As a long-time devotee of the actor Zöe Lucker – national treasure, camp icon and master of melodrama – I’ll freely admit that I’m a complete disgrace for having never seen her big breakthrough show. Years before swanning down to Albert Square in a pristine white skirt suit and ransacking an entire flat while screaming her infamous catchphrase – ”BUBBLY’S IN THE FRIDGE!!!!” – Lucker played Tanya Turner, the champagne-swigging, coke-hoovering villain meddling away at the core of
. When the show finally made its return to BritBox, there was no question; I would be pouring myself a glass of Cristal and tuning in. Footballer’s Wives
A parade of low-cut bootcut jeans, zebra-print pool loungers, dodgy pop art portraits and Peter Andre cameos,
Footballer’s Wives first aired in 2002 – the same year that staff at the swanky Jumeirah Beach Club in Dubai started using the acronym “ WAG” to refer to footballers’ wives and girlfriends. As celebrity paparazzi culture turned into a ‘00s feeding frenzy, the partners of high-profile premiership footballers found themselves plastered across the tabloids, who followed the likes of Cheryl Tweedy (then, Cole) Victoria Beckham, and Coleen Rooney’s every move – and the fictional women at the heart of Footballer’s Wives navigate a similar world. The danger of being splashed across the papers is a constant threat looming over every single ridiculous plot-swerve.
And I truly mean
constant, because looking back over the giddying experience of watching Footballer’s Wives, trying to comprehend every last preposterous thing that goes on during its five seasons gives me minor motion sickness. Buckle up. Is this the most chaotic show of the ‘00s?
The short answer is yes. Almost every surreal event that unfolds in
Footballer’s Wives puts even the most implausible soap opera plot to shame – from flammable boobs, faked kidnappings, and swapped babies, to a Triad gang murdering Amber’s dog Simba and serving him up in a curry. At one point, I popped down to answer the door, and by the time I was back Harley and Shannon’s hot air balloon had escaped from their own wedding and crash-landed into a lion enclosure. Keeping track of all the love triangles proved both exhausting and exhilarating. Though it’s hard to pick a favourite twist or turn, I was gripped by Tanya shacking up with wealthy club owner Frank Laslett – who she previously tried to murder, twice – and quite literally “shagging him to death” with the help of cocaine, viagra, and some energetic thrusting. That’s a visceral piece of television I can never un-see. You can never have too many gratuitous arse-shots
Another thing I can never unsee – the full-frontal shots, which had a tendency to appear very abruptly, and often when I was in the middle of eating my lunch. Approximately six minutes and ten seconds into the very first episode, the camera pans very slowly over a succession of soapy bums and a single stray peen – which really sets the tone for the remainder. At several points two characters would be having a nice casual chat in the Earls Park changing room, and very suddenly the side profile of a penis would merrily bob its way into the background like an unannounced guest cameo. As somebody who plays for Hazel Bailey’s team, most of the oiled up six-pack shots were wasted on me entirely, but I appreciated it as a subversive gesture all the same; there’s a lot of female nudity on telly, but stark naked men, not so much.
The script is a work of over-the-top genius Footballer’s Wives’ sweary style of dialogue is phenomenal – for some reason everybody projects their voices like they’re half-shouting over the whirr of a climaxing kettle. Playing publicist-turned-Earls Park chairman Hazel Bailey, Alison Newman perfectly embodies the energy of a lesbian Artful Dodger; swaggering around the club bar with a dildo stowed in her handbag, and a new smutty one-liner up her sleeve for every scene. Her best? “Even if you gave both your kidneys to dying babies you'd still smell like a septic tank.”
It’s Tanya who gets the lion’s share of the show’s finest one-liners, though, branding somebody “a bloody PRICK!” every ten minute, and maintaining truly magnetic levels of charisma. In the final episode, with three dead husbands left in her wake, Tanya perfectly summarises why she’s off to find herself another wealthy suitor straight away. “You know me, Jackie,” she says, taking a puff of her cigarette, “I can’t live off Nectar points.”
It would be nothing without Tanya
During season four, ratings understandably plummeted when Tanya Turner was exiled to Brazil for attempting to swap her baby in a bid to steal star striker Conrad Gates from her bitter rival Amber. Without the reliable presence of the platinum-bobbed menace concocting her next act of evil,
Footballer’s Wives felt stale, and as much as I tried to muster up the same enthusiasm for her more benevolent successors, I spent much of the time yearning after her anyway.
