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United: Busby Babes and the Munich air crash

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James Strong James Strong | 10:00 UK time, Sunday, 24 April 2011

"We've found the penalty spot," is the cry I hear from one of the art department as he manfully digs at the vast white blanket of snow, under which is a football pitch - apparently.

This poses a slight problem as we're attempting to film a scene for United with the Busby Babes in pre-season training, which usually takes place in August.

It was always going to be dicey, weather-wise, to film in the north in late November and early December, but to encounter the worst winter since records began was rather testing to say the least.

Jimmy Murphy, played by David Tennant, leads the Manchester United team through the snow.

But, sat in the slightly warmer edit suite a month later, I was almost glad of the extremes we faced. It gave the film a hard-foughtness I really liked.

It was a cold, hard and difficult shoot and it shows on the faces of the cast - but it works.

The people they are portraying were tough and heroic and their story so remarkable, so emotional, and so inspiring. If it had been too easy it wouldn't have felt right.

United and the story of the Busby Babes and the Munich air crash is sacred ground to many. And, more than any film I've ever done, I felt the responsibility to do the best job possible.

We were dealing not just with real people but legends in every sense, and I wanted to honour and celebrate the lives and achievements of those involved, so every decision had to be carefully considered.

Thankfully, with the incredible cast and crew we'd assembled, we were able to attempt to be as true to the real story as possible, but it's a constant consideration.

For example, we know the exact fabric that was used on the seats of the plane - so in our film this is correct.

But what people exactly said and did is impossible to be definitive about.

Yes, there are plenty of personal accounts and testimony, and we have studied them forensically, but they differ greatly, even between two people sat next to each other, because human memory is personal, subjective and unreliable.

So Chris Chibnall, our brilliant writer, had to find a way through that was truthful and balanced but also worked in its own right as a film. And he did so magnificently.

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Also, in making a drama rather than a documentary, we had to make editorial choices.

We never intended this film to be the definitive story of the Babes and the crash - that would be impossible.

For me, drama works best when it focuses on one or two people. So our film is only one story, one aspect.

We could have told 50 other stories, focused on 50 different people. And they all would have been as valid.

But we chose, at the beginning of the project, to focus on the stories of Jimmy Murphy and Bobby Charlton, which means many people associated with the club and the crash don't appear or feature in the film.

That's not because they weren't as important, or because we didn't research our facts, but because in this one film we can only tell one story.

I kept getting asked if we cast actors who could play football?

But although it's a film about a football club, we consciously avoided most 'actual' football.

Not that our cast weren't quite tasty with a ball. Some were, in fact, very good players, but the football is not really the point.

This is the story of a team, a band of brothers, who experience a tragedy and then attempt to survive. In a sense they could have been soldiers, miners, or any group or family.

United is a human story of how, in the face of terrible loss, the human spirit endures. And we were blessed with a quite extraordinary cast to deliver this.

In David Tennant and Jack O'Connell I don't think we could have asked for two finer leads, ably supported by all the other cast.

Bobby Charlton, played by Jack O'Connell, and Jimmy Murphy, played by David Tennant.

I sat and watched the film alone in a cinema yesterday and I wept again - it still gets me every time, and trust me I've seen it hundreds of times.

Every time I cry at just how sad and shocking the events we are portraying were and how incredible it was and how big an impact it had not just on those involved, but the whole country.

As one fan I spoke to said, It was the Diana of its day, in an era not given over to false sentiment or emotion.

So I'm very pleased with the film, but more relieved that it is the vision we wanted to portray.

Others will no doubt pick holes and have their opinions - but my intention in making this film was to be as truthful as possible to the facts, and to honour the people by making the best film possible, to be enjoyed and remembered.

Everyone involved in the film gave 110% (to borrow a footballing cliché) and worked tirelessly to achieve this, sometimes in the most difficult conditions.

I thank you all and salute your genius - I truly believe it was worth all the effort.

I hope United will be seen by millions of people (fingers crossed) so everyone will know of the incredible Busby Babes, their amazing achievements and their memory will live on.

Back on set, the good news is the diggers have managed to clear the penalty area - the bad news is it has started snowing again.

James Strong is the director of United.

United is on BBC Two on Sunday, 24 April at 9pm.

As a companion piece to United, BBC Two will be showing a documentary, Sir Bobby Charlton: Football Icon on Thursday, 28 April at 9pm.

