Yorkshire films: This Sporting Life

If you’re looking for an interest to set you apart from the mainstream, may I suggest Rugby League? It’s only a matter of time before the middle class cottons on. They’ve already got involved in football, rave and crisps. It could be a promising affectation if you’re playing the long game.

Have you considered League, lad?

This will happen: rugby league will cross over. I’m calling it. It even has cultural pedigree. This Sporting Life, the novel, is considered among the best sport novels; This Sporting Life, the film, among the best sport films. I don’t think you need a review from me. If you do, here it is: This Sporting Life is a good film. You knew that, of course. But more than “good”, it’s actually watchable. The on-field stuff isn’t toe-curling; it’s exciting and realistic. Richard Harris was Oscar-nominated (not saying that everything in the world is worse than it once was, just noting that 50 years ago an actor was Oscar-nominated for playing a Yorkshire rugby league player in a film which starts as excellent sports story and ends as excellent story of a complicated, adult, romantic, or, at least, sexual relationship) and he’s terrific, give or take some dodgy accent work. He’s all alive and going places, reminds you of the young Brando, and sports a superb selection of jackets:






Donkey! (And old Doctor Who himself on the right.)

Apparently director Lindsay Anderson fell in love with him a bit, with his beauty and cruelty. It shows. beefcake Here’s a thing. Obviously Harris is a big handsome lump, but his physique is different from what is currently fashionable. His comes from a focus on functional strength, power from the back and shoulders. This is what strong men looked like before the bench press came into vogue. It’s much closer to the Victorian strongman: Than this guy:


Pecs, indeed!

Anyway. As always in British films of the 1960s there are welcome appearances from familiar actors. Many of the “oh, who’s that bloke?” variety (Jack Watson) but some immediately recognisable ones too, like Arthur Lowe and William Hartnell. Naturally, Leonard Rossiter turns up. Pound for pound the best career in film? Billy Liar, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life, Oliver!, 2001 [!!!]. It’s almost Cazalesque. It’s set in the usual nonspecific northern land but it’s basically Wakefield. Some of it was filmed in Leeds, some in Bradford (more details at the superb Reel Streets page). Halifax joins in and offers Thrum Hall, since destroyed and now an ASDA. It’s where I used to buy nappies. There’s a halfarsed Halifax RLFC Hall of Fame between the cafe and the fags counter, presumably a condition of the land purchase.

thrum hall

This would be about where the frozen section now is.

But Halifax, Wakefield, Bradford, Leeds… It doesn’t matter. In my head is a great city, one which stretches from Halifax in the west, through Bradford and Leeds and down through Wakefield and Huddersfield*. A culturally diverse, industrial city, with half a dozen universities. A city of chimneys and moors. It looks like this.



And This Sporting Life is one of its achievements.

* Roughly the West Yorkshire urban area, though I wouldn’t include Bingley or Sowerby Bridge. Certainly not the Leeds City Region, which may make economic sense but is socially and culturally incoherent. It’s got Harrogate and York in it! That’s like including Tumbridge Wells and Canterbury in London.

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6 thoughts on “Yorkshire films: This Sporting Life

  1. Great article, but how does bench press not relate to functional strength? It’s an Olympic exercise for God’s sake! Harris has the physique which is doubtlessly functional, but not necessarily for rugby. It looks as though he relied on classic bodyweight exercises. They’ll give you a certain amount of functional fitness, but not the strength and power required for rugby.

    • Thanks for your comment, John! I’d say that bench pressing does have some functional application, particularly for rugby, but that pushing away from the body motion is generally less useful for daily life than lifting above the head or picking up from the floor. My understanding is that bench pressing became popular because it was easy to measure and hard to cheat – the military press fell out of fashion due to difficulties in defining exactly what qualified. You’re right though – of course it’s a useful exercise, if it wasn’t, why would athletes do it? Just that doing it is a relatively recent trend.

  2. Pingback: Billy Liar and Yorkshire Stories | The Yorkshire Review

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