Jeff Pope on making Little Boy Blue: “If Rhys’s parents had said ‘please don’t do this’ we would have stopped”

Pope, who produced true-life dramas Appropriate Adult and The Moorside, and penned Little Boy Blue, reveals why he turns tragedy into primetime drama

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Jeff Pope has form for turning real-life stories into drama. From Fool’s Gold, his 1992 drama about the Brink’s-Mat bullion robbery, to Appropriate Adult in 2011 which examined the case of serial killer Fred West, to The Moorside, his recent retelling of the Shannon Matthews story, he has written and produced some of the finest British television of the last decade or so.

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His secret has always been to offer a fresh perspective on familiar stories. For Fool’s Gold, it was the thief who attempted to return his share of the loot. In 2012’s Mrs Biggs, telling the story of Ronnie Biggs’s wife cast new light on the Great Train Robbery. And in 2011, Appropriate Adult addressed the crimes of Fred and Rose West through the experiences of social worker Janet Leach, who sat in on West’s interrogation.

Indeed, just as The Moorside wasn’t called “The Shannon Matthews Story”, or Appropriate Adult titled “The Cromwell Street Murders”, Little Boy Blue isn’t really about the actual shooting of 11-year-old Everton fan Rhys Jones in Croxteth, Liverpool, in 2007. And neither does it focus unduly on the then teenage Sean Mercer, the killer whom Pope dubs a “stupid, misguided little boy”.

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Rhys Jones

Instead, Pope’s ITV four-parter explores the context and impact of the crime and the lessons learnt, as filtered through the investigation that was led by Detective Superintendent Dave Kelly (played by Stephen Graham), the experiences of Rhys’s grieving parents, Melanie and Steve Jones (Sinead Keenan and Brian F O’Byrne) – and the coming together of a community against the pervasive menace of gang warfare.

“Mercer had been stopped and searched about 80 times by the age of 16,” explains Pope, who is ITV’s head of factual drama. “That gives you an idea of what the police were up against. A boy on his way home from football practice was shot in broad daylight, yet witnesses were warned not to be ‘grasses’. Dave Kelly’s attitude was to say, ‘My gang is bigger than yours’, and part of the detective’s gang was the city of Liverpool. This was a crisis, a watershed moment like the Stephen Lawrence murder was for London.”

As a father (he called his sons “my three greatest productions” while accepting a Bafta Special Award in 2015), Pope felt the responsibility of telling the story. “I remember the moment I heard about it. Rhys was the same age as one of my own sons, who also went to football training. It stopped me in my tracks.”

When Pope’s team approached Kelly, the policeman – by then retired – told them his involvement was dependent on Rhys’s parents. “Mel and Steve were open to the idea from the get-go,” Pope says. “They were intimately involved in the scripts, met the actors, and so on.”

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Stephen Graham as Detective Superintendent Dave Kelly 

Was he expecting more resistance to the project? “In circumstances like that, there doesn’t tend to be a grey area. It’s either absolutely no or definitely yes. If Mel or Steve had said, ‘Please don’t do this’ at any point, we would have stopped. Dave was ready to talk, while Mel and Steve were emphatic that they wanted to keep Rhys’s memory alive and help people understand what they went through. Especially the fact that Mercer’s life sentence didn’t bring closure: once the thing they’d pushed for had gone, that’s when they felt truly adrift.”

With Rhys’s parents so heavily involved, there may well be less chance of provoking the controversies that have occasionally dogged some of Pope’s projects. The Moorside, for example, was criticised for a variety of perceived inaccuracies and misrepresentations.

“I spend years getting to the essence of a story, so I’m confident it’s accurate,” Pope says. “Little Boy Blue condenses a couple of years into four hours, but every element is based on things that happened. There’s no fiction.”

Pope’s tone is eminently reasonable but he pauses, perhaps keen to avoid sounding defensive. “It’s important that these projects are held up to scrutiny: they’re distressing stories being told on national television. They can’t be embarked upon lightly, but they should also be uncomfortable and challenging. The worst reaction would be no reaction at all, but it’s not about hoping to stir up a row.”

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Sinead Keenan and Brian F O’Byrne as Melanie and Steve Jones 

Pope refutes the idea that a documentary could have accomplished the same objectives. He uses one extraordinary example to underline his point – a real incident in the hours after Rhys’s death. “Drama allows you to relate on an emotional rather than just intellectual level. There’s a scene where Melanie wants to cuddle Rhys in the morgue and she’s told [by a police officer concerned about contamination of evidence], ‘If you keep doing that, I’ll arrest you.’ If Melanie tells you about that in a documentary, it’s very powerful. But to actually see her reaction? You can only do that with drama.”

Pope’s dramas raise as many questions as they answer: he stresses the futility of trying to explain or understand the Wests or the Moors murderers, Moira Hindley and Ian Brady, whose crimes formed the basis of 2006’s See No Evil. Instead, his goals are more oblique, but perhaps more valuable.

“Through Fred West’s relationship with social worker Janet Leach, Appropriate Adult opened a window onto how ‘good old Fred’, this apparently avuncular builder, was able to do what he did. But when the police ask him about killing at least a dozen women, it’s like asking a fox whether he regrets killing all those chickens. I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by exploring evil. I’m more interested in proximity to it, how it can impact on me and you.”

This fascination was seeded on his first job as a cub reporter on the Ealing Gazette in west London. “I always loved covering trials,” he explains. “That’s where you found the extremes of behaviour. I didn’t realise it then, but it was training me to interpret raw material and turn it into stories. I still have that sense that I’m channeling my characters, that it’s not quite me that’s writing them.”

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Pope won a Bafta for Philomena in 2014

From there, Pope went on to work on LWT’s news magazine The Six o’Clock Show and filming short reenactments for the same network’s Crime Monthly, after which the possibility of converting an interest into a career felt plausible. Fool’s Gold followed and his path was fixed, barring the odd detour into comedy.

His early collaborations with Bob Mills, In Bed with Medinner and the vaguely autobiographical Bob Martin, are much cherished, while Cradle to Grave, the 2015 sitcom based on the memoirs of fellow Six o’Clock Show alumnus Danny Baker, had great wit and charm. What itch does comedy scratch that true-life drama cannot?

“It’s about provoking a strong reaction but in a different way,” he says. “The techniques are similar, but it’s still about getting it right. It was every bit as stressful trying to get Cradle to Grave as accurate [as a factual drama], not least because I had Danny sitting next to me.”

Having turned down several offers after his script for Philomena, written with Steve Coogan, was nominated for an Oscar, Pope seems likely to stick to real-life stories. “There are people that can do pure fiction better than me,” he shrugs.

Among three projects in development is a piece on Jimmy Savile’s early depredations, while Stan and Ollie, starring Coogan and John C Reilly as Laurel and Hardy during their final, 1953 tour of British music halls, has just begun shooting for the BBC. “I understand what it’s like to be able to look back over a long career,” he smiles.

His innate curiosity, however, remains undiminished. “I went away on a golfing trip with several mates recently, and at the end someone did a speech taking the mickey out of each of us – this guy’s taste in golf tops, that guys’s appetite. Then he got to me and said: ‘And I think we’ve all enjoyed being interviewed by Jeff.’ He was right, but I couldn’t stop myself! It’s my blessing and my curse.”

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Little Boy Blue begins on Monday 24 April at 9pm on ITV