Can you start by talking a little bit about The Virtues - what’s the story?
The Virtues is the story of Joe [Stephen Graham], a recovering alcoholic who has stopped drinking, but lost his family in the process. At the beginning of the film he goes to say goodbye to his ex-wife and kid for potentially the last time and this enormous event sends him back, seemingly, on the road to ruin. He takes a drink for the first time in years, and the rest of the story becomes about finding out what brought him to drink in the first place, as he goes back to Ireland to trace a member of his family who he’s not seen since he was a kid - since he was in care. So, he’s going back there to try and piece it all together.
How did you hit upon the character of Joseph and his epic journey to reckon with a past he’s hidden from himself?
I’d suffered on-and-off with anxiety and depression for a lot of my adult life. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s I’d tried to keep it at bay by going out clubbing, doing things you shouldn’t be doing etc. But the anxiety and depression stayed with me and I realised the route of all this was something in my past that I hadn’t really acknowledged, let alone properly dealt with. So, the essence of Joe’s journey was borne out of me discovering that things that happen to you as a kid can be so traumatic that you can completely push them out of your mind as some kind of survival mechanism. About four or five years ago I started seeing someone professionally and was able to at least get to the bottom of what was causing my issues, but came out of it fairly angry because my life had been so affected by this one traumatic event.
Why did you want to make this story?
Ultimately, it was always going to be about a choice for Joseph to reap revenge or find it in his heart to forgive. I had that choice to make myself before we began The Virtues. I’d recently unearthed the truth about my past and was now beyond angry. It got to the point where I was secretly tracking down the two people who’d abused me and I was intending to cause them serious harm. Coming in from a day spent trying to track down your childhood abusers and then trying to sit and eat tea with your wife and kids, you quickly realise you can’t do that shit to yourself, or them, or even the people who hurt you. You’ve got to do something positive with it or you become part of it yourself.
So it became both a way for me to turn a damaging event in my childhood into something positive, while at the same time shine a light on how deeply childhood trauma, abuse and neglect can affect us in our adult lives and hopefully bring some comfort to other people affected by it.
Did you find making this a difficult experience or cathartic?
It was hard at first, I can’t lie. There was this piece of my life that, as a kid, I’d chosen to push away and had pushed away for over 30 years so there were some fairly rough bits early on. The acting workshops in particular were hard as I knew I had to share some of what I’d uncovered and it was still quite raw at the time. But the cast and crew were honestly remarkable. When everyone around you has the same conviction, dedication and belief in something you are making together, it’s an incredibly powerful thing. The cast in particular put a lot of themselves, their own lives into this. My past may have been the acorn but the research and writing process with Jack, the months of acting workshops, the actor’s personal research, the unbelievably generous crew we had on the shoot. It was those things that truly bought it to life.
The drama, in part, focuses on Joe’s foggy memories of what looks like a Children’s Home. Why?
Partly because I grew up in a place that had its fair share of care homes in the surrounding area and I saw kids running away from them on an almost weekly basis back in the 80’s. Partly because I became friends with someone that had been in one for many years, then moved into our town once they were old enough to leave. And partly because, like a lot of other people who’ve watched the television or read the news in the last 10-15 years, I learnt about some of the disgusting forms of emotional, physical and sexual abuse that deeply vulnerable children were being exposed to when they were supposed in someone’s care. I’m sure there were children’s homes that provided perfectly adequate care, but the more you look into the care system, the more horrendous stories you encounter from all corners of the UK and Ireland and it was something myself and Jack [Thorne] couldn’t turn away from.
If I’d suffered on and off most of my adult life as a result of just one random act of abuse, how much worse would it be for a child who has had to live with that daily, weekly, over a number of years? How does someone who has suffered neglect or abuse remain upright, let alone lead anything approaching a virtuous life? Society has a duty of care towards protecting and providing care for children and our not too distant past in this regard is shameful.
The drama is a very empathetic, non-judgemental look at these “broken” characters like Joseph and Dinah…
It’s very easy to ask or expect people to be virtuous. It’s very easy to judge. But someone who appears to be taking a ‘sinful’ path, addicted to substances or whatever - may be doing a lot better than you think, given the circumstances. That’s what this story was really about, making you to care about characters that on the surface appear to be pretty broken by showing you how they ended up there.
You wrote this with Jack Thorne (who also co-wrote C4’s This Is England series) – why do you like writing as part of a pair?
