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The making of Sheffield documentary One in a Million

Matt Exton and Sean Lovell tell us about their recently released film celebrating the impressive, larger-than-life fundraising efforts of Sheffielder John Burkhill.

John burkhill and filmmakers showroom

Filmmakers Matt Exton and Sean Lovell, with John Burkhill.

I was privileged to be invited on behalf of Now Then to the premiere of Matt Exton and Sean Lovell’s documentary about local legend John Burkhill, One in a Million, at the Showroom back in October. So I was also pleased when the filmmakers agreed to meet me to talk about the inspiration and processes behind the film, which celebrates more than three decades of fundraising efforts by the much-loved Sheffielder.

I began our conversation by asking Matt and Sean how they met. It transpired this was their second collaboration, the first being Matt’s film, All Wednesday (2018). Matt had asked for fans of the club to contribute and Sean, as a life-long supporter and filmmaker of some years, had volunteered to help with filming. During this time Matt shared his idea with Sean for the ‘John’ project and six months later, having kept in touch, they met for a drink and started to plan.

Why a film about John? “I always knew of John as a person that everybody in Sheffield seemed to know and you thought, what’s the story there?” Matt tells me. Sean agrees. “This old guy wearing all green, with an ‘afro’ wig... there’s got to be a story around that!”

It started in 2018 with an initial chat with Macmillan Cancer Appeal, a cause which at the time of filming John had raised £800,000 for, running marathons and pushing a pram around the streets of Sheffield in shorts, no matter the weather.

The charity put them in touch with John, who was behind the project from the start. “He was always very welcoming - free whenever you are, was his attitude,” Matt recalls.

My observation that the core of the film was an interview with John from his front room provoked an interesting response from the filmmakers.

“We didn’t really think the interview would be a big part of the film, but we began to realise that a big part of his story was in the past,” Sean notes. The filmmakers didn’t initially know quite how far back John’s fundraising story went. “He has basically dedicated most of his life to it,” adds Matt.

The interview with John – filmed first, rather than just to fill in the gaps – hit a narrative trajectory taking them back into his personal history, furnishing the story whilst giving an intimate insight into his character.

Both filmmakers experienced John as optimistic, positive and having great empathy for others. “He was at points teary eyed during the interview,” Matt remembers.

Pandemic restrictions slowed both the production and the first screening of the film. Talk of hosting a smaller premiere event at John’s house was dismissed, as “it wouldn’t have had the grandeur it deserved.” It’s obvious that at that time Matt and Sean also had anxieties about a man of 82 – however fit and well – and his demographic vulnerability to Covid.

Talking about the Showroom premiere, Matt and Sean impress how much they wanted it to be John’s event, rather than the film’s. John had a guest list of 50 people and the audience was largely made up of his family and friends, including several of the city’s great and good.

When asked about the appeal of documentaries in general, they agree that hidden true stories are often incredible, as was John’s, and that there is no need to look to fiction for the extraordinary.

One in a Million was made entirely within the filmmaker’s own resources. As to funded projects – Sean has made some – both agree that a passion for making the film was most important. “Do it for the meal or do it for the reel, is what they say,” Matt quotes.

I leave our interview with an abiding impression of two people whose passionate commitment to project and process had, despite adverse conditions, made this film what it is. Fittingly, their journey reflects the life-affirming values of the exceptional man whose story they have helped tell.

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John Burkhill: One in a Million

An engaging new documentary from Sheffield filmmakers Matt Exton and Sean Lovell tells the moving story of one man’s triumph over adversity - and his place in the hearts of the people of Sheffield.

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