“THE following story is based on real events.”
It was a freezing cold day in January when I visited the cast and production team on their final day of filming for BBC2 drama United.
The location was Seven Kings Park in Ilford, east London, which contains a number of relatively isolated football pitches.
Plus a small sports pavilion, including changing rooms, straight out of the 1950s.
It was here, in the space of one day, that many of the training scenes (both before and after the crash) featured in United were filmed.
With the production wrapping just before the fading afternoon winter light turned to darkness.
David Tennant was there, dressed in a Fifties’ tracksuit, long socks and football boots.
As well as Dougray Scott, Jack O’Connell and Sam Claflin in their period outfits.
Along with other members of the cast, director James Strong and producer Julia Stannard.
Hopefully you will have read my two main United features here and here.
You can also get a flavour of the location from the Guardian video here.
(Squint your eyes and you can see me standing behind the goal…)
And below are edited extras – highlights of some the interview material I couldn’t squeeze in to the main coverage.
If you’re reading this before you’ve seen the film, it obviously contains spoilers.
United is on BBC2 at 9pm this Easter Sunday.
It’s a remarkable production that doesn’t claim to tell the definitive story but just some aspects of it.
Including a tale of two men – Jimmy Murphy and Bobby Charlton.
(The below pic was one of several taken at Ilford)
Dougray Scott (Matt Busby):
A dream role for football fan Dougray, a Hibs supporter?
“I guess it gets pretty close, it being Matt Busby, with him being Scottish. I’m not unusual in loving football, coming from Scotland. I’ve watched football since I was a boy. I’ve played football. My dad was a footballer. He came from a similar area to where Matt Busby came from. We’ve had many iconic Scottish figures in the game who came from Lanarkshire, where Matt Busby came from – Bill Shankly Jock Stein.
“They were all from villages next to each other. The Lisbon Lions (Celtic) that won the European Cup in 1967, they all came from a radius of about three miles of each other. It’s kind of a phenomenon and it’s something that we’re all very proud of. We do have a great history of football in Scotland, believe it or not. You have to go back a long way.
“Interestingly enough, in one of the scenes in this film, Alan Hardaker (Neil Dudgeon) who was Secretary of the Football League, came and said to Matt Busby, ‘You know, you’re not getting to play in Europe.’ And Busby said, ‘You don’t dictate to me what we can and can’t do in Europe.’ Hardaker had stopped Chelsea playing in it the year before, which is why Hibs ended up playing in the European Cup – one of the reasons. The other reason that I don’t really talk about is because we had floodlights and you needed to have floodlights to play in Europe. But we got to the semi final in that year.
“I wouldn’t say it paved the way for Man Utd to compete. But certainly it’s something at Hibs that we cling on to as a piece of history, cos we ain’t got much else. We haven’t won the Scottish Cup in 110 years and it might be another 110 years before we win it again.
“So it’s Manchester United. It was an incredible football team that he built up from when he came in February of 1945, I think it was, that Busby joined Man Utd. They didn’t have a stadium, they had an overdraft at the bank, they were in a bad way. And slowly but surely he built up from 1945 until 1958, when the tragedy happened, an incredible young football team. They got the title of the Busby Babes from members of the press at the time. I think he was indifferent to the name.
“He was so focused as a manager and he had watched a lot of European football over the years. He was a big fan of Real Madrid, who tried to get him to go there. He was very flattered by it but at the end of the day he was Manchester United through and through.
“And he had an interesting journey in his life. He was an intelligent man. As a young man, he was earmarked for being a schoolteacher because he was very bright in his school. But he left school at 14. His dad died when he was about four. He was brought up by his mum and his step-dad who he didn’t get on with. He left school at 14 and went to work in the mines, played football for the local team and then had a trial for Rangers. They found out he was a Catholic and said no thanks. Celtic found out he’d had a trial for Rangers and said no thanks. So he ended up going to Man City. And at 17 it was a strange place for a young boy to end up. But that’s where he went to. And he played for Man City for years.
“During the war a lot of managers, players, ghosted for other clubs. And he actually ended up managing Hibs for a few games as well. It always comes back to Hibs, doesn’t it?
