'I would be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious about my responsibility as an Irishman to try and get it right' - Fergus O'Brien on directing powerful BBC drama Mother's Day
The drama tells the story of Jonathan Ball (3) and Tim Parry (12) who were killed by bombs planted by the IRA in Warrington on the eve of Mother's Day, 1993, and the aftermath of the tragedy.
It has been twenty-five years since the IRA planted two bombs in bins in the shopping area of Bridge Street in Warrington, England. The bombs injured dozens and claimed the lives of two boys, three year old Jonathan Ball who died in the blast, and 12-year-old Tim Parry, who died in hospital after a brave five day battle against horrific injuries.
As she watched coverage of the atrocity on TV on the eve of Mother’s Day in 1993, Clontarf woman and mother of two Susan McHugh felt compelled to do something to prevent another child from dying in this way. She spoke on RTE Radio 1’s Liveline and soon found herself heading up one of the biggest peace rallies in the Republic, attended by thousands on O'Connell Street in Dublin.
Mother’s Day – a new BBC production in association with RTE - charts the events of that day and the aftermath for Tim’s family, particularly his parents Wendy and Colin, and how their tragedy moved an ordinary woman from across the Irish Sea to strive to effect change.
It’s a remarkable, powerful, and incredibly moving feature-length drama from Irish director Fergus O’Brien with a top notch cast including BAFTA winner Anna Maxwell Martin and Daniel Mays playing Tim’s parents Wendy and Colin and another BAFTA winner, Vicky McClure, and David Wilmot in the roles of Susan McHugh and her husband Arthur.
The feature marks O’Brien’s second foray into drama having worked as a documentary maker for almost 20 years (his first drama for the BBC, Against the Law, earned him a BAFTA nomination last year), but as an Irishman living in London he was particularly drawn to this story. It was also a passion project for the writer, Nick Leather, who is from Warrington and would have been the same age as Tim Parry at the time of the bombing.
“He was heading in to town that day buy a Mother’s Day card, but fortunately for him he was a bit later than Tim and so he was turned back,” Fergus tells Independent.ie. Together they approached the Parrys and the McHughs about becoming involved with the project.
“The Parrys wanted to know why we were doing it, why we wanted to revisit it, and they were sort of thinking whether it was something they wanted to rake up, but I think overwhelmingly their lives have been very defined by what happened to Tim,” says Fergus.
They set up a charity – The Tim Parry and Jonathan Ball Foundation for Peace – in the wake of the bombing and, ultimately, they felt the film would draw attention to it and its work.
The McHughs were, however, “a little more reticent”. Despite the fact that Sue’s motivation for action in 1993 was purely to save the lives of children, she found herself embroiled in controversy as parents from both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland, who had lost children in the Troubles, questioned why this woman from the south had never highlighted their children’s stories in the same way she responded to the deaths of Tim and Jonathan in the UK. By 1993, 138 children had lost their lives as a result of violence.
“Having been so involved back in that window of time in ‘93, they had stepped back and gone back to their ordinary lives and they were quite anxious it might rake things up again,” reveals Fergus. “As the film shows they had some difficult things to deal with, people who were very upset with them, people who were threatening them, and they were worried that might be reignited.”
Once they were assured they would be kept “in the loop” and consulted on each draft of the script, however, they also came on board.
Watching the film, and with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy perhaps to label Sue a little naive, and her initial reticence about being involved is also perhaps understandable, but how many people in the south in 1993 really understood, or took the time to understand, what life was really like for families living up north, and just how complex and sensitive the politics were at that time?
For Fergus, growing up in Dungarvan, Waterford, in the ‘80s he felt, like many people in the south, more of a connection to London than Northern Ireland, since London was where so many people emigrated to at that time.
He quotes a line from the script; it’s when Sue is being grilled by people from different sides of the political divide on a radio show and she’s asked what her impressions are of the North and she says, ‘I think for lots of us in the south the north is like that room that nobody wants to go into, and when you do it hurts’.
“I think that’s certainly how I used to feel. I used to feel, ‘Oh bad things happen up there. I’d rather not think about it’. And I think that’s the way a lot of people felt,” says Fergus.
He adds, “When I was setting out to make this drama I would be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious about my responsibility as an Irishman to try and get it right and to not be unbalanced, or to be even-handed about how such a complex story should be told.
