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The Reidy Years In His Own Words; Premier Passions - The Sunderland Reality TV Episode

Episode 3: 1996/97 - Sunderland's first season in the Premier League, and it was captured in a astonishingly original documentary series. As the late 1990s saw a fresh fad of reality TV hit our screens, Peter Reid took his Roker upstarts into the new glossy top division - and the cameras were there to preserve it for history.

SUNDERLAND V STOKE

It's easy to forget just how much stuff happened during Peter Reid's tenure at Sunderland. Last time, in Episode 2, Roker Report reminisced about the second season of the saga - as the Roker Park era neared closure with a promotion campaign setting up a first foray into the Premier League.

That debut season in England's new top-flight - 1996/97 - was notable for two things - relegation, and the fact that the doomed campaign was captured in a stunningly original documentary series as Sunderland took a shot at the Premier in our final campaign at Roker Park.

Premier Passions was broadcast on BBC One in February and March 1998. The programme capitalised on a new-found lust for two things in this country - reality 'fly-on-the-wall' documentaries, and Premier League football.

TV was undergoing a minor revolution - which lingers to this day - a thirst for taking a peek behind the scenes of everyday life. As the old millennium drew to a close, viewers were gripped by a resurgent genre of warts-and-all series showcasing Britain as it went about its daily business.

The Hotel, Airport, Airline, Driving School and The Cruise were amongst the most popular of the new fad for reality TV; and these were shows that made national celebrities of their 'stars'. Maureen Rees became a household name thanks to her japes in trying to learn to drive and Jane MacDonald became a mashed up mix of singing star and television personality.

1990s Reality TV Shows, Driving School and The Cruise, which made celebrities of their stars

If Premier Passions was a natural progression of the then-current vogue for 'real' TV and reflective of a growing appetite for all things Premier League, it was still an enormous risk for a football club to open itself up in this way, as Reid remembers:

The chairman came to me and said that the BBC wanted to do something, and I was fine with it, but when they wanted access to the dressing room I said 'no'.

It was decided that the profile of the club would be lifted.

In the end, the camera crew did manage to get in the dressing room a couple of times, and as a result the programme became something of a classic. With its strong language and double-act of Peter Reid and his number two, Bobby Saxton, it even coined a 'mingin' catchphrase. One example from Reid's memory of it:

The camera crew became part of the team. I was in the office and my head was all over the shop, so I explain I am having a bad week and having a Budweiser. Sacko was making a cup of tea and chipped in off camera, "a bad week - I nearly shot myself last night".

The genius was in how the programme was directed and in no small part in the producer's choice of narrator. Peterlee-born Gina McKee, who grew up in Easington and Sunderland, provided the voice-over. McKee's East Durham honest, almost haunting edge, added a layer of brooding drama with a sombre undertone, and that smarted neatly with the humour, frustration and daily battle endured by Reid and his Premier League new boys.

Episode One broadcast on Tuesday February 24th at ten-to-eleven on BBC One. It immediately followed One Foot In The Grave and Crimewatch UK. The first installment opened with footage of the final game of the 1995-96 season at Roker Park as Sunderland celebrated the Division One title and promotion to the top-tier. It was introduced by a voice-over akin to a line of poetry and delivered by McKee:

Along came a saviour, a scally messiah in Peter Reid, and a year later SAFC were promoted into the Premier League. After years in the wilderness, Sunderland were back where they wanted to be - up there with the biggest names in English football. At last their time had come, this was to be a new beginning.

If you recall that title-winning day at Roker, I defy you not to watch the opening sequence here and feel a lump in your throat.

Episode Two opens just as powerfully - a deft introduction by Bob Murray discussing the vision of building a new stadium in a "once in a hundred years situation" cuts sharply to Peter Reid bemoaning his inability to acquire a few quality signings which might just keep the club in the Premier League. A 40-second sequence which neatly encapsulates the very friction which would hamper Sunderland's ability to capitalise on their next few years bouncing around the highs and the lows of England's top two leagues.

The series was a fiver-parter, and some good-natured soul uploaded each episode to YouTube several years ago. It was 'real' and it was gritty - exactly what Sunderland, and indeed Peter Reid, were and are to this day. If some viewers had expected to find football had sanitised itself in the new glossy Premier League, they soon discovered that hadn't yet reached Wearside.

In fact, there was criticism in some quarters and indeed mockery at aspects. Some in the region believed the show's producers were sending Sunderland up somewhat. But if the show at times caricatured Reid and Saxton, as well as Bob Murray and Sunderland itself, twenty-years later it's a remarkable testament to a chapter in our history, as Reid recalls:

The programme was great for us, much better than I thought. It gave access to the team and was very positive. The fans could connect with the team and it was great TV.

The warts-and-all programming was as 'real' as a reality show could get:

Yes I swore, but that’s all I did on the training pitch - "keep the f’ing ball". They filmed us at half time v Arsenal and the lads came in nil-nil. Well I roasted them and I was asking my boys to go and beat them - the men of Arsenal. I had always mollycoddled them but this time I went for them and challenged the psychology of them.

I was looking at young lads like Bridges playing against Bould and Adams and the response was we won one-nil - an own goal - but we would take that.

And therein lay the beauty of the programming - its main protagonists displayed a depth of character which was set against the backdrop of an old-fashioned football club trying to reinvent itself in the Premier League era.

We'll cover the actual football of that season next time.