Last Night's TV: One Life, BBC1
The greatest save he ever made
Thursday 07 February 2008
When I was at school, I once travelled on the same plane as Matt Busby, a momentary brush with greatness that seemed to impress my contemporaries but the significance of which had to be carefully explained to me at the time. My problem was that I didn't speak football, and since I've only picked up a handful of words in the intervening years, it's possible that I'm not the ideal reviewer for One Life's film about the Munich air crash, a programme that required a fluent grasp of footballing myth and might-have-been. Built around the experiences of just one survivor, the Manchester goalkeeper Harry Gregg, and narrated by James Nesbitt in tones of religious solemnity, Munich Air Disaster was a ceremony of commemoration as much as it was a documentary, one that non-believers could only sit out in respectful silence.
It isn't difficult to see why it mattered so much to people at the time. "I had joined the Hollywood of British football," said Gregg, recalling his record-breaking transfer to Manchester United. The Busby Babes generated excitement and a sense of potential at a time when there wasn't a lot around in austerity Britain. So it seemed particularly cruel that this brightening flame should be snuffed out with the death of eight of the players as they returned from a fixture with Red Star in Belgrade. It's even easier to see why someone who actually survived the crash would think of this event as a pivot in their life, and recall the details that surrounded it with unfading exactitude. But neither fact quite extinguished the uncomfortable sense, watching the film, that we were lurking around waiting for an old man to cry.
Gregg's instincts in the immediate aftermath of the crash were admirably selfless. The first thing he consciously heard was the pilot yelling, " Run, you stupid bastard, it's going to explode." The second thing was a baby's cry, at which point he went back into the wreckage to rescue it, and its mother. Safe hands, indeed. So I doubt anyone would begrudge him the emotions he felt as he retraced his steps. Entering the old airport buildings in Munich, he was startled by the strength of his feelings. "Do me a favour," he said tersely, "forget the camera for a while... let me walk about a bit." When the camera sidled back again, as if reluctant to be excluded from the prospect of tears, his face was purple with stress. But at other moments, you sensed the absurdity of the film's expectations, as when he revisited the Munich hotel room to which the survivors had retreated after the crash. The camera stared solemnly at interior decor that bore no relation to that in place 50 years ago while Gregg discussed the placement of the hotel lift with the manager. And occasionally his embarrassment with the ritual became apparent, as when he met up with the woman he'd pulled from the wreckage and the child she'd given birth to two months later. "I don't know what to say," Gregg stuttered as they were introduced, and exchanged stilted expressions of gratitude and modest dismissal. Then again, as I don't speak football, perhaps I just needed a better translator.
Wonderland has already established itself as a strand worth keeping an eye on, not always entirely comfortable in its appetite for human eccentricity (when precisely does empathy for difference and oddity slide over into mere consumption of it?), but now reliably producing something distinctive every week. The Madness of Dancing Daniel wasn't quite as fully shaped as some earlier films, perhaps because its narrative was inherently open-ended, but it didn't break the trend for films in which the singularity of people's lives is what compels you to keep watching.
Daniel is a young man psychologically damaged by childhood abandonment and neglect. He had one stroke of luck in his life, which was to bump into a family charitable enough to take him in when his heroin-addicted mother finally overdosed, but his sudden transposition from the wrong side of the tracks to the right hadn't been enough to spare him from a disabling personality disorder. The point of the film was to follow his treatment under a new kind of regime, one aimed not at hiding Daniel away but at integrating him into normal life.
He doesn't fit easily. "He isn't an arsonist... he's just loopy," said his father, explaining the incendiary consequences of Daniel's conviction that a stove top is a good place to dry your clothes. Even his specialist, a Professor Tyrer, couched his recent improvement in oddly unclinical terms. "I shouldn't use the word, but it's the only word in my vocabulary... he's less 'irritating'." Fortunately, Daniel can also be charming, naively articulate and, though it doesn't always read as courage, brave in trying to control his own anxiety when the world looks as if it is about to pull the rug out from under him yet again.
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