“But really I had a gift in the character of Sue McHugh because she is a very emotional person, and I feel she was driven and motivated in a very beautiful and pure way by her heart, and what she instinctively felt as a mother was a grave wrong, but of course what she ended up doing in the process of articulating her desire for the end to it all was she ended up standing on a lot of people’s toes and annoying people and making a lot of people cross.
“And being able to tell that story allowed me to reflect on just how complex and treacle like the politics were and how much hurt and how much emotional wounds there were that were never going to be solved. There was no way of making sense of it all in a way that was going to appease everyone and so really at the essence of what Sue was saying was, ‘look we can’t find answers to all this that will make everyone happy so really maybe all we can do is draw a line under it and say enough is enough’ and that’s what she did.”
The first half hour of Mother’s Day is particularly tough as it depicts the bombing and its immediate aftermath in a very visceral way. It is not, however, over-sentimentalised, which is something Fergus says he “tried very hard” to avoid.
“I think often in these things they can quite easily become melodramatic and you can be just really squeezing out all of the melancholy and the grief and I thought, actually it’s all there and I don’t need to do that,” he says. “We were quite sparing with the music and a lot of those things that are often used in drama to press buttons and to provoke reaction. I think it’s very stripped back in that way.”
This feeds into the performances too, particularly Anna Maxwell Martin’s phenomenal turn as Wendy – a masterclass in subtlety and restraint. She probably has the least dialogue as Wendy retreats into herself after Tim’s death, in contrast to her husband Colin, who wants to speak out about Tim and work with the McHughs in their quest for peace.
Fergus did not want the actors to meet the people they were playing until after filming ended as he felt the burden would be too much. Instead they worked from archive material and from information he gleaned from interviews with the families. He says all four were anxious about portraying real people who would ultimately see the film.
While Sue and Hugh had been quite vocal at the time, Wendy was more reticent, which makes Anna Maxwell Martin’s performance all the more impressive.
“What I felt really strongly from [Wendy], as did the writer, was that I had the impression - and I think it’s not uncommon with mothers in such a tragic set of circumstances - of that overwhelming fear that if you turn the tap on and allow that grief to pour out, the concern is that you won’t be able to turn it off and you’ll become swamped in it. And her primary and probably primal instinct was to try and keep everything together, and try to keep it going and make life in some way normal for her surviving children.”
Fergus describes the film as a “portrait of grief” and, although it’s not alluded to in the film, he reveals that in real life Sue had lost both her parents in quick succession in the months leading up to her peace rally.
“I think she was emotionally quite raw and sensitive to loss so when she was reading all this stuff in the papers and seeing stuff on television and looking at her children it was all those feelings,” he says.
“And the feeling of the loss of loved ones was very naked in her and she feels it was probably something in that that was part of the thing that spurred her because it was so out of character for her. She is the most brilliant but most unlikely campaigner and advocate that you’d ever imagine.”
Mother’s Day had its premiere in Warrington this week, at the Peace Centre set up in memory of the boys. Both the McHughs and the Parrys were in attendance for what was, Fergus says, a very “special night”.
It was not the first time they had seen the film, however. The director held private viewings for both families in their homes, which were particularly emotional. Seeing it for a second time with their friends, family, and community in Warrington was also a very moving experience.
“The response from everyone was really humbling. Everybody found it incredibly moving and a very accurate take on what they remembered of what happened in Warrington on that day but also many of them are friends and associates of the Parrys and they felt it was an accurate take on what was going on with them too,” says Fergus.
“I think for the families, particularly Wendy and Colin, they found it incredibly moving that second time in a room with their friends and fellow Warrington townsfolk. They were very moved and tearful but it was a great, special night.”
It’s certainly an emotional story, but Fergus believes it’s a significant moment in our history worth remembering at this point in time, in particular.
“What I love about the story is that just these regular folk sort of stood up and made their thoughts known and actually things changed,” he says. “It’s a fantastic moment in history to be reminded of that because there are so many things that are weird and not right about the world at the moment and we could probably do with feeling a bit more empowered and believing that if we stand together and try to change things maybe we can.”
Mother’s Day will air on RTE One on Sunday September 2 at 9.30pm, the day after Tim Parry’s birthday. He would have been 37. It airs the following night on the BBC.