What would it have been like to be a fly on the wall when David Beckham, Prince William and David Cameron met on the eve of the 2018 World Cup vote?
Clearly, if you were a fly, it probably wouldn’t have meant anything to you, would it? You’d have been more worried about feasting on the morsels left on their very expensive plates than what these three powerhouses in their own spheres were discussing.
For those of us of a more human persuasion, the coming together of these unlikely three amigos is an intriguing prospect. So intriguing, in fact, that playwright and Silent Witness star William Gaminara decided to create his own version of events with which to tickle our collective funny bones. Feel sorry for that eavesdropping insect; he’ll never get the humour of it.
We caught up with the actor and playwright to discuss the Edinburgh Festival success that has found its way south to the St James Theatre, to discover more about bringing British football politics’ answer to Emerson, Lake and Palmer to the stage.
What inspired you to write The Three Lions?
I was at a party and heard someone talking about Prince William, David Cameron and David Beckham all being in that hotel together for 48 hours. It occurred to me that that was a very funny idea because those three people are such high status individuals but in very different ways and for different reasons. That just made me laugh immediately thinking of them talking to each other; what did they talk about, how did they decide who’s top of the pecking order, what was that clash of egos like?
That was the starting point, but that only makes a sketch, so then it was a question of what I could add to it to make it into a play.
How much of the play is fact and how much invention?
The play is very much structured on actual facts in terms of the voting sequences and what is publicly known. I’ve also done quite a lot of research on those three characters. There’s a lot of personal detail that is completely accurate. But I’ve been equally inventive because it’s a comic reimagining of the fiasco that went on behind the scenes. I’ve taken that to farcical levels and that is a complete comic invention.
Were you concerned about the characters drifting into caricature?
I haven’t tried to show the real people that might be underneath their public persona, I’ve very much taken the public persona that we see relentlessly on the screen with those three in particular. You could not see three people more often on the screen. I am playing with caricature, but it’s surprising how often in the play you think “They probably would talk like this to each other,” so it’s not entirely unrealistic either.
Beckham is quite a canny character. I know he’s caricatured as being a bit dim, but he plays up to that; he’s a smart cookie. In the case of Cameron, when we see his public persona he’s a very smooth operator, he’s always in complete control, he’s very articulate, he’s the smooth Etonian manager. Now, I don’t know what it’s like when Cameron loses his temper and goes completely ballistic, but he does in this play, so we have complete licence to do what we like with that. And we do.
Did anything about the portrayal of these three men, who are each powerful in their own ways, not make it to the stage?
We had one line that we had to cut from a legal point of view. A lot of the words are words they’ve actually used. A lot aren’t.
With satire you have your targets and you can’t mollycoddle them. At the same time, although we poke fun at William and David Beckham, I rather like them both.
I like Prince William but I poke fun at the idea of royalty. It’s not to do with him as a person; it’s to do with the extraordinary reverence that we have for the royal family in this country. I like David Beckham, I think there’s something very endearing about his naivety, his little boy quality, which is something he trades on. I’m less fond of David Cameron, so I have a bit of a harder go at him. But he is Prime Minister so he’s well accustomed to that happening.
Has the show evolved since it opened at the Edinburgh Festival in 2013?
It has. I’ve learned lots of biographical information that I didn’t know at the time and which I’ve been able to draft into it. The trick with what we’ve learned now, but they couldn’t possibly have known then, is to bring it into the play without it looking like they’re too knowing. So they might speculate about something which at the time might have seemed outrageous, but now we know that it’s true. For example, and this isn’t in the play because it got cut, we know now that one of the FIFA council members asked for a knighthood in return for his vote.
Does portraying high-profile personalities ask more of the actors?
It’s tricky because you need the audience to immediately buy into the fact that they are these people, which means you can’t just cast anyone in the part. If you’re casting Cameron you can’t cast an actor who’s four foot seven because the audience just won’t buy it. Equally, you don’t have to cast a lookalike. You just have to cast someone who’s in the ballpark.
The same applies to their performance. They’re not doing an impersonation; they are trying to capture an essence of them with a hint of speech patterns, a hint of their physicality. It’s just doing enough for the audience to relax and say “That’s Cameron, I get it” and then stop worrying about that and go on the journey of the play. That’s the tricky bit.
Has writing this play made you more cynical about the corruption in football?
The play isn’t primarily about football, it’s about those three people, but I am pretty cynical about football and that’s epitomised in what happened with the World Cup. It just shows the enormous extent to which football is utterly defined by money. It is a commercial enterprise. Anything can be bought. Anything can be done if it will earn money. That applies at the level of organising the World Cup right down to what happens on the pitch. That’s not to say that football isn’t a terrifically entertaining sport. It is. But no one should delude themselves that that’s what’s behind it all.