A new documentary feature about footballing legend Bryan Robson is very well made, yet feels very much like a varnished official product.
A few things I learned from the documentary Robbo: The Bryan Robson Story, the latest documentary feature to arrive based around a famous sporting star. This time, the subject being the former Manchester United and England football captain of the film’s name.
Thus, I gleamed: the job of England captain involves sorting out bonuses and stuff, says Wayne Rooney, and Robson was good at that. Without Bryan Robson, there wouldn’t have been Manchester United’s famous ‘Class Of 92’. Graeme Souness found him to be his toughest opponent. To David Beckham, he was a hero. Plus, I now know what Robson’s favourite of all of his goals was.
Things I didn’t learn. What were the dark days like at Manchester United, when Liverpool were regularly beating them to the league title? How did he get on at first with Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, as the teammates he was close to were being sold around him? What were the moments like at the clubs he managed that aren’t mentioned once until a bit of text at the end: Bradford City and Sheffield United? How did he and his family – who are included – deal with such a high-profile career?
We’re in an era now where sporting documentaries of this ilk are cutting quite deep, and offering genuine insight. Look at the candid recent Dettori film, where jockey Frankie Dettori and those around him around him genuinely open up in exchange for the film’s asking price. Last year’s Finding Jack Charlton too explored the genuine highs and lows in a career, and even Alex Ferguson: Never Give In – made by and with the Ferguson family – was willing to explore some pretty substantive stuff.
It’s best to think of the admittedly very well made Robbo: The Bryan Robson Story though as a piece of merchandise in the Manchester United club shop. In fact, at one stage – as his ambassadorial work at the football club is discussed – it heads more towards corporate promotional video than feature documentary.
And it’s a real shame, because it’s clear little expense has been spared here. There’s a queue of sporting and celebrity talking heads around the block taking part. Amongst the best? Alex Ferguson brings typical insight, Christopher Eccleston captures the fan perspective, and Ron Atkinson isn’t short of a few stories, notably including a club trip to China. Steph McGovern too brings across his time at Middlesbrough.
On the flipside, David Beckham and Wayne Rooney turn up presumably because of profile, as outside of admiration, they don’t have insight to add here and just eat up screen time. Chef Tom Kerridge is there to reveal he has a faded tattoo of a number seven on his leg. Ian Botham adds some words. Eric Cantona tells us Robson stopped him getting into fights or two. Some mid-range after-dinner speech stuff, really.
Still, there are highlights in the first 20 minutes in particular. We’re rushed through the first 15 years of Robson’s life, at the point where he moved to Birmingham when he was signed by West Bromwich Albion football club. It’s one of the few patches of Robbo to get across to any degree how uphill things were at any point for him. Having a family member look out for him, and playing as part of a football team attracting racist abuse from the terraces. These themes are talked about, backed, as the whole film is, with generous amounts of archive footage to enjoy. That footage is very much appreciated too (former ITV sports host Jim Rosenthal is a welcome addition, not least for a rare guard dropped moment when he facilitates Robson seeing his newborn daughter for the first time).
But as soon as Robson’s career shifts to Manchester United, the film becomes a highlights reel rather than a story, particularly in relation to his playing years. In fact, you could easily walk away from the film believing he’d won everything in club football, and that his only career lowlights were two injuries at World Cups, and a more recent battle with illness.
Robson himself is an executive producer of the film, and very much present and on camera as part of it. It’s clear he’s sat for several interviews, in different locations, at one point with a rather fetching cardigan (one of the funny moments sees two of Robson’s signing for new clubs press calls joyously chortled at). But most of the time, I felt he was just adding the last line to anecdotes others had about him. As if he’s a little bit uncomfortable and shy about being the centre of the film. Or that he just doesn’t want much fuss. All fair enough of course, but then the film has his name on it.
The blurb for the film promises the story of a working class kid making it to the top of the national game, and the story is hiding in here if you look for it. But there’s a lot of gloss, and barely a sign of any teeth here. Nor did I find myself learning much new, instead getting a recap of stuff that’s generally out there already. If that’s what you’re looking for, this is one of the best made such documentaries, in terms of quality and production values, that I’ve seen over the past few years. Where it falls short is in getting to the heart of the story it set out to tell.
We’re left with something that doesn’t happen too often: a very thin story, that’s very well put together. And as much as I hate writing these words – people have clearly put a hell of a shift in here – I think I’d rather have it the other way round.
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