IIt’s not a big spoiler to reveal that, other than the opening and closing scenes of Gazza filmed near a Hampshire fishing lake, it’s made up of archival footage. The subject of this two-part documentary, which will air on the BBC, had been booked to take part in a Q&A after a press screening in London on Thursday, but despite being spotted at the scene, he was not presented. The appearance of the last-day incarnation of the football player turned out to be even more fleeting in “real life” than on the screen.
Paul Gascoigne, we were told, was in no mood to face the press and had adjourned at his hotel. Although there is no suggestion that his decision to flee was rooted in any particular distrust of the Fourth Estate, this film chronicling his stellar rise and subsequent fall from grace demonstrated that any concerns he may have had would have been fully justified. Whether intentional or not, Gazza’s underlying theme is one of venal betrayal. It is the story of how a man was ruthlessly used and ultimately driven to madness and the brink of suicide by the scurrilous and often illegal machinations of the tabloid press.
“I’ve always loved the mythical idea that newspapers love nothing more than to build them up and tear them down,” says Piers Morgan, a young tabloid editor, in one of the documentary’s final scenes. “We build them, they topple over. And if they make the wrong choices, they pay the price of their notoriety.
Hmmm. There is no doubt that Paul Gascoigne kept making the wrong, often inexcusable, choices during the turbulent period of his life chronicled by Gazza, from his early days as a gifted teenage midfielder to his admission at the Priory after his omission from the England squad ahead of the 1998 World Cup. However, it is hard to disagree with Gascoigne’s sister Anna’s conclusion that his life could have been much less chaotic if he had boasted of a lot less pixie dust in his boots.
It’s a 16-year window in which Gazzamania swept through a nation that fell in love with the likeable, eager-to-please young Geordie who seemed to have the world at his feet, only to develop a pernicious addiction to alcohol and become one of the most high-profile celebrities to have all the indiscretions of a deeply troubled private life trumpeted from the front pages of the tabloid press.
Amid the star-obsessed circulation war between Rupert Murdoch’s News International and Robert Maxwell’s Mirror Group, Gascoigne became a sometimes willing but often unwilling pawn. Gazza, directed by Sam Collins for Western Edge Pictures, is as much an exploration and examination of the devious methods employed by Britain’s best-selling tabloids in the 1990s as it is a reminder of how its subject’s life quickly turned unrolled before collapsing completely.
While a postscript from Gazza reveals that Morgan, along with his then tabloid rival Rebekah Brooks (née Wade), who both feature prominently in the film, were approached to contribute and declined, he there was no shortage of ex-employees who were happy to oblige.
As Gazza’s popularity began to skyrocket in the wake of Italia 90, when England were knocked out on penalties at the end of a semi-final in which he was reduced to tears by the crowd by that infamous yellow card, the Sun put him on a one-year deal worth £250,000. “We started noticing, paying enough money and Gazza was showing up when an envelope was opened,” said Neil Wallis, who was acquitted of phone hacking in 2015. was interested in the welfare of Paul Gascoigne. We were concerned because we had invested so much money with him. How long could this last?
Self-interest disguised as concern for Gascoigne’s well-being is a recurring theme in Gazza, in which various former tabloid reporters reveal how, before the advent of piracy, they set up networks of close informants. of the player and then paid them to sell their friend. At some point during Gascoigne’s troubled time in Italy with Lazio, he parted ways with his personal assistant Jane Nottage, who soon wrote a tell-all book which was serialized in the Mirror.
Also documented: his marriage to Sheryl Failes and subsequent divorce, a period when he missed the birth of his child while on a bender, then became an outcast after subjecting his wife to a vicious assault in a bedroom of hotel. A stint at Middlesbrough where he became so addicted to alcohol that even fellow alcoholic Paul Merson felt compelled to speak up. This high-profile omission from England’s World Cup squad and subsequent stint in rehab. All are covered in Gazza, which is a constant reminder that for all his myriad shortcomings, one of England’s most beloved footballers was for years under constant illegal surveillance which, on his own account, ultimately ruined his life.
“He went to the Priory to get away from us,” says Paul McMullan, a convicted telephone hacker and former tabloid reporter near the end of Gazza. “He may have been an alcoholic, but we didn’t care. So the guy ends up being diagnosed with extreme paranoia when in reality he wasn’t paranoid, it was really true. We put paranoia in it.
In Gazza’s final postscript, we’re simply told that our eponymous 54-year-old anti-hero “now lives alone on the south coast of England.” After watching the previous two hours of footage, this seems like a rather harrowing revelation about a once-legendary man to be the life and soul of the party, but ultimately comes as no great surprise.
Gazza is on BBC2 and iPlayer, 9pm April 13 and 20