Preston is a small city with particular attributes, not least its role as the administrative centre of the county of Lancashire. But no one would accuse it of being a glamour spot. Previous residents who’ve made a name for themselves include John Inman, who played Mr Humphries in the 1970s sitcom Are You Being Served? and Nick Park of Wallace & Gromit fame.
The most famous Prestonian in the 21st century, though, is the former England cricketer and TV celebrity Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff – although on the evidence of his rousing new documentary series, Freddie Flintoff’s Field of Dreams, which airs on Tuesdays on BBC1 at 8pm, he is not that well known in his home town, at least not among the young people he seeks to recruit.
The show addresses the dispiriting fact that professional cricket is a game heavily weighted in favour of the wealthy. One statistic quoted in the opening episode is that eight of the starting 11 of one recent England test side were products of private schooling. Flintoff believes that “it shouldn’t be like that”, and he returns to Preston to attract to the sport youngsters who, like himself, are from state schools.
They see cricket as “posh” and “boring”, and are initially unimpressed by Flintoff’s uplifting vision.
“Never heard of him,” one says, and several others are reduced to Googling his name to establish the bone fides of this man on a mission.
Recalling the glorious sporting summer of 2005, it’s hard to believe that anyone could be unaware of the larger-than-life cricketer. After all, he was voted BBC Sports Personality that year for his stirring efforts in England’s Ashes series victory over the then seemingly unbeatable Australians.He appeared like a colossus back then, even bigger than his 6ft 4in frame, smashing sixes and taking wickets with an heroic sense of timing. He won not just the Man of the Series award but also the Freedom of Preston.
Going back to the scene of that civic liberty, where he once attended the now defunct City of Preston High School, Flintoff doesn’t come across as in any way entitled. He has an easy rapport with the sceptical youngsters, teasing and encouraging, but never talking down to them.
This chimes with the experience of Sharon Asquith, headteacher at Preston’s Ashton Community Science College, who witnessed Flintoff attend the relaunch of his old school, now a special needs facility called the Sir Tom Finney Community High School.
“He was part of the opening event,” she recalls, “because he’s still got that desire to help, to be connected with the area that he came from as a child. He was just a very unassuming man who enjoyed meeting the children at the school. I get the impression that he’s incredibly genuine. What he’s doing is phenomenal.”
One school-shy lad named Sean tells Flintoff that he likes to hang out in the park drinking vodka. How much, asks the once prodigious drinker who gave up alcohol almost a decade ago? The boy says one or two bottles. Instead of puncturing the teenager’s bravado, Flintoff sees the germ of potential in the troubled child and attempts to cultivate it.
As you’d expect from a modern-day, celebrity-led social documentary, it’s not without contrivances and false suspense, but what makes it work is Flintoff’s disarming manner. He’s that rare beast: a personality with a personality.
There have been times since he came to prominence when his surfeit of character has seemed more like a curse than a blessing. He struggled as a cricketer to deal with setbacks, admonishing himself and focusing on his failures so much that he couldn’t recognise his successes. As he once put it: “Whatever I do will never be enough.”
The punishing demands he made of himself also manifested in a self-destructive streak. He struggled with his weight, was a secret bulimic, and relieved pressure with an excess of alcohol – a drunken escapade with a pedalo in the Caribbean resulted in him being stripped of the England vice-captaincy. Nonetheless, When he retired in 2010, he was arguably the most well-loved English cricketer since Ian Botham, and with little of that great all-rounder’s conspicuous self-regard. But he also seemed rather lost, as if he didn’t know what to do with his considerable store of natural energy.
TV came calling in the shape of the Sky sports panel show A League of Their Own, then hosted by James Corden. Flintoff took to the comic format by being himself, but it soon became apparent to the public at large that being himself wasn’t always an easy as he made it look. He presented a documentary in 2012 about clinical depression in sport that examined his own battles with the condition. He spoke of drinking too much and about not wanting to get out of bed when he captained the England one-day cricket side.
Suddenly Flintoff, who seemed to embody an uncomplicated kind of strength, was publicly deconstructing his own image, laying bare the difficulties of being the hero that people wanted him to be, and the psychological toll that took on him.
But no sooner had he exposed this previously hidden side to his character than he was back trading once more on his ebullience. He took up professional boxing for one underwhelming fight. In 2015, he won the first Australian series of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! He presented Cannonball on ITV and made his stage debut in Kay Mellor’s Fat Friends the Musical.
Slowly but surely, he seemed set on that well-travelled transition from character to caricature. In 2019, he became one of the hosts on the revamped Top Gear. Such a high-profile job, however, served to confirm that Flintoff was less an ex-cricketer now than an established TV presenter (which makes it all the more difficult to believe that he wasn’t recognised by the youth of Preston).
The flipside of this trajectory is that it has also enabled Flintoff to revisit his darker hours. A couple of years ago, he presented a documentary about living with bulimia – a condition from which he had suffered since his early days in cricket.
Perhaps this shifting back and forth between straight-out TV entertainment and painful self-revelation operates as a kind of celebrity safety-valve, reminding him and the public that fame rarely solves but often exacerbates personal problems.
In any case, Field of Dreams allows the tensions between stardom and selfhood, and his own success and wider social concerns, to be dealt with in a more satisfying way.
Of course, trying to get a handful of state-school kids into cricket is not in itself a major blow for the levelling-up project. But the sport’s exclusivity is a symbol of a much larger class problem that continues to bedevil British society.
Too many children grow up understanding that they will have no access to worlds beyond their own limited experience.
“In areas of high social disadvantage, the lack of self-esteem and the lack of self-awareness is commonplace,” says one local educationalist.
Flintoff, son of a factory maintenance worker, knows how circumscribed the lives of young working-class boys can be. While it’s unlikely he’ll unearth another world-beater in Preston – his kind of talent and drive doesn’t come along often – he may expand a few horizons, enlarge the sense of possibility, and in the process empower some of the countless teenagers who feel increasingly left behind.
Flintoff knows that it is a cultural failing that children from disadvantaged backgrounds should feel unwelcome in a mainstream sport, just as it’s a national shame that they feel too often excluded from mainstream society. In terms of social justice, it’s just not cricket, certainly not in the all-encompassing way that the admirable Flintoff continues to play the game.