Williams (2017)

August 1st, 2017
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Morgan Matthews; Drama/Documentary with Emily Bevan, Jenny Funnel; UK 2017, 109 min.

Morgan Matthews offers up a documentary portrait of Formula One Boss Frank Williams that focuses on his family dynamics – his motor racing takes a (welcome) backseat, giving the film broader appeal. Matthews who also works as co-DoP and executive producer, neatly describes the drama behind the scenes of this dazzling but dangerous sport which has made fortunes for a few despite costing many their lives.

The glamour of the racetrack aside, there is nothing remotely glamorous about the life of Sir Frank Williams (*1942), reduced to paraplegia since his crash in France in 1986. He started his Williams team in the Formula One circus in 1966, but for many years it was the saying went round: “if you want to ruin your career as a driver, join Williams”.

That’s all changed since Patrick Head joined the team as a co-owner in 1977, and led it as Chief Engineer for 27 years to its greatest triumphs, starting with the first Grand Prix win in 1979 at Silverstone. Between 1980 and 1997, seven drivers won the World Championship for Williams, and the team won nine Constructor Championships in the same period. Jackie Stewart and Nigel Mansell, among other drivers, pay tribute to their boss admitting openly to the self-centred, fanatical approach of the company’s founder.

Frank Williams met Virginia ‘Ginny’ Berry first in 1967. It might have been love at first sight, but Virginia’s wedding was already planned, and her family background prohibited a cancellation. Besides, Frank was ‘from the wrong side of the tracks’ – even as a Williams boss in the early decade, he conducted business from a phone box, and didn’t pay his phone bill. Virginia eventually married Frank in 1974 and it was partly with her money, that he built his company, which is now worth over a hundred million.

After his accident in the south of France (Frank, an enthusiastic runner, wanted to catch a plane for a fun run in London the next day), it was Virginia, who stepped in and helped him survive after the doctors in France (and later in London) had given up on him. In 1991 Virginia wrote an autobiography “A Different Kind of Life” with Pamela Cockerill, which has been dramatised with Emily Bevan playing Virginia and Jenny Funnel the interviewing writer.

All this told more or less from the perspective of the couple’s daughter Claire (*1976), who is now the Deputy Team Principal of Williams, having replaced her father on the board of the company as the family’s representative. This has put her oldest brother’s nose out of joint, pottering around in the company’s Heritage Museum, he comments: “Claire wouldn’t know that these rooms exist”. Claire’s view is that he can’t understand that “a girl, and not the oldest son, is in charge”. But progress to get through to her father (“he is only interested in today and tomorrow, never the past”), is limited. She asks him to read her mother’s book, but Frank declines, “I will read it properly before my death”. Claire reads some passages to him, she is crying, but Frank is unmoved, his eyes are cold.

Far from being a hagiography of Frank Williams or the motor sport, Matthew creates a chapter of British gender history: sad and illuminating at the same time. The last word should be with Claire “My mother would have been a great Deputy Team Principal”. There is a photo of Virginia Williams, who died of cancer in 2013, holding up a trophy while standing in for the still-recovering Frank, steering the team to victory. AS


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