United They Stood

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Chris Morley stands United.


With the Chris Chibnall era of Doctor Who fast approaching, we here at Warped Factor thought it a good time to look back through some of the incoming showrunners previous on-screen work, and with Manchester United having sewn up the first major trophy of the football season after beating Southampton on Sunday to win the English Football League, what better place to start than with the 2011 drama United.



Directed by James Strong and written by Chibnall, United is based on the true story of Manchester United's "Busby Babes", with the film's events taking place between August 1956 and May 1958. In particular, the film focuses on the experiences of Bobby Charlton, played by Jack O'Connell, and assistant manager Jimmy Murphy, played by one David Tennant.

The pair had earlier worked together on 42, Chris Chibnall's first contribution to Doctor Who lasting exactly that number of minutes in real time as Tennant's Doctor sought to save the crew of the SS Pentallian from burning up/being possessed by the sentient star Torajii.

An Earthbound disaster of a different sort is what claimed the lives of several of the Busby Babes - young players nurtured at Old Trafford by manager Sir Matt Busby, played in United by Dougray Scott, aka Alec Palmer from the Doctor Who episode Hide.


The catastrophe in question is the Munich air disaster of 1958, the players & staff of the Red Devils making their way back from a European Cup tie against Red Star Belgrade when tragedy befell them. As the club's official website would remember.
"February 6th will forever be circled on the calendars of everyone connected with Manchester United.

On that day in 1958, the darkest day in United's history, 23 people - including eight players and three members of the club's staff - suffered fatal injuries in the Munich air crash.

Flying back from a European Cup tie against Red Star Belgrade, the team plane stopped in Germany to refuel. The first two attempts to take off from Munich airport were aborted; following a third attempt, the plane crashed.

Twenty-one of the people on board died instantly. Aeroplane captain Kenneth Rayment died a few weeks later from the injuries he sustained while Duncan Edwards - one of the eight victims from the team - passed away 15 days after the crash."
In writing his script, Chris Chibnall drew on first-hand interviews with the survivors and their families. Tennant, not a fan of the beautiful game himself (even though his Doctor was first to play it in The Lodger, Gareth Roberts' comic-book story later adapted for television & seemingly tailor made for Matt Smith, who did have aspirations towards turning professional having had stints in the youth teams at Northampton Town, Nottingham Forest & Leicester City), was drawn to the human side of the story.
“I read the script and I thought that if this is affecting me as much as someone who doesn’t care much about football and it doesn’t play a central part in their life, then I can only imagine how it will affect those that do. It’s a moving and extraordinary story and a powerful experience to act in.”

He did, though, admit to never having heard of the man he was supposed to be portraying.
"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. 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."
Tennant's portrayal of Jimmy Murphy went down well with the critics. Jim White, writing for The Telegraph, stating...
"David Tennant's performance as the central character should alert every award-giving body."
It was not only the performances from the lead actors in United that drew acclaim, Sam Wollaston in The Guardian wrote...
"At the heart of Chris Chibnall's poignant drama is the tragedy that claimed eight of the Busby Babes. It's beautifully done – powerful, haunting and very human. And if you didn't shed a tear, then you're harder than I am."
In recreating the crash, to help portray that powerful imagery it was felt it would be appropriate to see events unfold through Charlton's eyes. Jack O'Connell felt that the scene had a dream-like quality.
"It has a lethargic feel. So it doesn't necessarily seem like reality. There's a hazy sense about it."
Dougray Scott went on to say,
"We filmed the scene [of the crash] on a military base up in Newcastle...There were some people sitting in seats without a scratch on them, dead, others without a scratch on them alive, some with terrible injuries and dead. It was an emotional part of the shoot."
Not everyone was happy with United's portrayal of events though, including Sir Matt's son Sandy, who seemed displeased that the BBC hadn't the decency to contact the Busby family during production, and that they'd omitted some of the players from the film.
"Why didn't they include other players that died and were injured in the crash? If I was one of their family I would be very upset.

I was disgusted with the portrayal of my father. He had this camel coat on, and a fedora, and all through the film he was never seen in a tracksuit. He was known as probably the first tracksuit manager at that time. I was disgusted."
Perhaps predictably a statement from the Beeb sought to downplay this, saying that,
"It was a dramatic choice to focus on the stories of Jimmy Murphy and Bobby Charlton but the same story could have been told in many ways as all are equally important.

The story of the Busby Babes is of huge social and cultural significance in this country and this film is a respectful and fitting portrayal of the spirit of the club and community as they fought to overcome this tragedy."

Indeed, it's that very spirit which some see as the beginning of the trend for seemingly 99% of the country to nail its colours to the Mancunian mast! Including one Christopher Eccleston, a Salford lad & United fan who's since said that realising he would never play for his home town club was the first big disappointment of his young life. He's remained a passionate supporter, though, & gave an interview to the Observer's sports pages on the subject back in 2002.
"Some of my earliest memories are of my dad talking about the Babes, specifically Duncan Edwards. 'He was a man at 16,' he always said. He was a great guy but kept his feelings to himself, but at any mention of that team he suddenly became filled with emotion."
It was his father who took him to his first game at the Theatre Of Dreams, Bristol City at home in 1973. As he would recall,
"The result was a letdown but it was just so exciting to go. That was the relegation season. People these days won't appreciate it but for many years after that United were the underdogs, until we finally won the league in 1993. Us being the underdog was one of the attractions of supporting United in the Seventies and Eighties. City always turned us over; we were the joke of Manchester. We have enjoyed our success in the Nineties because it took so long to come."
Just to rub salt into the wound it was ex-United favourite Denis Law, one of few players to ply their trade for both Manchester sides, who scored the goal for City which relegated his former employers! In Eccleston's eyes at least, though, the matchday experience was better back then.
"I don't enjoy the Old Trafford experience as much any more because of a lack of atmosphere. Everyone now has to sit and success has attracted a different kind of supporter. It's big business now and corporate entertainment has killed the atmosphere. Roy Keane was bang on with his comments about 'prawn sandwich eaters'. I loved Roy for saying that."
Within three years of that piece being written, he was the Doctor, & would be hinting to Noel Clarke's Mickey Smith that, yes. the TARDIS scanner could pick up sports channels!
"Yes, I get the football."
Whether he had time to watch it with the Slitheen having returned - that exchange occurring during Aliens Of London - is another matter, mind......

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