a pariah after subjecting his wife to a vicious hotel room assault. A spell at Middlesbrough when he became so dependent on alcohol that even his alcoholic teammate Paul Merson felt obliged to speak up. That high-profile omission from England’s World Cup squad and his subsequent spell in rehab. All are covered in Gazza, which provides a constant reminder that for all his myriad shortcomings, one of England’s most feted footballers was for years under constant illegal surveillance that by his own account eventually ruined his life.
“He went to the Priory to get away from us,” says Paul McMullan, a convicted phone hacker and former tabloid reporter towards the end of Gazza. “He might have been an alcoholic but we didn’t care. So the guy ends up diagnosed with extreme paranoia when the reality is he wasn’t paranoid, it was genuinely true. We put the paranoia there.”
In the final postscript of Gazza, we are simply told our 54-year-old eponymous antihero now “lives alone on the south coast of England”. Having sat through the preceding two hours of footage, it seems a rather poignant revelation about a man once fabled for being the life and soul of the party, but ultimately comes as no great surprise.
Gazza is on BBC2 and iPlayer, 9pm on 13 and 20 April