It’s All in the Game: My Affair with Footballer’s Wives
I’d like to be able to say that it was all about being a sports fan. I’d like to tell you that I decided to follow an entire season of the weekly BBC drama, Footballer’s Wives, in order to help me better appreciate the travails of Wayne Rooney, David Beckham, et al in their quest for this year’s World Cup. I’d like to say that my time with Tanya Turner and her crew of mad, bad, dangerous women was only a sidelight of my mission to learn more about the sport that we are repeatedly told is number one in the world.
But I’d be lying. It was really all about the beefcake.
One night, when I was scanning BBC America for signs of intelligent programming and/or any film with Sean Bean, an ad popped up. I saw a row of well–muscled young men, shot only from the neck down, each one naked save for the soccer ball he holds like a particularly robust fig leaf over his privates. They stand on a misty green field; throbbing disco music plays. Just when you’re wondering what could possibly happen next, a lethal blond in a glittering, skin–tight evening gown slinks into view. As she walks along the row – surveying her troops, as it were – she runs her hand, with its 4–inch white–painted talons, over each, uh, ball. One by one, the balls drop to the ground in her trail. “Everyone plays dirty,” she intones.
Her name is Tanya Turner. Though she’s taught me absolutely nothing about football, she has taught me quite a lot about Viagra, vintage champagne, and how to screw a man to death. Though it was the male bodies that lured me, it’s the way Tanya channels every woman’s inner bitch that made me fall for “Footballer’s Wives.”
The footballers in question are members of the fictional Earl’s Park “Sparks,” a London football club. I caught up with them at the beginning of season three, just in time to see a flashback to two funerals. There are a lot of deaths in this show, and almost all from strange, murky, only partially–explained circumstances. In little more than a season, I’ve counted three adults, one baby, and two dogs put down, with hints of more carnage to come. Who knew that what we call soccer could be such a lethal game?
We find Tanya mourning the death of her husband, Sparks’ captain Jason Turner, from suicide. Demonstrating that plucky, no–time–for–tears attitude I’ve come to admire in her, our grieving widow begins the season by marrying Frank Laslett, a significantly older man and co–owner of the Sparks, who has a convenient heart condition. Meanwhile, Tanya’s heart, if she could be said to have such a thing, really belongs to Conrad Gates, the current Sparks captain, who she hurls herself at with all the force of a really well–coiffed tornado.
Gates was imported by the Sparks from an Italian football club. His wife, Amber, is a washed–up Indian film star who I must admit is also gorgeous, and who I’ve come to loath and detest as much as I adore Tanya. She’s one of those clingy, hysterical types, always making jealous scenes and crying over her Conrad. She’s also a bit of a nutcase – this season, she gave us a fake kidnapping and a fake suicide attempt; she poisoned Tanya’s tanning cream, hired a witch–doctor to cast a spell, and stuck pins in a doll. Meanwhile, neither woman knows that the object of her desires is secretly bisexual, and is having it off with, among others, a shy teammate, Noah Alexander, who has fallen in love with him.
Complicated enough for you? Wait, we’ve also got the tale of Kyle Pascoe, another Sparks star with a turbulent emotional life. Like Tanya, Kyle begins the season having lost a spouse, the unfortunately named but of course also gorgeous Chardonnay, who bore him a son shortly before dying of anorexia. The baby, Paddy, lives with Kyle in his mansion – all the guys have fabulous places– along with his mother, Jackie, who takes care of the baby. Mother and son have a complicated relationship, full of meaningful silences and wild swings from tenderness to anger. Kyle also has a possibly career–ending injury, and a gambling problem that is clearly destroying his life. Oh, and his mother is dating his coach.
With all this going on, the show doesn’t have much time for what is actually happening on the field. Oh, sure, we get some terrific group shower shots, the Sparks joking and taunting each other in the rising steam, while we peruse their perfectly muscled bums. But would it really detract from the sheer visceral pleasure of it all to know what positions these lovely specimens play? I had to watch the episode in which the football season opens twice before I caught the score of the Sparks first match – 3–nil, against Arsenal. Conrad Gates had one goal and the young phenom, Harley Lawson, had two.
None of their wives seemed to know the match was taking place. It’s not like the women don’t have a terrific view of the pitch from the private clubhouse that is the Earl’s Park owner’s box. If the club is struggling financially – and many references are made to this – it may have something to do with all the vintage champagne the wives suck down between those paneled walls and soft carpets. The box is presided over by the Sparks majority owner and semi–out lesbian Hazel Bailey, a former sports agent and full–tilt control freak. There’s something likeable about Hazel. She’s the only woman in the show who actually cares about the game; nobody can intimidate her; and she drinks like a fish without ever seeming even slightly out of control. There are also tantalizing hints that she and Tanya have gotten it on in the past, perhaps fueled by their mutual taste for Bolivian marching powder. (It’s hard not to fantasize about these two as the ultimate power couple, perhaps running a small country, or at least, a really good escort service.)
Hazel has some great lines – pointing to Harley Lawson while telling his wife, “That’s my Jag. You just park it,” and responding to Elaine’s qualms about how much all the other women drink with “Haven’t you heard? The bottle is the new glass.” But between trading barbed comments and pumping each other for information and slipping illegal substances into each other’s purses and then calling the police and the tabloids to have each other busted and/or photographed in compromising positions . . . well, the wives just don’t seem to have time to settle in and really watch a match with her.
