When the BBC programme planners put their heads together to decide how they'd deal with the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster, you have to wonder how the meeting went.
"We've got an absolutely brilliant film with Harry Gregg done by our colleagues in Northern Ireland in which he goes back to Munich and to Belgrade, meeting the mother and her unborn son who he pulled out of the wreckage. We've also got two half-hour documentaries in the Nation On Film series, one an overview done by Hugh McIlvanney, the other an interview with Sir Bobby Charlton, in which he looks at all the old footage."
The boss demurs. "Don't the last two sound similar?"
"Well, I suppose they are, really. They use lots of the same footage, and even the same interview with Sir Bobby."
"Well, never mind. No one'll notice."
And so on Monday on BBC 4 we had what should have been one long piece divided into two overlapping halves. It didn't feel like a fitting way to mark such a momentous anniversary. Why didn't they splice the two programmes together and make it look like they meant it? That would have worked – although what the occasion really merited was a long film, say 90 minutes, intended as the very last word, written and presented by someone of McIlvanney's stature, or our own James Lawton, who's just ghosted Sir Bobby's autobiography. But then the days when you could rely on the BBC's steady hand are long gone.
They've messed up on Munich before. Two years ago they did a reconstruction botch job as part of their Surviving Disaster series, and it was truly awful. As Gregg said at the time, "My life has been based on fact, not fiction and I hate all these inaccuracies"
There was a fine piece of work made for the 40th anniversary, The Busby Babes: End of a Dream. It was done with supreme skill and sensitivity, speaking to everyone who counted, and was, in fact, the last word. And guess what? It was on ITV – who would have done well to repeat it this time round.
However, the BBC earned a reprieve on Wednesday, with the wonderful and emotional Gregg film, ONElife: Munich Air Disaster. The Busby Babes' goalkeeper was the hero that day, going back into the burning plane to look for survivors when everyone else was legging it, but he hates the hero tag. He says, "I am Henry Gregg of 34 Windsor Avenue, who played football, who was good at it on good days and rubbish on bad days. That's what I want to be remembered for, not something that happened on the spur of the moment."
And there was a twist of sorts. A couple of years after Munich Gregg's wife died, leaving him to bring up the children. The last word goes to his daughter, who says, "That is really the core of the pain he suffers."
So as bad as it was – and it's clearly haunted him for half a century – Munich wasn't the worst thing in the life of Harry Gregg, the reluctant hero.Reuse content