Neil McKay, Chapel-en-le-Friths award-winning writer

Mike Smith meets Chapel-en-le-Frith's award-winning writer Neil McKay, whose most recent TV drama Mo has been nominated in three categories at this month's BAFTAs

Anyone who saw Julie Walters’ brilliant performance as Mo Mowlam in the Channel 4 drama Mo will be amazed to hear that she seriously considered pulling out of the role at one stage. After watching countless videotapes of the former Northern Ireland secretary, she became convinced that she could not possibly look and sound like the person she had been asked to portray, and is reported to have said, ‘It’s like asking Daniel Craig to portray Gerry Adams.’

Julie was won over when she read her lines. ‘It is a wonderful script,’ she said. ‘Mo is really alive in that script.’ The screenplay which convinced the actress that she should take on the role of the ebullient politician was penned by Neil McKay, a writer with scores of television and radio credits to his name. Although Neil was born in Coventry, his roots are firmly in Derbyshire: his mother was raised in Grindleford; he was educated at New Mills School and has spent most of his life in Chapel-en-le-Frith, where he still lives and works.

When the idea for a drama based on the life of Mo Mowlam was first put to Neil, he had plenty of reservations of his own about the project. Aware that Mo had been an immensely popular figure, he was worried what might emerge about her from his research. In the event, his investigations confirmed that Mo was a very astute politician with a marvellous capacity to bond with people. However, he was unsurprised to find that she had lied to Tony Blair about the severity of her brain tumour, in the hope that she would be allowed to continue with her work in Northern Ireland. This revelation became the headline-hitting coup of the Channel 4 film.

Despite its exposure of her deception, the drama was very well received by the people who knew Mo best, including members of her family and close colleagues like Neil Kinnock, Betty Boothroyd and Adam Ingram. Former home secretary Charles Clarke was moved to tears by the play and a source told Neil that even David Trimble admitted that he had admired the production. Unfortunately, Mo’s widower, Jon Norton, died before the drama was screened. Neil says, ‘I like to think of Jon and Mo breaking off from their partying in the afterlife and sitting down with a Scotch to watch it. I hope that they would like the script and I somehow know in my bones that they’d be thrilled with Julie Walters’ extraordinary reincarnation of Mo.’

Neil’s love of ‘getting inside a character’ began when he took part in plays at New Mills School and at Swansea University, where he read English and history. Once he realised that he could never become a competent actor, largely because he was ‘a clumsy mover’, Neil turned to writing. In his first year as an undergraduate, he scripted and sent off a radio play, but only found out that it had been accepted when he paid a return visit to his first-year digs and discovered from his former landlady that an acceptance letter from the BBC had been left unopened for six months.

After leaving university, Neil wrote numerous plays and stories for radio, whilst supplementing his income by casual work for his brother, who is a builder. Ten years on, he decided that he would prepare himself for an attempt to break into television by attending an Arvon residential writing course. His tutor was the celebrated playwright and screenwriter Alan Plater, who told Neil, ‘You’re a good writer; now you need to grow.’

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Encouraged by these words, Neil did indeed grow as a writer. His agent got him a job writing scripts for several episodes of The Bill and he went on to write episodes for Peak Practice, Casualty, Medics, London’s Burning, Heartbeat and Holby City. Neil’s first one-off drama was a television adaptation of Wuthering Heights, screened in 1998, but his real breakthrough came two years later with This is Personal: the Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, which received the Broadcast Award for Best Television Drama of the Year.

Describing his approach to the writing of ‘docu-drama’, Neil says, ‘I have no idea how others go about writing factual dramas, but for me – perhaps this is a consequence of reading history at university – it’s essential to approach the subject without prejudice and try to get at the truth. Original research is vital, and that means getting beyond books and biographies and talking at length to the people at the centre of the story.’

When delving into the much criticised police hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, Neil talked at length to relatives of the victims and to several retired detectives. The longer he researched, the more it became clear to him that mass hysteria, misleading press coverage, the constant bombardment of the police with taunting tapes from a Sunderland man posing as the Ripper, alongside hundreds of telephone calls from people claiming to know the identity of the murderer, made the task of the police a near-impossible one. Neil’s script was a powerful portrait of the effect of all this pressure on George Oldfield, the policeman who headed the investigation.

Following the Ripper film, which has been acknowledged by one of the producers of Life on Mars as an inspiration for the hit series, Neil wrote a number of other television dramas about high-profile criminal cases. One of his films covered the Stephen Downing case, where a long campaign by Don Hale of the Matlock Mercury led to the release of Stephen Downing, who had served 27 years for the murder of Wendy Sewell in a Bakewell graveyard.

Another of Neil’s dramas tracked the story of a group of plane-spotters who were accused of espionage in Greece. However, it was the two-part television film See No Evil, the Moors Murders that brought Neil a much coveted BAFTA award for the Best Drama Serial of 2007.

Before writing the script for the award-winning drama, which portrays the murders from the point of  view of Myra Hindley’s sister, Maureen Smith, Neil spent two years researching the events meticulously, during which he interviewed relatives of the murdered children. The film was made with their full approval, but not with the support of Ian Brady, who wrote a letter in which he claimed that the drama could not be made without his permission and even suggested that it would be too distressing for families of the victims.

Whenever Neil embarks on a new docu-drama, he carries out painstaking research to get at the truth, which has often been distorted by press sensationalism and popular mythology. He says: ‘The problem with this method is that you never know the story that you will end up telling. Therefore, writing such dramas is a journey requiring faith, trust and patience.’ These are the very qualities that brought Neil a Broadcast Award in 2000 and a first BAFTA in 2007. Mo, his brilliant true-to-life drama about a largerthan-life character, is on the short-list for no fewer than three awards at this month’s BAFTAs. Neil has been nominated for best script, Julie Walters for best actress and Gary Lewis, who played Mo’s husband, for best supporting actor.

Despite his success, Neil avoids the limelight, preferring to get on quietly with his occupation, which he modestly describes as ‘jobbing writer’, but he admits that the receipt of a second BAFTA at the award ceremony in June would be nice, because it would enable him to leave a BAFTA to each of his two daughters. It would be a fine legacy for them and a fitting legacy for a writer who has elevated ‘jobbing’ to an art form.

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