Cameron Carter reviews BBC2's programmes on the Munich air disaster and questions the use of thematic dramatisation in the build-up to football matches

United (BBC2, April 24) was a dramatisation of the Man Utd story from Bobby Charlton’s breakthrough into the first team to the frantic rebuilding after the Munich air crash.

There were some jarring moments. Matt Busby, ghosting around in a camel coat and fedora, appeared to have arrived, talking tough out the side of his mouth, straight from the set of Brighton Rock. Occasionally, a dramatic point or private thought was transposed into the dialogue, just to make us clear on a central message. Ideally, this should be fairly seamless, but Bobby Charlton’s grief-stricken tirade at the German doctors – “I’m just a footballer! I was playing a game in Yugoslavia and now everyone’s dying!” – gave an unwanted glimpse of the dramatist’s notes, while a gruff Charlton Athletic player saying “You’re just kids! How can you win like that when you’re just kids?” in the tunnel at Old Trafford was too contrived for comfort. And also, can we not just let Alan Hansen forget his little error?

But United as a whole was powerfully restrained, resisting the temptation to club the viewer into submission with the tragedy or lapse into melodrama. The scene in the plane during the third and final take-off attempt, hands pressed to tables and luggage shaking in the racks, was strong enough to induce an uneasy sense of voyeurism. The after-shock – the coffins in the gymnasium, Bill Foulkes and Harry Gregg in the home dressing room surrounded by strangers – was succinctly effective.

A few days later, in Sir Bobby Charlton: Football Icon (BBC2, April 28), the real Harry Gregg recalled the crash. Gregg spoke of looking out of the plane window to see waves of snow created by its wheels as it tried to gain speed, then impact, then “daylight and darkness”. Anyone not shocked, moved or even artistically impressed by his description has had their soul stolen while they were in their front room watching OK! TV.

As for Sir Bobby himself, while he’s not an edgy character – images of Bobby Charlton apparently trigger the same reaction in the brain’s synapses as those of a churchwarden or one’s mother’s housedress – he makes an engagingly modest teller of his own incredible story. Brother Jack’s favourite memory of him, from their childhood, is being nutmegged and chasing after his little brother with Bobby laughing, half through glee, half through fear of reprisals, as he scampered away with the ball. The last word was left to septuagenarian Bobby. “I’m a lucky lad,” he said twice, softly, thinking of his career in the game and the seat he decided to remain in on a chartered flight more than half a century ago.

We have all experienced lows – such as crying at the end of The Secret Millionaire while eating microwaved liver – but Football Focus and MOTD2 have reached a new and previously unimaginable low in thematic presentation. In recent weeks, a preposterously extended motif has been stretched to the limit in the introduction, apparently to enhance our quality of viewing.

First, MOTD2 had Man City and Sunderland “on the oche”, before embarking, inexplicably, on a feature-length Bullseye-themed introduction. Football Focus came from Aintree on Grand National day, so the talk was all of hurdles in the race for the Premier League, Wayne Rooney as a “non-runner” and much, much more. Then, on Easter Sunday, Colin Murray prefaced the Arsenal v Bolton highlights with a bad enough Heartbreak Hotel theme applied to Arsenal’s fading trophy hopes, followed by Jonathan Pearce creating a new world record for the hamfisted insertion of Elvis Presley songs (seven) in the opening line of a football commentary. Perhaps someone might mention to the producers that there really is no need to spoil us with such inventive wordplay. Just show the games.

Judging by The Quite Remarkable David Coleman (BBC2, May 3), Coleman single-handedly ran BBC sports presentation through the 1960s and 1970s. Respected for his unsurpassable professionalism – he commentated on 11 Olympic Games and once climbed out of a car crash to get a taxi to the studio – Coleman was simultaneously feared for his “exacting” standards in the studio. No one ever replicated the trapdoor orgasm of his voice at the peaks of sporting achievement, while everyone wanted his voice as the soundtrack to their own moment of glory. Before he became a gurgling, chortling area of incoherence in a sweater, we should remember that Coleman was a titan among broadcasters and the only man capable of creating a catchphrase from a scoreline.

From WSC 292 June 2011

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