While other evil characters – like Tanya’s first husband Jason Turner, the shamelessly scheming Amber Gates, or the manipulative Bruno Millican – are just plain mean, Lucker pulls off the tricky feat of playing a loveable villain. When she finally returned to the show for the last season I gasped with glee and delight. Within about five minutes, she bribes an air stewardess so that she can sit next to Earls Park’s hot new signing Paulo Bardosa, necks a load of champagne and pills as the flight hits severe turbulence, and completes her master plan by snogging him as the plane plunges through a storm – completely rubbishing the myth that footballer’s wives don’t work very hard. In fact, I wouldn’t be especially shocked if Tanya had ripped off a vital component of the plane herself to engineer a near-death experience.
Saying that, it has a few guest stars
Responsible for persuading Zöe Lucker to return to the show, the iconic Joan Collins arguably saved
Footballer’s Wives from almost certain doom – by the time she arrived, the script relied heavily on Amber Gates’ psychic visions to keep up momentum. In the show, Collins plays Eva de Wolffe – an evil media mogul who enslaves Brazilian orphans. She’s also the only character foul enough to go head-to-head with Tanya Turner – and they spend every scene together giving each other the stink-eye.
Obviously there’s also a handful of footballer cameos – Teddy Sheringham and Sol Campbell briefly appear, and shortly after retiring from the game, Arsenal and England goalkeeping legend David Seaman rocks up at a party. Guest appearances from both Peter Andre and Kate Price feel well-suited to the show – further down the line, when they ended up getting married, Price wore a remarkably similar wedding dress to Chardonnay’s bright pink number. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, Calum Best (son of footballer George Best) and Peter Stringfellow also fit right in. More bizarrely, Anthony Worrell-Thompson appears in several scenes after agreeing to cater for one of Shannon’s parties, and spends most of the time calling people babe. I also enjoyed a random appearance from talk-show hosts Richard and Judy – why not, eh!
Some plots have a more serious message
Admittedly, most of this show requires you to suspend any sense of reality, parodying the glitz and greed of the football world by pushing everything to the extreme. That said, a couple of plotlines still feel relevant to the football world, even fifteen years on. Homophobia, for instance, is rife among the players of Earls Park: midfielder Salvatore Biagi is frequently referred to as an “Italian gayboy” and Kyle Pascoe’s best man calls him a “poof”. When closeted footballer Noah Alexander joins the team, Tanya outs him by planting a hidden camera in an upstairs bedroom and screens his liaison with a sex worker as a ‘70s costume party. Though it’s all handled with a typically absurd angle – you have to laugh when Alexander sneaks off to a club helpfully called ‘Hot Gay XXX Sex Club For Sex’ – he’s ultimately driven to conversation therapy after a group of fans beat him up in a homophobic attack. When the Earls Park team jet off to let loose in Spain, meanwhile, three players are accused of rape – and once they’re back, the club’s main focus is predictably on damage limitation and quashing the ‘scandal’ as quickly as possible. In both instances, the show’s writers hold up a mirror up to homophobia and sexual violence in the football world.
The media is everywhere
Everywhere you look on
Footballer’s Wives, you can guarantee there’s a paparazzi trying to sneak a long lens shot from a nearby hedge – and whether characters are selling their wedding snaps to Hello! or waking up to discover their latest affair splashed across the front of a tabloid, media is a constant presence. Inevitably, characters are constantly stitching each other up by flogging stories to the press – Liberty’s lesbian affair, Amber’s fake kidnapping, Trisha lying about having terminal cancer and details about Chardonnay and Kyle’s intersex child all end up splashed across the front pages at some point.
At times, you can’t help but think of
Wagatha Christie – the ongoing feud between real-life footballer’s wives Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy. After Rooney claimed that Vardy was selling stories about her to The Sun – unveiling the allegation in a suspenseful who-dunnit Instagram post – Vardy sued her for defamation. But according to Footballer’s Wives actor Laila Rouass, who played Amber, “if it was Footballers’ Wives they’d have had it out in the players’ lounge, none of this court business, they would have ripped each other’s tits off, ripped each other’s hair extensions out and moved on.” It’s hard to fault her logic – there are a lot of brawls in the club bar.
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