“And in 1952 they had a memorial for, I think it was Gordon Smith’s testimonial at Easter Road, where Man Utd came and played Hibs. Hibs won 6-2. I’ve got the programme from that testimoninal. Can I go on? Can I mention any more about Hibs? Jock Stein managed Hibs. George Best played for Hibs, who, of course, was in the 1968 European Cup winning team.”
Does he see parallels between Busby and current Man Utd manager Alex Ferguson?
“Yes. There are many parallels. Different personalities. Alex Ferguson is, I think, a lot more vocal with the players. That’s not to say that Busby wasn’t. But he approached human beings in, perhaps, a different way. I’m not at all criticising, God forbid, what Fergie does, because it’s very effective. But we all know about the infamous hairdryer technique that he’s employed on players. I’m a huge admirer of Alex Ferguson and what he’s done in football.
“But I think the philosophy that both of them employed was – you build a team from a core of players in very important positions on the field. And then you build the rest of the team around that. They were both Scottish and both unique, in the sense that when Busby was there he took a very young team that surprised everybody, not just before the Munich air crash but after that. And even after the crash, they got to the FA Cup Final against Bolton. They got beat because the goalkeeper got pole-axed, his jaw broken. And Ferguson similarly took a young group of players at Aberdeen and won the European Cup Winners’ Cup because they had great self-belief. And that’s what the young Man Utd team had.
“And then watching an interview with Busby in 1973 with a guy called Arthur Montford, who’s quite famous in Scotland. He was a football pundit and had this sports programme called Scotsport. And in that interview Busby said about the Munich air crash that he wanted to die afterwards in the hospital. He didn’t want to live. He felt such guilt, for many reasons. But he wanted out of football. His wife persuaded him to go back – because he’d chartered the private plane, he felt under pressure to get back for the Wolverhampton game on the Saturday – he had to get back by three o’clock on the Friday afternoon.
“But the other thing that came out of that interview was Montford asked him what he thought about the state of the game today. And he said, ‘You know, I worry about the game today. Players will play with a smile on their face.’ And it’s like listening to Fergie talking now about the state of the game.
“So everybody has the same opinion about the years gone by. Back in ’73, Busby’s talking about football when he was playing, before the Second World War, after it as well. And he was saying, ‘There’s so much more money in the game. I think it’s in danger of losing itself.’ And it’s just like looking at one of the old codger’s now talking about the state of the game. And I’m sure in 30 years’ time they’ll be saying the same thing about their time in 2011. I don’t know how, though, because are on 150 grand a week.”
The story arc of the film?
“The story essentially focuses on the team as it was in 1958 and their journey to the European Cup and obviously the plane crash and what happened after that, kind of seen through the eyes of Bobby Charlton and his difficulties in coming to terms with what happened, as well. And the relationships between the players and the coach Jimmy Murphy and obviously Matt Busby’s influence over the whole football club.
“Murphy had a huge influence. He was the right-hand man. They were good friends, in so much as they spent most of their time at Old Trafford. Busby had seen him give a lecture in the Second World War to a group of players and remembered what he’d said and very quickly brought him in as his coach at Manchester United.”
Did Busby acknowledge the role played by Jimmy Murphy?
“Yes. He undoubtedly had a very positive effect on the development of Manchester United as a football club which set the foundation for where Manchester United is today. As did Busby.”
Were there moments when filming this when he got real sense of the loss?
“Yeah. We were filming the scene of the crash at a military base in Newcastle. Apart from the fact that it was very realistic, the way that the set designers had set the airfield with the plane that was cut in half…the thing about the plane crash was that there were some people who were sitting in seats who didn’t have a scratch on them. And there were other people who were sitting in seats that were dead that didn’t have a scratch on them. And then there were some people with terrible injuries, Busby being one of them. He was lucky to survive. He had the Last Rites read to him twice in hospital. And so that was very surreal and brought it home, the whole thing. The hospital scene as well and the scene in the gym with the coffins, those young boys who had their lives ahead of them and they were tragically cut short.
“You see him in the hospital and at the Cup Final, where he attempts to give a speech to the players but just can’t. Because he walks into the dressing room and he looks up. There’s two faces he sees that he knows – Bobby Charlton and Harry Gregg – and the rest of them he doesn’t. They’re new. It’s just too much for him, as it would be for anyone. They were his boys. He brought them up from these young, innocent, wonderfully talented lads and he constructed them into the vision that he had. Of how football should be played in a very attacking style and he was incredibly proud of them. And then they were gone.”
