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United – David Tennant interview

The Manchester United team in BBC2 drama United

David Tennant talks about his role as Jimmy Murphy coach of Manchester United’s legendary “Busby Babes” in the BBC2 drama United about the impact the 1958 Munich Air Crash that claimed eight of their number had on the football club, the city and those who survived.

Q. What attracted you to United?
David Tennant:
I’ve worked with James Strong (director) and Chris Chibnall (writer) several times before and James sent me the script. I knew it would be worth reading because it came from him. I’m not a football expert but I was completely bowled over by the incredible story and journey that Manchester United went on. I thought that if it had grabbed and moved me as much as that, then clearly the story must be universal, worth telling and something I wanted to be part of.

What is United about?
David Tennant:
The film is about all sorts of things because what happened is so extraordinary. On a very basic level it’s a true story but it also looks at the arbitrary nature of fate, the capriciousness of life and the triumph of the human spirit. The film deals with how we pull ourselves together after tragedy, because people cope with grief in so many different ways. We’re telling an utterly compelling and dramatic story as it happened. As I started to research this, I realised there’s a fair amount of quibbling over detail but the basic facts of the story are indisputable.

The film also follows the relationship between my character Jimmy Murphy and Bobby Charlton. You see him finding Bobby, nurturing and bringing him through. It was a hugely important relationship for both of them. Bobby Charlton said he learnt everything from Jimmy Murphy and credits his career to him.

We try to tell the story and honour it, because it’s a story that should be told. It’s extraordinary that this hasn’t been dramatised before.

Q. How did you prepare for the role of Jimmy Murphy?
David Tennant:
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. You have to be respectful and true to who that person was, but at the same time tell the story in the film. 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.

Q. What are your impressions of Jimmy?
David Tennant:
Jimmy shunned the limelight and was happier on the football pitch. He enjoyed training young people and finding the football stars of the future and was incredibly gifted at nurturing them. I think Jimmy found himself in a situation that he didn’t crave; being manager and solely responsible for keeping the team going. He must have felt like he wanted to grieve but to fight the very human impulse to chuck it all in is hugely impressive. He met the challenge and not only did he keep the team going, but he made them extraordinarily successful against all the odds.

Q. What research did you do for the film?
David Tennant:
I knew about the Munich air crash, because it’s a huge part of history, but I didn’t know the details so I started reading about it. We managed to get hold of lots of newsreel footage, which was compelling because it revealed the national feeling at the time. One of the hardest things to recapture is the sense of what it was like to live through that event.

It’s inconceivable that a bunch of the nation’s greatest, youngest, most dynamic and most celebrated sportsmen should all be wiped out in an instant on the brink of their potential being realised. It’s one of those events that doesn’t seem to have precedent; it seems totally unfair, random and ghastly.

Q. How do you think Manchester United changed after the tragedy?
David Tennant:
It’s difficult to know because I wasn’t around so all I can go on is written accounts of the time. I get the sense that what happened in Munich in 1958, how the team coped with it and how they came back from the brink, was possibly the beginning of Manchester United as the kind of world football team they are today.

Q. Was it useful watching Tottenham Hotspur in training and meeting Harry Redknapp?
David Tennant:
The way football is run now is completely different to how it was in 1958; they train very differently and the structure is different. I had to be careful not to take too much from the modern experience and assume it was like that back then. But the principles are still the same; getting out on the pitch and training, practising and working hard, and having a level of commitment are things which will always be true.

Harry Redknapp saw the final game that the “Busby Babes” played in the UK. It was their penultimate game ever which was against Arsenal. It was interesting to talk to him and feel that link through history. He talked about being utterly inspired by this extraordinary young team that was unlike anything that had been seen before.

Q. How did you find the filming process?
David Tennant:
I’ve been very inspired by it and I just hope we do the story justice. Filming was very tight because we were making a drama with feature film ambition on a television budget. The ambition of the piece was met by everyone involved and it looks stunning. Ed Thomas (Production Designer) is such a talented man. Every time you walked onto a set, whether a real location that had been transformed or something that had been built, it just immaculately recreated the world of the Fifties. It was also lit and shot very beautifully by Chris Ross and James Strong’s love and attention to detail for the subject is evident in every scene.

Q. What was it like working with Dougray Scott?
David Tennant:
Dougray got to do his own accent, so he had the advantage there! When he first turned up he did this voice which was exactly Matt Busby, it just came growling out of him. When you hear some of the footage from Matt Busby, you can tell he had a very distinctive and extraordinary timbre and Dougray got it down to a tee. I think he’s a fantastic choice for the role and he’s a huge football aficionado; he knows everything so was a great resource for any football trivia that needed clearing up.