United is what the BBC does best, and it makes you proud to be British, which makes a change. A 90-minute, one-0ff drama, scheduled sympathetically in a prime mid-evening slot on BBC2 and BBCHD and, although sold as a vehicle for one of the Corporation’s de facto properties, David Tennant, it wasn’t an excuse for him to grandstand, he was actually just a key cog in a larger machine. (I understand it’s being released theatrically in other territories, but it felt right at home on TV, available for all to see.)
Written by Chris Chibnall, a quiet master of popular television with Torchwood, Born & Bred, Life On Mars and Law & Order UK under his belt, and directed by James Strong, expanding his portfolio after similarly glossy fare like Doctor Who and Hustle, this was an economical, intelligent and respectful slice of history that avoided the sporting drama’s most voracious trap: dramatising actual football, which can’t be done.
Deftly, whenever the Busby Babes went out onto the pitch, we left them to it, a simple captioned scoreline providing the result. We saw the actors training, and kicking a ball against a wall, but at no point did we see a football match recreated. That is fancy footwork.
It wasn’t about football, it was about camaraderie among men, and how loss of life affects it. It was more like a war movie than a football movie. Tennant dialled down the eccentric face-pulling that people love him for and brought a knotted brow and grim determination to the Welsh coach Jimmy Murphy, who wasn’t on the fateful chartered jet that failed to take off in the snow in Munich on 6 February, 1958, on its way back from Belgrade to Manchester, but was pivotal in keeping the team together after the terrible tragedy that befell them at their peak of youthful fitness. With Dougray Scott clearly relishing the part of Sir Matt Busby – now there’s an actor who’s becoming more interesting now he’s out of his heartthrob phase – and the solid likes of Dean Andrews, Tim Healy, Neil Dudgeon, Melanie Hill and Kate Ashfield making anybody who watches TV drama feel they are in the safest of hands, United was quality product.
But it wasn’t “starry” in that sense. This was a grave piece of social history – one that’s carved into the hearts of Manchester United fans, and the hearts of anyone who was around to hear or read the news in 1958 – and United did not sensationalise. The opening tracking shot of blood and debris in the German snow, and the surreal sight of Bobby Charlton (Jack O’Connell, the real star of the show) and teammate Dennis Viollet (James David Julyan) still strapped into their seats yards away from the crash, was dramatic without being melodramatic. (It felt like a war movie right from the start.)
I understand a traumatised Charlton really did find the inspiration to get back in the game by having a kickabout in an alley with some local kids, so the film’s perhaps most melodramatic moment actually happened. How about that? I’m sure other scenes were more fictionalised – and I know that the relatives of Sir Matt Busby felt United‘s portrayal of the man was less than three-dimensional – but you have to accept a certain amount of artistic licence in dramatised events. The point is, Chibnall, Strong, the fine cast and composer Clint Mansell – whose restrained but moving score felt period, too (nice to see him playing a home game for a change) – captured the feel of a moment in time. The look of the old boots, the sound of the old ball hitting a wall, the thick-framed specs perched on noses, the pint glasses with handles, the caps and overcoats, the birth of the “glamour” club … it’s all in there.
I’m guilty of overstating the case for American TV drama – and it’s true, they own the 22-week series, because it’s their gig – but you’d be hard pushed to find a one-off as focused and fair as this one. It’s the kind of piece I aspire, or dream, to one day write. Maybe I’ll do Northampton Town FC’s journey from the fourth division to the first, and back down the fourth again, in successive seasons in the 60s. I might have to dress that one up a bit though. And get somebody as famous as David Tennent to be in it, as manager Dave Bowen, who was Welsh. He can do Welsh.