“I always react emotionally to scripts and obviously I’ve got a huge passion for football. I read this script and I was incredibly moved by it and I wanted to be a part of the story. They asked me to play Busby. So I read it and really responded to it and thought I could bring something to it, even though I don’t think I’m anything like Matt Busby. But things change as you do something with the hair, the make-up. And you look at documentaries, hear the voice. Who knows? But it was just something I instinctively felt that I really wanted to do.”
Making a Hollywood film versus a TV production like this?
“The trailers are bigger. It’s different but ultimately it’s the same. It’s about trying to portray the character as realistically as you possibly can.”
The danger of making Busby a gentler character than he was. Also quite tough? Quite ruthless in the decisions he made?
“But that’s his job. That doesn’t make him a ruthless human being. That makes him a successful football manager. There’s a difference. That’s just part and parcel of being a football manager. You’ve got to be. There’s no room for sentiment. That doesn’t make you a bad human being or someone who’s not sensitive to other people’s feelings. At the end of the day, if a player’s not right then you say, I’m sorry but you have to move on.
“He was tough. He’s not portrayed as being syrupy. All the interviews that I’ve read with him, they all say that he was a tough man but at the same time he had a great humanity to him. That’s what you felt when you walked into a room. He had a warmth to him, a compassion. He did care about people. But he had a side to him that he needed to have in order to survive in football.
“He was an interesting man. You see pictures of him coming out of the hospital and he’s smiling and laughing with the doctors. But in his private moments, I’m sure it came back to haunt him. So you see different facets of him, aspects of the character. You see him warm and relaxed but tough when he’s with Hardaker and the Football League. He’s got that side to him, that’s like, ‘Don’t mess with me, because I’ll mess with you.‘ And that comes out of where he’s from. He was digging coal off the coal face at 14. And if you’ve got that, you don’t have to show it. You don’t have to raise your voice. He didn’t. Other people do. And it works.”
Your football skills?
“Not as good as I wanted them to be, that’s for sure. And not nearly as good as my father’s. But that’s life, isn’t it? I played left midfield, I played sweeper, behind the centre half. I played left back a bit as well. I was a leftie. I played for local teams and for my school. I got a bad injury when I was 14, otherwise I would have been a contender.” (laughs)
Dougray organises the Leuka Masters Charity Golf Tournament in Chiswick every summer. Might he invite Alex Ferguson to play one year?
“Fergie? He’s asked me to play in his tournament. I’ve never played in it but it would be interesting. I think they’re always on tour or in America when we have it, because we have it the Friday of the Open Championship. This year it’s the 15th of July. Who knows?
“I’ve met Alex Ferguson a couple of times. An interesting character. Liked him. I’ve just got such admiration for him. He comes out of the shipyards and come and have a go. And it’s brilliant.”
Julia Stannard (Producer):
Why was this production filmed mainly in the north east – not the north west – and at Carlisle’s ground?
“United is a northern story so we were very keen to try and make it in the north of England. Bobby Charlton’s from Ashington in the north east and the boys are from Salford and Yorkshire.
“We looked at locations in the north west and the north east and I guess we could have shot it in either place. But we were lucky enough to be offered some funding from North East Screen. It’s a commercial venture, you have to be mindful of those things and it tipped the balance.
“We found some great locations there. We were based out of Swan Hunter, the old shipyard. Some of the warehouse type buildings were fabulous for Old Trafford and we made our exterior stadium out of that. In some of the empty spaces in there we built sets and we made a life-size replica of the actual plane. We put that in one of the spaces there and shot that.
“Then we filmed at Durham Hospital for Munich, at an Army air base up there we made our runway. So the north east was a very good home for the film.”
The real locations in Manchester are far too modern now? Plus did the funding tip the balance?
“We knew we wouldn’t really get our locations in the south, so we were always looking north. And quite early on, the north east came in with an offer of funding. So it would have been perverse to not take that up. It gave us a really nice texture for the film. They gave us £150,000. The budget of the film is £2m.”
You have to be sensitive to the wishes of survivors and families? What can a drama add that a documentary can’t?
