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Interview: Roker Report meets... Sunderland Til I Die exec producers Leo Pearlman & Ben Turner!

RR editor Gav sat down for a chat with the Executive Producers of ‘Sunderland Til I Die’, Leo Pearlman & Ben Turner, to talk all about the club’s owners, how they came across in the show, and what they set out to achieve with the second series.


RR: The show felt different - how did you approach filming this time around?

Leo Pearlman: I think the big difference was the focus, and who we were looking at. The first season was punctuated by the fact that we had the owner, Ellis Short, who was not a part of the series because he wasn’t there at all - even to the extent that we had a long interview with him which we chose not to include because it would have felt strange, given that he wasn’t in the show itself.

The big change in this one was that in Stewart and Charlie we had the complete antithesis when it came to the owners. These guys were right there from the very start - they were transparent, open and have full access, and so it was quite natural that they became a big focus point of that second series.

I guess that was the big change - that it became about the story of how they were turning it around from the depths that it found itself in.

RR: As a fan, my big take from the first series was the way the fans were presented, and how we got to hear so many brilliant stories from people who became reoccurring characters, and even featured in series two. What did you set out to achieve - how did you want this to feel?

Ben Turner: Good question! Whenever we are talking about a documentary before we start it - and the second series is almost like starting again - we say to the people that we’re pitching to that whatever we tell them is our worst case scenario, cos you don’t know what is going to happen, and life is way more interesting than fiction and what you hope for is a story that will take you places you haven’t imagined at first. With this one it’s slightly different because we feel very protective of the club, and protective of the fans, of which we are a part. We want to tell an incredible story, and we want to find a new angle.

What Leo said about Stewart and Charlie, it really just came to us to an extent.

In terms of how we capture it and how we shoot it, our belief is that you’ve got to adapt to the situation, and shoot it as best as possible - as you can imagine, some of the stuff we’re shooting now is being done quite differently.

In terms of the story, it definitely evolved and it was important to us to find a true rendition, and the circumstances really delivered that for us.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

RR: The owners are integral to the story of the show - it was interesting to see how different they are as personalities. What did you make of how they came across?

Leo Pearlman: I think it’s a real credit to the two of them that they came in and were as transparent and open with the fanbase. The fact is that Sunderland as a city and Sunderland as a club needed something to invigorate, something to lift; they needed to believe, and they needed some positivity back in the club. I think that Stewart and Charlie did that.

I think that even at the time when I was watching it play out, and we had this conversation internally at Fulwell73, it needed it but at the same time you sat there thinking: “My god, they better get promoted first season around”, because if things turn, and they don’t [get promoted], and they’ve set themselves up to be these open, transparent characters, they’re going to have major problems moving forward.

And I think unfortunately, knowing Sunderland as we all do, that was a distinct possibility. So, in a way, they acted and operated like fans at times as opposed to like businessmen, and one of the criticisms that owners of football clubs regularly have thrown at them is that they treat it too much like a business.

I guess it’s a no-win situation - you look at the Will Grigg signing, for example. As fans, did any of us think that spending that amount of money on him was sensible? No. But, as fans, did we want to see the club spend that money? Yeah, of course we did!

We’d lost Josh Maja, all you could see was that we needed goals otherwise there was no chance of promotion, so you’re watching it and you’re going “yeah, good on you Stewart, make that big call and big decision”. You’re basically being told by everyone around you not to do it, but you’re acting like a fan and you’re going - hey, if it works out, then you’re going to be lauded as a hero. And, if it doesn’t, everyone’s going to hark back to that moment when you paid x amount of money for x player, for x amount of years.

And that’s the risk you take when you operate the way they have done.

I don’t think that they should be criticised for it, not for one second, because they did what they believed was right at the time, and they gave a MASSIVE amount of hope to the city.

Look at Boxing Day last year - 46,000 people turned up. 46,000 people do not turn up to that game without Stewart and Charlie taking over the club and filling everyone with passion again. That’s the bottom line. I think in retrospect you can look back on it and look where we are, and at the problems that we’re facing and criticise them - I get that as well - but from my perspective, they did what they felt was right, they came in when the club and the city needed lifting, and they were a penalty kick and a few minutes away from winning a cup AND getting promoted. They came pretty close.

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

RR: Looking at it retrospectively it certainly is a difficult watch. Watching Stewart throw everything at buying Will Grigg, and seeing Charlie’s determination to turn the business side of the club around - for all their flaws, they do come across, particularly early on, as people with a passion and desire to make this thing work.

Ben Turner: One of the things we’re looking for in a show is to find a resonance beyond the direction of the story you are watching. In Season One of Sunderland Til I Die, [Donald] Trump had just been elected and there was a sense of disenchantment, and something about Sunderland and the north east just chimed with that. This time around it was filmed while the country was divided, and Charlie and Stewart coming up from the south to buy Sunderland with a romance inside of them, to try and make it work, felt like it chimed in a strange kind of way with what was going on in the country.

