Veteran scriptwriter Frank McGuinness is celebrated for his plays including Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and The Factory Girls. TV viewers will remember his searing drama A Short Stay in Switzerland in which Julie Walters played a woman contemplating an assisted suicide.
He found adapting the memoir of Julie Nicholson, who lost her beloved daughter Jenny in the 7/7 bombings, as tough an assignment as any.
“This took a lot out of me, it was such a big subject,” says the writer of the one-off drama in which Emily Watson plays the Rev Julie Nicholson, Jenny’s mother.
“A powerful subject as well as a big subject,” is his assessment of the film, which is based on Nicholson’s memoir of the same name and takes an unflinching look at the devastating impact the bombings had on an ordinary family.
61-year-old McGuinness is a celebrated translator, literary critic and a professor of creative writing at University College, Dublin. He has lived, as he puts it, though “30 years of…. murderous assaults on civilians” during the Northern Ireland conflict – so he was surprised that Nicholson’s story had such an impact on him personally.
“I have to say I have never ready anything about the Northern Ireland conflict that bore such tremendous testimony about what it was like to lose a child.”
McGuinness worked closely with Nicholson (below) on the script and found her integrity “overwhelming”. He was particularly impressed with her honesty in admitting her inability to forgive the man who was responsible for her daughter’s murder, eventually giving up her vocation as a priest because she was unable to preach forgiveness from the pulpit if she could not demonstrate it in her own life.
“I found her analysis of why she left the church, which she passionately believed in, and why left a job she did so well and with such conviction, almost overwhelming.
“The honesty and the courage of that reasoning had a huge impact on me while I was reading it.
“She told the truth. Julie is a woman who told the truth. In a world of deception and lies and flattery, this is a very powerful weapon to possess. And she used that weapon to get her through the horrors of the days after the discovery of Jenny’s body.”
He also has deep respect for Nicholson as a fellow writer.
“She is an exceptionally good writer. And there is a mavellous aesthetic behind the writing of the book,” he adds.
“I had to write as well as I could. As well as I could possibly do to do justice to Jenny but also to do justice to Julie as a writer, I had to do that. And that was, believe it or not, a way of making things manageable, to know that I was dealing with somebody who valued language, who valued literature, who wanted this story told in as well a form as possible.
“The quality in the writing has to be reflected in the quality of writing in the film. And I couldn’t have had a more kind collaborator than Julie. Given everything this story meant to her, she never lost sight of the fact that we have to have a narrative, we have to have an audience.
“What I loved about the book is she only told her story – hers and Jenny’s. She didn’t intrude on other people’s stories. She felt the intensity of her own experience so deeply and that’s what she wanted to record and did. And we agreed that would be the whole narrative thrust of the film.”
McGuinness’ next project is to stage Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme on a French battlefield in July. And he feels, he says, a “stirring” for a new TV project – something with the scale and power of A Song for Jenny and A Short Stay in Switzerland.
“Life is short,” he chuckles. “If you are going to do something do big subjects.”
A Song for Jenny is on BBC1 on Sunday (5th July) at 9pm
Read our preview: 7/7 drama A Song for Jenny: a tough but compelling watch