IT was a defining moment in football history. When a plane carrying Manchester United players crashed on its third take-off attempt on a slush-covered runway in Munich in February, 1958 it brought to a tragic end the best team the great Matt Busby was ever to manage.
Most people know about the tragedy in which eight of the young, hugely talented players – nicknamed the Busby Babes – died.
But what most people are less familiar with is the story of its aftermath: the survivors’ struggle with guilt and terrible injuries and a lack of desire ever to play football again.
A young Bobby Charlton was among the survivors, as was Busby himself, and now their side of the tragedy is the focus of a new feature-length BBC drama, United, made in the region with the help of £150,000 investment from Northern Film & Media.
It stars Dougray Scott – who’s made quite a name for himself in America with roles in Mission Impossible ll and Desperate Housewives – as Busby, and former Dr Who David Tennant as trainer Jimmy Murphy, while talented young Skins actor Jack O’Connell joins the Scotsmen in a lead role as Ashington-born Charlton.
When I caught up with filming in Durham, O’Connell was in a hospital bed for a scene set the day after the crash, when Charlton first learns the roll-call of victims, their names read to him from a newspaper by a German patient.
It’s a moment Charlton himself has written about in his autobiography and here it’s a quiet, intense scene, shot in the former psychiatric hospital in North Road – the drama of the crash having already been filmed, though not dwelled upon in the drama.
That part of story is well- documented, while its aftermath isn’t, point out producer Julia Stannard and director James Strong.
“We made this a character study. It’s not a disaster movie,” says Strong, on a break from the shoot. But the human angle is every bit as dramatic.
Busby – himself left fighting for his life in hospital, alongside star player Duncan Edwards who was to die 15 days afterwards – was plagued with guilt.
“I’ve been looking at Matt Busby interviews on DVD and YouTube and was struck at how candid he was about his feelings of guilt about what happened and how he couldn’t get over it,” says Dougray Scott who, with hair slicked back and wearing a heavy overcoat, looks typically 1950s. “He said he wanted to die.”
He adds: “This is a simple and moving story of what happened.”
During Busby’s two-month hospital spell, trainer Jimmy Murphy pretty much held the club together, its eventual return to success the result of the men’s long, painful re-building process.
The chance to play Busby was always going to appeal to a football fan like Fife-born Scott, a keen supporter of Hibernian Football Club.
“He’s an iconic figure, such a famous figure in football,” says the 45-year-old.
This drama is as much about his story, the development of the club and relationship with the Babes.
“I’m such a big football fan and I had a close connection with football as a boy, so I was drawn to the story,” says Scott. “It’s such an important part of the history of Manchester United.”
As for the suggestion this recaptures a very different type of football and footballer to players of today’s huge-salaried game, Scott reckons the “overpaid” label is nothing new.
“It makes me laugh – I thought the same myself.
“But if you look at history and what older people say about football, their perception of the game is the same as it was 30-odd years ago.”
The actor, who played the villain in Mission Impossible ll – hand-picked apparently by Tom Cruise himself – and Terri Hatcher’s love interest in Desperate Housewives, has just made another film in the US. In My Week with Marilyn, he plays Arthur Miller in the story of the playwright’s relationship with siren Monroe (Michelle Williams).
In real life, he retains his Scottish accent but has, by all accounts, got fellow Scot Busby’s voice off to a tee.
“It’s not often I get a chance to play Scottish.
“You don’t want to do an impression of someone, but have something recognisable that people can relate to – and with him it was the voice.
“With Arthur Miller it’s his voice as well – and there’s something physical about him. With Busby, it’s a particular speech pattern and facial expression.”
The naturally exuberant O’Connell, meanwhile – at 20, the same age as Charlton was at the time of the crash – has been reining himself in to play the more reserved nature – typical of the 1950s – of football legend-to-be Charlton.
World Productions’ 90-minute drama covers Charlton’s return to Northumberland, where the man who was to become the hero of the 1966 World Cup began to come to terms with his trauma.
Keen to get the sensitive subject matter just right, director James Strong interviewed as many survivors as possible ahead of filming. Cast also visited the Old Trafford ground and spoke to people who’d known the Babes.
Sir Bobby, still so closely connected with Manchester United, understandably didn’t want involvement, but sent a nice good luck letter, says Strong.
Back-to-back houses in his home town of Ashington feature, as does the Swan Hunter shipyard – for the exterior of Old Trafford plus interiors of Busby’s office and boardroom – and Carlisle training ground.
Of course, the Northern Film & Media investment – through the creative content fund managed by Northstar Ventures – is what secured the Manchester United drama for the Newcastle United-mad North East, but it was the next obvious choice considering Charlton is such a big part of the story.
And it turned up ideal locations, doubling as 1950s Manchester and Germany, says producer Julia Stannard.
Made on a £2m budget in just a month in the run-up to Christmas, cast and crew were faced with some of the worst weather on record.
“It’s already a challenge to make a feature-length film in four weeks, but add on the problems of filming in snow and trailing a crew around in difficult conditions!” laughs Stannard.
It was so bad that a crucial day’s filming on the training ground had to be abandoned, leaving one scene to be shot back in London.
And, ironically, on the one day that snow would have helped them, it turned more mild.
Stannard says: “The Munich air crash happened largely because of weather conditions, so the scene set around that time would arguably have benefited from the weather.” But, frustratingly, when they came to shoot Munich runway, the snow thawed and they had to bring in a snow machine.
Final touches will be made to United in March and it’s hoped the BBC commission will screen at Manchester Festival in the summer.
Stannard would also like to see a special screening at Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle, where the cast watched Pathé film reels featuring the real Busby Babes.
THE sky was laden with snow when the plane carrying the high-spirited Busby Babes – the team ready to take on the world – stopped off for re-fuelling in Munich, West Germany, on its return from the European Cup match in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
The youngest ever side to win the Football League, they were set on becoming only the third club to win three successive league titles.
Six points behind Wolverhampton Wanderers, with 14 games to go, they were due to face the Wolves on their return.
And time was a pressure. Under new league regulations, any team competing in Europe had to be back in England 24 hours before their next championship game.
The build-up of slush on the runway is said to have caused the plane to plough through a fence and into a house as it attempted take-off for the third time. Of the 44 people on board, 23 people were to die. Aside from the eight players, the victims included journalists, supporters and crew.
Among them was South Shields-born trainer Tom Curry, who’d played wing-half for Newcastle United in the 1920s.
And of the survivors, there were others, besides Bobby Charlton, with North East connections.
Ray Wood: the goalkeeper who signed from Darlington, was from Hebburn, having started his career as an amateur with Newcastle United.
Albert Scanlon: the badly-injured player recovered enough to continue playing league football and was sold to Newcastle United in 1960 for a reported £16,000.
Margaret Bellis: a stewardess, from Whitley Bay.
George (Bill) Rodgers: a radio officer, from Wallace Street in Houghton-le-Spring.