“We’re very much trying to tell the human story, the story of a team, the first superstar football club of the 20th century and how boys with so much promise were destroyed by such a random and tragic accident. So I think it’s the human story about what that does to the people involved and the relatives of those people and a community. How you go into rebuilding a team when something like that has happened.
“Of course we don’t know exactly what Matt Busby said to Jimmy Murphy but we’re trying to get a sense of what it must have been like to live through that and I hope we’ve done it preserving the dignity of the people involved. We’ve certainly spent five years researching the subject and reading memoirs and reading accounts from the people who were involved. We’ve researched it as thoroughly as I thinnk you can and tried to take the spirit of all those people’s stories and bring them to the film.”
Director James Strong?
“He heard about the story through a parallel project with the BBC, which was actually more about the mechanics of the plane. He thought, ‘That’s interesting, but what’s really interesting is that everybody knows the headlines of Munich 1958 but who actually really knows the detail?’ So that prompted him. So he’s been writing and talking to various people and brought it to World Productions. And then it’s just been about the funding and the casting.”
Contact with families of the survivors?
“Jimmy Murphy is one of our main characters, who wasn’t on the plane because he was managing the Welsh team. And because Matt Busby was in hospital following the crash, it was left to him really to re-build the side. We talked to his two sons in Manchester and it was great to get an essence of what their father was like. David Tennant was there for that and I know he found it very useful. Harry Gregg is in touch with us, one of the other survivors. We went up to Old Trafford and we walked around the stadium and we talked to people there. And everybody who was either a survivor or connected with it, we’ve let them know that we’re making the film. Their feedback has been very helpful as well in the script.”
Did Jimmy Murphy have survivor’s guilt?
“No. His sons say that he was either at work or at home and he didn’t really talk a lot about how he was feeling. But from his actions we’ve pieced together how he must have felt. But we don’t have any inside information about how he was feeling. He had a long career in football following that. But even within that season, 1958, the team that he built from nowhere, from the ashes, went on to the FA Cup final, albeit they were beaten. It’s quite an achievement in itself.”
The timeframe of the film is 1956 through to the end of the season in 1958:
“We end with the FA Cup final. It would have almost too good to be true if they’d won. So it helped us dramatically in a weird way. We have Matt Busby’s team talk in the Wembley dressing room with the remainder of the team he built and then saw destroyed.”
Filming the crash itself?
“We’re not making a disaster movie, we’re making a film about the rise of a great team and then this tragic accident. And we didn’t want to major on the crash itself. But I think the details of it are quite important. As I say, we tend to know the headlines but not the detail. There were three attempts at take off and after the second they actually disembarked the plane. And I think there were probably some conversations about whether a third attempt was going to be possible. I think it was important to tell people this.
“So we have built a plane and we have those scenes and we have the timeline so we can see exactly what happened when. But we go as far as the turbulence on the plane and we know we’re going to crash. And then we pick it up again on the runway in as sensitive a way as we can because we don’t want to be showing dead bodies of the characters we’ve learned to love in the first half hour of the film. It’s very much just about the facts at that stage, impressionistically told through Bobby’s point of view as he comes round on the runway and sees the devastation around him.”
The atmosphere filming the crash scenes?
“You create a dramatic world. And even within our few weeks of all working together, it’s ‘Oh, this person’s dead, this one, they’re not going to be in our scenes tomorrow.’ You begin to get a sense of what it’s like to work closely with people who you learn to respect and care about. I think we felt that a lot through the making of the film, particularly the boys. We were really keen that they bonded and felt like a team on screen.
“Before we started filming, we spent a week together. We went up to Tottenham and met Harry Redknapp and we watched the Tottenham team training and they saw a game at Palace and hung out with the players before and after in the dressing room, just to get a sense of what that’s like. I think it almost worked too well because when we came to the deaths, it was quite painful.”
Filming the football scenes?
“That so much isn’t what our film is about. Also we don’t really want it to only appeal to football fans. Obviously today we’re filming training sessions and we did so up in the north east as well. When we were up there we had a trainer from Carlisle with us and we actually filmed at Carlisle football ground because that, in many ways, is closer to what Old Trafford would have been in the Fifties, in terms of it’s not quite as high-tech. So that worked really well. And today we’ve got two trainers over from the Westway.