John Motson has written an overview of Sir Bobby Charlton's career for Inside Sport.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    53 years on I still remember the tears that evening.
    Next morning, perhaps in a sign of what was to come, BBC News (Home Service) couldn't find a United supporter in Manchester to comment, leaving City ones to pronounce a distant sympathy.

  • Comment number 2.

    Looking forward to watching, though it will probably upset me. I am a regular supporter since 1956/57 (Anderlecht at Maine Road). Took my 11+ the week after Munich. Beat Blackpool (2nd) at Easter to win the league, 10,000 locked out.
    Got all the autographs in Lewis's prior to Cup Final, spoke with Duncan Edwards.
    Will probably get out all my old programs later. Sad days and Glory days.

  • Comment number 3.

    i found it interesting how sir matt's family have almost to a person reacted so angrily to his portrayal. as the author writes, he is creating a drama rather than a documentary, but then again he is making a work focussing on the busby babes and the munich disaster, so accuracy in terms of the components of the film should definitely be spot on. who better to verify that than the busby family (for his character alone)?

  • Comment number 4.

    Wasn't born when the crash happened, but my dad has told me all about the reaction, didn't matter who you supported everyone felt the loss, am looking forward to watching this hopefully there will be no silly remarks posted.

  • Comment number 5.

    I have no connection with Manchester United myself but i am a football fan in the wider sense and the Busby Babes & Matt Busby himself are written into football folklore from overcoming such a tragedy then going on to build up another team and win the European Cup in 1968. I hope it does do some justice to people watching who were actually around in the era of the crash even if it is a drama rather than a documentary type program as it is going to be a lot more real them.

  • Comment number 6.

    Really looking forward to watching the drama tonight although I'm sure it will upset me. My Dad whose 82 now has always recounted the story of the babes and their tragic story and how it effected the whole of football, (and indeed the public in general) not just Manchester United and it's fan base.
    These days of course the tragerdy will me little to most fans, and to be honest why should it, after all it's 53 years since it happened. But to me as a United fan for over 40 years it's part of the fabric that the club is made up of, and I will watch it with great interest.
    Having chosen to focus the drama on just two characters I was really surprised to find out one of them wasn't Busby himself, surely a risk in itelf when you're directing a drama on The Busby Babes.
    Hopefully the potrayal, no matter how small, of Busby is accurate. A man of great dignity and standing, a man who represented United with great respect for the club, himself and his working and private families.
    He's much more Bobby Robson than Cloughie and I hope James Strong has captured this. Judging by Matt's son Sandy's reaction to the drama James may well have fallen into the trap of thinking he was making a soap rather than a docu-drama.
    I will however reserve judgement until after the viewing tonight.

  • Comment number 7.

    Disgraceful that pragmaticaldo can't resist using this drama about the tragedy to promulgate the small-minded, hackneyed and completely inaccurate old nonsense that United supporters were and are fewer in number in Manchester than their City counterparts. Not for nothing are such as he universally called the "bitters".
    A shame he didn't confine his snide remark to the local newspaper's football message boards where it could be better appreciated by his co-ignorant.

  • Comment number 8.

    I`m not a Man U fan & was only a child when this tragedy happened. I only remember Sir Matt Busby from seeing him on TV a long time after the crash & found the portrayal of him so bad I stopped watching after 45 minutes.
    I was not impressed with this drama at all.
    From the beginning it seemed as if it was filmed in slow motion & just dragged on.
    I`m really not surprised that Sir Matt`s family hated it.

  • Comment number 9.

    One of the most moving dramas I have seen in a long time, I cried through the entire thing, beautifully shot, beautifully acted. Just amazing.

  • Comment number 10.

    Well done the BBC. An emotional, sensitive and sympathetic account of the Munich air disaster and the aftermath.
    I will never forget the horror of the tragedy and how it affected the whole of Manchester. The Busby babes will live in our hearts forever.

  • Comment number 11.

    Writing this with the tears barely dry. Too young to see the Babes but at the age of 12 seen my first Utd game in 1968,and it was love at first sight.
    Dougray Scott looked and sounded like Sir Matt and David Tennant was superb.
    Very poignant and the sight of the Babes super-imposed in the Wembley tunnell in May 58 was heartbreaking.
    Best sport related drama the beeb has ever done.
    Going now...the teras are flowing again.