Which is a shame, because I’m sure the guys are a whole lot more interesting on the pitch than they are at home. Maybe it’s the constant pressure of the media, or the brutal devotion to the body that their sport requires, but most of the footballers on “Footballers Wives” don’t have the sense God gave geese. Ben Price, who has that David Beckham, I’m–pretty–but–still–a–lad face and an undeniably great butt, plays Conrad Gates. (If they gave prizes for men like they do for livestock, Price would have a big blue bow on his rear end.) But there’s a weird imbalance between actress ZoÃ« Lucker’s force–of–nature portrayal of Tanya and Price’s droopy demeanor. When Conrad text messages Tanya about a tryst, the best he can come up with is, “I got something big 4 U.” Cary Grant he’s definitely not.
The Sparks youngest member, 17–year–old Harley Lawson, may have age as an excuse, but his devotion to his irredeemable party whore of wife, Shannon, seems indicative of a less than fully functioning brain. I want to think that Kyle Pascoe has a little more going on, that all that brooding is indicative a complex inner life. But the fact that the actor who plays Kyle, Gary Lucy, is jaw–droppingly handsome, may make me a less than accurate judge. He is also, for the record, the only cast member to have played for a pro club, which may be why he’s the only one we see actually kick a soccer ball. In fact, we see him working out a lot, all sweaty and tortured as he tries to come back from his leg injury. I gotta say, it’s a stirring sight.
It’s also a hell of a lot sexier than most of the actual copulation in the show. Watching Tanya screw Frank to death was exciting in the same way that watching Kali, the three–eyed Hindu warrior goddess, draining the blood from her victims and then dancing on their corpses would be exciting – you’re in awe of her strength and determination, but it’s not an alluring sight. We don’t see a lot of Tanya in action with Conrad, largely because they keep getting interrupted at crucial moments, usually by a vase–throwing or suicide–feigning Amber. We do, however, see quite a bit of Conrad getting serviced by Noah, and he seems much more excited by that than he does by either of the women, with whom he’s surprisingly boyish and cuddly.
I’d be more interested in analyzing all this if I thought there was some underlying structure, some central coherence that makes the plot tick. But I don’t think there is. Pieces of plot lines rise up then dissolve, the past keeps getting revisited in new and seemingly contradictory ways, and characters keep on acting, well, out of character. (Of course, there’s a lot we still don’t know, stateside; BBC America is a season behind its source across the pond, and though you can find synopses of plots through season five on their website, they’re often skimpy and lack the nuance one might want. Season five is also the last; Tanya and company have been cancelled.) For a while I got involved in the relationship between Kyle and his physical therapist, Elaine Hardy, who is gorgeous in a different way from all the others – very muscular and fit, an athlete herself. Elaine is the only woman in the show, other than Hazel, who actually works for a living, and the only person we see who isn’t fabulously rich. The camera lingers on her Toyota up against the Lamborghinis and Ferraris of the others to make sure we get the point.
She and Kyle fall in love, and there are none of the predictable problems about the fact that she’s black and he’s white, and I started to root for them to make it. But it turns out that Kyle’s tragic demeanor stems from more than his dead wife, his injury, and his gambling debts. His son Paddy is really his mother Jackie’s child by Jason Turner, Tanya’s first dead ex and Kyle’s teammate. Jackie and Jason had a fling that sent Kyle into an Oedipal spin. When Jackie turned up pregnant, Kyle and Chardonnay offered to raise the baby as their own. But then the baby was born a hermaphrodite, and then Chardonnay pushed Jason off a roof, and then she starved herself to death out of guilt, and then . . . well, all the secrecy got to be too much for poor Kyle and he snapped a twig. Now Jackie has tucked him away in an asylum in Switzerland and Elaine is nowhere to be seen.
I just don’t think it pays to get attached to these people. Tanya, for example – she and I have had a good ride but with the season four opener, I kind of lost my taste for her. When Amber and she both turn up pregnant by him, dopey Conrad insists that the three of them all live together while the women have their babies and share a nanny. Some truly stupid stuff ensues – Tanya drinks and smokes and snorts her way through it, while Amber turns from wack–job into earth mommy; Tanya has her labor induced so that she can beat Amber to first–born heir, while Amber gives birth au naturel, surrounded by candles and cooing sitar music. Actually Tanya’s baby may or may not be Conrad’s; as a little trick from beyond the grave, Frank has his lawyer deliver a videotape of him to Tanya in which he hints that the condoms he and she were using might have been tampered with. Tanya tears open one condom packet after another, inflating each one like a water balloon and watching, horrified, as each leaks. So of course, she has to bribe the nanny into swapping her and Amber’s babies in the hospital so that a DNA test will show that “her” baby is Conrad’s. Then, since Amber’s baby has his mother’s coloring, Tanya bribes the nanny again to put tanning cream on the baby that is really hers and skin bleach on the baby that is really Amber’s. Then the baby that is really Tanya’s gets smothered by Amber’s pet dog.
Well, you can see why I started to think that Tanya should bag the whole footballer’s wife role and look for different kind of guy. A lawyer, maybe. Someone who could keep her in champagne and manicures and maybe get her to cut back on the coke a little. But then, she wouldn’t be who she is. One point that the show makes over and over – in fact, it’s the only consistent message in this jumble of well–dressed women and half–dressed men – is that to be a professional footballer is to have the potential for a kind of international celebrity that extends far beyond, say, that of rock stars in the 1960’s. “They get more attention than the royal family,” a soccer–playing friend of mine said of England’s club stars. Imagine being Wayne Rooney and knowing that nations are hanging on the fate of your metatarsal. It makes sense that Tanya Turner, the uber–alpha female, would want to be at the center of that storm, as well.
It would be unfair to Tanya to say that I’ve learned nothing at all from her about football. As I cheer and boo this Year’s World Cup players, I’ll also be thinking about what their wives and girlfriends are doing to stay ahead of the ever–present, ever–younger would–be wives and girlfriends. There’s another game going on here, the one that women play with and against each other. It’s certainly an international sport, and one I think we can all relate to.
I only wish I could bend it like Tanya Turner.