With plans gathering pace for not one, but two major new film and TV studios on the banks of the river Wear, and recollections of 1973 currently coming to the fore amidst the 50th anniversary of Sunderland’s famous FA Cup win, now feels like the perfect time to look at Homeground - a 1982 movie focusing on a supporter whose own memories are proving bittersweet.
The story centres on Stevie, a photographer who has returned to the area with his new partner Helen in an effort to rekindle his zest for life. He remembers Sunderland the town and Sunderland the football team fondly but struggles to match those feelings with his current mindset, leading to relationship problems and several earnest conversations with Trev, an old pal who has also formed a new world view whilst on his travels.
Homeground starts with some fantastic footage of 1973, intermingled with a tour of Roker Park and its surrounds as Stevie, wanting to go back to his roots following Wembley, retraces his steps over to North Dock and the sea front. Having grown up around the same streets this is undoubtedly the highlight of the film for me, and Sunderland supporters of a certain age will no doubt enjoy trying to recognise some of the other settings. Local favourite Notarianni’s features heavily for instance and will resonate with many, whilst comparing Seaburn to how it is now is somewhat startling.
As the tale moves on, SAFC features less and less (although Stevie’s classic red, white and black scarf is almost omnipresent). Helen isn’t keen on the idea of an afternoon on the terraces and Stevie is still feeling out of fettle. A reason for his continued discombobulation is presumably the fact that production inexplicably seems to have moved north halfway through filming; Bill Quay on the Tyne might pass for Sunderland to some people elsewhere in the country, but it wouldn’t have washed with viewers familiar with the area.
It is hugely frustrating that a piece of work that touches on some of the struggles encountered by residents and lamenting the loss of identity still saw resources going elsewhere, but hopefully the current developments on the real Wear will see it recognised as a thriving hub in its own right once more - helping redress the balance in this part of the North East and correcting a few misgivings along the way.
The thinking behind the locations could have admittedly been dictated partially by a budget of just £12,000, but whilst the trip down memory lane is fascinating there are several other jarring moments. Some of the dialogue and scene setting is a bit route one, and you get the sense that whole swathes of reel have possibly ended up on the cutting room floor. It can be hard to follow the exact trail of Stevie’s thinking and the twist at the end is a little too open to interpretation.
Struggling for exposure after being released, even regional theatres seemed cautious, and this was despite it later being billed as ‘award winning’ thanks to the somewhat ironically titled Tyne Tees Film Festival (what was that about identity and recognition for Sunderland?). Director Anthony Harrild, a former lecturer at Newcastle Polytechnic, explained afterwards that it was initially shown only in private cinema clubs prior to being picked up by Channel 4 later in the decade. They broadcast it across the network in March 1985, and again in 1988 and 1989, albeit only ever as part of late night scheduling.
The movie was written by Susan Oldroyd, a former colleague of Harrild who recalled feeling like an outsider when once being shown around the region by a friend and had wanted to recount the experience through her character Helen. The Nottingham born actor who played that part, Julia Hills, may be recognisable to some thanks to her role in the 1990s BBC comedy 2point4 Children. The other leads meanwhile were given to local actors; David Whitaker from Hetton-le-Hole was Stevie and Ray Stubbs, as well as playing Trev, provided some endearing music. Cilla Mason, who featured in many other North East projects, was the ice cream parlour waitress.
Homeground can be watched for free courtesy of the brilliant BFI Player Watch Homeground online - BFI Player.
With any luck, there will be some more SAFC success to base a script on by the time the Shipyard Studios and Crown Works Studios are up and running in Pallion.