Channel 4 is to screen a new drama about Mo Mowlam. Showbiz Correspondent Maureen Coleman went to the QFT for a preview
It takes a remarkable actress to play a remarkable woman. So when the makers of a new drama about the inimitable Mo Mowlam began casting for a lead there was only one person who could really do the role justice.
Even at the drama’s embryonic stage writer Neil McKay had Julie Walters in mind. When she was approached about playing the part she expressed concern at having to step into the shoes of the ‘People’s Politician’. But she accepted and, not surprisingly, given the calibre of past projects such as A Short Stay In Switzerland or Educating Rita, her portrayal of Mowlam is Bafta-worthy.
While ‘Mo’ revisits the contribution played by the former Northern Ireland Secretary of State to the landmark signing of the Good Friday Agreement, it’s more of a personal insight into her life than a political one.
Walters does not shy away from playing the larger-than-life Mowlam as straight-talking, foul-mouthed, passionate and unorthodox.
Her humour is rude, crude even — and some of her antics prove rather shocking for some of Northern Ireland’s more conservative politicians.
The Northern Ireland Screen-backed drama finds the right balance between pathos and comedy. One moment you’ll be laughing out loud at some of her witty one-liners, next, you’ll be moved to tears by her behind-closed-doors battle with a brain tumour.
Several revelations emerge about the woman who many believe was the most charismatic politician in recent British history. One key figure the programme-makers spoke to was her doctor Mark Glaser, who confirmed that Mowlam kept the full extent of her illness a secret from all but her husband Jon Norton.
She even refused to tell the then Prime Minister Tony Blair, claiming it would be “political suicide”.
The story is peppered with comedy, in keeping with Mowlam’s love of life and sense of humour. While involved in a heated discussion with Gerry Adams (John Lynch) and Martin McGuinness (Eoin MacCarthy), she removes the wig she has taken to wearing to disguise her hair loss.
“Aren’t there times when all you want is a bloody good scratch?” she asks an incredulous Gerry Adams.
After a moment’s silence, he replies: “I suppose so.”
In another scene sure to prompt laughter and disgust in equal measures, she resorts to methods employed by Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct to throw David Trimble off guard.
According to Neil McKay, these tactics were introduced to the script after talking to the people who knew Mowlam best. She liked to “discombobulate”, as Adam Ingram (Gary Lewis) puts it.
While Walters is superb as Mowlam, nailing just about everything from her walk to her mischievous manner, the rest of the cast put in stellar performances too. David Haig is touching to watch as her devoted husband Jon and Gary Lewis, who teamed up with Walters before in Billy Elliott, is compelling to watch as Adam Ingram.
The final scene, when Ingram sits by her bedside and weeps, while her broken-hearted husband looks on, is a real tear-jerker.
“I just wish you would tell me to “f*** off” again,” Ingram cries.
Mowlam, however, never regained consciousness and passed away in August 2005. Although her husband contributed to the drama by talking to its makers, he died before it was completed and never got to watch the final product.
I think he would have liked it.
Mo will be shown on Channel 4 on Sunday, January 31, at 9pm.