YOU do not have to be a petrolhead to enjoy Morgan Matthews’s moving documentary about Formula One legend Sir Frank Williams.
Far from it. This tight documentary, called simply Williams, provides an illuminating insight into the world of the 75 year old who battled his way to the top of his sport against all odds. In particular, fighting back from an horrific car accident 31 years ago which initially left him clinging onto life and then a wheelchair bound tetraplegic with no use of his hands.
It sometimes does not make for pretty watching as Matthews exposes Williams’ devotion to a sport which resulted in his Williams team winning seven drivers’ championships between 1979 and 1997 – plus nine constructors’ championships and 113 individual Grand Prix wins. A team that employed Formula One greats Alan Jones (a hard drinking and fun loving Aussie), Nelson Piquet (a sexy Brazilian who lived the life of a jet setting playboy), Nigel Mansell (an awkward Brummie), Alain Prost, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve.
It is warts and all as Matthews portrays a dysfunctional Williams family which to this day remains fractured – primarily as a result of daughter Claire getting Williams’ vote to lead the Formula One team in 2012, a decision that left eldest son Jonathan devastated. It is a family feud which still upsets both Claire and Jonathan to this day.
Williams comes across as single minded (just look at his eyes) and often cold and steely which is hardly surprising. Family holidays were eschewed, leaving wife Virginia (‘Ginny’) Berry to take the three children – Claire, Jonathan and Jaime – on their summer holidays.
In his prime Williams was super fit – a more than competent half marathon runner who liked to run around every grand prix course that his team competed at. He was also a philanderer, something which Virginia accepted with a grace and tolerance other wives would not have shown (she sacrificed her first marriage in pursuit of Williams). Sadly, Virginia, who nursed Frank through his terrible injuries (lesser individuals would not have survived) died from cancer four years ago.
But it is his inability – or maybe lack of desire – to show emotion that Matthews so effectively draws out from his interviews with the great man.
As Williams openly admits, he rarely sheds tears, saving them for momentous moments such as at the funeral of his great swashbuckling friend Piers Courage who lost his life competing in the 1970 Dutch Grand Prix (the aftermath of the accident makes for shocking watching as do some of the other clips of horrific grand prix fires). Love is a word that he rarely uses.
Matthews draws extensively on Virginia’s candid memoir – A Different Kind of Life, first published in 1991 but now reprinted – which to this day stands as one of the greatest books ever written about Formula One (more warts and all). There is one moment towards the end of the documentary when Claire invites Frank around to her house and reads him an extract from Virginia’s book (a book he has never read). It will probably reduce you to tears even if Frank failed to shed one – although for one moment he looked on the verge.
Matthews also uses tapes of conversations between Pamela Cockerill (who helped write the book) and Virginia to reveal more light on the complex man that Williams was and the sacrifices (financial as well as personal) Virginia made in order for her husband to succeed at the very top of his sport. A documentary highlight is Virginia accepting the Constructors’ trophy on behalf of her husband at Brands Hatch in July 1986 with Mansell and Piquet (not squabbling) watching on.
The documentary includes some marvellous contributions from Jamie Berry (Virginia’s brother) who comes across as a loving and devoted sibling and Sir Patrick Head who joined Williams in 1977 and catapulted the Williams team to success (the film highlights the aerodynamic changes that helped put Jones et al on the podium). Daughter Claire also comes across as a phenomenal individual, striving to succeed in a sport where the role of women is both marginalised and highly sexualised.
If you were nit-picking you could argue that the documentary lacks meaningful contributions from Prost and Hill as well as former Formula One grandee Bernie Ecclestone. Ayrton Senna’s death in 1994 at Imola is also skirted over – with Williams and Head subsequently cleared of the great driver’s manslaughter.
The fact that Matthews’s documentary was ‘approved’ by Formula One officials as well as the Williams’ family – a fact confirmed in a post-film question and answer session with Claire Williams, Mathews and Felipe Massa – says a lot about the sport and its paranoia.
But despite all the obstacles (Williams probably being the biggest one of all), Matthews (X+Y, Beautiful Young Minds, Britain in a Day) has triumphed – as Williams has done for most of his life
Indeed, Sir Francis Owen Garbett Williams is still team principal at Williams and seemingly will never let go until he takes his last breath. ‘It is challenging. It is exciting . I just love it’, he has said of his sport. ‘There’s nothing else I’d even think of doing.’
A great informative documentary befitting of one of this country’s ‘greats’. A racing success.
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Williams – 4/5
Director: Morgan Matthews