I’ve always had this massive fear of an empty white page. Sat in an empty room, on my tod, trying to write four and a half hours of TV is not my idea of fun. All of the other stages of making films or TV are so collaborative that it’s always seemed like an alien concept to me to write alone. Apart from the fact that I don’t really see myself as a talented enough writer to create these scripts alone, I’ve also learnt so much from writing television with Jack. It’s an art form and he’s been generous enough to take me on as his YTS apprentice and show me the way. There was an instant connection when I met him - I was instantly drawn to him as a guy. Absolutely no bullshit, works everyday like it’s last and he also didn’t mind the fact that my writing style was a bit wacky when we first started working together.
Wacky in what way?
Well I’d hurt my back and couldn’t sit at a desk for more than five minutes. We’d hired a hotel room, got them to take the beds out, and put two tables in the middle. But like I said, my back was playing up, so we wrote the whole of the first project we worked on together with me lying on the floor with my feet sticking up in the air on a chair. I was eating chilli dogs, taking calls, even having naps down there and Jack never batted an eyelid.
Talking of process, can you talk about your pre-filming process with the actors. What kind of workshopping do you do?
Pre-filming wise, I usually have an idea in my head of the actors I’d like to play the characters. For instance I knew I wanted [Irish actor and real-life nurse] Helen Behan to play Joseph’s sister, Anna, and cast her without an audition as we had literally written the part for her. Then we built her family in Ireland around her. Traditionally, you audition people by bringing them in and having them read with a casting agent, but I always put people together in a room before I cast them. Because someone might be seemingly great off the page, but you put them together with their co-stars and there isn’t that natural spark you’d get within a real group of friends or a family. So I usually put the actors together first and see if the sparks fly before I finally cast them.
Workshop-wise, once the cast is assembled we spend weeks (if not months, sometimes) building characters histories, researching backstories, historical context etc. We rarely ever work on anything from the script – that usually gets saved for the day when we shoot. So everything pre-shoot tends to be about building those relationships, making them feel as natural as possible in each other’s company, and trying to learn as much about their character’s lives leading up to this moment as possible. Also, key members of the cast did their own research, met with people who had real life experience of what their characters were going through and also drew from their personal lives for the roles.
The performances are breath-taking. Let’s start with Stephen Graham – I’m not sure he’s ever been better, which is saying something…
Oh yeah, he’s remarkable. I remember seeing him for the first time in Snatch, the bit where his crew get into deep water at the bare-knuckle fight, and he had tears rolling down his face. I remember thinking then “What an incredible face.” He has that ability to be the scariest thing you’ve ever seen and also incredibly vulnerable. He’s got this unique ability, a bit like Gene Hackman or James Cagney, where he always seems to be ace in everything he’s in and he’s always so believable. He’s also able to play such an incredible variety of people. The yardstick is so high with Stephen, he seems to be so strong in every single thing you see him in. But I do feel his performance in this is pretty exceptional.
And then you have Helen [Behan] who, as you’ve mentioned, plays his sister and back at home in Ireland works as a nurse, which seems unbelievable – she is outstanding in this.
Yeah, I know. I met her completely randomly in a pub when I was on holiday with my wife and son in Ireland. I’m a big believer in fate. I was given a start and a break in a very unconventional way by someone who took a big chance on me. So I’ve always been open to the idea that I might be meeting the next ‘Vicky McClure’ or ‘Paddy Considine’ when I’m walking round Wilko’s. Plenty of times people give you their details and inevitably over the years those pieces of paper can get lost. But sometimes you are meant to meet people and the stars align to bring you back together.
When we sat down to write This Is England ’88, Jack suggested this idea of Lol (Vicky McClure) going to see the nurse to admit she’s struggling mentally. As soon as he said ‘nurse’ I remembered meeting Helen in that pub and got straight in touch with her. Fairly soon after, she came over to England for an audition, threw up for about four hours before she did it, then came to improv a scene with Vicky and was as good and as natural as she is in The Virtues. Some people have this built-in ability to be completely natural and honest on camera and Helen is definitely one of them.
Stephen has said that the scene with her, when they are reconciled in the bedroom, was almost like an “out-of-body experience”. What’s it like being behind the camera when that sort of alchemy happens?
You get maybe one moment like that in every production, if you’re lucky. You can almost smell it a minute or so before the cameras roll, you get butterflies and your nerves are jangling all the way through it. You’re thinking “Please don’t let a plane fly over. Please no dog barks. Please no-one flush a toilet. Please do not ruin this moment.”