And, had they made it work it would have been really uplifting - it was really uplifting at times - and I hope that we captured some of that hope and optimism in there. In retrospect, the Will Grigg signing seems like craziness but when he scored in that semi-final, I just felt like: “oh my god... what if this is going to work?!” He’d just got us to Wembley. We’ve been to Wembley enough times now - I remember when they tore the old Wembley down, and I looked at it thinking “thank God for that” - but I really thought that we were going to win that play-off final. I was upset when we lost that in a way that I haven’t been when we’ve fallen short in the past, and it really hurt a lot. I think a lot of fans felt that, more than usual, but that’s the downside of that hope and optimism.

There is a lot of negativity towards them, and a lot of that I really understand, but I think they were quite genuine. That mistake with Will Grigg, that’s the opposite of Ellis Short isn’t it? Stewart got swept up in it. Stewart is a pretty good businessman, and he made some awful business decisions, but he didn’t just go mad overnight - it was because he did fall in love with the club, and did want to make it work. So, I hope in some way that comes across in the documentary because it’s complicated, I think.

Ben Turner: Or even if he’d just bundled one in - with one extra goal he could have made all the difference. Success is a penalty kick or a couple of minutes away, but we also all know that the problems were deeper than that, like in the series before with relegation.

I think it’s a really thankless task owning a football club. Think about the way that the fans feel about Bob Murray - now when you look at it, with him building the Stadium and everything, it feels like he did a lot for the club. At the time he left under a cloud.

I guess the only owner in our lifetime who has emerged with any kind of love for him is Niall Quinn, and even he probably got out at the right time.

Leo Pearlman: Niall’s best decisions were sacking himself as manager, and selling the club after realising he wasn’t a good enough chairman, let’s be honest. Those were the two best decisions he made!

Sunderland v Wigan Athletic - Premier League Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images

RR: One standout moment when it comes to the owners is in the third episode, when Charlie gives an employee a dressing down at pitch side on Boxing Day...

Leo Pearlman: And that moment is just another example of passion they had to make a success of it. If we had cameras on us at Fulwell73 every minute of every day then there would also be moments where you’d see us, where we want something to happen and you want something to work, but you maybe don’t react in the most positive way at that time. But, it comes from a place of wanting to be successful and wanting it to work.

What Charlie was passionate about at that time was the fact that Sunderland were going to have the highest attendance in the country that day of any football club, Premier League or otherwise. They were going to have the highest attendance of any League One game ever, and he was proud of that and was going to let the fans, the city and the wider world know it.

That’s where it came from. Did he come across in the best possible way? I mean, who are we to judge as someone reacts under that kind of pressure and under those circumstances. I think that the important thing when you are making series or show is that you have to show the positives and you have to show the negatives, but as long as you show someone’s true character overall, and as long as you finish watching the six hours and you’re able to look at it and go “I think I know who Stewart is, and I think I know who Charlie is now”, and it’s a full rounded character analysis, then I think that you have done a good job as a filmmaker, and I believe that we did that with Stewart and Charlie. That’s all I think that we can be held accountable for.

I hope that everyone watches it and sees that for any mistakes they’ve made, they came from the right place. They came into this club and felt an obligation to do anything and everything they could to have success.

Ben Turner: And Gav, what was interesting was that when we were locking picture and sending it off to post [production], we put a lot of thought into how we were ending it, because it was just at that time when we were really at rock bottom this season.

Not that it matters much now as we don’t play football anymore... but there was a moment in the season where we changed the manager and we still weren’t winning, and it looked like a complete catastrophe, who knows where the bottom is going to be. It was then when we were locking picture, and it was strange for us to think about how we were presenting it and whether the fans would think that we were apologists for them or something, cos it’s really important to us as Sunderland fans how the fans feel about this, but we believed in the way that they came across and the way the story was told to hold it.

Fortunately, they bounced back a little bit and you can feel a bit better about them anyway, but it was a strange moment when we sent it off and finished it because things for the club were looking perilous at that moment.

Sunderland v Bradford City - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

RR: Are there any plans in the future if the club bounces back to round this thing off and do a series three?

Leo Pearlman: Never say never - who knows. I think that we made the right decision not to film this season. If we had got promoted then maybe we would have viewed it differently, but it felt like that with the same ownership and with the problems we all could see, that it was probably right not to shoot this year. I don’t think that anyone could have emotionally handled a season ended by coronavirus after the way the last season ended, and the season before. But, who knows - we’ll see.

RR: Here’s hoping that the series is well-watched and is received as a true reflection of how things panned out with the Sunderland supporters!

Leo Pearlman: And just to end on that note of positivity - and not to sound too cheesy - but with everything that is going on at the moment, that sense of community and togetherness could not be more important than it is right now. Football is something that brings us all together. We don’t have live football right now, but we still have the community that it is based around that we can rely upon and build upon. Once we’re through this, however many months it takes, I think it’s an important lesson to take from it, that togetherness is really at the core of it all. Hopefully people can take some of that from this series - it would make all of us feel very proud indeed.

Ben Turner: Keep up the good work - we follow all of your stuff!

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