On BBC Two: United – (Review)

The story of the Busby Babes is one that needs little dramatic embellishment to bring out the tragedy. The facts alone are enough to make grown men weep: a team so young, so majestic and so powerfully beautiful cut down in a farce of an aborted take-off on a snowy German runway. By boiling down the stories of a great group of young men to focus on four faces in the crowd there was a danger of reducing a disaster to a chamber piece but United was proof that big budgets are not needed to produce strong emotion and that even a story as known as this can reduce grown men to tears again and again.

The ninety minutes were effectively split into two sections: 1956 and the debut of Bobby Charlton and February 1958 as Busby’s team made their way to but not back from Belgrade. The men the drama focused on were Matt Busby (Dougray Scott), Bobby Charlton (Jack O’Connell), Duncan Edwards (Sam Claflin) and Jimmy Murphy (David Tennant). About the only false note was Tennant’s Welsh accent but at least it was part of a powerhouse performance. You tend to take it for granted that Tennant is about the best actor of his generation but if you need further evidence just watch this again.

The narrative focus was on Charlton’s relationship with Edwards and his struggles at first to get in the team and then post-Munich to deal with his guilt at surviving. (I believe that his biography confirms that he pretty much never has.) The crash itself was effective in a low-budget sort of way – with whirling cameras and jarring cuts. There was no on-screen smash though – just as there were no recreations of any actual football. The build up to the runway smash was well-handled and paced in such a way that just about every time a door slammed you thought this must be the crash.

I have no idea which facts, if any, were distorted. The truth of the Football League’s insistence of its primacy over European competition causing United to rush back is (I think) correct – and obviously the match programme of their game against Sheffield Wednesday featured no names. I’d be surprised if the United board really were going to shut down operations only to have Murphy tell them otherwise – but then I am pretty easily surprised.

There was a pleasing lack of obvious “look we’re in the 1950s” shots although it did appear they got the period about right – although I doubt back streets in Newcastle were ever so clean and broad as for when Charlton recovered his desire to play with a kickabout with some local youths. The widescreen was used effectively too and I liked the framing shots around the men – the goal behind Murphy, trophies behind Busby etc. The script although dealing with what could have been cornball or easy emotion managed to mostly avoid “Win just one for the Gipper” type lines as well.

I’ve mentioned Tennant as Jimmy Murphy but the other three prominent roles were all also well-played. Dougray Scott portrayed Busby as a warm hearted gangster with a desire to get across his meaning in as few words as possible; Jack O’Connell could have played Charlton as an out-and-out wet given the crying required but he got across the heart and inner strength too; and Sam Claflin’s Duncan Edwards was big hearted and broad – although from photos the actual Duncan Edwards somehow managed to be even broader. Making it all the more bewildering that such a strong man should die so young.

All in all this was both an effective drama and a moving portrait.

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