Up for The Cup!

The making of BBC Two's new sitcom, set in the world of kids' football

It is the ideal job for any football-mad youngster: being paid to have a kickabout – and get yourself on TV. Indeed, for the child stars of the new BBC Two comedy The Cup, the line between work and play was very fine.

‘Because we were filming with children, we had to strictly adhere to the special working hours and breaks that the kids needed,’ says producer Sue Vertue.

‘In reality, though, we would be filming the kids playing football on the pitch, then call a halt so they could get their designated breaks and all that happened was that they would carry on playing, because that's what ten-year-olds want to do when they’re on a break! The only difference was that we couldn’t film them.’

But there was one drawback for the youngsters – they had to play exactly as they were told.

‘We played quite a lot of games against local teams and it was been pretty tough for all involved,’ says Sue. ‘We needed different results and to see certain goals being scored by specific kids, so when we told them they had to concede three goals it was the last thing they wanted to do. We had to use our highest powers of persuasion.’

The series revolves around a Bolton-based under 11s team – and, more specifically, the push parents living out their sporting ambitions vicariously through their children. It is based on the Canadian The Tournament, about an under-11 ice-hockey team.

Sue – whose credits include – Coupling and The Vicar Of Dibley – says: ‘I was at a party talking to a Canadian producer friend who I’d worked with many years ago. He told me about the series he was producing and it really caught my imagination.

‘It seemed to us a natural progression to turn it into a series about football for a British audience. They’re as passionate about ice hockey in Canada as we are about football here which is why it seems to translate so well.’

Bolton seemed the ideal place to shoot the series. ‘We wanted to base it somewhere that has a real passion for football, and I think we're spot on,’ says Sue. While we were filming I would drive home every night and see people playing football everywhere I looked, regardless of the weather, on any tiny bit of green space available.

Writer Moray Hunter, who adapted the original scripts alongside his long-term writing partner Jack Docherty, agrees: ‘The Cup had to be set in a football heartland. We thought about Newcastle for a while and then Bolton and for various reasons we ended up here. It's worked out very well and gave us quite a wide pool of actors.’

He admits that a lot of his inspiration in adapting the original scripts came from his own passion for sport: ‘I absolutely love it – football, cricket, rugby, anything really, I'm a good couch potato supporter as well.

‘I’ve always wanted to write something about sport. Jack and I have mainly written surreal comedy, silly sketch material really, so when Sue spoke to us about this project it seemed the perfect opportunity.

‘It’s so realistic and based absolutely on recognisable situations, all around the country and in fact around the world – slightly exaggerated perhaps, but that combined with the sport element was just fantastic and a very exciting opportunity.’

Sue agrees: "’What just grabbed me when I was talking about the series was how real it is. Even at the casting there were endless funny stories from people which have echoes in the series; one women came in and told us about her fiancé who had recently been in court for hitting a referee – it seems to happen all over the place.

‘The team had a funeral sponsor in the Canadian version and at first we wondered whether it might be a bit of a strange idea. But then someone in Bolton said they had played a team recently who were, in fact, sponsored by a funeral home - so it’s obviously common practice! Moray adds: ‘It rapidly becomes apparent that the real story is the appalling behaviour of the kids’ parents as they try to live their own dreams through their children.’

Worst behaved of all is Terry McConnell, played by Phoenix Nights actor Steve Edge, whose on footballing dreams were shattered with a teenage injury.

Edge said he enjoyed the fact that The Cup was shot in a mockumentary style. ‘It made filming the series that little bit different,’ he says. ‘I was a stand-up comedian for more than nine years and I think that helped me with thinking on my feet.

‘Moray and Jack encouraged us to ad-lib if we wanted to and Matt Lipsey, the director, was brilliant and really gave us all a lot of freedom.

‘As well as the football side, the script has got a lot of energy, the rest of the cast are fantastic to work with and we just had a real laugh making it. I hope that will all come across on the screen.’

Jennifer Hennessy, who plays Terry’s wife Janice said: ‘We tended to do the whole scene scripted and then they just kept rolling the film to see what happened; sometimes that works and sometimes you think “I can’t be funny – I have nothing to contribute!'

‘One day Steve and I sat on the couch and the director was asking us questions about our characters, how we’d got together and so on and we were there for about half an hour answering in character which is not something I’ve ever done before.

‘The first week I was a bit nervous and intimidated but in rehearsals [director] Matt was adamant that it didn’t have to be funny, that if anything did come out of it they could use, then great – so the pressure was off and I actually began to really enjoy the whole experience.’

Pulling star Tanya Franks, who plays another of the parents adds: ‘I really liked the idea of the documentary style although it did take a bit of getting used to, having to acknowledge the camera to make it realistic whereas usually you’re desperately trying to avoid looking at it.’

That realism was also important when it came to casting the youngsters. As Sue says: ‘Everyone we cast can play football pretty well but they obviously hadn’t actually played together as a team before, so that took a bit of getting used to. A couple of the children came from an acting school, while some had never acted before.’

Haylie Jones, who plays Ali, the only girl in the team, actually plays for the Bolton ladies junior team. ‘She is a pretty good defence,’ says Sue. ‘You’d be hard pushed to get round her in midfield.’

‘But this isn’t just a comedy about kids’ football – it’s a comedy about the pettiest adult behaviour since the latter days of the Roman Empire.’

Here is a trailer for the series, which starts later this summer:

Published: 6 Aug 2008

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