United – when a disappointing writer finally shoots and scores

I should declare an interest straight away before going any further with this review. I’m a lifelong Manchester United supporter. And like nearly all old-school United supporters the tragic events surrounding the 6th February 1958 when the champions of England crashed while attempting take off in Munich, returning from a European Cup tie in Belgrade, is something I have been brought up on since I was a child. This desolate tale of the finest crop of young players who had yet been assembled being pointlessly wiped out on a foreign airlfield following a night of triumph the night before is one that never fails to leave me in tears when I read articles about it or catch documentaries or interviews with survivors. Out of a total of twenty three people who lost their lives eight were Manchester United players, including Duncan Edwards, cited by many who saw him play as perhaps the greatest English footballer of all time. An emotional investment in the proceedings for myself and many other viewers was therefore guaranteed.

The second declaration should be that my heart sank almost immediately upon hearing the details of the production when I read a press release on it last year. Almost as quickly as my interest was piqued with the subject matter, the casting of David Tennant and the knowledge that a capable director, in the shape of James Strong, would be at the helm, I felt my enthusiasm wither and die when it was announced that Chris Chibnall was to be handling the script duties.

I’d have no hesitation in putting forward Chibnall’s name as one of the least able or talented individuals currently hacking their way through a career in British television drama. I first became aware of him on Torchwood. It was a series which I found to be very much hit or miss with some episodes working very well and being quite gripping and others being so poor that you wondered how the cast and crew could summon up the energy to even bother completing them. I wasn’t passionate enough about Torchwood to bother taking notice of who was the writer of each episode so it came as some surprise to me when the first series finished to note that one man had been responsible for all four episodes which had stood out as being the worst of the run by some distance. These included an episode about a sexually gratuitous gas monster (!) and one of the undoubted low points of science fiction on British television in the shape of an episode called Cyberwoman, which featured what the production team, no doubt, thought was a hot lady in a cyber bikini (I kid you not) which they probably thought would get geeky fanboys excited, but instead created a veritable tsunami of online hatred aimed at the rather schoolboy nature of the writing.

What was even harder to believe than one man being some sort of super production line of abysmal storylines, characterisation and dialogue was that Chibnall was actually the series’ showrunner – the man entrusted with overseeing the whole production in much the same way as Russell T Davis was on Doctor Who. The recurring theme which really marked out Chibnall’s episodes was a fascination with trying to make the show “edgy” and “adult” – by remarkably immature means. Other writers just got on with the business of providing good spins on the characters and dealing with mature science-fiction ideas or engaging drama. For Chibnall, however, it was all about squeezing as many references to sexual activities as he could into the three quarters of an hour airtime. To say that his scripts were puerile would be a massive disservice to every schoolboy in Britain who wouldn’t want to be lumped in with such childish and adolescent notions of what it is to be adult. You could almost imagine Chibnall rocking back and forth on his seat as he typed away, sniggering sheepishly as he whispered, “Ooh, I just got one of the characters to say ‘hard on’. Heh, heh, heh”. When the second series opened up with a Chibnall-scripted episode which made his earlier works seem comparatively frigid I guessed that this infantile effort at “adult” sci-fi wasn’t for me and I bowed out before wasting any more time on it.

Torchwood was a success though and Chibnall soon got rewarded with some writing stints on its “mother show” of Doctor Who. Both of these are bleak landscapes for anyone interested in finely crafted Saturday tea-time family viewing. They may be devoid of his tendencies towards schoolboy notions of what it is to be adult but what they lacked there they made up for in terms of lazy purloining of other TV scripts. The first, 42, was a dreary spin on real-time drama 24 across the 42 minute episode length (see what he did there?) which managed to pretty much steal its entire central plot from a 1975 Tom Baker story which Chibnall would have grown up watching and which he would have been very aware of as an adult fan. It’s writer, Louis Marks, died just last year and presumably his old age was the only reason he couldn’t be bothered pursuing a case of plagiarism through the courts. Chibnall was back last year with a two-parter featuring old monsters from the classic series, the Silurians, in which he managed to cobble together something of a greatest hits of other writers’ work on Doctor Who and prove conclusively that you can make something far, far lesser than the sum of its parts.

I had quite purposely avoided watching the Chibnall-produced UK version of Law and Order as the episodes I’d seen of the original US take on the show marked it out as being perhaps the most formulaic crime show I’ve ever seen and therefore the absolute antithesis of the current sweep of excellent new examples such as The Wire and The Killing which have helped to completely redefine what had become a very tired genre. This left two episodes of Life on Mars as the only other examples of Chibnall’s work I’d seen, the second of which was a plodding hostage in a newspaper office storyline which succeeded in being perhaps the only boring episode of a very fine series. BUT… Chibnall’s first effort for Life on Mars was a cracker. In fact, it was the first episode I watched and I thought it was so good that it encouraged me to seek out the episodes I’d missed and catch up with the series. Strangely enough, it was a football related episode featuring a murder of a fan in the lead up to a Manchester derby match between United and City. Genuinely good drama. Whatever went wrong with him afterwards? Nevertheless, perhaps there was a chink of hope for United. Perhaps the boy Chibnall had it in him to produce the goods. But only as long as it was football-related drama. Featuring Man Utd.

