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CASE STUDY: Wigan Warriors' 150th Anniversary film

Wigan’s rugby league club is one of the most successful in the history of the sport. The club commissioned a film as part of its 150th anniversary celebrations. How to distil such a long and magnificent history into a short film? Where to start? Thankfully, that work had been done for us by the brilliant poet Tony Walsh

Tony is from North West England with a deep affinity for the region. He famously delivered his poem ‘This Is the Place’ at the public vigil following the bomb attack at Manchester Arena. His other work includes ‘Setting Sail: 60 Years of Blue Peter’. I recommend you look up his performances of them on Youtube. His poems have a trademark feelgood emotional punch - references and imagery boldly aligned to inspire the reader/listener. His new poem ‘Wigan:Peerless’ is no exception. 

The narrator

The poem illustrates the close connection between the town and the rugby club. The fortunes of the two have been interlinked over the last century and a half, the one helping to sustain the other. His poem pays homage not only to the rugby club but also to the town and the people of Wigan.

This gave us our start in terms of what visuals to include in the film. Like many northern English towns, civic pride and municipal rivalries have created magnificent buildings over the years. We filmed Wigan in a way that emphasised these architectural wonders - the Trencherfield Mill and Haigh Hall are particularly impressive. 

There is a ready supply of archive footage at the rugby club: television broadcasts over the last 40 years as well as the Pathe newsreels dating from earlier meant we could show some of the great players in action. But the first half of the club’s 150 years history is not represented in this way. How could we evoke those first glorious decades? 

Wigan and Leigh Archives kindly supplied examples of old photographs. By using grainy black and white photos of miners and mill workers from the Victorian era, we connect directly to the place as it was when the club was formed. We were also able to film some of the many trophies the club retains in its possession that were won in those years. 

Some of the Wigan greats in the film

Another element to the film is the narrator of the poem. We wanted someone who could embody the passion, spirit and achievements of the club; someone who knows the club well. Not only that, we needed this person to have the ability as a performer to convey these feelings to the audience using Tony Walsh’s words. Not an easy task. These requirements led to a shortlist of one: Martin Offiah MBE. Martin played his peak years at Wigan in the early 1990s becoming one of the all time greats of the sport with his own statue now placed outside Wembley stadium. Martin is a natural performer who has successfully built a media career since he retired from playing. 

Central to the process of making the film and the end product are the fans. The club asked them for footage they had shot on phones that we could use in the film. They obliged by sending us clips that included shots taken in Brazil, India, Australia and Spain: fans proudly wearing their Wigan shirts. The self shot footage allows us to share a sense of the fans’ experience on the terraces and gives a glimpse of how much the club means to the fans (as well as vice versa). 

The end result is a film that we hope the people of Wigan and rugby league fans all over the world can enjoy. Whilst reflecting on the achievements of Wigan’s past, the club is taking a bright and confident look forward. Wigan will have lots more causes for celebration in the future.

Philip Pickard

Head of Production