“Jack O’Connell (Bobby Charlton) is actually a very good footballer and the Carlisle trainer said if he ever wanted to change his career they might take him. And Sam Claflin (Duncan Edwards) as well. We did try to make sure that we weren’t just casting good actors but people who could actually kick a ball with some authenticity. I think it’s important.”
The Old Trafford visit?
“They run a tour and have a Munich museum. One of the guides was a mature gentleman who is probably the last word on the story and he spent a couple of hours with us and the cast. He took us around and let us walk on to the pitch. Just to give them a real sense. You can really feel the history in a club like that. It is built on how it survived that tragedy. I’m a Liverpool supporter and I get a sense of it in terms of Hillsborough and Heysel, so I can feel an affinity in that sense, that your team is the history and those real events, how can you not be affected by them?”
Any other contact with the club?
“I think they very much want to be neutral because they don’t want to sanction a film that they’re not heavily involved in. And I don’t think it would be in their interest to be heavily involved in ours. They’ve been very co-operative in terms of arranging visits. We wanted to make sure all our details were as correct as possible so we’ve been in touch with them quite a lot, checking details, getting in touch with survivors, and they’ve been really helpful in terms of doing that.”
An ensemble drama?
“It is an ensemble piece and obviously that changes as the focus of the story changes. We start off very much…it’s the Busby Babes and it’s Duncan Edwards. Bobby Charlton isn’t even in the first team at that time. And then as the story develops and we lose some of those characters, then Jimmy – who’s been far more peripheral in the beginning – suddenly it’s absolutely fallen on his desk. And he clearly says – and we did get this from his sons – he never wanted to be a manager. He never wanted to be the person in the suit. He was always the person in the tracksuit. But it falls to him to rebuild the team. So then the focus is very much on him and also on Bobby who questions what the game means to his life and what it’s done to his team mates. So it becomes more about them and about Harry Gregg at that point and Matt Busby, who we see recovering in hospital and at the end of the film coming back and rejoining them.”
A 2006 BBC film was the first time the story had been dramatised on TV. But you are telling a fuller story?
“What we’ve tried to tell is a very human story about the rise of a team, a tragic accident that destroyed some of their number and how that affects a community and how you overcome that. So it’s far more a general story that happens to be about football. It could have been about a cricket team, it could have been about a pop band. Football is very much in the background and it’s more the human story and the personalities involved.”
Some people may say you’re making money on the back of tragedy?
“It’s a story that we all know about. We felt it was an important story to tell. It’s part of our history and sporting culture. All we can do is be sensitive that we don’t milk the tragedy. And I hope we have been mindful of that.
“We are holding a special screening where we will invite all of the relatives and the survivors to see it privately, so that they don’t see it for the first time in public. I think there’s always going to be some degree of criticism whenever you tell a story like this. But all we can do is be sensitive and respectful, try and get it right, preserve the dignity of the people involved and we’re very aware of that.”
A lot of fans want these people remembered and the story told?
“Absolutely. We hope it will feel like a fitting tribute to the memory of people involved.”
“We’ve made him aware of it. But when he’s been involved so heavily in the 50th anniversary, I think that was probably quite an emotional time and brought it all to the forefront again. I don’t think he felt ready to be involved again so soon. But he’s aware of it and has no problem with us making the film. There’s actually a documentary being made about him by the BBC at the same time, so I think the two things probably would have been too much.” (The BBC2 documentary will be screened next Thursday – April 28 – at 9pm)
A young generation of viewers may be shocked by the contrast with today’s highly paid superstars and the Busby Babes, who lived in B&Bs and got the bus into town?
“It’s interesting how much is similar and unchanged and how much is very different. It’s not all doom and gloom. It’s also a story about a great football team. The conflict between the FA and the management of the individual teams is still current. Rising transfer fees which even those days – even though they’re peanuts compared to what we expect now. And you see the rise of the first superstar football team. Duncan Edwards is the David Beckham of his day and he’s being paid to sponsor products. So you see the birth of modern football as we know it.
“And then the differences. It was funny going to meet Harry Redknapp. He had seen the last game that the Busby Babes played in England before the crash and so it was something he felt very connected to. But he said – bloody footballers nowadays, they’re so coddled and namby-pamby. They (the Busby Babes) would have been training in the snow and the wind. And they were in our film.”