Well, I’m glad to say that he came up trumps.

It could have been so easy to get a drama like this wrong, and in so many ways. For instance, how do you deal with the football? Do you mock up the action? Do you cut in real archive footage? Or do you ignore it and focus on the off-field activities? On this front I’m glad to say that Chibnall and the director James Strong opted for the only correct decision – to show no football at all other than a few training ground kickarounds. Actors playing football with crowds CGI’d in behind them always looks wrong and archive footage would have been distracting. Instead the sensible decision to focus on just a couple of key figures from the United set up was made and these were obvious choices: the young Bobby Charlton, who would go onto to become one of his country’s most legendary performers and ambassadors, winning the World Cup with England and the European Cup with a rebuilt United side who finally accomplished what the tragic Busby Babes came so close to; Matt Busby, manager of the team who survived the crash and led them back to glory ten years later but who was given the last rites as he lay in hospital; and Jimmy Murphy, the coach who didn’t travel with the crash team and who led a scratch side of juniors and on-loan players to the FA Cup Final that same season as Busby and the survivors recovered.

It should be noted at this stage that the production gained some unwanted headlines in the days before broadcast when Busby’s son spoke out against it on behalf of the family with an axe to grind against perceived inaccuracies and slights. While it’s always easy to be sympathetic to the feelings of the families of deceased figures in dramas I also feel that the issues raised can be dismissed out of hand. Even as a hardcore United fan it doesn’t matter to me one jot whether or not the relative heights of Busby to Murphy are right or not. Clearly they’re not, but you hire actors who will give you a performance worth viewing and not on their inside leg measurements. Busby may well have worn a tracksuit at training rather than the typical sheepskin coat and hat on offer here but as a piece of visual dramatic shorthand it works. Dramatic interpretations of real life events can never be accurate as they will always condense events and report dialogue differently from what was actually said. Providing an engaging viewing experience while getting the important truths and main thrusts across has always got to be the priority and anything else is putting the cart before the horse.

The triumvirate of Doctor Who personnel on this production is a solid move – even if one of them had failed to cover himself in glory previously. Tennant is a solid performer who won’t let you down and James Strong had handled a number of technically demanding episodes featuring this leading man. Freed from the constraints of having to work to insane deadlines to produce other worlds on a tight budget on Doctor Who you sense that Strong relished the opportunity to cut loose with a bit more artistic freedom on this project. His opening sequence, as the camera sweeps slowly over a white landscape, gradually moving past playing cards and personal belongings as we know we are being shown the aftermath of the crash first of all until the screen settles on the young Bobby Charlton sitting unconscious in a double airplane passenger seat that has been hurled free from the plane, is wonderfully stark. There’s almost a desolate beauty to these opening images and it’s certainly a production as a whole which looks just right, Strong working well Director of Photography, Christopher Ross to produce a palette of earthy browns and greens contrasting superbly with the pumped up levels of red in the United shirts.

However, it’s not all plain sailing in these early segments of the drama and you are occasionally reminded of the limitations of the writer providing the screenplay. No more so than in one early scene between Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards set in a Manchester nightclub. As Edwards gives the newest addition to the first team some advice Charlton replies with, “That’s easy for you to say – capped at seventeen by England, the great Duncan Edwards who everyone loves”. It’s a moment of simply dreadful exposition that almost makes you wince. If someone on a creative writing course had supplied the line you’d expect their teacher to put a red line through it and you certainly don’t expect it to pop up in a quality BBC drama. They may as well just have flashed a scrolling bar across the bottom of screen reading, “The player on the left is Duncan Edwards who was capped at seventeen by England. He is popular with the fans”.

At the risk of straining a footballing analogy (actually, there may be a few more before I’m done with) the above example is the moment your team kicks off a match and starts so badly that you fear they may be out of their depth. However, Chibnall soon puts his foot on the ball and settles down to start passing about better lines of dialogue around his team of actors and before long he’s controlling the pace of the drama with great skill.

Necessarily, this means placing the crash itself slap bang in the middle of the proceedings. This isn’t a story were disaster is heroically averted or the passengers are all pulled to safety. Lots of very talented footballers die rather needlessly along with a number of journalists and ordinary men and women meaning that the real story is about how Manchester United as a club, and Bobby Charlton and Jimmy Murphy in particular, deal with the aftermath of the tragedy. In this sense Chibnall and Strong combine to play a blinder building up our outrage before the inevitable crash has even happened by showing us an over-officious little Football Association bigwig demanding that United return from European competition in time to fulfil a fixture in the English league, therefore forcing United to make the decision to catch their fateful flight.

