The following article was originally published on ESPN CricInfo on Oct. 13, 2012.
Movies featuring cricket are pretty scarce. Good cricket movies are even scarcer. For reasons unclear, but perhaps most directly attributable to American lack of interest, the sport has never made it big on the big screen in the way that athletics, baseball, and even golf have. Bollywood has embraced it, with films like Lagaan and Iqbal, but never Hollywood.
It might seem crazy, therefore, to expect Canada to buck that trend. In 2003, however, a Quebecois film came out in which cricket played a major role. La Grande Séduction revolved around a remote fishing village trying to entice a big-city surgeon to stay and become their doctor. One of his loves is cricket, so the villagers – who know absolutely nothing about the game – pretend that they too are aficionados. Hilarity ensues.
So, it transpired, does box-office success, and having been a surprise hit, the film is being remade in English, as a co-production between Roger Frappier’s MaxFilms (Jesus of Montreal, The Decline of the American Empire) and Barbara Doran’s Morag Loves Company (Random Passage, Love and Savagery). Now known as The Grand Seduction, it has a bigger budget and some bigger stars. Taylor Kitsch – John Carter in Disney’s homonymous recent movie – takes the role of the doctor, while Brendan Gleeson of Braveheart, Gangs of New York, and In Bruges fame plays the village mayor.
Most importantly for our story, however, they have come to Newfoundland to film it. A couple of years ago, cricket would have been as incongruous here as it was in a Quebec fishing village, but then the Newfoundland & Labrador Cricket Association was established. So when the production team needed a local consultant to help out, association secretary (and former Cricinfo director) Dave Liverman was happy to step in.
“It was a really interesting experience,” Liverman tells me. “The cricket was pretty much the first thing being filmed, and I was out on set for four days.”
In the original, the locals try to hurriedly learn cricket off the internet in order to stage a cliff-top match in time for the doctor’s arrival by boat. As a pivotal scene, this was retained for the remake, so Liverman found himself with an army of would-be players, mostly local extras, and some less-than-usual playing facilities.
“On the first day, I spent two or three hours on an old baseball field, teaching the guys the basics. None of them were familiar with cricket at all,” he says, “so we did a bit of batting, a bit of bowling, and then tried a game. It was reasonably laughable!”
This was as it should be. The players are supposed to be frauds, pretending they know the game, when, in fact, they haven’t a clue.
“I had to make sure that what they did looked like cricket, but not too much like cricket,” Liverman recalls. “They all dressed in white, in imitations of cricket gear, but the bats weren’t bats, they were made out of oars, and the pads were constructed out of rope! They were like a work of art.”
Much of the filming took place around the historic town of Trinity, which once, in the dim-and-distant past, had its own cricket team. Two genuine bats are on display in the local museum, but it’s pretty unlikely the pitch used in the film ever saw play in the old days.
“It was just a bit of rough ground on top of a cliff,” laughs Liverman. “It wasn’t flat, and there were rocks and plants everywhere, so you wouldn’t have been able to play a proper game. The ball couldn’t pitch!”
Still, thin edges to fine leg were probably appropriate: the place where the scene was filmed is called Tickle Cove.
“It was a spectacular setting,” says Liverman, “and the weather was fantastic. On one of the days it was so hot that a couple of players went down with sunstroke.”
Newfoundlanders being overcome by heat exhaustion whilst playing cricket is probably a first for the province. Liverman himself claimed what was surely another.
“I achieved my childhood ambition,” he says delightedly. “I was paid to play cricket! And I was the first person paid to play cricket here: Newfoundland’s one and only cricket professional!”
The unprecedented nature of Liverman’s four-day career also came with unique responsibilities. “I did find myself in some odd situations,” he says. “They wanted to film some of the main characters trying to bat. My job was to bowl at them with a foam ball and they’d try to hit it.”
One of his key targets was comedian, actor and native Newfoundlander, Mark Critch, who was playing one of the villagers. “The director [Don McKellar] would shout ‘Hit him on the legs!’ at me,” Liverman recalls, “and I’d aim a few at Mark’s shins. Then he’d bellow ‘Hit him in the nuts!’, and I’d have to try. I’m not a particularly good bowler, but that is surprisingly hard to do!”
One task that came a little easier to Liverman was checking the script to ensure the doctor’s dialogue made cricketing sense.
“You don’t want the cricket to be too accurate,” he says, “but you do want it to be accurate when the doctor is commenting on it. He’s supposed to know about it. In the original, there was one scene where he says ‘I don’t recognise that defence formation’ or something similar, which didn’t work, so I made some suggestions.”
Not that Liverman has any concerns about how cricket will be portrayed. “I think it’s going to be a really good film,” he says. “On set it was funny, and it’s a good cast. Don McKellar was a pleasure to work with, and he wanted to understand enough about cricket to do a good job.”
Furthermore, if its Quebecois precedent is anything to go by, The Grand Seduction will be a great way of introducing and promoting the sport to a new audience.
“I was chatting to a couple of people involved in the original,” Liverman tells me, “and they said that one of the consequences of its success was that, in French-speaking Canada, people now know what cricket is. And cricket is getting more coverage in Canada now – we got the Under-19 World Cup on cable TV here. Having the film will be a boost for cricket and for Newfoundland.”
The experience of actually playing the game might also garner some genuine local support. Liverman’s efforts on the film have certainly piqued their interest.
“The guys had a good time,” he says, “and were enjoying it by the end. I had some DVDs of England’s 2005 Ashes triumph and they sat down to watch it with a fair degree of interest. They were mostly just astonished that cricket was played in Newfoundland at all!”
The movie is due to be released next summer, so time will tell, but a one-off promotional match has been proposed for 2013 between a Newfoundland & Labrador Cricket Association XI, and the new-found cricketing converts of Trinity Bay. Two cricket teams in this part of Canada? Now that truly would be a grand seduction.