Today was an extra day of filming to replace one snowed off in the north east before Christmas?
“It was quite perverse in that it’s a film about football and you need to have green fields and people running around. So as much as we could, we did. We were clearing snow from football pitches and we had teams of people with shovels. But we weren’t quite equal to the challenge of the weather in the north east.
“And then when we did film on the runway and obviously wanted snow, it thawed for three days. So we then spent money on special effects snow. It was a runway on MoD land.
“When you’re making a film of this nature, it does steel you. You look at what people were going through and the detail of the story and you can’t get too upset about being a bit cold. You’ve just got to get on with it and cast and crew were terrific and just soldiered through.”
Do we see the home lives of the players?
“Yes. Obviously in the immediate aftermath of the crash Bobby went home to Ashington to recuperate. So we see him with his mum (played by Melanie Hill) and his family at home. That part of the story takes us back to Ashington and his home life. But mainly the emphasis is on the collective.”
Are you filming using the real old heavy footballs?
“They’re period balls. We’ve done our best to be correct with all the details. We haven’t had any injuries. Only a few people falling down in the ice on the way home from pubs but not on the training pitch. We had to have the kit specially made and the socks and all of that stuff because the materials are all so different now.”
“We see the boys in the run up to Munich. They’re very much celebrities and they’re out on the town with their girlfriends in bars. We see their glamorous lifestyle at that stage. And then we see the wives and girlfriends, the WAGS of the day, worrying about their loved ones because nobody knew immediately after the crash who had survived and who hadn’t.
“So we have those scenes and then we have a very moving scene where the coffins are brought back to Old Trafford and the relatives come to say their farewells. We used Carlisle for inside the ground, where the seating is. But the back room structure of Old Trafford, we shot that up at Swan Hunter and we used a school gymnasium for that scene.”
Did anything surprise you?
“Certainly going back to Manchester and the legend that Duncan Edwards was. I’m a keen football supporter but I wasn’t aware. And Jimmy Murphy, the role he had in the story. I think it’s the unsung heroes. It’s a nice opportunity to tell their story and to make sure that when people see ‘Munich ’58’ they don’t just remember Bobby and Matt, they remember all the other people – and Harry Gregg, who rescued people from the plane. An opportunity to put them a little bit more foreground in people’s minds.”
There is a poignant postscript during the end titles which tells viewers what happened to those who survived. At the time of this interview, that had yet to be finalised:
“We are going to and we’re constantly re-visiting what those words should be, because there’s so much to tell. What happened to the people who were injured and their careers were blighted? What happened to each and every person on that plane. Not just the footballers, other people were killed too. Bobby and Matt Busby…we could write a book. So that’s going to be quite a detailed discussion in the cutting room which we haven’t resolved yet.”
James Strong (Director):
“There isn’t a massive amount of football in the film. Obviously it’s all about a football team but we deliberately avoided some of the mistakes of some of the previous attempts at doing football on screen. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do convincingly. So we just have training, we don’t have any matches. Because it is about football, obviously, and Manchester United but they could have been soldiers, miners, they could have been anything. It’s what happens to them, the emotional side of it rather than the footballing side of it.
“But equally the footballing side of it is the revolution that Matt Busby instigated by using such young players and his methods. So that’s a big part of it. But that’s the sub-text, if you like. We don’t actually follow any matches particularly. So the football that we do have is training.
“We looked at as much archive of the time and did a lot of research. We talked to Jimmy Murphy’s sons about his training methods. A lot of them are very similar to today. We had coaches – like today, Adam from Queen’s Park Rangers and John from Carlisle United when we were up in the north east. So we always had a football person with us to make sure, as best we could, what they were doing looked authentic and didn’t look embarrassing.
“And we made a real effort to cast semi-professional players as our extras. So they look like footballers. Footballers walk in a certain way and they look a certain way. All actors claim they’re brilliant at horse riding and accents but pretty much we were very lucky with casting actors who could all play a bit. Especially Sam (Duncan) and Jack (Bobby). They’re actually really good footballers. I think Sam was semi-professional with Norwich and had a really good career before he got an injury. Jack’s a good footballer. So that really helped. Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards were two of the best footballers ever, so you have to have some ability. So we were incredibly fortunate that the two of them were actually exceptional footballers as well.”