On the day we shot the bedroom scene in The Virtues [in episode two], a lot of things had gone on. Helen had received a call that day that a friend of hers had passed away, and I had had some worrying family news, so we came very close to just stopping for the day. But as emotions were running high and the scene we were about to shoot was one of the most emotional in the series we decided to give it a shot. No rehearsal, very minimal discussion beforehand, bar some factual stuff to remind them the ages they would have been as kids etc. We just let Nick Gillespie and his camera team set up five or six cameras in this tiny box room so if something special happened we could capture it one take. You could hear a pin drop in that house as the actors came upstairs and walked into the bedroom. The tension was palpable. I remember being sat just outside the bedroom with earphones on watching that scene unfold on my little tv and from about 30 seconds before they even spoke, I was mesmerised. I felt like a viewer watching it on TV. There honestly wasn’t a dry eye in the house after Helen and Stephen laid that scene down. It got taken to the edit suite that night, dropped in at full length and virtually never changed.
You’ve got a history of unearthing talent. Talk a bit about Niamh Algar, who plays Dinah, because hers is another extraordinary performance.
I’ve always been an advocate of trying to get people from the place that the
character is from so, for Dinah, we had auditions for Irish actresses. I walked out of the audition room for a break and saw this girl with a massive, crazy jacket on with a huge collar. And she just went “Alright Shane, how’re ya doin’?” And I thought “Oh shit, it’s someone that knows me.” And I said: “I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name,” and she said “You don’t know my name. I’m just here for the audition, dude.” It was so charming and I remember thinking “Please be good, ‘cause you’re ace!” And she was unbelievable.
Most of your work has a good deal of comedy in it. Although there are funny moments in this, there seems to be less humour. Was that intentional?
Yeah. Subject matter aside, I think the level of humour is influenced by the reality of the group of people it’s about. This Is England was about a group of friends who find stuff to laugh about even in the darkest times. It’s the same with my mates now. I went kayaking with them, and I fell out of the kayak in the middle of the sea. I was starting to get thrown against rocks, and no-one could help me because they were laughing so much. This TV crew, who were in the middle of making a documentary about marine life on a nearby boat, started filming me nearly drowning but also didn’t help so I had to save my own life! My mates could have easily helped me, just stuck a paddle out, but they were laughing too much. When you grow up with all that, there’s a sort of brutality to the humour. The lovely thing about This Is England is that it has the chance for some slapstick stuff. That was the world I grew up in, I don’t try and lace humour in. The humour in The Virtues is a bit more limited, but it’s a completely different group of people, so it’s just how these things unfold.
What made you want to set the show in Ireland?
It could have been set pretty much anywhere. In the research that Jack and I did before writing the story, it was clear that the problem of child abuse was not limited to any one country. Yes, the UK and Ireland both have an enormous shadow hanging over them, but it’s hard to find anywhere on this planet where children aren’t or haven’t been exposed to abuse and neglect. But key members of the cast I wanted to work with were Irish so it was mainly a creative decision, not an ‘attack’ on Ireland. Also, from a writing perspective, the idea of siblings being separated, and having to cross the sea if they’re ever to see each other again, seemed far more of an odyssey than someone hitchhiking up the M1 to Newcastle, for example, it just doesn’t have the same sense of epic journey as someone crossing land and sea to reckon with their past.
Everyone talks about the incredibly warm vibe on the set and what a good time you all have together. Do you consciously try and keep things upbeat because of the darkness of the script, or is that just how you tend to work?
Obviously on a job like this, where there are really intense scenes, you have to find ways to lift the mood or else you’d all go crackers. I’ve always tried to have a set that feels fun and open and where people feel they can trust me enough to go the extra mile with their performance. If they take a chance, I’m not going to disappear into an edit suite and make them look stupid. Sets can also be very intimidating, especially if it’s the first time you’ve been on one, so me and [producer] Mark Herbert have always tried to create a fairly relaxed vibe on ours. You get six to eight weeks to make a film or series together so you should at least try to enjoy it. Even though the subject matter may be hard, the bits in-between capturing it don’t have to be. I’ve yet to make an out-and-out comedy, but maybe if I do, I’ll go out of my way to make the set really depressing!
Your dad was Stephen’s driver – how did the two of them get on?
Flipping amazingly! They became so close. It was hilarious, they were like George and Mildred, like a married couple. They were finishing each other’s sentences – it was hysterical. Stephen took my dad straight onto his next job and they’ve remained close friends ever since. My dad is one of those people who comes on set and just puts people at ease. He’s a very non-judgemental, very decent human being. The only problem is that all the cast end up wanting him to drive them and so there’s usually an ‘Arthur’ off amongst the actors! It’s lovely for me - I get to spend a lot of time with my dad and he gets to come and be part of my world.
You can find support information about the topics covered in this interview here: https://www.channel4.com/4viewers/child-abuse-or-harm