For the director the big bonus of the five-year commitment was that it was actually less likely to interfere with the normal lives he was trying so hard to capture. “Often with kids you’re nervous of dragging them out of their normal world and then dropping them back in. Whereas we got to know the family and it’s been a regular thing. We’ve become part of their lives rather than being the weird exception.”
It also meant that there was no need to have children of different ages playing each child as they grow up. And the emotions on the faces of the kids and the actors are real. The story is structured around a series of prison visits, and each time John Simm is genuinely surprised by how much the kids have changed, by their missing teeth and zig-zag haircuts, because they really hadn’t seen each other for a year. And when Shaun bursts into tears because a prison officer tells him off it’s totally spontaneous - although admittedly he then had to replicate the emotion several times to get the shot right.
“That was a real moment,” says John Simm. “There were lots of real moments, and sometimes the kids did get upset. You don’t want to exploit them - you don’t want to make them cry - but sometimes it happened during a scene. When they saw me they had to go through the whole rigmarole of going to prison and being searched, which was quite daunting and scary, but also exciting. And it was all real. There was no trying to learn lines.”
There were times in prison when the fine line between acting and reality became blurred for Simm, too. “I would be swaggering down the prison corridor and I’d hear ‘Get back in your time machine, knobhead!’ and that would bring me back to reality: I’m not a prisoner, I’m an actor.”
The downside of taking so long to make the film was the possibility that the kids might go off the idea, and even refuse to take part when they got older. When asked if he’d let his own kids do something like this Simm is adamant: “No way. It’s like asking me if I’d let a film crew use my house for a week - no chance! But that’s because I’m in the profession.”
And inevitably there were times when the kids tired of shooting scenes several times, especially the older two, Robert, 12, and Stephanie, 14. “Sometimes I didn’t want to do it,” says Stephanie. “It just got really boring - like when we had to walk back to the same spot and do it over and over again. Michael would say ‘Just this last shot!’ and then we’d have to do loads more!” If any of the children said they didn‘t want to take part their dad made it clear it was their decision; but they always came round.
It’s not hard to see what persuaded them, says real mum Sarah, “It was like relatives coming down. The children seemed to just switch off from us and over to Shirley and John. I remember one moment when Shirley and I were in the kitchen making a cup of tea. Robert came running in saying ‘Mum!’ and we both turned round. He said, ‘Not my real mum, I mean Shirley.’”
Everyday is on Channel 4 tonight at 9:00pm.