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Sam Claflin describes playing a Man United legend

Sam Claflin describes playing a Man United legend
Sam Claflin describes playing a Man United legend (Image credit: BBC / World Productions)

Sam Claflin plays footballer Duncan Edwards in United (opens in new tab), the story of the 1958 air crash in Munich which killed eight Manchester United players... The Any Human Heart actor stars alongside Dougray Scott (manager Matt Busby), Doctor Who star David Tennant (team coach Jimmy Murphy) and Skins star Jack O’Connell (Bobby Charlton). Sam talks to What’s On TV about the moving one-off BBC2 drama... What was it like to be playing a football legend like Duncan Edwards? “I’m getting to be one of the greatest footballers of all time! I’ve had an absolute blast. Getting to know the other actors, the other boys, and finding that banter that the actual boys would have actually had back in those days. It was an amazing experience.” Did you know much about the story of the 1958 Munich air crash before starting the project? “I knew there was a crash, but I didn’t know how many people died or many details about it. I’ve done all the research. I read the script and then I thought I have to find out more about this. And oh my god it’s heartbreaking. It’s a very touching story and hopefully we’ll do it proud and do it justice.” Was there extra edge to this project as its true story? “I think back in the day, especially when it happened it would have affected the majority of England. They were a youthful team and were representing England in a European football competition. This drama is about the relationships and the friendships going on, and seeing these youthful kids grow up to be men. It’s so much more than just another football film.” What can you tell us about Duncan Edwards? “He played for England when he was 18 and kept the record for the youngest player ever to play for England until Michael Owen came along so he was THE player back in the day. I think generally youthful players didn’t exist like they do now. Duncan Edwards was a gem. They called him the tank because he was a very broad manly boy who was built like a brick sh** house basically!” How did you get a handle on his character? “It’s very difficult doing the research because there are so many different opinions of people. You constantly get other people’s opinion of what happened on that day. I started picking up the evidence that I thought was truthful to the script and he’s such a big character, and a name a lot of people will know, so I felt a lot of pressure as well, but its kind of a benefit that no one knows exactly what he is like. That gave me a lot more freedom. Fingers crossed I’ve done him justice.” What was his relationship like with younger team-mate Bobby Charlton (played by Jack O’Connell)? “He and Bobby were close and lived through a hell of a lot. They were in army service together. I think Duncan really took him under his wing and saw in Bobby a natural talent. It happens every now and again, someone who’s so raw like Wayne Rooney was when he first appeared on the scene. All these players who want to be like that kid. Duncan was like a one man team, in that he could play in any position. He would have been the best player in the world had he lived through that crash. But we’ll never know one of the great tragedies of it.” What sort of heroes were they back in the day? “They were the first kind of footballers that became celebrities. Got asked for autographs, started doing interviews and Duncan was the first player to be in an advertisement and he said he only did it for extra cash to support him and his girlfriend. The wages were so bad they nearly all had second jobs. He was sponsored by Raleigh Bikes. Then they started getting flash cars, dressing smarter, getting photographed, that was the time when it all started to hit. You’ll see moments when they were in the pub and played pool as opposed to current players going to posh night clubs.” What are your football skills like? “I played until I was 16 for Norwich Academy in Norfolk, but then I broke my ankle. It used to be my burning ambition. I played everywhere, though I was very short back in the day and I wasn’t very quick. At the age of 16 it was a deciding point. I don’t think I’d have made it professionally at all. I have a footballer’s head apparently, but not necessarily the feet. I know the lingo and the banter in the dressing rooms. It’s helped hugely. It’s not been hard work, it’s felt very easy, it’s been so natural.” Have you been to Old Trafford? “It’s heartbreaking seeing the memorials and plaques at Old Trafford. The thing that really got me, was seeing all the Man Utd legends with little boxes with shirts that they wore and Duncan’s first England shirts, his watch, cufflinks, his contract. All of a sudden I was thinking he wore that shirt, he held that thing, and now I’m playing that guy and he’s not here. It was very overwhelming.” Who was the best footballer among the cast? “Jack O’Connell is definitely the best footballer among us. It wasn’t competitive in the group, but he knows he’s down and out the best. He’s really small and nippy. He used to play for Derby as a youngster. I’m a Chelsea fan. Controversial, I’m batting for the other team!” How was filming the air crash? “There were three attempts to take off and Duncan sent telegram to his landlady after second failed attempt, saying all flights are cancelled tonight, but I’ll be home tomorrow. Then they were told to get back on the plane and a lot of the boys decided to sit at the back because thought would be safer. There’s a moment between Bobby and Duncan with Duncan saying are you coming to sit with us, but he didn’t? That was the fateful wrong decision.” There are some poignant hospital scenes afterwards, aren’t there? “He lived a few weeks after the crash and died in hospital. There are moving scenes where people come and see hi. Some believe he was so fit and strong - why he survived that long. He apparently had a body like no other man and a fighting spirit. He just wanted to get better so he could play. Who knows exactly why he died? Maybe he gave up, realising he’d never be the same. It’s all so so moving.” You’ve also been filming the latest Pirates Of The Carribbean film, out this summer, which must have been exciting... “Yes, it was very different for me and a fantastic opportunity. I came off Pirates and two days after I started United so two very different projects. Opportunity to live out childhood dreams to be a footballer and a pirate. Being in pirates didn’t make me fit for this. I was all out of breath after 10 minutes training. We were all saying what the hell. When I was 16 I could do 90 minutes and now we can’t do 10!” *United will screen on Easter Sunday, BBC2, at 9pm

Patrick McLennan is a London-based journalist and documentary maker who has worked as a writer, sub-editor, digital editor and TV producer in the UK and New Zealand. His CV includes spells as a news producer at the BBC and TVNZ, as well as web editor for Time Inc UK. He has produced TV news and entertainment features on personalities as diverse as Nick Cave, Tom Hardy, Clive James, Jodie Marsh and Kevin Bacon and he co-produced and directed The Ponds, which has screened in UK cinemas, BBC Four and is currently available on Netflix. 

An entertainment writer with a diverse taste in TV and film, he lists Seinfeld, The Sopranos, The Chase, The Thick of It and Detectorists among his favourite shows, but steers well clear of most sci-fi.