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It is difficult to draw a straight conclusion about a TV drama which has a Scotsman playing a Welshman called Murphy in the lead role. And the BBC’s 90-minute dramatisation of events surrounding Manchester United and the 1958 Munich air tragedy has produced a complex set of reactions. Before picking through some of these complexities, let me say I found United to be a compelling, enthralling, well-scripted drama. Shortly after the opening credits, I noticed that I’d left a door open and said to myself I’d close it when I got a minute.
The door remained open, as United didn’t waste a minute. It had great performances, central, supporting and cameo. And it evoked all the emotions which attached themselves to Manchester United’s ‘Busby Babes’ who all-too-briefly dominated English club football in the 1950s. But inevitably, controversy surrounds ‘dramatisations’ of real-life events, especially when protagonists and/or their families are still alive. There’s as little time for nuance in a 90-minute play or film as there is on the ball in midfield in most 90-minute Premier League games. So some events are, to use the term I’ve most often seen, ‘compressed.’ In other words, bits are missed out, shortened, changed to one filmable location.
For those reasons, Neil Jordan’s powerful film Michael Collins, about the famous Irish nationalist leader, changed and dramatized certain parts of the story, while largely keeping the outcomes the same. But other changes seemed un-necessary, factual inaccuracies adding nothing to the film in dramatic terms. It was a film about historical events, but the friend I took to see it (I know how to treat a girl…) came away with a damaged historical perspective. Another friend of mine had a memorable take on Jim Sheridan’s film In the Name of the Father, noting that the film’s sideburns and flared trousers were historically accurate to the millimetre, whilst the script was anything but. And the fact versus dramatisation debate got a good airing over the book and the film The Damned United, about Brian Clough’s torrid spell as Leeds United manager in 1974 – a book which was determinedly a work of fiction – a “novel about fact.”
Views on United have been directed by the importance you attach to certain details. There has been criticism of the treatment of United’s manager, Matt Busby, most notably from his son, Sandy, who seems especially put out by the fedora hat donned in the film, which he never wore in life. But there are un-necessary factual inaccuracies in United. Naming defender Mark Jones as the 1956 team captain (it was Roger Byrne). Jones smoked a pipe in the players’ tunnel just before a game (Jones was a pipe smoker, and nicknamed ‘Dan Archer’ after the pipe-smoking ‘Archers’ character). Team trainer and crash victim Tom Curry is omitted from the dressing-room scenes.
The drama also contains a one-dimensional portrayal of Football League secretary Alan Hardaker. As another friend of mine (don’t worry, I’ve none left to quote now) noted, dramas tend to personify organisations such as the Football League, for purposes of speed and simplicity. It just happens that, by reputation, the cold-hearted, arrogant, pompous, self-important Hardaker which appears in the drama is as accurate as In the Name of the Father’s loon pants. And, while I’m happy to be corrected on this one, I’m guessing there won’t be many Hardakers flying to the defence of their man.
But most of the critics are themselves guilty of un-necessary factual inaccuracies. Yes, I feel uneasy about criticising some of this criticism. Who am I to contradict Sir Matt Busby’s son? Or to rail against crash survivor Harry Gregg, whose portrayal in the drama is largely positive but reportedly wanted his name removed from the credits? However, references abound to United as a “BBC film about the Munich air crash.” It is no such thing, otherwise Jimmy Murphy, Busby’s United team coach, would hardly feature at all, as he wasn’t even on the plane.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a compilation of the drama’s supposed factual errors in a Mail newspaper piece which appeared hours before transmission. As well as Sandy Busby and Gregg, the Mail quotes Bill Foulkes’ wife asking: “How can they not mention Bill in the film?” Yet Foulkes is mentioned a number of times and is quite clearly identified as one of the crash survivors who returned to the side straight away. You’d think the Mail had some sort of anti-BBC agenda, if you didn’t know any better. “It’s called United, all about the Busby Babes”, noted Sandy Busby. Well, no. The ‘United’ of the title is as much about the unity of the club both before and in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, and Murphy’s undeniably central role in the rebuilding of the team.
