Mo: Julie Walters and Neil McKay Interview
Aside from the odd journalist, the audience was filled with admirers, friends and colleagues of Mo and the affection in the room was tangible. Portraying Mo in the drama was national treasure Julie Walters who put in what many will dub, the performance of her lifetime.
Joining her on stage was screenwriter, Neil McKay, writer of See No Evil: The Moors Murders, producer Lisa Gilchrist and director Phillip Martin.
It seems the aim of making a film about Mowlam wasn’t to capitalise on any kind of fame surrounding her, or to get involved in another politician’s private life, but simply to tell an engaging story which will compel and touch thousands…
Julie, you were so like Mo, it was a bit spooky, how did you manage to do it?
Well I had acres of footage to look through but the main thing was Neil’s script, I mean she was just alive in that script. It was amazing; she just came off the page and then just looking at the footage. There was one documentary that Granada had made about her after she came out of Government and there was miles of footage because the camera was never turned off, so all her political interviews and talking about The Good Friday Agreement and all of that.
Then in between there was her saying ‘You know, are we gonna go for a drink?’ So you had all that stuff there and there was a real picture of her. So it was that really and I read Julia Langdon’s biography but I was very scared of it because she doesn’t look anything like me.
I rang the agent and I said, ‘You’re going to have to get me out of it, I must be mad to think I can play this. It’s like asking Daniel Craig to play Gerry Adams, it’s just impossible. And there was a big silence on the other end and then he said, ‘With respect, that’s bollocks.’ He said get the wig and glasses on and get on with it.
And it was bollocks wasn’t it…
Well that’s for other people to judge but it was fabulous to do. It was a wonderful script and I had amazing direction from Phillip. Wonderful direction, I felt very free and he just supported me just gave me all the right notes and stopped me making an arse of myself.
Did your own political feelings interfere with writing the script Neil, do you think you approached it from a left wing perspective?
Well whatever political feelings I might have, they’re never, to me, part of any drama because the point of drama is not for me to ride on the back of any particular story saying I think this or that but just that drama is about people thinking different things, conflict and that changes things or doesn’t change them.
Drama’s about ambiguity and all those kinds of things. So Mo was a woman who had compartments in her life and these compartments were extraordinarily sealed and separate in many ways. For example her antipathy towards Blair might have been much stronger when she was with some people than with others it wasn’t at all at times. I think that was a problem for her and that needed to be a problem for me as a writer, that uncertainty that feeling of ‘I just don’t want to believe this of Tony Blair’.’
So even if I had those feelings it wouldn’t be for me to lay them on the drama, it’s for me to get inside those scenes and those moments and make them have their own meaning out there for you to draw your own conclusions.
After making this film, what are your thoughts on Mrs Mowlam Neil?
People always think that Mo only ever took the wig off once, she did it all the time it was a ploy in fact sometimes she put the wig on to go in to take it off. She was an utterly brilliant politician and incredibly shrewd and as Charles and Adam have said to us, and never forget, she was an anthropologist and she really knew how people tick.
Mo was a shrewd politician and it’s been implied in the press that she chose almost to kill herself or at least risk death by taking a different form of treatment so that she could be secretary of state, what’s your take on that?
That isn’t correct. Mo had a grade 3 astrocytoma and grade 3 astrocytomas always turn into a grade 4 and that is always fatal at that time generally within two to three years, of course now there’s a much better prognosis. But she couldn’t have an operation to get rid of it because the tumour was diffuse that meant the edges were fuzzy and the cancerous tissue was overlapped with healthy tissue so the operation would have left her with three years and no personality at all. It wasn’t true that she opted for radical radio therapy.
Neil, can you tell us how this whole project got started?
“Well at the beginning we didn’t know what it was. I spoke to Jeff Pope, head of Drama at Channel 4, and we wondered whether there was drama in it, and Lisa and Jeff met John, Mo’s husband, and discussed it,”
“Then i think the following night i was in a Fish & Chip shop with Lisa and she mentioned it to me. My instinct is always to trust Jeff but it was always a long journey of getting to know John, getting to know the other compartments of Mo’s life and to find whether there was drama in it.
“Otherwise there was no point just running through another figure from recent political life. There had to be something special, something special about her and there was.”
There is a very intimate yet informal style to the film, is this something you set out to achieve Martin?
“We tried to make it not too perfect, sometimes biographical films can be falsely definitive and create lots of drama, turning points where people’s lives change. I think that with Mo’s story we wanted just to make it scruffy, real, choppy and organise it a bit but not too much.”
Do multiple takes decreases the emotion of the scene, how do you maintain those high levels of emotion throughout filming Phillip?
I remember on the shoot we were doing the scene in the pub after Mo left Ireland and there was someone new, a new camera assistant who was helping me with my monitor and they put the monitor in front of me and I was watching Julie talking to Adam.
I could feel a tear coming in my eye and I was watching it and then it landed splosh on the monitor. And this new camera trainee was looking at me, I could feel him looking at me thinking ‘Oh my God I’ve come into lunatic asylum where everybody’s incredibly emotional.’ I think you do feel it but also you’re trying to make a schedule, trying to shoot it fast and so it is an intense experience.
Adam Ingram, played by Gary Lewis in the film, was also in attendance and was eager to pay tribute to the project and Mo herself…
“In terms of the characterizations, Julie without question, you captured her; you got the move you got the language you got the disintegration sadly at the end. I don’t think we should read too much into it in terms of the other personalities, this wasn’t anybody else other than Mo and what she achieved. And she achieved a huge amount, made a massive difference.
Former Home Secretary Charles Clarke was also amongst the audience member and also had high praise for the film.
“What it also showed is the importance of people in politics and of courage in politics. I think this is a fantastic positive affirmative film of the fact that values and people make a difference.”
‘Mo was a shrewd politician and it’s been implied in the press that she chose almost to kill herself or at least risk death by taking a different form of treatment so that she could be secretary of state, what’s your take on that?’