The title of Gazza (BBC Two) makes it clear where the focus of this two-part documentary will land. This isn’t about Paul Gascoigne the player, once “Britain’s brightest footballing hope”, though it touches on his moments of greatness and loosely tracks his sporting career. In the early minutes, it flickers between footage of Gascoigne scoring goals and the rapid churn of a tabloid printing press. This is a story about Gazza, the public figure, the clown, the character, the villain and more than that, the tabloids, the late 80s/early 90s rivalry between the Mirror and the Sun, and how Gascoigne’s life collapsed underneath it all. Often, he comes across as collateral damage.
The choice to use interviewees in voiceover is classy and unobtrusive, though there is some irony in the fact that a film that purports to tell Gascoigne’s life story still falls under the shadow of the tabloids, and the dark arts that went on in order to keep him on the front pages. The second episode, which is already on iPlayer but airs next week, is much more about the media, and the familiar names – Piers Morgan, Rebekah Brooks (then Wade) – who kept the grim machine turning.
The truth is that Gazza sold newspapers, in their millions. He was playing for the Newcastle United first team at 17, and by the time he was 20, he had joined Spurs, becoming the richest young footballer in the country. He was a man of the people, one of the lads, a working-class boy living the dream. You can practically see the vampires emerging in real time, and the construction of the story that would eventually play out happens in plain sight. Even in those early days, Gascoigne was asked in interviews how he was going to stay on the rails, before there was any real evidence that he might be veering off them. At the height of “Gazzamania”, after Italia 90 and those infamous teary eyes, Terry Wogan sagely warns him that all the adoration “could turn out to be a nightmare”, that they will try to knock him off his pedestal. That assessment did not begin to scratch the surface.
The first episode, in particular, is an empathic look at class and family, and the trauma that Gascoigne suffered as a child. His issues – with food, with drink, with nightmares and tics, his rash streak, his violence – were known to those around him, but his friends and fellow players note that men just didn’t talk about that kind of thing back then. One of the kindest voices comes from the former glamour model Linda Lusardi, herself a tabloid fixture during the same era, who became a friend to Gascoigne, because she was rich and famous herself, and so didn’t want anything from him. As a basis for friendship, it is bleak, but her loyalty is obvious.
For a time, the national love for Gascoigne was momentous. The Sun signed him up, “buying him body and soul”. Cilla Black called him a “gentle little teddybear”. He was BBC Sports Personality of the Year. But even when he was lauded as a national treasure, he talked about reporters befriending him and then “slaughtering” him in print, about being set up and set upon in nightclubs, just for the photo opportunities. The late Greg Miskiw, who was working for the News of the World at the time and was convicted of phone-hacking in 2014, talks about being “ahead of the curve”, befriending Gascoigne’s friends by finding out where they drank, before luring them into selling stories about him.
“The press were very much off the leash at that time,” says Jane Nottage, who was Gascoigne’s PA until he sacked her, at which point she wrote a book about him that was serialised in the Mirror. The story gets more gruesome, and more sad. It doesn’t shy away from the domestic violence in his relationship with his girlfriend, then wife, Sheryl. After the papers report that he head-butted Sheryl following their wedding, he appears at a press conference, to talk about counselling, to rehabilitate his image. He can’t help but crack jokes about his drinking. The room laughs loudly.
The film is careful to take in as many sides as possible. We hear from his mother, his sister, his former teammates, his friends and from many of the journalists who feasted on the drama. It is honest, though, much like many other documentaries of this ilk, which revisit and attempt to revise our understanding of the recent past, it does seem as if it is both condemning the tabloid press and using it at the same time. Still, as a story, this is as compelling as it is tragic. “People say they’d love to be in my position,” Gascoigne says, in one of the very many TV interviews he gave in the 1990s. “Believe me, a lot of youse wouldn’t.”