The first third of the drama is largely about Murphy’s relationship with the young players collectively known as the ‘Babes,’ players who came through the United ranks largely under Murphy’s tutelage. And these minutes focus on the emergence of Bobby Charlton, who broke into the first team a little after the ‘first wave’ of ‘Babes,’ Duncan Edwards, Eddie Colman et al. And the last third is about Murphy’s rebuilding of the team, in opposition to a board who felt that closing United down “for the time being” was “both practical and honourable.” As a BBC spokesman noted, quite correctly, the “story could have been told in many ways as all are equally important.” And the drama should be judged on the way it tells Murphy’s and Charlton’s story. It doesn’t tell the whole story because it isn’t the whole story.
The lead performances are strong. David Tennant portrays Murphy as a modest but quick-witted figure who inspired respect and affection in equal measure. The players themselves are portrayed as close-knit and playful almost to the point of childishness. “You’re just kids,” exclaims a member of the beaten Charlton Athletic team in Bobby Charlton’s two-goal debut, “how can you beat us like that when you’re just kids?” As Charlton, Jack O’Connell gives us the right mixture of quiet determination and modesty, in a performance worthy of co-star billing from an actor who is only a 20-year-old himself.
Busby, despite what the critics say and despite the hat and coat which his son thought “made him look more like a gangster,” is positively portrayed by Dougray Scott and clearly established as the boss (not least, paradoxically, by the opening shot of him, from the back, silhouetted in the ‘offending’ hat and coat). Scott has Busby’s gruff voice down exactly, at least to my ears – untrained in the specifics of Scottish accents. To me, Busby’s voice was always gruffer than his look and if the drama erred, it was in Scott’s features being gruffer than the real-life Busby. But rugged good looks have won Scott more parts they’ve lost him, so what can he do? Close your eyes and it is Busby to whom you are listening.
In the exchanges Busby has with Hardaker, his ruthlessness shows (“Did you ever play, Mr Hardaker, what was your best position?”) but the admirable football man also comes shining through, (“You’re a league man, a man of tabIes, graphs and points, me and Jimmy here, we’re men of grass and boots and…beauty”). Busby puts down Charlton with withering, borderline unpleasant sarcasm when he’s telling the youngster that he’s “playing tomorrow” (“in the team?”, “no, the brass band”). But even that exchange, through both Scott’s and O’Donnell’s performances, reveals the reverence in which he was held, borne of respect, not out-and-out fear.
The script is full of gems; dramatic, comic and poignant. In hospital in Germany, Charlton asks a German patient “who survived?” The German only knows from Charlton’s tone and face that he’s asking a question so inevitably misunderstands and reads names out of a newspaper before bringing his sentence to a halt with the word “dead.” You already know this but you are still left shocked at the word and the minimal but significant change in Charlton’s expression when reality dawns.In an early exchange between Duncan Edwards and Charlton, a desperate Charlton asks what more he has to do to get in the team and Edwards tells it to him straight, concluding “if you don’t have the guts to figh t for the next fifteen years of your life, you best get back on the train home…” before adding: “which would be stupid because you’re bloody good, actually,” which gives the whole exchange a warmth, and the reassurance that Charlton’s expression tells you he feels too.
There’s plenty of comedy from Murphy’s character, most notably from his team-talk before a game against Charlton (“I bloody hate Charlton… apples and pears, jellied eels… shut up you south London sods!!”) and from his words of solace to a player forced to reveal his lunch by a punishing training session (“don’t take this the wrong way, but I think your best days are behind you”). But there’s also Tim Healy’s turn as Bobby Charlton’s uncle Tommy Skinner, moaning in the pub about his wife’s hip (“the most variable joint in the history of medicine”) before agreeing to drive Bobby down to Old Trafford for the first time since the crash (“I’ll just finish me pint, first,” he notes, evoking far different days). It’s only a cameo, and it is mere background in one of the drama’s pivotal scenes. But it is memorable background, superbly acted and scripted, like the drama as a whole. And just when you were wondering why the drama came with a warning about “some strong language,” along comes the first televised “wassock” in many years. Marvellous.
By contrast, there’s the speech from PC Gunstone, the police guard over the players’ coffins at the Old Trafford gym, summing up beautifully how people felt about the team: “They were special. They were not just the best team, I mean, of course they were. They were the best-loved. The whole country loved these lads. We didn’t realise it ‘til now.” Anyone criticising United for disrespect should watch this scene. We may never know what Sir Bobby Charlton thought of United – and his opinion matters most. So if he is critical of it as Sandy Busby or Harry Gregg have been, then I’m wrong. Until then, I’d place United very high indeed on the list of football-based dramas, and a credit to all concerned.
There is more on BBC’s “United” here.
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