Little Boy Blue: searing performances ensured this true-crime drama stood out from the rest

Jeff Pope’s latest series gave a platform to brilliant, non-London actors – and shone a light on the often-opaque issue of witness intimidation

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True-crime dramas are Having A Moment on television. The People vs OJ Simpson, The Moorside, Rillington Place, The Secret and In Plain Sight are just a few of the excellent series based on real, shocking events that have aired in the last two years. Tonight brought to an end the latest – Little Boy Blue – which shone with the best of them. Not only did it get made with the full cooperation of the bereaved parents around whose son it centred – but it chose realism over sensationalism at every step. 

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Telling the story of Rhys Jones, an 11-year-old boy shot dead on his way home from football practice in 2007, the four-part series starred Irish actors Sinead Keenan and Brian F O’Byrne as parents Mel and Steve Jones, alongside Stephen Graham as the man tasked with finding the Crocky Crew culprits, Detective Superintendent Dave Kelly. 

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It was the latest offering from Jeff Pope, a writer beloved among TV viewers for Appropriate Adult, Mrs Biggs and The Moorside, to name a few, and it finished just a day before the debut of Three Girls on BBC1 – a drama penned by Nicole Taylor chronicling the Rotherham child grooming and sexual abuse scandal.

True-crime dramas are often met with controversy – usually for depicting their subjects in an unfavourable light, or for being too intrusive. Little Boy Blue, however, had the full guidance of Mel and Steve, who were “intimately involved” in its creation. And in cases such as this, making a drama about tragedy – rather than a documentary – has its merits.

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“Drama allows you to relate on an emotional rather than just intellectual level,” Pope told Radio Times in a recent interview. “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.”

But unlike many dramas, Little Boy Blue couldn’t find comfort in happy endings. Dave Kelly wasn’t offered a promotion after his tremendous work on the case; the court process didn’t bring Mel and Dave closure, and as a consequence their marriage wavered. In a very moving scene in the final episode, Mel broke down and confided in Dave: “I really miss him. It sounds so stupid. Everyone else can move on except us.”

Rather than wrapping things up after the guilty verdict, Pope gave an unflinching account of the lasting nature of grief. Most of the second half of the final episode was dedicated to “what happened next” rather than simply using end credits to summarise the rest of the story in text.

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And aside from grief, the issue of witness intimidation was also explored in depth. Throughout Little Boy Blue, the pressure put on Claire Olssen – Jordan’s mother – was incessant, invasive and disturbingly well done. It made the viewer really question whether – in a similar position – they would also be brave enough to come forward.

And in this case, the consequences of choosing to speak out were shown to sobering effect. Straight after signing a statement identifying Sean Mercer as the boy who handed him the gun – after much hesitation because he was frightened – Kevin was told that witness protection would take him to a safe place.

“Can I go home to get my stuff?” he asked, to which Dave Kelly replied, “No, you can’t son. That’s it. You can never go home again.” Moody was played by the fantastic, Liverpudlian newcomer Michael Moran, who looked as if he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Even though the character he portrayed was flawed, Moran managed to generate a huge amount of empathy with a thoughtful and nuanced performance. 

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Stephen Graham, however, was undeniably the star of the show. Merseyside-born Graham, who is known for This is England and Pirates of the Caribbean, was referenced by Daniel Mays in a recent Radio Times interview as “consistently brilliant but doesn’t necessarily get the plaudits he deserves”. 

Could Little Boy Blue put him on the BAFTA stage this time next year? Graham has long proven himself as one of the most quietly brilliant character actors of his generation but he was particularly, hair-raisingly impressive in tonight’s finale: the way he ground his teeth and played with his knuckles in court as he waited for the jury’s decision, not to mention the tears stinging his eyes after he spoke to Mel, and when he tried to resume life as normal at his final family barbecue. 

And last but not least, Little Boy Blue shone for its depiction of Liverpool itself. Rhys’ tragic death is a story so specific to the city, which to this day suffers from gang warfare. Liverpool’s pride and presence was felt throughout the series: many of the lead cast were Liverpudlian; there was a scene where every stand at Goodison Park roared with applause for Rhys; the Everton-clad bedroom where Mel ripped off her bloody clothes and broke down; shots of the peaks of the Liver Building; Scouse phrases like “ta ra” and “the leccy’s gone”. These all brought Little Boy Blue a great sense of authenticity.

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Here’s to more true-crime dramas like this – and more real, regional talent.