Williams review: Hard man with a hard-on for racing

This fascinating documentary about Formula 1 fanatic Frank Williams delivers both track action and familial dysfunction

Frank Williams works on an F1 car in his team garage in 1969. Photograph: Curzon Artificial eye

Film Title: Williams

Director: Morgan Matthews

Starring: Frank Williams, Claire Williams, Jackie Stewart, Nigel Mansell, Alan Jones, Patrick Head

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 109 min

Thu, Aug 3, 2017, 10:20


Frank Williams doesn’t “do emotion” we are told early and often in this intriguing documentary portrait of the F1 titan. Indeed, the highest praise Williams can think to bestow upon his daughter Claire, is that in common with her late mother Ginny (Virginia) she “doesn’t make a lot of fuss” and “gets things done”.

He has never read Ginny’s book about their marriage. With a nod to Clio Bernard’s The Arbor, the tapes Ginny recorded ahead of publication are carefully dramatised with Emily Bevan in the role. These form the spine of Morgan Matthew’s film, as Frank, we quickly learn, not only “doesn’t do emotion”, he doesn’t do much that isn’t racing, which he compares to “having a hard-on your whole life”.

Tellingly, his wife and children went on summer holiday to Marbella for 32 consecutive years without him, and his best friend David Brodie describes him as “totally obsessed with racing to a ridiculous degree. I don’t think he has ever been in a supermarket in his life.”

Twas ever thus: as soon as Frank Williams emerged from the Scottish Catholic boarding school he had attended from age five, he began tinkering with motors, driving hellishly fast, and occasionally rolling over cars. His single-mindedness was not dented by the horrific 1986 crash which left him a quadriplegic, nor was his stiff upper lip.

The prehistoric gender politics of Formula One cast a long shadow over Williams’ life and career. Former F1 hospitality manager Lynden Swainston describes her co-workers as “possibly the most sexist people in any sport”. David Brodie praises Ginny as “just a fantastic girl to talk to; like talking to a fellah but wearing Chanel No5”. That didn’t curb his eye for the ladies, we are told, or from the “screwdrivers” as the pit groupies were “affectionately” called. It can’t be easy for Claire Williams, who has followed her father into the business and is the deputy team principal of the Williams F1 racing team.

Racing fans are sure to enjoy a history that takes in Patrick Head’s innovative car designs in the late 1970s and the 1986 rivalry between Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet, although little is said about Ayrton Senna’s 1994 crash, presumably to avoid treading on the toes of Asif Kapadia’s 2010 film. But it’s Clare, Ginny and the ultimately unresolved Williams familial dysfunctions that will hook everybody else.