Interview: Jack Whitehall On His New BBC Show Sporting Nation

Interview: Jack Whitehall On His New BBC Show Sporting Nation

Jack Whitehall’s Sporting Nation is BBC One’s new comedy retrospective in which Whitehall tells the story of the United Kingdom through its greatest sporting moments. Jack has collaborated with three of the country's most exciting sports writers, Jonathan Liew (The Guardian), Alysson Rudd (The Times) and Jonathan Freedland (The New York Times, Guardian, Radio 4), to script monologues which look back on decades of glorious action and represent a nostalgia-filled and light-hearted take on our heritage. The series will take the viewer on a journey through six themes that unite us and will bring together rich cultural nostalgia, social commentary and top-class athleticism to create a feel-good dive into our sporting past. 

Jack Whitehall’s Sporting Nation is on Friday 10th July 8:30pm BBC One.


Let’s start with you describing the show, and how it came about.

Right at the beginning of lockdown the BBC got in touch and we spoke about trying to do a sports show as obviously the BBC had lost huge swathes of sport from the schedules, which were suddenly looking quite barren this summer. We wanted to try and come up with something interesting, funny and dramatic to try and fill some of those spaces and we came up with the idea of Sporting Nation which is a look at sport in this country and some of the greatest moments in our sporting story and trying to thread some themes together.

We collate some of these famous achievements, memories, try to tell a story and see what they say about us as a country. Examine what our love affair with sport means. I think it's a slightly different project to stuff that I've normally done because we’ve gone about it a different way; we wanted to start by talking to sports journalists that we really like and respect and whose work we admired and to get them to start with a very journalistic approach. We wanted them to write something which has a bit of substance and a little bit of depth so it wasn’t just one of those ‘100 greatest sporting moments’ shows with a load of old clips, we wanted to present sport archive material in a more elevated way.

So will you be covering a whole range of sports? 

Yeah, well that's the other thing is really wanting to make sure that we take in all different sports, ensure that we cover all corners of the United Kingdom, look at not just football so we have got people in there like Eddie the Eagle, Torvill & Dean, Dennis Taylor.

So is football your favourite sport?

Yes, probably, but I am very into all sport and I think that's why this show really does feel like quite a part of me because I do just love sport, and could watch any sport and get involved and interested in them. A lot of the stories that we’ll cover in these shows are things that are of interest to me. I am one of those people that could sit down in front of the Winter Olympics and find myself obsessed with curling for a week. Or watch a documentary about Torvill and Dean and be genuinely fascinated and enthralled by it.

A lot of these things as well, just told in the right way, can be accessible to people even if they don't remember them or even if they're not into the particular sport. I think that's the challenge with this show is to try and find an interesting way of contextualising all these sporting events and telling a story and talking about the people involved and some of the narratives that were going on behind the scenes. Setting it up in an interesting way so that it's something you can watch even if you're not obsessed with rugby and you don’t know anything about it. I think there’s a way of presenting a rugby match in an interesting and dramatic way if you're told about the people that are involved and you're told about the stakes and you're told about the context of the game.

So that's been part of the brief when we've been writing these things. We've got two of the most respected sports journalists in their field Jonathan Liew and Alyson Rudd working on the scripts; and we’ve also been working with Jonathan Friedland who is not really a sports journalist, he's probably the most grown-up writer that I have ever worked with!  He brought a slightly different approach to it, a really interesting take on sports that was from an intriguing angle that we have been able to extrapolate from.

And I think each of these episodes feel quite distinct which is nice, they all have a slightly different voice throughout because we've got these different journalists working on each of them.

There are some really brilliant sports films, for example I don’t follow Formula 1 but found Senna one of the most gripping films. Are you trying to apply a bit of that technique here?

Completely! It’s the same with The Last Dance, I don’t care about basketball at all and it’s absolutely gripping. Essentially you have to lay it all out like a drama. You have to think characters, think stories and then apply it to the game. And you have the reveals and the twists and pull at people's heartstrings. I think that's what we've tried to apply to this. Take each of those sports stories and not just show them as a clip but contextualise them in a really interesting way. And find a good narrative to weave through an episode. 

We have an episode called Glorious Failure where we start with Derek Redmond struggling over the finish line and it ends with Euro 96 and then we do a montage with the walk away music and you will literally be in tears at the end and if you’re not then you’re a husk!

Then we've got an episode called It’s Coming Home which starts with the 1966 World Cup and then takes you through all those barren years where we couldn’t win anything for love nor money and ends with 2012 and Mo Farah winning his race. They sent me a cut of the episode and I was watching it at home in my pants on the laptop and I was literally pumping my chest with goose bumps on the back of my neck.

Can you remember when you got into sport?

From a pretty early age. My mum was actually far more in sport than my dad was, he hated sport, but my mum was into football, hockey and athletics so she really was the one that got me interested in it. And in fact, she was so passionate about it that my dad subsequently did become into sport and by the time I was a teenager he was a football fan.

