David Tennant stands behind the goal of a muddy pitch watching the Busby Babes train once again. “I’m not a football expert but I was completely bowled over by the incredible story and journey that Manchester United went on,” he says.

We’re here on the final day of filming for BBC2 drama United. It tells of the rise of the legendary young team and how it was destroyed in the 1958 Munich air crash.

The former Doctor Who star is back in time in a world far removed from today’s Premiership multi-millionaires and their luxury lifestyles.

Tennant, 39, plays United coach Jimmy Murphy, the Welshman who nurtured the Babes and helped the club rise from the ashes of tragedy as manager Matt Busby lay critically ill in hospital.

The award-winning actor admits to being shocked once he learned the full story. “It’s inconceivable that a bunch of the nation’s greatest, youngest, most dynamic and most celebrated sportsmen should be wiped out in an instant on the brink of their potential being realised.”

Due to be screened later this month, the 90-minute film claims to be the first to tell the wider story of the young men who were the pride of Manchester and how the club survived its devastating loss.

It depicts Football League Secretary Alan Hardaker (Neil Dudgeon) telling United they cannot play in the European Cup. Busby and the club defy him.

League rules then state the team must be back in England 24 hours before Saturday 3pm domestic fixtures or League points will be deducted.

So Busby charters a private plane to carry the team, sports reporters and others to and from Yugoslavia for the midweek European Cup quarter final second leg match at Red Star Belgrade.

The return BEA Elizabethan flight stopped to refuel at Munich Airport during a blizzard before returning home to Manchester. It made two failed attempts at take off before a third ended in disaster.

A total of 23 people died, including eight United players. Eight journalists also lost their lives, including Tom Jackson of the Manchester Evening News. Among the players was England international Duncan Edwards, 21, who lost his fight for life in hospital 15 days later.

Rated one of the greatest footballers who ever lived, he is played by Sam Claflin, who was among cast members given a private tour of the Old Trafford Museum before filming began.

“It was heartbreaking,” recalls Sam. “There was Duncan Edwards’ England and Manchester United shirts, the programme from his first ever game for England, his watch and cuff-links. It was overwhelming.”

The drama also focuses on a young Bobby Charlton, played by Jack O’Connell, and how he at first shunned the game he loved after surviving the crash. “It’s hard to believe what happened to this group of young lads and what they went through,” says Jack.

Edwards and Charlton had done their Army service together and Duncan took the young man from Ashington under his wing at Old Trafford in an era when players lived in bed and breakfast accommodation. Out on the town one night, he advises Bobby not to tell girls he’s a footballer because of the low wages and short career.

Much of the crash itself is seen through Charlton’s eyes and has a dream-like quality. Jack explains: “It has a lethargic feel. So it doesn’t necessarily seem like reality. There’s a hazy sense about it.”

All those involved in the drama, written by Chris Chibnall, were determined to respect the memory of those who died and make a fitting tribute. The group of young actors playing the Babes bonded together in often difficult filming conditions. Then faced the reality of what happened to a similar band of youthful brothers long before they were born.

Most of the 2m film was shot in the north east, with an exact replica of the interior of the plane constructed on a set. Carlisle United’s Brunton Park ground doubled for the inside of Old Trafford in the 1950s.

“There isn’t a lot of football in the film,” director James Strong points out while sat in a stark dressing room much like those used by professional players over half a century ago.

“It’s about football, obviously, and Manchester United. But they could have been soldiers or miners. It’s what happens to them, the emotional side of it rather than the footballing side.

“What Chris the writer did was focus it on two people – Jimmy Murphy and Bobby Charlton – to try and tell this big story but through the eyes of two people. The human story.”

Scots-born Dougray was honoured to play Busby. “I read this script and I was incredibly moved by it. Busby had the Last Rites read to him twice in hospital and was lucky to survive. Filming those scenes in hospital brought it home, the whole thing.”

Assistant manager Murphy, who died in 1989, did not travel on the doomed flight because he was away managing the Welsh side. Tennant met his sons as part of his research into the role.

“Jimmy’s family were incredibly welcoming and helpful,” he recalls. “From meeting them, I got a sense of this very driven, warm and humble man who was terribly dignified in the way he conducted himself.

“On a very basic level it’s a true story,” reflects Tennant. “But it also looks at the arbitrary nature of fate, the capriciousness of life and the triumph of the human spirit. We try to tell the story and honour it, because it’s a story that should be told.”

Source: The Manchester Evening News April 2011