Mother’s Day writer Nick Leather: the 1993 Warrington bombing made my generation grow up in a week

Leather discusses why the tragedy is a topic close to his heart – and how to make a drama about real-life events

Anna Maxwell Martin and Vicky McClure, Mother's Day (BBC, EH)

On the day before Mother’s Day in 1993, Warrington was heaving with children buying cards and presents when two IRA bombs exploded in the town centre, killing two young boys and injuring 56 people.

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Now, 25 years on, Nick Leather – who grew up in Warrington and was on his way into town on the day of the attack – has written a drama about the tragedy.

Mother’s Day, a one-off film for BBC2 shot in Belfast, tells the true story of two women living on either side of the Irish Sea who were brought together by the event.

Anna Maxwell Martin plays Wendy Parry, the mother of 12-year-old Tim Parry who sustained “battlefield injuries” in the attack and died after a five-day fight for his life in hospital. Three-year-old Johnathan Ball also died in the explosions.

It was the loss of children’s lives that caught the attention of a Dublin housewife and mother Susan McHugh (played by Vicky McClure), who was so appalled that she organised one of the largest peace rallies in Irish history.

The Warrington bombing is a topic very close to home for Leather, as he explained at a press screening of the drama which took place just hours after the August Westminster attack.

His voice tight with emotion, Leather said that on the day of the bombing he was doing what he did every Saturday at the age of 15: heading into Warrington to see if he’d saved enough cash to buy the Everton top in JJB Sports. He remembers sitting in the car on the way in, hearing there had been a “major incident” on the radio and “seeing the image of Johnathan the next morning, and then watching the tortuous situation that Wendy and Colin were in as Tim fought for his life over the next few days”. 

Leather said the bombing was sobering for him and his teenage friends, who found themselves thrust into adulthood before their years.

“It was almost like a week for my generation around there where you just grew up in a week. Because things on the news that felt very removed stopped being ‘things on the news’ and started being actual things that happen,” he said.

“You realise that from all the things you’ve seen on the news, people have always been feeling them and you just didn’t realise. And so once I started writing, it was a story that I was desperate to tell.”

Leather had just completed his work experience at local newspaper the Warrington Guardian at the time, which was based on Bridge Street where the two explosions happened. He explained that when he began his research for the film, “some of the most in-depth descriptions of it [the attack] were all by the Warrington Guardian reporters who’d literally just run down the road.”

It wasn’t until meeting with the Parrys and the McHughs that Leather realised that the stories of the two women, Wendy and Susan, needed to be at the centre of the drama. After spending a couple of hours with Wendy on her own one day, he explained, “I just thought, ‘Oh god, I’m such an idiot.’ I’ve been thinking about this in such a male way here. I was like, ‘It’s obviously Wendy and Sue’s [story].’ And I hadn’t quite thought about it like that until we’d actually met them.”

While husband Colin was the much more vocal of the two in archival news footage, Wendy was the “reluctant hero” that Leather realised he needed.

“My eyes had been drawn to Colin because he was the one speaking,” he said. “And suddenly when I went back and I watched it again, I stopped watching Colin and watched the person at the side of the shot, and focused into them. Suddenly you see that there is a whole story here that I had not noticed before.”

Writing about real-life tragedies is clearly delicate, and Leather (who also created factual drama Murdered for Being Different) was only comfortable doing so if the McHughs and the Parrys were completely on board.

Mother’s Day director Fergus O’Brien chuckled when recalling that the two families would “have their red pens out” when they were given scripts to read.

“[The McHughs] would say things like, ‘I’d never be calling her love that much’ and, ‘I don’t think my collar would be outside my jumper’ or, “I don’t know if I’d say “lippy”’. Little details like that,” said O’Brien.

Vicky McClure and David Wilmot as Susan and Arthur McHugh in Mother's Day (BBC, EH)
Vicky McClure and David Wilmot as Susan and Arthur McHugh in Mother’s Day (BBC)

Details aside, watching the final cut with the two families was always going to be emotional and difficult. “I went to Warrington to show Wendy and Colin and that was quite an intense experience as you can imagine,” said O’Brien. “For the Parrys, we had a few stiff gins and then we sat in…

“Obviously they’d been through all of those scenarios but the one I was particularly worried about was the one where they weren’t there, and that was the scene that we had imagined of Tim’s experience of being in the bomb situation. That was probably something they hadn’t visualised. There were some tears and I think at the end of it for sure they both felt that it was very fair and a very accurate portrayal of them.”

O’Brien took the decision not to introduce Anna Maxwell Martin and Vicky McClure to the people they were portraying before filming, feeling that it would place too much pressure on the cast. “I imagine for an actor it would just be an overwhelming responsibility to go and meet the people before you have to play them; I was worried that they might feel that they suddenly had to impersonate them or something,” he said.

“I wanted the actors to be able to feel they could bring their own experience and their own truths to what they thought that character was, and that way they’d be more believable characters than trying to simply imitate characters out of respect.”

Programme Name: Mother's Day - TX: n/a - Episode: Mother's Day (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Colin Parry (DANIEL MAYS), Wendy Parry (ANNA MAXWELL MARTIN) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Steffan Hill
Daniel Mays and Anna Maxwell Martin as Colin and Wendy Parry in Mother’s Day (BBC)

Instead the actors only had archive news footage to work with, but even this showed Maxwell Martin that Wendy is “a person of huge strength and integrity”.

“When [the Parrys] went on The Late Late Show that was very soon after Tim died,” Maxwell Martin said. “She’s very together… clearly that’s important to her and I didn’t want to do her a disservice by doing any kind of – you see it quite a lot on TV – ‘gratuitous emotional acting’.”

On portraying a grieving mother, Maxwell Martin added: “I don’t know very much about losing a child at all, but I do have a very dear friend who lost a child and I do know that there is a very strong through-line which is keeping yourself together for your other children.”

Despite airing a quarter of a century after the bombing, the cast and crew believe that Mother’s Day will still be relatable to today’s audiences – both because of the terror threat in the UK and the potential repercussions of Britain leaving the European Union.

“Terrorism is so prevalent today,” Maxwell Martin said. “I think it’s also relevant because of the mess we’re in with Brexit and the border, you know, it’s very depressing to think about all of that rearing its head again.”

For Leather, the events in Warrington on that day in March 1993 are the centre of a story he was “desperate to tell”. He said: “The question isn’t, ‘Is it right for us to tell this?’ For me, it’s that absolute conviction that it would be wrong not to tell it.

“And that’s what happens with this kind of story; you just think, ‘I desperately want to tell it because it’s so wrong to not know about it, or to ever forget it.’”

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Mother’s Day airs on Monday 3rd September at 9pm on BBC2