On 6th February 1958, a plane crashed during takeoff in Munich and 23 people died. What may have been ‘only’ a disaster was raised to the level of tragedy because all the victims were members of, supporters of, or reporters who followed Manchester United and the accident devastated a community. How do you tell that story and do it justice in an hour and a half long TV movie?
Unfortunately, I think the answer as demonstrated by the BBC dramatisation, is that you can’t. Despite the fact that this was an excellent production, elegantly written, beautifully directed and brilliantly acted, I ultimately found it unsatisfying.
The biggest problem for me was that I couldn’t keep track of the characters. By its nature a film about a football team is going to have a lot of blokes of a similar age all wearing the same clothes. With the exception of Bobby Charlton who was the focal point of the film, I completely failed to distinguish between any of the players. That meant that while I could fully empathise how devastated Charlton and the rest of the team were at their friends’ deaths, to me they were still just numbers and statistics. I couldn’t track who it was that had talked about dating a Manchester City fan, who had a young baby, who smoked the pipe… I lost track of it all with each scene change.
David Tennant is superb as always, despite having to chew his way through a Welsh accent, that I’m told was accurate to a very localised region of Wales, but came across as jarringly weird to my English ear. His character, Jimmy Murphy, is presented as the true heart of the team – much more than Matt Busby, for whom the Busby Babes were named. I’m not sure whether it’s fair to call that a ‘problem’, but it certainly felt odd to me that Busby came across as a minor supporting character in the story of his own team. David Tennant is such a screen presence, and a wonderfully emotive actor, that he does tend to monopolise the screen, whether delivering lines in his offbeat, yet perfectly timed way, or messily sobbing his heart out.
This is the kind of drama that made me wish I was watching a documentary. Something that could take a more structured approach and be more comprehensive in its descriptions of people and events. A documentary can just make statements about events, but in a drama, the writer and director must find a way to communicate those facts elegantly and naturally, without feeling as if a character is randomly providing exposition. Likewise a documentary can use interviews for a person to explicitly say how they felt about someone, or something; a drama is limited to characters behaving as they would at the time – it may be a bit of a struggle to make a group of football players in the 50s outwardly talk about their feelings without feeling unrealistic.
These issues are all limitations of the format however, not of the production itself. The film is superbly made and almost certainly as good a film as can be made of this story. Maybe if I’d known more about the event before watching I wouldn’t have been left feeling as unsatisfied. As it is, I would still heartily recommend watching United, I’d just maybe suggest having Wikipedia standing by as well.
United is available on iplayer until Sunday 1st May.
The Guardian: It’s beautifully done – powerful, haunting and very human. And if you didn’t shed a tear, then you’re harder than I am.
On the Box: This might be a story about football, but it is far more than just a football story; it’s the story of 23 lives lost and, more specifically, a story of 7 young men who never got to fulfil their potential as footballers or as people. Even if you have no interest in football, this is drama that will move you .