Stephen Graham: 'That could have been my little boy'
The shocking 2007 murder of 11-year-old Rhys Jones is being retold in a new ITV drama. Susan Griffin goes behind the scenes
Stephen Graham is a man in demand, but he was always going to find the time to tackle his latest role.
The acclaimed actor stars in Little Boy Blue, a four-part drama based on the 2007 murder of 11-year-old Rhys Jones in Croxteth, Liverpool, by teen gang member Sean Mercer.
"I read episodes one and two and then I met Kwadjo (Dajan, producer), Paul (Whittington, director) and Jeff (Pope, screenwriter) in Leeds. Straight away, I said, 'I would love to do it and it would be an honour and a privilege to be involved'," says the 43-year-old.
Graham, who grew up in Kirkby, which is just a 10-minute drive from Croxteth, wasn't living in Liverpool at the time of the killing, but recalls "the little bits of information that were coming through" on the news about a young boy being shot on his way home from football practice, and feeling "horrified".
"More than anything, it was an 11-year-old child being shot," stresses Graham, who acknowledges some people might find it "crass" to bring the story to the screen.
"And that's fine, because we're lucky; we live in a society where people can have an opinion," he adds. "But for me personally, I feel it's a story that needs to be told. Not just in the context that it was Liverpool, but in the context of society, to have a look at ourselves and ask questions of why these things happen."
Rhys' parents Melanie and Steve, portrayed by Sinead Keenan and Brian F O'Byrne, are supporting the drama, which is the result of meticulous research over seven years.
Their written statement reads: "We thought it was important for people to understand what really happened - how close Rhys's murderer came to escaping justice, and how in the end the simple courage shown by some of those involved in these events, and their refusal to be intimidated, led to the conviction of Sean Mercer and others involved in Rhys's murder.
"But beyond this we wanted to show the devastating effect the loss of our beloved son Rhys had on our family, and how the grieving process affected us long beyond the 'closure' of a guilty verdict. Though some may find what happened to us shocking, we think it is right to tell the whole story."
Graham notes: "It's integral to find the truth, and we were lucky that it wasn't something taken away by somebody and written in a room. There was lots of contact and lots of talks and interaction with the family."
He plays Detective Superintendent Dave Kelly, the man who led the murder investigation.
Recalling his first meeting with Kelly, Graham says: "I spent a good afternoon with Dave and he's a beautiful man. He was slightly cagey, which I understand, slightly guarded, which we all are in these situations."
The actor describes sitting in Kelly's house, having a cup of tea, "and one of the first things he said to Kwadjo was, 'He won't take his eyes off me, will he?' But I wanted to observe as much knowledge and information as I could. I was watching him physically and I was trying to have a little peek into his head".
When Dajan left the room, Graham, whose previous credits include This Is England and Boardwalk Empire, took the opportunity to privately quiz Kelly.
"I kept asking him, 'What was it? What was it that drove you to want to solve this case so much?' And he looked at me and he broke, he just cracked," remembers the actor, who has two children, Gracie (12) and Alfie (10) with his wife, Hannah.
"He was so honest, and just said, 'Because it was a little boy who'd been shot, a little boy, a young boy', and the next thing he said was, 'And that could have been my little boy'.
"It's a universal story in many respects," continues Graham. "I know it's concentrated in Liverpool, but it's a child with his whole life ahead of him and that's what I could see in Dave. I could see a little chink in his armour where he gave me that little piece, and that's what I ran with."
Kelly was not expecting to be handed the case, Graham notes. "That's a fact, it wasn't his turn. Somebody else was supposed to take that case, but due to circumstances or whatever, it was destiny that he was meant to do it. But it took its toll on him."
Filmed on location in Liverpool and the North West, the drama offered Graham an opportunity to visit his hometown.
"I had a lovely childhood. I always used to be walking about on my jack. There was this giant circumference of about three miles, where I could go away from my house, where I was safe."
He admits as a parent, it's difficult protecting your children while also "giving them a sense of independence".
"I live in a little village in Leicestershire, but times have changed," he observes. "Our Alfie even said to me I'm his best mate, because I spend a load of time with him and if he's going to the park, I am going with him."
- Little Boy Blue, ITV, Monday, 9pm