Been involved a long time? First proper drama telling the full story?
“This has taken about five or six years to get off the ground in this form. I was initially hired years ago to do a documentary for the BBC. But it was the science part about the crash, the ice on the runway and stuff. Reading about it, you realised there was this incredible story of this manager Matt Busby and his incredible team that he created. And an incredible tragedy that unfolded with the crash.
“And I couldn’t believe that it had never been told before. There had never been a film or even a proper dramatisation of it. I know there was that BBC thing which I didn’t do. It was quite a low budget telling of certain aspects of the story. So I always felt there was a gap to do it as a proper drama.
“And it’s the emotional story. It’s about the people, it’s about their human story. What Chris the writer so brilliantly did was focus it in on two people, Jimmy Murphy and Bobby Charlton, to try and tell this big story but through the eyes of two people and bring it down to the key individuals.
“Jimmy Murphy very much was an unsung and and unknown hero in this story. I think Man Utd fans probably know him and recognise him for what he did for the club. But I don’t think anybody else outside of Man Utd fans really realise just what he did to keep that club going in those days after the crash.”
What were the challenges of putting on screen 1950s’ Manchester when you’re filming in Newcastle, Carlisle and Ilford?
“It was a big challenge. It’s a relatively low budget film and it took five or six years to get the money together to make it. And then there was the challenge of telling this huge period story with an aircrash in the middle of it and a big ensemble cast on our budget.
“We wanted to shoot it in the north west. But we found more in the north east. Obviously certain bits of it do exist in Manchester but the package in the north east meant we could almost go there and do all of it. We were slightly hampered by the weather, which then meant we couldn’t do any football stuff, which is why we’re here today.
“But also the north east with Bobby Charlton going back to Ashington after the crash. So some of the film is actually genuinely set there. And also Screen North East were one of our investors.”
Did the success of The Damned United help with funding?
“I’m sure it did. We didn’t hear it directly. But I think the fact that it had been made and been successful showed that a film about football people and is essentially a football story will work. It can’t have done us any harm.”
United has a great cast?
“That was the strength of the script. Chris Chibnall wrote a brilliant script, a very economical and a very emotional script. We always knew we’d get the young people but to attract those bigger names for the older people was what we hoped for. I’d worked with David Tennant before but I didn’t know if he’d be interested in it because I knew he wasn’t a massive football fan. But he phoned me that night and said, ‘I think it’s amazing.’ And it didn’t matter that he’s not a massive football fan. It appealed to him on a human level. It’s about people.”
Did the story come fresh to David?
“He’d never heard of it. He’d heard of the disaster but he didn’t know all of the ins and outs. And I think most people won’t realise the whole story of the political machinations of the league and the pressure that Matt Busby was under to get that team back to avoid points being deducted. And what it was to take a team into Europe at the height of the Cold War. To travel abroad was a big thing. And to defy the Football League at that time. Chelsea before had not done it and followed what Hardaker and the Football League told them to do. And they (Man Utd) defied it.
“The travel arrangements became more and more precarious and pushing it. Then the actual getting back from Belgrade and to Munich and the weather. All the time lines are so tight. They shouldn’t have been attempting to do it three times. But they obviously thought it was safe. But three attempts? Crazy.”
The crash scenes?
“The whole thing has been done very much with the co-operation and the involvement of the survivors in terms of the research. So we’ve tried to be as accurate as possible and try and take from exactly what people said, their first-hand accounts, of what it was like.
“And that’s followed through in the way we’ve shot it. We haven’t had the budget to do a hundred million dollar crash. I wanted to shoot the whole thing like – it’s a period film but hopefully with a contemporary feel, so it feels relevant to a modern audience. But the crash stuff is very much from the perspective of the passengers, from Bobby and from the people on board. It’s as if you were a passenger.”
Films he looked to for inspiration?
“The look is a mix of quite old films like Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and the kitchen sink dramas of the time and This Sporting Life. Up to quite modern art house stuff. Hunger was a big influence. No Country For Old Men was a bit, and The Diving Bell And The Butterfly. So quite modern art house stuff.”
Is he a football fan?
“I support Tottenham. But I lived in Manchester for five years, so I’m a bit of a closet Red. I worked for Granada.”
TV Drama United To Tell Story Of Busby Babes