United: Busby Babes and the Munich air crash

Sunday 24 April 2011, 11:00

James Strong James Strong Director

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"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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    Comment number 26.

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

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    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

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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