This last five months or so have been incredibly busy, but immensely rewarding. My Tommy Burns film, for my company purpleTV and commissioned by BBC ALBA, had its TV premiere on Friday night. Given the volume of engagement online about the film ‘Tommy Burns’ was soon trending on Twitter and stayed a prominent trend with thousands of tweets until the Sunday afternoon.
That’s pretty powerful and whilst I’d love to take some of the credit it’s all down to the man himself and his inspiring family. My film about Tommy, a man I worked with at Celtic for many years, was told primarily from the point of view of his four children, Emma, Jenna, Michael and Jonathan (pictured below), supplemented with testimony from his closest friends and colleagues, alongside archive match footage and interviews of Tommy.
Tommy wasn’t able to feature in the film himself as tragically he died ten years ago at just 51 years of age. He had skin cancer, a melanoma in his thigh eventually proving insurmountable despite treatment.
By all accounts, and as is evidenced repeatedly throughout the film, he was a good person. He was a famous footballer and manager, a Scottish working class boy who lived his dream to play for Celtic and in doing so brought utter joy to many tens of thousands of people. Consequently, he was a cultural icon, a figure of huge relevance to popular culture and of course our understanding of social history.
His story though is also crucial in our understanding of people, and of faith in particular, and the ways in which being kind and compassionate can impact on people around you. Tommy Burns had an incredibly strong Catholic faith and he was as dedicated to his religion as he was to his family. That faith shaped who he was as a father, husband, friend and colleague and he frequently used it to shoulder the angst and grief experienced by those around him – friends and strangers included. His own family weren’t fully aware of the extent of the support he continually provided to others until after he died. It is of huge comfort to them now.
Tommy’s children embody many of his characteristics, mainly being incredibly decent and inspirational human beings who are strong and generous in their compassion for others, for one another, for their father’s memory and their mother’s grief. They are a powerful legacy.
Telling a story as significant as this one is a big responsibility and one I didn’t carry lightly on behalf of the film’s commissioners (who I am very grateful to). Knowing that the narrative has a strong cultural relevance, and is a visual legacy for future generations in the understanding of the relevance of family, faith and football in an historical context was challenging and exciting. It’s also a story I’m personally invested in having known Tommy and being a fan of football, culture, society and history.
It has been an enormous privilege, and one where I have shed many tears; during the actual interviews, afterwards, when I came home from interviews and watched the rushes, and quite frequently in the edit suite as we narrowed the story down to its feature-doc duration. I was especially pleased to include the powerful testimony of Tommy’s two daughters. Female voices are so often erased from history or deemed not important enough to remember so knowing that their testimony is cemented in a new history going forward is of real significance to me as a feminist, filmmaker and storyteller. And for the narrative itself, Emma and Jenna’s contribution makes the story what it is, a balanced insightful reflection on an ordinary human being who was actually extraordinary in so many ways.
My final tears fell yesterday and they did so in floods, perhaps in part because the storytelling is over. I’ve handed over my contribution and with the support of my brilliant team we’ve done our bit in creating a lasting bond of empathy, reflection and legacy that will hopefully command a prominent space in our cultural and social history. However, it was mostly because yesterday was a day of significance for the legacy of Tommy Burns.
Kilmarnock played against Celtic, two teams that Tommy both played for and managed. In response to the online narrative generated by the film’s transmission on Friday, both sets of fans agreed in advance to honour Tommy in the 51st minute of the match. It happened as planned and listening and watching a minute’s celebration, in conjunction with the pulsating, emotional chanting of “Tommy Burns, Tommy Burns, Tommy Burns” was extraordinarily beautiful.
Football may have been the framework within which the tribute was poignantly delivered but this was deeper than sport. This was a beautiful and lasting act of love for a husband, father, grandfather and friend who knew how to live a life that was respectful to others.
We all need a little piece of that, a reminder that we only have one another, and we have to acknowledge that even within that framework life is incredibly fragile.
Following their father’s death, the family founded the Tommy Burns Skin Cancer Trust and I’m sure they would appreciate any support you can provide.