For 30 years, former professional soccer player Andy Woodward felt desperately alone. In stadiums packed with fans, in dressing rooms with teammates, even at home with his family. As a youth player with Crewe Alexandra in the late 1980s, he was sexually abused “daily” by his coach Barry Bennell between the ages of 11 and 15.
In 2016, after three decades of silence, Woodward bravely recounted his ordeal in a Guardian interview. In the months that followed, more than 800 other victims came forward with similar stories about other clubs and abusers, exposing a grotesque, widespread culture of abuse and denial that prevailed in English football from the 1970s to the 1990s.
New feature-length BBC drama floodlights focuses specifically on Woodward’s devastating experiences and is told solely from the victim’s point of view. Over the course of 80 harrowing minutes, we witness the abuse young Andy (played by newcomer Max Fletcher) endured and the devastating effect the trauma had on his life and career.
The show is both unmissable and so stirring that at times it’s almost impossible to watch. While nothing is graphed, floodlights is filled with numerous stomach-churning moments. One scene begins with a slow pan through a dark room until we see Andy as a boy lying in bed, scared. “Do you have to tonight?” he quietly pleads with Bennell (Jonas Armstrong). “It’s Christmas.” It’s a heartbreaking attempt to hold on to a piece of childish innocence. Later, we see older Andy (Gerard Kearns) consumed with self-loathing for not speaking up or for pushing back.
What floodlights does exceptionally well is to sketch Bennell’s calculated nursing and confinement. He charms the boy, gaining his trust by promising to take him to stardom before manipulating him into submitting to abuse by threatening to ruin his chances at a football career. Meanwhile, Andy’s parents are under the spell of the trainer, who visits them at home. They’re still beaming with pride at Bennell’s praise for their son as he leads the boy upstairs to grope him.
Armstrong’s ability to alternate between an affable mentor and a depraved predator is key to his remarkably compelling performance. But the show is anchored by the two actors playing Woodward at different stages of life. Kearns delivers the emotional set pieces that revolve around adult Andy’s struggles with PTSD, suicidal depression and alcoholism – as well as his first steps towards catharsis in the slightly rushed final act.
Fletcher, on the other hand, conveys the internalized pain of a withdrawn, hollowed-out youth. With each scene, the youthful glow in his eyes fades. It may feel unbearable to meet his gaze, but you feel an obligation to Woodward and the other abuse survivors not to look the other way. So many others did.
On BBC2 tonight from 9pm; then on iPlayer