TV

Succession star Fisher Stevens on David Beckham doc, sportswashing and 'that f**king red card'

Fisher Stevens on filming David Beckham for Netflix doc, wooing Sir Alex Ferguson and sportswashing

David Beckham and Fisher Stevens at the UK Premiere of Netflix documentary Beckham in 2023

David Beckham and Fisher Stevens at the UK Premiere of Netflix documentary Beckham in 2023. Image: James Gillham for Netflix

Fisher Stevens is known to millions as slimeball PR guru Hugo Baker from Succession. But he’s also an Oscar-winning documentary maker. So when David Beckham asked Hollywood hero Leonardo DiCaprio who should direct the Netflix documentary series about his life and career, Stevens’s name came up. Two years later, new Netflix documentary Beckham is launching. And it’s a compelling story.

However much we might think we know the David Beckham story – and he’s never been far from the headlines since 1996 – the four-part documentary series still contains new revelations.

Stevens, a committed football fan, began following the English Premier League just after Beckham had departed for Real Madrid. So his knowledge of Beckham the player, rather than the global celebrity, was slim.

“I knew David Beckham was very good looking. He was married to a Spice Girl. He was British. Probably pretty wealthy. And he played football,” Stevens says, when he calls The Big Issue during a whistle-stop promotional tour of the UK.

“But I didn’t know much about him. Maybe that’s one of the reasons he wanted me to do it, as opposed to somebody who came with a lot of baggage.”

Stevens initially took some persuading to spend two years making a documentary about David Beckham. But the showrunners on Succession talked him into it. And his first meetings with David and Victoria Beckham convinced him.

“I was filming Succession and Jesse Armstrong, Tony Roche and I would talk football every Monday,” he explains. “When I asked what they thought of David Beckham, they were like, ‘His story is crazy. The red card!’ I didn’t even know about the fucking red card against Argentina. Wow.

“They said I had to do it. That he is a legend. I went on YouTube, because you’re sitting around all day on set of Succession with nothing to do – and I started looking at his highlights. Holy shit, this guy was brilliant!”

“Then I did a Zoom with David and he was so different than I expected. Very open. He told me he had stories that no one has heard. When I met David and Victoria for dinner, they weren’t at all what I expected – in a great way. They were open. Very funny together. Very touchy feely.”

David and Victoria Beckham
David and Victoria Beckham’s romance is shown in new Netflix documentary Beckham. Image: Netflix

Had they watched Succession?

“I don’t think Victoria had but David definitely watched Succession,” says Stevens. “Ironically, we’d been trying to get Sir Alex Ferguson – and when he finally agreed to do it, he said he’d only talk for 30 minutes and only about certain things blah, blah, blah. But as soon as he sees me, he’s like, ‘You’re Hugo from Succession, holy shit!’

“And I was like, yeah, and Brian Cox says hello! Brian Cox and Sir Alex are friends, you know? Brian had given me a copy of his autobiography to give to Fergie. Then it was amazing. He gave me more time, said we can talk about anything, so that that was great. He’s a huge Succession fan.”

What hits home hardest watching the documentary is the speed of Beckham’s ascent. After opening with a quick scene of Beckham in his beekeeping outfit collecting honey from his beehives(!), the action reverts to the moment he announced himself as a new star of the game with a wonder goal from inside his own half for Manchester United against Wimbledon on the opening day of the 1996-97 season.

The next month he made his England debut. Later that season, he met Spice Girl Victoria Adams in the players’ lounge following a regulation 2-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday.

And he took to stardom quickly. “It definitely didn’t change me,” Beckham tells director Stevens. Cut to Sir Alex Ferguson: “He changed, no doubt about that.”

