Putting On A United Front

The 1958 Munich air crash that deprived a young Manchester United squad of eight star players is reenacted here with Skins' Jack O'Connell in the role of Bobby Charlton, before the name meant much to anyone. He does excellent work looking ambitious but green, then pale and beaten in the post-crash scenes. The unfailingly brilliant David Tennant plays opposite him as team coach Jimmy Murphy. Judging by the ex-Doctor's impeccable Welsh accent, those years spent honing his skills in Cardiff have finally paid off.

United (Sunday, 9pm, BBC2) opens with a flash of devastation--blood drizzled on snow, then two players slumped in seats that have been ripped away from the plane's fiery carcass--that we won't visit again until much later on. Rewinding two years, a frustrated Charlton wonders why he's yet to make the first team. When he does finally, you can guess (or look up on Wikipedia) what happened.

Indeed, there are no plot surprises for anyone familiar with this sad sporting tale. They're not needed--the original story has it all: heroes, tragedy and huge helping of triumph over adversity. Though you'll sob loudly and proudly throughout, you'll also leave with an optimistic glow. That's because of Murphy, seen here refusing to let the team shut down after the crash. It was a bold and risky move, trying to build a new squad from the ashes, but one that would make him a legend.

Dubbed the Busby Babes--a nod to their youth and their pushy Scottish manager, Matt Busby (Dougray Scott)--this was a wonder-squad that had enchanted the nation. Writer Chris Chibnall tries to give us a sense of their unrivalled prowess before the disaster by restaging Charlton's debut match. He scored twice helping Man U thrash Charlton Athletic 4-2. "You're just kids! How can you play like that?" enquires a shocked, and comparatively elderly, opponent.

It's easily the most dramatic and compelling tale in footballing history, but one that could have been trashed with a careless retelling. But this is moving, wonderfully acted and big on historical minutiae, like the maximum wage. A more experienced teammate suggests Charlton tells girls he's a plumber because they're bound to find his measly packet (£15 a week) a turn off. Somehow, you can't quite imagine Rio Ferdinand offering a wet-behind-the-knees Wayne Rooney similar advice.

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