Saturday 25 May 2019

Slaughter and the city

John Spain talks to the screenwriter of RTE's new gritty summer drama, which starts on Monday

Family ties: Dougray Scott and Reece Noi star in Father & Son
Family ties: Dougray Scott and Reece Noi star in Father & Son

RTE's new summer offering, Father & Son, is different. A gritty, four-part drama with the first episode on Monday, it depicts the seedy, criminal underworld of today's cities in a way that is both shocking and highly stylised.

From the cool opening titles with the music of Johnny Cash, it feels more like an American drama (The Sopranos, The Wire) than the RTE/ITV co-production it is.

It's different also because it's the work of one of Ireland's most successful screenwriters, Frank Deasy, who still manages to be relatively unknown here.

Originally from Artane in Dublin, Deasy used to work in the Eastern Health Board in child care but was always interested in writing and gradually got involved in making videos and short films.

These days he lives in Glasgow -- he was over there on a writing project and liked it so much he never came home -- and has an impressive list of film and TV credits, including an Emmy for Prime Suspect: The Final Act and the BBC/HBO dramatisation of the last days of Christ, The Passion.

Films he has written include a co-credit on Miramax's Prozac Nation, which starred Jessica Lange and Lou Reed among others. He is currently working on Gaza, a film starring Helen Mirren which is scheduled to shoot in Jordan in October, with Mirren playing one of the last Jewish women living on the Gaza Strip.

And as if that's not enough, he is also currently writing an eight-part drama for the BBC about the Medici family in 15th-century Florence.

"It's a story about money, art, politics and religion, so very relevant today," he says.

But back to Father & Son, his new TV drama is set in Dublin and Manchester in a world of crime and viciousness where guns and shootings are an everyday reality.

It stars Dougray Scott (Mission Impossible 2), Stephen Rea (The Crying Game), Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda), Flora Montgomery (When Brendan Met Trudy) and other leading actors, such as John Kavanagh.

As the story opens, ex- criminal Michael O'Connor (Dougray Scott) returns to Manchester from a quiet life in Ireland where his girlfriend is pregnant.

He has gone back to save his teenage son Sean from prison.

O'Connor was once a king-pin in the Manchester crime world with a highly dangerous gang. A few years back, on a trip to Ireland to pick up ex-IRA weapons, he was arrested. Three days later his wife Lynne was murdered. Devastated, he turned his back on crime and when released from jail, stayed in Ireland, determined to build a new life.

But his decision meant his only son Sean was left behind in Manchester with Lynne's sister Connie, a police officer in South Manchester, an area riddled by street gangs and gun crime.

When Sean's girlfriend gets involved in a shooting he takes the blame.

Unbeknownst to him the incident was the result of a set-up designed to lure his father back to help his old partner in crime, who is ill in jail and desperately needs to break out so he can get to China for a kidney operation.

To save his son, O'Connor is soon sucked into his past, which includes an IRA gun dealer-turned-property magnate and the Manchester senior policeman who wants to put him away for good. And all that's just the premise in a complex four-part drama with interwoven story lines.

Although this is a tough crime story about criminal gangs and gun culture, it's also a reworking of a very old theme.

"At its heart, it's a family drama," Frank Deasy explains.

"Michael is trying to save his son from the life he lived -- in a sense we all try to do that with our children. For him, because of who he's been, it's a lot tougher. He's trying to connect with his son, who hates him, but who needs him like never before. Michael is a man who had no moral compass, he's struggling to find one.

"I'm also interested in the Irish diaspora and how Irish people have sort of 'disappeared' into Britain.

"In Moss Side in Manchester, apart from the usual newspapers the ones in the shops are black papers or Irish papers. It's striking the number of kids caught up in gun crime there who have Irish names. But that's not something you read about.

"I was interested in the money end of things as well -- laundering, investment, proceeds of crime, and so on. It was Jane Gogan (RTE's Drama Commissioning Editor) who pointed out how relevant that is to Ireland."

What gave him the idea for Father & Son? "I have three children and it's often struck me how decisions I made in my youth, when kids were the furthest thing from my mind, have shaped their lives.

"I began to think about a character for whom the consequences of his youth were calamitous -- that's where Michael O'Connor came from. I was in Manchester when there was a double shooting and it struck me as a very powerful world for a character like Michael."

One gets the impression from the news here that most of the criminals involved in the drugs gangs and gun culture are just mindless and vicious thugs. His story involves much more than that and the characters are intelligent and articulate. Is that realistic?

"People tend to be complex. Obviously the criminal world has plenty of dummies but it also contains people who are highly intelligent, complex and damaged," Deasy says.

Since he got the Emmy for Prime Suspect, is crime now his preferred area?

He points out that he is now writing the Medici series for the BBC and that's not crime. Drama is about people, rather than just about crime or politics, he says. The Gaza film is politically sensitive but "it's a story about sudden violent bereavement and the traumas that are involved -- obviously there is a lot of politics in the story but it's primarily a human journey."

It's the same with Father & Son. "In many ways it's a reverse telling of The Passion -- it's the story of a father prepared to sacrifice himself for his son, to cleanse his son's sins, as it were." Father And Son is on RTE 1 on Monday at 9.30pm.

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