I would actually gladly have watched a lot more of the build-up to the event with the young United players bonding together. But that would have necessitated a longer running time not afforded to the production because, as stated above, the drama has to be about the crash and how the survivors go on to deal with their feelings about it. Nevertheless, despite the short time we’ve known these characters the production succeeds in making us care about them enough to find their impending doom gut-wrenching. Chibnall takes some of the credit for this, and rightly so, but it’s a real team effort with Strong effectively raising the tension all the way. While the initial scenes at the airport are quietly gloomy against the white of the snow, there is a mounting sense of catastrophe as you sense the nervousness of the players going out to attempt another take-off and the final moments inside the plane are almost unbearable as luggage is hurled everywhere and the players fear the worst in a shaking interior as the plane attempts twice more to rise from the runway before crashing. It’s a moment which needs to be handled well, and is. There’s no over-egging of the pudding with obtrusive music or explosions or computer generated images of the crash. What we get instead is all confined to the interior and the nervousness of a group of men turning into fear and terror before we cut to Charlton regaining consciousness on the runway. Sensitively and dramatically handled. Well done, James Strong.

Key to the success of the drama though is the very sensible casting. I haven’t seen Jack O’Connell in E4’s Skins but I imagine it’s quite a contrast in roles to his performance here as the young Bobby Charlton. Being able to effortlessly move into this very different production with ease suggests that he could have a useful career ahead of him and he succeeds in conveying the earnest youth of Charlton, struggling to break into the team. It’s as the shell-shocked survivor on the tarmac and in the hospital though that O’Connell really comes into his own as we then follow the story of Charlton’s struggling to come to terms with the loss of his friends and his decision, thankfully overturned, to walk away from the game, before returning to lead a resurgent and reborn team.

Tennant is always going to give you a certain quality and, while this may be one of his lesser roles since bursting onto the small screen as the star of Casanova, it’s an assured performance. The merest hint of a wandering accent appears at times as he strays slightly away from the very Welsh tones of Murphy but if you’re looking for someone to give you agonised inner reflections followed by determined confidence to get the job done and see the day through then that’s the sort of thing which was meat and drink to Tennant every week on Doctor Who and we see it again here as Murphy originally feels the guilt at having survived by not travelling with the team before deciding that United will, against all the advice given to him, fulfil their fixtures by hiring rejects from other sides and promoting juniors well before their time.

Some of those who knew Matt Busby well have claimed that the humour of the man wasn’t evident enough in United but in all other aspects, both facially and, especially, in terms of voice, Dougray Scott really becomes Busby and his portrayal as a likeably cantankerous Scot who calls a spade a spade works well enough for me.

The only other major screentime is given to the brilliant Ben Peel as Harry Gregg, the Northern Irish goalkeeper who became a hero by returning to the plane wreckage to haul survivors (including a young child) to safety. In real life Gregg is a typical Belfast man of his generation – gruff, crabby and to the point. I’m not sure how much of the Gregg from United is in the writing or the performance but either Chibnall or Peel (or both) has put their finger exactly on that rough-edged brusqueness and the accent is captured perfectly. The rare scenes of humour in the production are all centred around Gregg, especially his introduction to his teammates at training where he gives them a foul-mouthed rollicking and a bit of a physical clattering while demonstrating who he believes is the master of the penalty box. The real-life Gregg is a gift as a supporting character, given that he was not only a hero of the crash but straight back out to play for the team in their next match with most of the rest of the team either dead or recovering from injuries, but hats off to Chibnall for some excellent lines and to Peel for really bringing him to life.

I half expected the drama to finish by cutting to some real-life archive footage of the 1968 European Cup Final when Busby sent his rebuilt United team out to Wembley to finally capture the cup they looked on course to lift ten years earlier and to become the first English team to do so. Charlton was there, though by now he was the famously balding Charlton we’re much more familiar with, alongside a new generation of youth in the shape of George Best. In the end though I feel they again made the right choice. Manchester United almost impossibly made their way to the final of the FA Cup that same season of the crash and we see the dressing room scenes beforehand and the emotion of the tunnel line-up as Murphy sees the young faces before him melt into those of his lost team. It’s a good way to end because real life sometimes has a habit of ruining a perfectly good script. United lost the final in 1958. This fact and the subsequent achievements and triumphs of the staff and team are relayed to us via text on the screen and I think it’s the right decision.

A very competent drama then from an unlikely source. I doubt that United will be mentioned when it comes to working out the very best dramas of 2011 but, to slip into footballing analogy once more, while it’s unlikely to win the title or to finish in the Champions League qualification spots, it’s a very safe top half of the table finish. And given that I expected nothing other than relegation from Chibnall that’s a fine achievement. On this evidence it’s perhaps time to allow Chibnall out of writer’s jail on parole. While I still don’t think he understands how to put together a good sci-fi script, there’s clear evidence that he has talents elsewhere. To use a footballing parlance, the boy done good.

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One Response to United – when a disappointing writer finally shoots and scores

  1. Pingback: Camelot – when boring is even worse than bad | evanrobertmarshall

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