She is also a massive Leicester City fan so obviously whilst this is a show about national sport and our national sporting story there is an episode on underdogs and it felt impossible not to include Leicester in that. And whilst we don’t want to do too much on club sport because it can be quite divisive, with Leicester it does feel like the one thing that can kind of transcend that because it's such a brilliant story. Also if I didn't do them justice I think my mother certainly wouldn’t watch the show.

Do you remember the biggest sporting moment from your childhood? 

What’s really interesting with this is that working with the team each person has that one tournament that holds the most weight for them and is the most important kind of sporting memory that they have. Euro 96 was definitely a really seminal one for me but for the director it was Italia 90 and then for someone else it was the ‘81 Ashes series. That's what's so nice about this is you're getting to do so many of these events that were so important to different people.

I mean, it's amazing when you get to it quite how many there are as well I think that we have quite a chequered sporting history but actually for a small little island we have achieved rather a lot. 

How far back are you going to look?

I mean obviously it's slightly dictated by the archives. We have got a whole episode on class where we start with Fred Perry winning Wimbledon and end with Freddy Flintoff winning the Ashes and we look at the parallels between their stories.  The original London Olympic Games features and we have some amazing footage of ladies dressed in big hats and huge dresses doing archery so we have delved back quite a long way. 

It does tend to be the more modern stories that have the best footage and tend to be the ones that you can really sit in for longer periods of time. They’re also more fresh in the memory so I think they tend to be a little bit more emotive. 

Have you got a sporting hero?

Yeah, I mean, David Beckham. We've got a whole story on the hero's journey and we do 15 minutes on the redemption of Beckham and sending him off to Argentina and it finishes with the free kick against Greece.

For me that’s a story that I've been obsessed with, and a very visceral memory of growing up is following the David Beckham saga as it played out. That goal against Greece is just a proper remember where you were when you saw it moment. I loved being able to talk about that.

And then Flintoff as well which is weird because obviously having worked with him he has become a friend and a figure of fun, and the punchline to a load of jokes about oversized menswear. It’s weird to ever lose sight of the fact that he was, and I would never say this in front of him, one of my absolute heroes. In the 2005 Ashes when I was a teenager, I watched every single minute of that test match and his performance at Headingley is one of my favourite memories of watching sport growing up. And so again we have done a ten minute homage to Freddie Flintoff which got a little bit weird. 

Have you told him? 

No I haven’t but hopefully he’ll watch it. Having worked on a sports panel show and having done a lot of these types of shows for a while now I have become quite friendly and know a lot of these people so it’s odd taking a step back and analysing their careers as you slightly forget about their successes.

Have you engineered your career to be obviously comedy first but sport second?

I guess that's just sort of happened because of where my interests lie. But certainly with this show, and what I think will make it quite distinctive is that with current affairs and politics there’s lots of satirical shows with people behind desks talking about topical stuff in an interesting way and trying to say something a little bit more whilst at the same time making you laugh and think.  And I don’t see that there are really those kind of things with sports; you either get amazing sports documentaries or it’s knockabout panel shows - which I’m not doing down as that’s been a large part of my career - it’s just that no one has tried to do this with sport in that way. 

We’ve put together the dream team for creating this kind of show; working with the journalists and David Soutar the director of Sunderland ‘Til I Die, which I think is one of the best documentaries on TV in the last decade. And then it’s being produced by Fulwell73 who made The Class of 92 and I Am Bolt, and we have got the same editor who edited all those movies. They’ve all collaborated on this project and it’s the fruits of all their labour and it really shows because it feels like it’s a special little show.

When you came up with this show at the beginning of lockdown were you worried you'd be putting a show out but lockdown would be over and the world would be back to normal?

Well, I mean, to be honest, we started making this show in March and there’s no denying I wish this had gone out a month ago when there was no sport on at all. That was the intention to make it for that moment in time, but I hope that it stands up regardless of that.

The reality is, even though football has come back it has come back in a slightly different way. And I think the one thing that's really telling is that old cliché of the 12th man and how important it is to play in front of the fans, and the home advantage, they were things that you sort of thought was something that footballers just say. But now watching football without fans and watching sport behind closed doors it really does resonate how true that is, and how important the fan is in all of it.  

I think a lot of this show is about our relationship with sport and our place in that story. And it obviously touches on a lot of sports that won’t be coming back, that have been cancelled for a year like Wimbledon which we won’t have for the first time in however many years. You can instead watch me talk about the heroes’ journey of Andy Murray. 

Did you play sports yourself when you're at school?

I played football and cricket, and I started up a lacrosse team to try and get into the first team but too many people joined up and I couldn’t even get into the first team of the sports team that I had set up….


Picture: BBC/Fulwell 73

Interview supplied by BBC.



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