Reg Keys has long been a fan of Tim Roth. He first saw him in Quentin Tarantino’s 1991 film Reservoir Dogs. So when the television producer Colin McKeown phoned Reg to say they were casting the actor to play him in a film about his life, the former ambulance driver and paramedic thought it was a joke. The reality only sank in a couple of months later when he met the Hollywood star in a pub in Liverpool where the drama was being shot.
But then again there are many aspects of Reg’s life that he couldn’t have imagined in a million years, such as running for Parliament and taking on the then prime minister, Tony Blair, over Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War. Reg’s remarkable story is now being told in a 90-minute BBC1 drama written by the award-winning screenwriter Jimmy McGovern.
Thirteen years ago, when he retired from his job in Birmingham, Reg Keys imagined a quiet life in north Wales. He and his wife Sally, a former nurse, had bought a house in the countryside and were looking forward to visits from their two sons, who were both in the Army.
The film opens on the day Reg’s life changed, in June 2003. The couple are having lunch and on the TV news is breaking of the murder of six British servicemen in Iraq. The camera pans to a photograph of a young man in military uniform – and then comes the knock at the door: his 20-year-old son, Lance Corporal Thomas (Tom) Keys, was one of the dead.
Just two years later, Reg stood as a candidate to be MP for Sedgefield in Durham, taking on Prime Minister Tony Blair.
“If this war had been justified by international law, I would have grieved and not campaigned. If weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, I would have grieved and not campaigned.” These are words uttered by Tim Roth in the drama, but Reg repeats them when it’s screened for the press.
In the aftermath of the Iraq War, Reg Keys became a shop steward for the ordinary man, voicing the rage so many felt about being dragged into a conflict in the Middle East on false pretences. Keys was courageous enough to demand an explanation from the Prime Minister with dogged persistence and he never gave up.
“A lot of the script is me, word for word,” he says. “It’s strange to look at the screen and see somebody else in your situation, using your name and mannerisms and voice even, but it’s not me. It’s a surreal experience.”
What strikes me when I watch the drama, and again later when I meet the real Reg Keys, is his quiet dignity. He’s impeccably dressed and well mannered. A real gent. I bet he was a great ambulance driver, just the kind of person you’d want in a crisis, calm but kind and assured. If there is a cauldron of anger boiling inside him, it’s not obvious.
One of the most shocking scenes in the film is when Reg learns from his son’s commanding officer that their unit had been “descaled” shortly before they were attacked in a filthy run-down police station in southern Iraq. “Descaled” is Army jargon, meaning that vital equipment – which might have saved their lives – had been taken away.
While his wife Sally sank into a catatonic depression from which she would never recover, Reg went into overdrive, founding Military Families Against the War and embarking on an election campaign in Sedgefield.
The turning point for Reg was finding out that there had been no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the cited reason for going to war: “That was the night, the blue touchpaper, really.”
Some of the lighter moments in the film show Reg pounding the pavements of Sedgefield in a bid to get votes, but he says the reality was a lot grimmer: “They’d answer the door literally with their dinner on the plate and say, ‘Can’t you see I’m having my tea?’ Or, ‘Your son joined the Army, he got killed – what did you expect?’ And that was the tip of the iceberg.”
The film also shows the odd assortment of celebrities who turned up to support Reg’s campaign, including novelist Frederick Forsyth and the former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell. “Martin Bell just pitched up and offered to help. He’s friends with that blond bloke David Soul, out of Starsky & Hutch, so he came up too and got some votes. Then there was the musician Brian Eno, he’s from a Quaker background and was against the war, so he put up the money for offices, the computers and the printers. It’s expensive running a campaign, but the donations flooded in. Richard Dawkins the scientist donated quite a lot of money.”
He says he could have forgiven Blair for Tom’s death, but not for what he did to his wife Sally. The most upsetting moments of the film for Reg are watching actress Anna Maxwell Martin portray Sally’s tragic decline.
“I went to the first readthrough in a hall in Liverpool and when I heard Anna speaking Sally’s words, I had to walk out. I was choked up.” The actress had watched TV news interviews with Sally and had caught her accent and mannerisms perfectly.
Sally died in 2011, aged 57, and the film is dedicated to her. “There’s no actual medical condition of dying of a broken heart, but Sally was the nearest thing to it,” says Reg. “She just couldn’t cope with the nature of Tom’s death.”
The film shows her self-medicating with alcohol, which must have been hard to watch. “Jimmy [McGovern] had to go with it in the script, she did start to drink too much, and it did affect her health quite badly. She stopped going out, having friends round, wouldn’t allow a doctor to come in the house, stopped going to the dentist, the hairdresser, stopped having her nails done…” He tails off, pauses and then says, “She wanted to die, she wanted to be with Tom.”
I ask whether he still feels the same anger against Blair, and whether there was anything he could have done afterwards that would have made a difference.
“He could have expressed regret for the loss of my son’s life, which he didn’t do. I think he could have handled it better with the families, he could have met us, listened to what we had to say.”
Reg’s burning desire to meet Tony Blair face to face and look him in the eye propelled him into standing for election in Sedgefield just so he might get a chance to meet him at the count. This also drives the drama of the film, culminating in election night, where archive footage of the then prime minister looking distinctly uncomfortable is cleverly intercut with film of Tim Roth playing Reg.
What does Reg feel about the British electoral system now? “What I never realised before is that the ordinary man in the street can put up £500 and stand to be an MP. And if you get over a certain percentage of the vote, you get your £500 back! That’s the beauty of our democracy. But it’s not something that I would want to do again – I did find it extraordinarily draining.”
One aspect of his election campaign that didn’t make it into the film was the attempts to set him up for compromising stories in the tabloids. “I got a message telling me to meet a journalist for an interview somewhere in Birmingham at a certain time, but I got caught up in traffic. Anyway, I arrived at this location an hour late, knocked on the door and it was a brothel. Fortunately, whoever was trying to set me up had got fed up and left, but you can imagine the headline they were after – ‘Bereaved Father Seeks Comfort in Massage Parlour’.”
The drama is broadcast tonight, less than a month before the long-awaited Chilcot Inquiry report into Britain’s role in the Iraq War. Writer Jimmy McGovern says this is a coincidence. He’s been trying to make a drama about Reg for years.
Keys wants Reg to set the scene. “I hope this film will work as a prelude to the Iraq inquiry. I just think it gives it more thrust. But it wasn’t engineered, was it Jimmy?” he says looking over at the writer.
“For me Reg is a story about one man’s pursuit of justice,” says McGovern. “When I first met Reg he reminded me of Eddie Spearritt, who lost his lad in one of the pens at Hillsborough. Eddie campaigned vigorously for justice… he was the same size and build as Reg, Reg used to have a ’tache, Eddie had a ’tache, Eddie dressed smart, Reg dressed smart, and they both had that tigerish pursuit of truth.
“Unfortunately, Eddie died – he never saw that day in court in Warrington. But Reg hopefully will with Chilcot.”
Reg airs tonight at 9pm on BBC1.