|© 2017, produced and directed by Morgan Matthews|
Formula 1 fans are again being spoiled this year. First there was the release of the McLaren documentary, and hot on its heels is a profile of one of Formula 1’s other headline outfits: Williams.
Made and released to commemorate the team’s fortieth anniversary as an outright constructor, BAFTA-winning director Morgan Matthews was inspired by the memoir secretly written by Sir Frank Williams’ wife, Virginia (‘Ginny’), titled A Different Kind of Life, which charted her experience living alongside the celebrated Formula 1 team founder who was rendered a quadriplegic in 1986.
Matthews was initially reluctant “to make a fly-on-the-wall documentary”, he told MotorsportM8 in an exclusive interview.
“I was fascinated by Frank and (daughter) Claire’s partnership, their drive and focus,” he explains. “I was clear to me that the film had to be about the people behind the team as much as the team itself. It was then that it was suggested to me that I read Ginny’s book.
“I managed to find a second-hand copy from somewhere and was flying back from attending the Monaco Grand Prix with the team when the passenger next to me on the plan remarked, ‘That’s a great book’.
“It turns out that I was sitting next to none other than (Williams’ former team manager) Peter Windsor, which was utterly serendipitous. This was the man who was Frank’s passenger at the time of his accident in 1986 and who almost certainly saved his life by pulling him from the car – equally he still questions whether his actions contributed to Frank’s injuries.
“We spent the rest of the flight home talking about the book and my project, and it was at this point that I knew exactly the type of film I needed to make.”
The end result is a fascinating documentary that not only satisfies its target motorsport fan audience, but also delves into some unexpected and intensely raw emotions among the film’s central figures.
Matthews managed to source an array of figures – all characters in their own right – spanning Frank Williams’ life to contribute to his and the team’s story, and successfully interweaves this with an excellent array of previously unseen footage of the man in his early years.
“There was such little footage of Frank, especially during his own semi-professional racing days, that existed,” Matthews recalls.
It was the discovery of the audio tapes used for transcription by Ginny’s ghost writer, Pamela Cockerill, which really strengthen the film.
“They were hidden in a box in her attic and hadn’t been played since she wrote the draft of the book,” Matthews adds. “The audio of her voice brings life to Ginny’s story, which she wrote without anyone else in the family knowing.”
Her reason for writing A Different Kind of Life were to put her side of the story on record, and “to one day allow Frank to remember what he won’t, or can’t, of his accident,” Matthews explains.
Williams dwells on two major turning points for the man and the team. The death of his first driver and close friend, Piers Courage, at the 1970 Dutch Grand Prix gave plenty of anecdotal material about how Frank processes tragedy – or doesn’t, as the case may be.
The second – understandably dealt with more heavily – was the horrific car accident that rendered Williams a quadriplegic and completely dependent on round-the-clock care.
The irony of this speed-induced accident is not lost, but only given momentary examination; introspection is not a trait that Williams possesses.
“He only ever looks forward,” Matthews remarked to us.
What is laid out, through the testimony of his colleagues, employees, friends and family, is heavy-hitting stuff. The accident had a seismic effect on his team and his marriage. Ginny’s tapes lay bare many of his own personal shortcomings – his single-minded focus on racing, the lack of attention he gave to his own family – and there’s a raw honesty in the recordings.
Williams’ daughter Claire – who is today all but the day-to-day leader of the team – also features heavily and if firmly direct about her mixed emotions on her relationship with her father, and how circumstances have panned out to destroy her relationship with her older brother Jonathan, who felt himself to be the rightful heir to the keys to the factory.
Trying to cram 40 years of history into a 100-minute film means several major chapters will be left out. The team’s third devastating accident – the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994 – is given brief attention, and is perhaps more appropriately the focus of the 2010 Asif Kapadia directed documentary. Also missing is the team’s resurgence with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, the team’s last championship-winners.
“We wanted to follow the narrative arc of Ginny’s book, which concluded in 1991 and principally focused on the revival of the team in the immediate years after his accident,” Matthew explained.
This is a polished, well edited and superbly crafted profile of the key figures behind one of the most famous names in Formula 1. The standout is actually Claire, who – unwittingly projecting the ghostly traces of her mother – shines in an emotionally raw portrayal that is truly captivating.
Williams is currently available on Blu Ray.