LAST Sunday's BBC film about the Manchester United plane crash at Munich was a perfect reminder of why drama cannot really tell us about history. Actual events are usually too complex to render into a palatable narrative and in the case of Munich, the fare was simply too protein-rich, the possible storylines too varied.
So the Munich disaster is a dramatic conundrum. The story of the greatest football team England had ever produced, under the greatest manager Britain has ever known, being all but wiped out in a plane crash remains immune to narrative reconstruction. Why?
The fundamental ingredients are there: the English league insisting that Manchester United return for a domestic match; the determination of Matt Busby not to forfeit English league points; the insistence of the pilot on taking off in almost impossible conditions. There you have it -- hubris galore, with Nemesis poised.
But then consider the post-Nemesis events: that Manchester United then made it to the FA Cup Final -- where they were defeated in large part by a dreadful foul on the true hero of Munich, the goalkeeper Harry Gregg.
The post-post-Nemesis is even more preposterous. Matt Busby, the manager who narrowly survived the disaster, then assembled another great team, which won the European Cup 10 years on.
At the heart of that team was Bobby Charlton, the only star of both teams, and now a world-cup medallist and a world footballer of the year.
But for the gallant Harry Gregg, who had risked his life returning to the burning plane to rescue several injured passengers, there was decline and near-ruin in the decades that followed.
Quite lost in the BBC film was Liam (Billy) Whelan, one of the last of the great left-footed midfielders which Dublin used to mass-produce in the streets around Dalymount Park.
In his final moments, he declared: "If this is death, I am ready for it." His life, his football skills, his heroic death, never make it to any portrayal of Munich. This is not because of an anti-Irish bias, but because the narrative competition is so great.
His teammate Duncan Edwards was the finest player in England: an international at the age of 17 and surely destined to be the greatest footballer in the world. He was not killed outright, but hung on for 12 days, sustained only by his mighty willpower.
The world metaphorically gathered around his hospital bed, as once it had waited for news of Little Nell in "The Old Curiosity Shop" -- until finally his grasp slipped from the greasy bar. No actual deathbed scene had ever been as avidly attended as his.
Across the world, people who had never previously heard of Manchester United now knew of this "Duncan Edwards" and his valiant attempt to stay alive. He alone merited a film.
Other participants in the tragedy are now largely forgotten -- such as Frank Swift, who had once been a goalkeeper with United's great rivals, Manchester City, and the best goalie in England. His fingerspan was so large he could catch a football single-handedly. Instead of then hoofing it upfield, he pioneered the role of goalkeeper as playmaker, with long throws to his teammates. His playing career over, he became a sports-writer, thus creating the concept of footballer-cum-pundit. He was dragged from the plane alive, but died of his injuries.
And there was Donie Davies, the 'Manchester Guardian' sports writer, a Royal Flying Corps pilot who had been a POW in a German camp in the Great War and who returned home weighing barely just six stone. He disliked flying and Germany, but 40 years on, he found he had to mix the two, just the once. But after that, he swore, neither, ever again: as, indeed, it turned out.
THE Northern Irish centre-half Jackie Blanchflower survived the crash, but he was crippled and never played again. He bought a sweetshop in Manchester, only for a new supermarket to put him out of business. He opened a bookmaker's shop, but then the great freeze of 1963 halted all racing for three months and his bookie's business for ever. He became a pub landlord in 1967. Shortly afterwards, the breathalyser was legalised, soon ruining his badly located pub. And so on.
None of this made it to the BBC film -- and for good reason. The Ancient Greeks understood that tragedy is only dramatically meaningful when it has a moral, is expressed in small, personal terms and has clear outcomes: hence the foundational dramas of Sophocles, Euripedes, and perhaps the father of dramatic tragedy, Aeschylus, a veteran of the Persian Wars. His vast experience of human tragedy notwithstanding, his dramas could almost be staged in the palm of one's hand; for it is one of the paradoxes of any dramatic narrative that the larger the tragedy, the less tragic it feels.
No one has yet managed to capture the Munich disaster in drama, because it was so large, so unfair and its outcome so varied. But then no one has ever made a film about the far vaster, but curiously comparable tragedy of The First Day on the Somme.
Drama can only convey that which remains true to drama's rule: real life is better left to journalism and to the documentary-maker.