  • Comment number 12.

    2 points on GoodEnglish:

    1. It was refreshing to see in the script a rebuke to today's inane "are you all right?" or "all-right?"; when Bobby Charlton answered: "my mates are dead and you ask me 'am I all right'?"
    2. In 1958, I'm sure that Alan Hardaker (played by Neil Dudgeon) would NEVER have pronounced SCHEDULE with a hard "k" (as the Americans do). He was representing the BRITISH Football League - not some Yankee infiltrators - who were to come several years later. Poor direction here - it should have been picked up by the Director and thrown out.

    The GoodEnglish Professor

  • Comment number 13.

    I was 13 in 1958. In January 1958, the BBC "Light Programme's" Sports Review, (which was broadcast around lunchtime), featured a prediction from a lady psychic.

    She made THREE predictions:
    a) The FA Cup would be won by a team with a "W" and an "L" in its name. [The winners: BoLton Wanderers]
    b) The winning goal would be scored by a player with a "W" and an "L" in his name [Nat LofthoUse - HoWse for House??]
    So she was right about that.
    As Nat Lofthouse sadly died in 2011, I thought that Bolton were a good bet this year.
    And her third prediction?
    c) That Prince Charles would never be King - and he was only around 7 at the time of that prediction.

  • Comment number 14.

    I'm a Spurs fan and was 13 yrs old at the time and had watched the Babes European games on TV and saw them live at White Hart Lane. As a football fan the memories of that day still hurt terribly, and like others I wept. Heaven knows what must be still in Sir Bobby's head.

  • Comment number 15.

    I watched 'United' tonight and thought it was terrific viewing. Very powerful, very moving and the subject matter was dealt with in such a delicate manner. Hats off to James Strong for an excellent documentary on a subject which I was keen to know more about. Almost choked me up watching the scenes in the plane - can't believe it actually happened.

  • Comment number 16.

    I found "United" very moving and thought that it was very well made. It gave me a real sense of what my father, uncles and grandmother must have felt at the time, being a family of Manchester United fans who lived about a mile from Old Trafford, attended every home game (Nan did St. John's Ambulance duty at OT on match days) and they suddenly had to cope with the loss of players and staff from their beloved team.

  • Comment number 17.

    wow what an ending to such a sad story jimmy murphy looking at the players again standing in the tunnel and they change to the players who lost the lives class class filmomg . ~I didt know the FA were crap then as they are fancy not being proud of a man u team in europe horrible the fa and making thm come back for the saturday game the fa have to go they have not improved the game at all I'm 47 , I hope you younger ones take not Im a big liverpool fan but not bitter about unted as a coach an football fan man u play great football l an to have the best player ever in george best & the best team now I have watch this drama what a team my dad big lfc fan always told me how good this team was and they were so young . the power of this film as made mr realise its footbaall and the way its played that counts . I hope some pros take note I will back a trip to united very soon just to honnor those fab players . The paul weller song at the end was fantastic cant wait tp buy its called devotion its a thing us fans know a lot about hats off to James strong & his team well done you got my vote for a a story / drama A tear in my eye & a place in my heart football United x

  • Comment number 18.

    To make a programme like this you have to be accurate. One of the reasons this team are rememberred is because they were outstanding footballers. The person who assembelled this great team was one of the most charismatic personalities ever to inhabit the football world. You concentrated on Jimmy Murphy. Someone somewhere, misguided, decided to rewrite history, The real story here is between Duncan Edwards-and Bobby Charlton, a player who Edwards knew, if they played together, would probably have won the next three world cups.
    You did not say if they played the next european game -AC Milan, or not
    If I have a criticissm it is this-leave the dodgy CGI, invoke an atmosphere purely from internal shots.

  • Comment number 19.

    I watched 'United' last night and cried from start to finish. I was 12 years old in 1958 and lived in the mill town of Ashton-u-Lyne. Us rag-a-muffin kids ate, slept and lived football - Man. U being THE only team for us. We knew all the players personally via cigarette cards, chewing gum cards and albums. We watched them play at the cinema on Pathe News, revelling in the brilliance of The Busby Babes.
    As I walked down our main shopping street with my mother on the Saturday following the tragic disaster, I noticed that every single shop window displayed some form of tribute. Wreath's coloured red and white; photographs of the team and good will messages from shop customer filled every shop front.
    It was sad then and it's still sad today for those who were around at the time. I, for one, will never forget the legend and the legacy of 'The Busby Babes'.