David Beckham signs for Alex Ferguson's Manchester United
David Beckham signs for Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United as a schoolboy. Image: Netflix

Beckham at least agrees that he acquired a taste for the finer things in life very early in his playing career. Have money, spend it, that was his philosophy. So he splashed the cash on expensive motors – “He certainly upped everybody’s game in the car park, I’ll give him that,” deadpans Roy Keane. His boyband haircut was offset with designer clothes. Heck, he even sought out an expensive pen. “Who buys a fucking pen?” says Keane, still exasperated three decades on.

The conundrum of how a shy, quiet, football-obsessed, working-class kid from London evolved into a global superstar is laid out across four episodes. The strong narratives, the huge highs and devastating lows are described in enlightening new ways with all the important talking heads present and correct.

“He’s like an artist in front of his canvas,” is Eric Cantona’s take on Beckham’s football ability. Paul Scholes, a man of few words, explains another reason why Beckham became so popular: “He was really pretty.”

Posh and Becks - the early years
Posh and Becks: the early years. Image: Netflix

The revelations? The way Beckham prioritised his relationship with Spice Girl star Adams, which they somehow kept secret for months.

“If it was me driving down to London to see her for seven minutes, I did it,” he says. “We would meet in car parks – and that’s not as sleazy as it sounds,” recalls Victoria.

This did not please Sir Alex Ferguson – and began to put a wedge between player and manager. “He wanted me to be the best footballer I could be and get married to a local girl who wasn’t a superstar,” is Beckham’s take on Ferguson’s attitude to his relationship with Victoria.

For Fisher Stevens, making the documentary, these were two of the key storylines to build his series around. But the big centrepiece is the prolonged hatred and serious threats of extreme violence that David Beckham endured following his sending off against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup when he was still just 23.

We see the backstory of that World Cup. Beckham’s betrayal at the hands of England manager Glen Hoddle. What happened the night before the game. And how Beckham was scapegoated by the press, by his manager, by so many football fans – an effigy of him hung outside a pub, so-called England fans spitting pure vitriol in his direction for months.

“I couldn’t believe it because it’s very different in the US. We get hit but not like you guys,” says Stevens.

“As Alex Ferguson says, and it’s one of my favourite lines although you can barely understand it, ‘he was being murdered.’ It was like the newspapers were competing with each other to write the most salacious shit. And the abuse went on and on and on.

“The abuse he took after the red card was extremely painful. His children getting kidnap threats was extremely painful. I interviewed him for well over 30 hours and there were so many moments he got super emotional. Because he hasn’t thought about this stuff for a long time – the break-up with the gaffer, issues he had in his marriage back in the day.

“I was talking to his buddy Guy Ritchie about this, and he told me that David is not a great one for reflection. But I think this movie got him to reflect on a deep, deep level.”

And this, says Fisher Stevens, is why David Beckham wanted to make the documentary.

“I asked him. I said, ‘David, why do you want to do this film? Why now?’ And he said two things. One was to do it before someone else does it that I don’t control or didn’t hire. He was like, ‘It’s my story, I want to tell it.’

“But more than that, he said, it was because ‘I’m finally at a place in my life where I can reflect and I want to look back because I never do.’

“Because David Beckham never rests on his laurels. That’s something he got from Fergie. So this is the only time in his life he’s actually gotten to see the good, the bad and the ugly – and how incredible his life is.

“He breaks up with Fergie then goes to Madrid to play with the greatest players in the world – and he was still the main attraction. I’d never seen anything like it. And he goes from there to playing with the pool cleaners and guys who have second jobs in LA. Then he’s like, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’ and wants to go back to play for his country, goes on loan to Italy, wants to stay in Italy but can’t because he’s under contract with LA, retires, then goes to Paris and wins the league again. Then he’s done and he goes: ‘I’m gonna buy a team!’ He’s a machine.”

David Beckham with Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, Victoria Beckham, Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith.
The Fame Game: The Beckhams with Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith. Image: Netflix

But there is one important issue not covered in the Netflix Beckham documentary. An issue that, were Stevens’s alter ego Hugo in Succession taking charge of Beckham’s personal brand, he would have been scrambling to try to deal with.

