Getting sassy Samantha from Sex and the City to play Harry Potter’s mum seems an incongruous idea for a Remembrance Day drama, but viewers drawn to My Boy Jack by this star casting will find almost unrecognisable incarnations of Daniel Radcliffe and Kim Cattrall. They play Jack and Carrie, the son and American wife of Rudyard Kipling, a revered national treasure and ultra-patriotic apologist for the British Empire.
The play is the long-nurtured baby of actor David Haig and is worth watching for his performance alone. It was conceived 22 years ago when a co-star in a Broadway show noticed Haig’s uncanny resemblance to Kipling. Douglas Rae, this film’s co-producer, says that they look so alike that when he first saw an exhibition hooked to My Boy Jack at the Imperial War Museum, he assumed that contemporary photos of Kipling were stills from the shoot.
Eventually Haig wrote a stage play, concentrating on Kipling’s desperate efforts to get the acutely myopic Jack into the military at the outbreak of the First World War, and his devastating remorse when Jack was killed in action.
A successful West End run 11 years ago led to a screenplay, and another wait. “It sat on the shelf for about 10 years, until Daniel Radcliffe was old enough to play Jack, I suppose,” Rae jokes. “We decided that if we could persuade Daniel to do it, it would have a good chance of being made. It’s wonderful when you get an actor who is exactly the right age to play an iconic role. The same thing happened when we got Judi Dench to play Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown.”
“It’s probably the easiest piece I’ve ever commissioned,” says Laura Mackie, then in the hand-over phase from Nick Elliott as ITV’s head of drama. “It would appeal to a big audience, with an international star [Radcliffe] coming to television. The script made me cry. I sat opposite Nick as he read it on a train journey, and he was welling up too. We normally like to do at least two prestige pieces every quarter. This season we have this and A Room with a View.”
“We were effectively making a full-scale movie on a TV budget,’ says Rae (although at the high end of Mackie’s range). This has tested the ingenuity of Rae, his co-producer, Michael Casey, director Brian Kirk and particularly production designer David Arrowsmith.
Bateman’s, the Kipling family home in Sussex, is a National Trust property and the production team negotiated two days’ access at the end of the shoot for exterior shots. “The rooms are surprisingly small, really tiny,” says Arrowsmith, “so we recreated the interior in a sound-studio in Ireland, complete with Jacobean panelling and Kipling’s eclectic collection of ornaments and mementoes. We made the rooms larger for the cameras, floated some of the walls and changed the layout slightly to
fit the script.”
In fact, everything else was filmed in Ireland. As Casey explains, it is the current location of choice with its well-trained crews and television-friendly tax regime. The similar and unspoiled landscape helps too. “We have to spend less precious CGI money on ‘negative design’, removing TV aerials and pylons,’ says Arrowsmith. His proudest achievement was recreating the Battle of Loos in a farmer’s field in County Wicklow. “We could only dig down three feet for health and safety reasons so we built the trenches up with flattage.”
What he calls a “rat-run through a silage pit” and a disused quarry were dressed for Jack’s doomed assault on a German machine-gun bunker.
Great attention was paid to detail. The Imperial War Museum’s sound archive provided examples of the noise of each type of rifle and artillery. An Irish pyrotechnics firm provided air cannons which create an effect similar to an exploding First World War shell, showering the cast with harmless compost and cork. Rae explains that the DoP, David Odd, attached lightweight cameras to the cast’s uniforms, collecting realistically disorientating shots as they went “over the top”.
Machines provided the ever-present rain. “We got through 20,000 gallons of water in the first two days,” recalls Brian Kirk. “The soldiers’ coats used to absorb 20 pounds of extra weight of water.” For the 10-day shoot, says Rae, Radcliffe and the little “band of brothers” who played his platoon insisted on staying in their wet clothes all day, if only to get a hint of the men’s discomfort.
Directing Radcliffe, Kirk emphasised the parallels between the child star’s situation and Jack’s: two adolescent boys, accustomed to the limelight, finding their way to new lives as adults. Jack turns 18 during the story and so did Radcliffe during the shoot. Both undertake journeys. Jack learns to command men and earns their respect; Radcliffe to prove himself in an adult role.
Kim Cattrall impressed Kirk in a different way, “a meticulous actress, extraordinarily subtle and nuanced,” he says.
Rae, Casey and Kirk all stress the power and contemporary relevance of the story. Kirk sees it as a “salute” to surviving Great War veterans. By an eerie coincidence they discovered that the last day of the shoot fell on Jack’s birthday. All agree the project has been hugely ambitious, “like Howard’s End meets Saving Private Ryan,” says Kirk. Given the TV budget, they’ve come remarkably close to that. Boxes of tissues recommended.
TX: My Boy Jack
Producer: Ecosse Films
Starts: 11 November, 9pm
Length: 120 minutes
Commissioning editors: Laura Mackie and Nick Elliott
Writer: David Haig
Director: Brian Kirk
Producers: Douglas Rae and Michael Casey
Executive producers: Robert Bernstein, Nicole Finnan, Morgan O’Sullivan, James Flynn and Rebecca Eaton
DoP: David Odd
Casting director: Gary Davy
Production designer: David Arrowsmith
Composer: Adrian Johnston
Editor: Tim Murrell
Key cast: David Haig, Daniel Radcliffe, Kim Cattrall and Carey Mulligan