  • Comment number 20.

    I think Sandy Busby has every reason to dislike the portrait of his father in this drama. Whereas Bobby Charlton, Harry Gregg and Jimmy Murphy are shown in an heroic light, Sir Matt is shown as a cold, sinister, manipulative thug. This is a ludicrous and unfair misrepresentation of the warm and friendly Matt Busby. Sure, he could be tough, but he had a real love of the beautiful game, and had a fatherly attitude to his players.

  • Comment number 21.

    Let's get these things in perspective - this was a drama, albeit based on actual events, and it's never going to be to everybody's tastes as to actual characterisations or period interpretations. In that respect this was a superb piece of television and I for one thought it reflected the events and the emotions of the aftermath. Not having reached my first birthday when it happenedI have read so much about the accident and what followed and 'United' brought it all so vividly to life. Congratulations to everyone involved in the production.

  • Comment number 22.

    sirGreenmantle - no. 7 above - I have been a Man Utd fan/supporter since the 1955-56 season, and was 14 at the time of the air crash. I neither had nor have any axe to grind about where Man Utd fans come from.

    I heard the BBC's Home Service (radio) news on the morning of 7th February 1958, and was shocked because every "man in the street" interviewed about the tragedy by the BBC's reporter replied, sometimes apologetically, "I'm a City supporter ....." and I thought at the time how odd it was that only City fans, not United, were featured in the programme.

    Don't shoot the messenger for being an ear-witness of that sad time.

    Just seen United on iPlayer, sombre but excellent and moving.

  • Comment number 23.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 24.

    two things i learnt today both red star belgrade and real madrid asked the governing body to let the european cup stay in manchester for a year after the final they were turned down...... but they did invite united to take part in the ec 1959 along with wolves but the fa said no........

  • Comment number 25.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 26.

    Just to say what an excellent drama. Well done to David Tennant and Jack O'Connell-
    superb acting.

  • Comment number 27.

    Well done BBC! Choked back tears until the very end and a wonderful performance by the cast. As a Man Utd fan, I've been more than aware of the disaster at Munich but this brought it home harder than anything before.

    A wonderful production

  • Comment number 28.

    I'm a Blue, and proud of it, but this was one of the best pieces of television I have ever seen.

  • Comment number 29.

    I thought United was excellent - good script, good acting, and so beautifully shot it was breathtaking in places. It even reduced my football-hating best friend to tears.

  • Comment number 30.

    [20. At 11:51am 25th Apr 2011, Paddock1956 wrote:
    I think Sandy Busby has every reason to dislike the portrait of his father in this drama. Whereas Bobby Charlton, Harry Gregg and Jimmy Murphy are shown in an heroic light, Sir Matt is shown as a cold, sinister, manipulative thug. This is a ludicrous and unfair misrepresentation of the warm and friendly Matt Busby. Sure, he could be tough, but he had a real love of the beautiful game, and had a fatherly attitude to his players. ]

    I'm surprised at this comment - that's not how I saw the Matt Busby character at all.

  • Comment number 31.

    Thought it was well done, however, and these are small points: Gregg had a number one on the back of his jersey in the film - numbers for keepers didn't come in for quite a while; Bolton took the field in the film wearing white shirts with red trim and red socks - they actually wore white shirts trimmed with a dark blue trim and white socks with dark blue trim; in the film gregg followed murphy out at Wembley - it was Foulkes. These are easy to get right or maybe not.

  • Comment number 32.

    Congratulations to the production team for this most moving documentary memorial. It was of a very high standard and brought us the emotion of those times.

  • Comment number 33.

    Magnificent Drama, still holding back the tears, As a baby in 1958 I never realised, the extent that Munich had, on the football nation, after watching this it now becomes clear. I heard my Grandad talk about The Busby Babes, for years,and trying to equate that tragedy with anything in the present day is impossible. Its only now I realise that those young lads who survived would have had to endure those memories all their lives....Being an Ashington lad the following of Bobby Charlton (and Jackies)careers was second nature..Its portrayal of Cissy excellent, she coached junior football teams in Ashington, well into her Retirement...and love the pipe smoking Mark Jones in the tunnel. Well done BBC..


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