Get Shirty: The Admiral Documentary with Andy Wells

In 2016, the world was introduced to the Admiral story through the documentary Get Shirty: The Rise and Fall of Admiral Sportswear. This film chronicled the improbable ascent of a small Wigston, Leicester-based brand into a powerhouse whose logo graced the kits of top teams in the country like Leeds United, Manchester United, and the England National Team. We spoke with Andy Wells, the documentary's director, to learn about his personal connection to the brand and the genesis of the documentry.



What are your memories of growing up in Wigston? 

"It sounds a bit of a cliche of growing up in the 1970s, but I remember cycling up and down the streets as a child and playing football on the rec of the Wigston estate in Leicestershire, where we lived. There were no through roads so there was hardly any traffic and there was great excitement whenever an ice cream or grocers van turned up. We didn’t know in the early years that over the road from where we lived was a clothing factory, the birthplace of Admiral."


What are your memories of Admiral kits growing up?

"Most people remember 1976 for its record high summer temperatures and water rationing but for me this was the year Admiral made a lasting impression. When in the close season, Leicester City unveiled their dazzling Admiral designed playing strips for the first time. I can still instantly recall the publicity shots announcing the new kits' arrival, which to my twelve year old mind was as glamorous and alluring as any Hollywood red carpet event. Memorably featuring the perfectly tanned and coiffed Frank Worthington stood in front of the massive Double Decker stand. While manager Jimmy Bloomfield and his coaching staff were dressed in brightly coloured ’designer' tracksuits. The entire look was quite simply, magnificent. Later that year my dad took me to Wembley for the first time to see England in a World Cup qualifier against Finland. Witnessing Kevin Keegan and co close up under floodlights in their gleaming white Admiral strips was mesmerising."



How did you get into filmmaking?

"One of my flatmates in London worked in television as a researcher and after I graduated a job came up at his production company for a runner. It was the 90s and the digital revolution was just taking off, which meant there were opportunities to film with smaller cameras, and so I began by building a career as a ’self-shooting’ producer director making documentaries."


Where did the initial idea come from to look into the history of Admiral?

"Like all good ideas it came from chatting to friends in a pub. The Fox fanzine regularly ran pieces about Admiral over the years, including recollections and stories from former employees as well as fans reminiscing about the kits. I think one of these articles started a conversation about how controversial the first England kit deal was and how Admiral was the first manufacturer to monetise the sale of replicas. As a documentary maker you are always on the lookout for stories and sometimes the ones right under your nose turn out to be the best."



What was the process of developing a documentary? Was it hard to track down the key members of the team?

"I moved away from Leicester in the late 1980s but I still had contacts in the football and design world there. Luckily my old boss knew Bert Patrick and vouched for me and it just so happened Bert was writing his memoirs at the time. Other friends put me in touch with other key figures, including photographer Neville Chadwick and designer Paul Oakley. The local Leicester Mercury newspaper also ran a piece about me developing a doc and the response to my appeal for former employees to get in touch was fantastic. Word of mouth also played a huge part in my research. The more I talked to people about the project, the longer the list of names and leads grew. Finding a digitised copy of an old TV Eye documentary about Admiral from 1980 was very fortunate and through this archive I was able to track down former machinists including Jill Langton."


When did you realise that you had a great story on your hands?

"For a long time I didn't think there was a strong enough story there to make a full length documentary. But having such a strong personal connection to Wigston and the people who’d been so generous with their time and memories drove me on. And initially I thought I would end up making a short 10 minute film that I’d upload to YouTube. But after meeting and filming an interview with Lindsay Jelley I knew we had a potentially very good film on our hands. The former designer's enthusiasm and energy is infectious, which helped bring the story to life. Lindsay’s also very funny."



Who were the key figures that helped you tell the Admiral Story?

"Lindsay as mentioned above. Also, football kit historian John Devlin, who provided context and a depth of understanding about the beginnings of the replicas industry. John Griffin had an incredible memory for detail and shared insight about what it was like to be at the centre of operations during Admiral’s heyday. People including Debbie Jackson, Greg Cross, Rob O’Donnell and Peris Hatton provided wonderful anecdotes and colour. As well as Bert Patrick’s contribution of course, which anchored and tied the story together."


How long did it take to collate all the footage together?

"Research and development happened over a few years. But once ITV said they wanted the doc we spent another two or three weeks filming and around ten weeks in the edit."



Was it difficult to get ITV to commission the story?

"Editor Paweł Slawek created a brilliant taster tape, which is similar to a trailer, but put together with just one or two days rushes. As soon as Niall Sloane at ITV saw the taster tape he asked me and a co-producer to come in to see him the next day. The film still had a few hoops to jump through but it was more or less commissioned that day."


The documentary was received well, did you expect that you would put the Admiral name back into the sporting world?

"The feedback and reaction to Get Shirty was wonderful. The story clearly resonated with lots of people and there’s still a lot of love out there for Admiral’s kits. During lockdown the doc was available on ITV X and this generated another wave of lovely messages."



What was the process of turning the documentary into book form?

"Initially I’d intended to make a 90 minute feature length documentary and as such had shot an awful lot of material. But much of it couldn’t be crammed into 46 minutes for ITV, which meant a lot of hard decisions and dropping some very good interviews. After the documentary aired more people got in touch and lots of new stories and information came to light. I knew I was sitting on lots of unused research and couldn’t escape the feeling that there was a bigger story to tell in greater detail. Covid happened around the same time I was approached by drama producers asking to turn Get Shirty into a feature film. I wasn’t working due to lockdown and realised that this was an opportunity to write the definitive story of Admiral’s rise from back street factory to house-hold name. It turned into a real labour of love and I found the process cathartic as I also included my own anecdotes of growing up in Leicester during the 1970s."

You can purchase the book now here


What projects are you working on currently?

"I’m just finishing off a feature length doc called Punch Drunk, which tells the story of boxer Eamonn Magee’s life and travails. It’s a film as much about addiction, mental health and The Troubles, as it is about sport. Myself and a co-producer are currently talking to broadcasters and hope to be able to announce a release date soon."

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