Because despite the series running to more than four hours, there is no mention of Beckham’s multi-million-dollar deal to be an ambassador for Qatar – a country with an appalling record on human rights, where LGBTQ+ people face persecution and which hosted the World Cup last year.

Stevens reveals he did quiz the former England captain about Qatar. And about comedian’s Joe Lycett’s takedown and money-shredding stunt in a bid to get the ex-England captain (and first ever footballer to grace the cover of Attitude) to rethink the role. But, he says, the issue was just too complex to cover properly.

“We talked about Qatar. It was in the documentary, but I ended up cutting it out,” says Stevens. “The way the film is structured, it felt a bit like – now let’s tackle Qatar, then we’ll tackle him waiting in line to see the Queen.

“But I asked him. And his answer was fine. But it wasn’t brilliant enough to put in the film. I don’t think it was too exciting. Nothing was going to change.

“And other than in England, it’s not such a big thing. It’s not known about in Spain or the US.

“I was upset too. I wanted him to at least address Joe Lycett or something. But the truth is, David Beckham played for PSG. PSG is Qatar. Newcastle is now owned by Saudi Arabia. You can unravel a lot of it. The more digging that I did, I started thinking about Roman Abramovich owning Chelsea, which is really Vladmir Putin owning Chelsea. It’s complex, man.

“Nobody knows who Joe Lycett is outside of England. But we got into a whole discussion of it the next week. And he was definitely not thrilled. But it turned into a 10-minute scene about this one thing – and I didn’t know how to put it in the movie. Unfortunately there are a lot of things I cut out. I had a whole section on working class England. I interviewed all his teammates from Ridgeway Rovers.  

“But, listen, we could have a whole interview about this subject because I’m very political. And I’m very interested in it. And David could have made a better or different public statement.”

Fisher Stevens and David Beckham have an easy rapport in the films. Stevens talks about how he felt fully able to talk about anything with Beckham. Shooting in Beckham’s immaculate kitchen, the former player seems as relaxed and open as he’s ever been. But the life of a global celebrity is a strange one.

Fisher Stevens at the London premiere of Netflix documentary Beckham.
Fisher Stevens at the London premiere of Netflix documentary Beckham. Image: James Gillham for Netflix

“I felt very free around him to express myself – I have to say, I really liked the guy. I was shocked,” says Stevens.

“He’s not used to expressing his emotions or feelings or going inside and being introspective. But he made it feel OK for me to keep asking. And he’s remarkably warm and likeable.

“Also I support Liverpool. And if there’s one team he hates the most, it’s Liverpool. So we liked to fuck around and joke about that.

“But you will watch this and think, what if that was me? Would I really want all this?” Stevens continues.

“But the other rare thing about David and Victoria is that you see all these stories about famous people – everyone’s making documentaries now – and you see how many people crash and burn.

“The fact that this guy, who is now 48 years old, has kept his family together, isn’t an alcoholic or drug addict, is still married and is still in the game with Miami. After all he’s been through, after all this stuff written about him, it is remarkable.”

So what, on reflection, is Fisher Stevens’ impression on the former footballer – particularly in relation to his fame?

“I find him a bit more accessible than pop stars and a bit more needing to be loved, even now. But he also always wants to be respected and you can’t cross the line with him,” says Stevens.

“He won’t break his personal integrity to be loved – which is what got him in trouble with Ferguson.”

And the future? With this outstandingly produced documentary set to introduce the Beckham backstory to a whole new global audience who only know the celebrity, don’t expect David Beckham to ever seek out a quiet life.

“I didn’t just make it for football fans or English people. I wanted to make something really fun and like a rollercoaster ride, which is David’s life and which is David,” says Stevens.

“You know, we talk about Qatar and then Lionel Messi – Qatar is down here, Messi is up here. And I think he’s going to continue that rollercoaster. It’s a wild ride…”

Beckham premieres on Netflix on October 4.

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