BBC Two’s United is based on the true story of Manchester United’s legendary “Busby Babes”, the youngest side ever to win the Football League; the 1958 Munich Air Crash that claimed eight of their number; and the extraordinary spirit of a city that rebuilt the team in the wake of the disaster. The Munich Air Crash killed 23 of the 43 passengers onboard, including supporters, journalists and embassy staff.
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David Tennant (Doctor Who) stars as coach Jimmy Murphy, alongside Jack O’Connell (Skins) as Bobby Charlton, Sam Claflin (Pirates Of The Caribbean) as star player Duncan Edwards and Dougray Scott (Mission: Impossible 2) as manager Matt Busby.
Written by Chris Chibnall (Law & Order: UK) and directed by James Strong (Doctor Who), United was shot in November and December 2010 in and around the north of England.
What attracted you to United?
“I’ve worked with James Strong (director) and Chris Chibnall (writer) several times before and James sent me the script. I knew it would be worth reading because it came from him. I’m not a football expert but I was completely bowled over by the incredible story and journey that Manchester United went on. I thought that if it had grabbed and moved me as much as that, then clearly the story must be universal, worth telling and something I wanted to be part of.”
What is United about?
“The film is about all sorts of things because what happened is so extraordinary. On a very basic level it’s a true story but it also looks at the arbitrary nature of fate, the capriciousness of life and the triumph of the human spirit. The film deals with how we pull ourselves together after tragedy, because people cope with grief in so many different ways. We’re telling an utterly compelling and dramatic story as it happened. As I started to research this, I realised there’s a fair amount of quibbling over detail but the basic facts of the story are indisputable.
“The film also follows the relationship between Jimmy and Bobby Charlton. You see him finding Bobby, nurturing and bringing him through. It was a hugely important relationship for both of them. Bobby Charlton said he learnt everything from Jimmy Murphy and credits his career to him.
“We try to tell the story and honour it, because it’s a story that should be told. It’s extraordinary that this hasn’t been dramatised before. There’s never been a straightforward film or TV drama about this extraordinary dramatic story and it’s long overdue.”
How did you prepare for the role of Jimmy Murphy?
“I’d never heard of Jimmy Murphy, which is shocking considering what he did. That’s part of what I like about the fact we’re telling this story. Matt Busby said that Jimmy was the most important signing he ever made at Manchester United but I didn’t realise what Jimmy did after the crash. When you’re playing a real person there’s a balance between playing the person in the script and playing the person as he was in life. You have to be respectful and true to who that person was, but at the same time tell the story in the film.
“I tried to find out who Jimmy was and about the facts of his life but inevitably I can only filter that through who I am. Physically I’m not particularly like Jimmy; I’m a bit taller and slightly younger than he was at that time. Quite early on I had to accept what couldn’t be changed and then move towards what could be achieved.”
What was it like meeting Jimmy’s family?
“Jimmy’s family were incredibly welcoming and helpful. From meeting them, I got a sense of this very driven, warm and humble man who was terribly dignified in the way he conducted himself. He was clearly a brilliant teacher and football was a life vocation for him. I think the two loves in his life were Manchester United and his family and he was hugely passionate and invested in them both. His family spoke with great warmth towards him and took huge pride in talking about what Jimmy did and achieved.”
What are your impressions of Jimmy?
“Jimmy shunned the limelight and was happier on the football pitch. He enjoyed training young people and finding the football stars of the future and was incredibly gifted at nurturing them. I think Jimmy found himself in a situation that he didn’t crave; being manager and solely responsible for keeping the team going. He must have felt like he wanted to grieve but to fight the very human impulse to chuck it all in is hugely impressive. He met the challenge and not only did he keep the team going, but he made them extraordinarily successful against all the odds.
“Post the crash he got offered the most extraordinary jobs in world football, for huge sums of money, but chose not to take them. Instead, he stayed as the Assistant Manager until he retired.”
What research did you do for the film?
“I knew about the Munich air crash, because it’s a huge part of history, but I didn’t know the details so I started reading about it. We managed to get hold of lots of newsreel footage, which was compelling because it revealed the national feeling at the time. One of the hardest things to recapture is the sense of what it was like to live through that event. Inevitably you start finding the modern day equivalent; those moments when a news report comes through and the world feels different.
“It’s inconceivable that a bunch of the nation’s greatest, youngest, most dynamic and most celebrated sportsmen should all be wiped out in an instant on the brink of their potential being realised. It’s one of those events that doesn’t seem to have precedent; it seems totally unfair, random and ghastly.”
How do you think Manchester United changed after the tragedy?
“It’s difficult to know because I wasn’t around so all I can go on is written accounts of the time. I get the sense that what happened in Munich in 1958, how the team coped with it and how they came back from the brink, was possibly the beginning of Manchester United as the kind of world football team they are today. The way they conducted themselves and struggled back with such dignity and fight, has inspired an international love for the team and that is due in no small part to what Jimmy did.”
Was it useful watching Tottenham Hotspur in training and meeting Harry Redknapp?
“The way football is run now is completely different to how it was in 1958; they train very differently and the structure is different. I had to be careful not to take too much from the modern experience and assume it was like that back then. But the principles are still the same; getting out on the pitch and training, practising and working hard, and having a level of commitment are things which will always be true.
“It was fantastic to see behind the scenes at Tottenham Hotspur but the resources they can employ are far beyond what Manchester United had back then. Manchester United weren’t a particularly wealthy club, which seems absurd as they’re a multi-million pound international business these days. Harry Redknapp saw the final game that the “Busby Babes” played in the UK. It was their penultimate game ever which was against Arsenal. It was interesting to talk to him and feel that link through history. He talked about being utterly inspired by this extraordinary young team that was unlike anything that had been seen before.”
How did you find the filming process?
“I’ve been very inspired by it and I just hope we do the story justice. Filming was very tight because we were making a drama with feature film ambition on a television budget. The ambition of the piece was met by everyone involved and it looks stunning. Ed Thomas (Production Designer) is such a talented man. Every time you walked onto a set, whether a real location that had been transformed or something that had been built, it just immaculately recreated the world of the Fifties. It was also lit and shot very beautifully by Chris Ross and James Strong’s love and attention to detail for the subject is evident in every scene.
“It feels very thrilling to be part of; there is a spark and something very special between all the guys who are playing the footballers. You get a real sense of the joy in them as a bunch of young actors who are all full of talent and bursting with potential. That is very easy to compare with a football team in the same place, with the world ahead of them. Of course it’s also terribly shocking when you relate that to what happened in ’58.”
How did the adverse weather conditions affect filming?
“It was a bit tricky because we only had four weeks to shoot, which didn’t give a lot of wiggle room in the shooting schedule for the unseasonable downfall of snow in Newcastle last December. There were lots of people with shovels everywhere; shovelling snow wherever we went. It’s a bit tricky when you’re making a film about football which, inevitably, has to be shot outside now and again. There were a few scenes that had to hang over so we could find a patch of grass to shoot them on.”
What was it like working with Dougray Scott?
“Dougray got to do his own accent, so he had the advantage there! When he first turned up he did this voice which was exactly Matt Busby, it just came growling out of him. When you hear some of the footage from Matt Busby, you can tell he had a very distinctive and extraordinary timbre and Dougray got it down to a tee. I think he’s a fantastic choice for the role and he’s a huge football aficionado; he knows everything so was a great resource for any football trivia that needed clearing up.”
United airs at 9pm on Easter Sunday 24th April 2011 on BBC Two.