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United, the BBC2 drama reviewed

Simon Binns, a well-crafted drama, and his mam getting asked out by Georgie-boy

Written by . Published on April 26th 2011.

United, the BBC2 drama reviewed

In the late 1960s, the Manchester United squad travelled to the North East to play Middlesbrough boys and train on the rough coastline and wind-beaten beaches and sandbanks.

Busby retired in 1969, saying that United was 'no longer just a football club', but an institution. The drama was a fitting tribute to what it was before that time. I wonder if Nobby watched it wearing those glasses my Mam had rescued

They stayed in the Saltburn Hotel where my Mam worked as a 19-year old receptionist. With them was George Best, then the most famous footballer on planet, and probably the first real example of footballer as cross-cultural celebrity. He asked my Mam out and (according to her), she said no. Cheers, Mam. I could have been a contender.

On second thoughts, I could have been Callum Best, so maybe no bad thing.

She also ran after the team bus as it was leaving with the spectacles Nobby Stiles had left behind and after returning them, was given half a crown by Sir Matt Busby.

Whether he delivered it in the semi-Hollywood drawl affected by Dougray Scott in ‘United’ was unclear, but as we sat down to watch it together, my Mam did remember that he was “a lovely man,
really polite to all the staff. And the players all loved him.”

Busby wasn’t the real focus of the BBC 2 drama, however. Cleverly, the story of the 1958 Munich Disaster centred on assistant manager Jimmy Murphy, played wonderfully by David Tennant, and a fresh-faced lad called Bobby Charlton, played with equal aplomb by Jack O’Connell.

Both actors excelled, Tennant as the emotional glue that held the club together while keeping his own grief private, and O’Connell as the confused young man who lost his idols and his friends in one fell swoop.

Scott’s Busby was charismatic, determined but ultimately damaged both physically and emotionally by the crash, blaming himself. His best scenes were with the Football League’s Mr Hardaker, “ man of tables, graphs and points.”

I’d been lucky enough to be invited to a preview screening a week before it went out on TV, but watched it again anyway. A scene where Tennant enters the club’s gym to be confronted by ten coffins hit me just as hard the second time around.

Chris Chibnall’s delicate writing struck the right balance, when it would have been easy to pull too hard on the heartstrings. His screenplay still delivered some exceptionally crafted moments of power and emotion. The crash scene itself was tense, ending 30 seconds of unrelenting fear and tension with silence and darkness, before panning up the snowy runway to reveal the extent of the disaster.

There were lighter moments too, like 
when Duncan Edwards reminded Charlton to tell any potential girlfriends he’s a plumber instead of a footballer, so they won’t be put off by the poor wages and short career.

In the aftermath of the crash, the club had to rebuild itself, with Murphy at the wheel. Charlton had to put himself back together too.

The rest, as they say, is history. The club went on to success and trophies, Charlton became the club’s leading goal scorer and fulfilled a celebrated international career.

Busby retired in 1969, saying that United was “no longer just a football club”, but an institution. The drama was a fitting tribute to what it was before that time. I wonder if Nobby watched it wearing those glasses my Mam had rescued.

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BaxterApril 26th 2011.

Cracking programme, excellent value for money. Good on the BBC

Stan CullisApril 27th 2011.

Really? You thought it was good.

Most of the people I've spoken to about it agreed that it was poor, verging on cringe-worthy.

Not to mention the many factual inexactitudes.

Any person watching who didn't know better would have left feeling that United we're nailed on for the title that year, had most of the squad not perished.

Wolves (yes, Wolves) we're top of the league when the plane crashed. If the plane hadn't crashed and United had won all remaining fixtures, Wolves still didn't drop enough points to concede the title.

It could have been a lot, lot better.

Anon TooApril 27th 2011.

It was a drama, not a documentary. And a good one, I thought.

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