The new BBC two-part documentary, Gazza, opens with the solitary figure of former international football star and fallen hero, Paul Gascoigne, fishing alone in a deserted lake. Taking as its title Gascoigne’s nickname, Gazza presents the footballer as a man more sinned against by the press than guilty of his own actions.
Using archival footage and voice-over interviews with friends, family, colleagues and teammates, as well as the journalists who pursued him, the documentary tells the familiar – and persuasive – story of a sportsman of humble origins who is destroyed by global fame and media intrusion.
Gascoigne was the fun-loving, fragile football star, who famously sobbed when given a yellow card at the 1990 World Cup semi-final. In an era notorious for circulation wars and cheque-book journalism, he is portrayed as a young scamp beleaguered by the British tabloids of the day, with the Daily Mirror under the editorship of Piers Morgan and the News of The World under Rebekah Brooks (née Wade).
Gazza details how the footballer was among the celebrities targeted amid the phone hacking scandal, news of which broke in 2011. It concludes with footage of his 2015 high-court appearance, in which he received substantial damages from Mirror Group Newspapers and News UK, owners of The Sun newspaper.
But it is in its handling of Gascoigne’s well-documented violence towards his ex-wife, Sheryl Gascoigne, that the documentary fails. Contrary to much of current mainstream fiction and film, which refuses to sympathise with abusive men and instead tells their stories in a more realistic way, Gazza perpetuates dangerous and inaccurate views on domestic violence, views that have long been discounted by research.
A sympathetic account
Critics have rightly noted that Gazza does not shy away from Gascoigne’s violence towards Sheryl. It is first mentioned, at just under an hour into the first episode, by the footballer’s ex-assistant, Jane Nottage.
Sheryl, Nottage says, “would phone me up night and day and pour out her troubles about Paul going to pin me against the wall … I remember going to the villa and finding the wall had marks on it where he’d been kicking it or punching the doors.”
The second episode details the news articles which broke the abuse story and the subsequent interviews in which Gascoigne admitted as much. In one segment, after a night spent with Paul at a Scottish hotel, Sheryl appears with a damaged arm and bruises. Another segment includes an interview with her, after her separation from Gascoigne, in which she discusses the importance of speaking out about domestic abuse.
Throughout the documentary, however, the only person to condemn domestic abuse, and Gascoigne’s violence towards Sheryl, is his former Spurs teammate, Paul Stewart. Instead, rather than depicting Sheryl as the victim, and Gascoigne as the perpetrator, Gazza reinforces age-old myths used to justify domestic violence.
Myths about domestic violence
The first myth the documentary promotes is that some women actively provoke men. In one sequence, after an interview in which Gascoigne himself wonders aloud whether he’s “taking out” his insecurities “on the person closest” to him, TV producer Don Perretta talks about Gascoigne being upset at his relationship with Sheryl falling apart. “I certainly got a sense,” Perretta says, “that she made him angry. And I got a sense that he would need to express that anger.”
The second myth is that women who report abuse cannot be trusted. Sheryl’s character is undermined by comments made by family members, players and Gascoigne’s friend, Linda Lusardi. Recalling an evening with the couple during Gascoigne’s stint playing for Lazio football club, in Rome, she says:
I remember he scored but Sheryl wasn’t really interested. She was more worried about getting to the restaurant. I think Sheryl enjoyed the attention, she enjoyed the money, but I never felt there was an awful lot of love there.
Most damning of all, Sheryl is consistently portrayed as being close to Wade and Morgan, who are positioned as the true villains of the piece. Much is made of her close friendship with Wade, in particular.
The final sequence of the documentary states that Sheryl, Wade and Morgan all “declined to be interviewed for this film”. No mention is made, however, of the fact that the documentary includes no present-day interviews from Paul Gascoigne either. All we have are those silent shots of him fishing by the lake.
The documentary largely focuses on the pressure Gascoigne was under. His former assistant, Jane Nottage, states that, “Paul wasn’t prepared for the pressure cooker of the media.” And Perretta concurs, saying, “Gazza’s life was one of pressure. Pressure from the club for him to perform, pressure from his friends to go out and have a good time, pressure from his family to provide for them, pressure from Sheryl … pressure from the media … How do you cope with that?”
This kind of sympathetic framing is often used by people who perpetuate a third myth about domestic abuse: that extreme stress causes or excuses violent behaviour.
Attitudes towards women
These myths have been roundly denounced by agencies working with abused women, such as Women’s Aid. Decades of research have demonstrated that domestic abuse is a product of deeply held patriarchal values and attitudes towards women. It is not due to external pressures or provocation from a particular type of woman.
Footballers are role models for young men. Clubs such as Leeds United are now attempting to change the culture of violence associated with the sport by actively supporting the White Ribbon campaign, which encourages men and boys to prevent male violence towards women. One of their slogans is: “If you see it, show support, call it out or report.”
But even as women’s football flourishes and progressive masculinities are on the rise, misogyny remains rife among male fans. And domestic violence more broadly is increasingly recognised as a major socio-cultural problem worldwide, incidents of which have increased worryingly during the pandemic.
In this context, male violence should not be excused or dismissed. From so-called domestic noir thrillers, such as The Girl on the Train and The Girl Before, to soap operas, including The Archers and Eastenders (both of which have highlighted spousal abuse), much of contemporary fiction on screen incorporates an informed, feminist analysis of the patriarchal power dynamics at work in gaslighting, coercive control and domestic violence. Gazza, conversely, shows no such awareness.