Part Two of an exclusive interview with Al Ryan, writer and director, providing an insight into the production of “Team of the Eighties” documentary [Part One https://bit.ly/3k9lV7Q]
At the time Ryan pitched the concept he was working at the club developing Palace TV. “Steve Parish phoned me up one morning asking if we had some decent history books about the club that would help illustrate who we were to the uninitiated. I explained that there were a number of excellent examples written by Nigel Sands and Ian King which were very good but didn’t quite capture what he was looking for. He wanted to create more of a buzz around the place and kept referring to wanting to build a Legend of Crystal Palace” I agreed that while the previous history books were factually very informative and entertaining they weren’t exactly sexy. ‘I want a legend’ he said, and sent me away to come up with some ideas.”
Ryan duly went away and worked alongside Chris Grierson [the club’s head of video and social media] and editor Sean Webb and three of them put together bite-sized videos of the club’s history in four three-minute films https://bit.ly/3CtcM0h A larger project was in the offing to make a full length version looking at one particular period and Ryan kept being drawn back to Malcolm Allison. “We approached Bill Nighy about the project and as a huge Palace fan, he kindly agreed to voice the short history videos and during our session he mentioned to me how much he had loved the Allison era in particular, suggesting it was a golden period for the club. I wondered if Bill might be up for voicing a dedicated film about that time. It would certainly provide an added element of stardust to have one of Britain’s leading actors involved. When he agreed to narrate the film, I was thrilled.”
Ryan wrote a summary of the documentary and presented it to Parish. “He loved it and he asked ‘Why are you coming to me? Why don’t you go to a broadcaster?’” Ryan realised that this would not be of interest to most broadcasters such as the likes of ITV who were not making football documentaries at the time. The BBC did all theirs in-house and Sky who were very much focused on the Premier League big guns were not worth considering leaving him with only one place to go. “I had seen quite a few BT Sport films like The Crazy Gang and Rocky & Wrighty and I really liked the way they made them. I got a meeting with the exec producer of BT Sport films, I pitched the idea and five minutes later she wanted to do it. So I started in December 2018, set up the first interviews in February 2019, finished filming in May and thanks to a brilliant production team the edit was done by August.”
That was a rapid turnaround but in a way it had to be because there was a significant anniversary looming. On 29th September 1979 Palace beat Bobby Robson’s Ipswich 4-1 at Selhurst Park to go top of the Division One table for the first, and so far only, time in the club’s history. “That also happened to be my dad’s birthday so it all fitted in,” Ryan revealed. The film’s premiere at Croydon’s Box Park took place on 9th October 2019.
The range and candour of the interviews with nearly all the key players is impressive, and the mercurial Vince Hilaire being a particular delight. Hilaire was a bewitching player and in the film he comes across as a thoroughly engaging personality, beaming alongside his pride and joy, the trusty Triumph Stag [see main picture]. He regales us with several stories of what could be termed the rough and ready approach of this up and coming team including their visits to the legendary Solly’s café, a greasy spoon that was the players’ favourite haunt after training. As Ian Evans wryly describes their unusual diet in the documentary when “we survived on chips and bacon butties, ham egg and chips, all very healthy. I think Arsène Wenger would have been doing cartwheels in there.”
The endearing charm of the film is that this scruffy, unfashionable club from South London briefly, ever so briefly, tweaked the noses of the dominant sides of the era, the superpowers of the time. Bob Paisley’s Liverpool were perennial champions, winning the title seven times between 1976 and 1984. One of the only times in this period when Liverpool failed to win the title was in 1978 when Brian Clough’s unheralded Forest arrived and then won two successive European Cups. Under Venables’ astute leadership those pesky Eagles pecked at their more illustrious counterparts.
One of the hardest aspects of making such a film is gaining the trust of the players but Ryan was confident as he had undertaken exhaustive research into a subject that he held so dear. “The club were very helpful and supportive, with Steve Parish very much behind the project as was Terry Byfield who has been at Palace for almost four decades so he had been there and done that, seen it all. My first two interviewees were Steve Kember and Jim Cannon who knew immediately that I had done my research and that I wasn’t trying to trip them up so it was clear that once they saw my passion and my knowledge, they were more than happy to share their experiences.”
Clive Allen is a man who most Palace fans do not hold too close to their hearts, especially after an incident just after he joined the exodus to QPR to join Venables as the Team of the Eighties rapidly unravelled. But Ryan holds up Allen as an example of the impact the club made on somebody as Allen always talks fondly about his time at the club even though it was short-lived and ended acrimoniously. Allen scored the only goal of the game for QPR in an FA Cup quarter-final at Loftus Road when his over-exuberant celebrations in front of the away end sparked ugly scenes and a simmering resentment amongst the Eagles’ fans.
Ryan has only a couple of regrets regarding omissions from the cast list. “I was really keen to get hold of Jerry Murphy and wanted writer/comedian Kevin Day to conduct the interview as Jerry was Kevin’s idol, unfortunately we couldn’t get hold of Murphy in time.” Another who slipped through the net (forgive the pun) was John ‘Budgie’ Burridge, the eccentric keeper whose pre-match warm-ups involving various exercises such as handstands and back flips were better suited to the gymnastic events at the Olympics. “Burridge was based in the Middle East at the time and we were close but in the end we couldn’t link up, which was a real shame. For other reasons, it wasn’t possible to use much of the interview with Kenny Sansom.”
The biggest compliment to the quality of “Team of the Eighties” film is that I know plenty of non-Palace fans and even some who are not really football people who have throughly enjoyed what Ryan calls his “joyous romp” through the vicissitudes of the Allison/Venables era. He has captured that moment in time and the joy of watching the Eagles’ flame flicker before its swift denouement is an intoxicating blend of triumph and adversity. The club’s record appearance maker Jim Cannon sums it up in the final words of the documentary “I wouldn’t change a thing, I wouldn’t change a thing, I just wish it had lasted longer.” Those watching the film would echo those sentiments, as the 75 minutes fly by, leaving the audience craving for more.
Watch “Team of the Eighties” on BT Sport Films here – https://bit.ly/3oIXgIE