Producer Lynn Horsford had luck on her side when filming a hard-hitting drama about child crime

Just like buses, you wait around for projects then two blinders come back to back. In January, still
reeling somewhat from producing Channel 4 drama The Mark of Cain, I met the two executive producers of the newly formed Cuba Pictures, Nick Marston and Tally Garner, who had had the idea of getting Irish dramatist Mark O’Rowe to adapt Jonathan Trigell’s award-winning novel Boy A.

An irresistible script, Boy A is a fictional story about Jack (Andrew Garfield), a young man who has spent most of his life in institutions paying for a terrible crime he committed as a minor.

At 24 years-old Jack is released into an unrecognisable adult world with a new name, a new job and a new life. Only his case worker, Terry (Peter Mullan), knows his true identity. But anonymity is both a blessing and a curse as Jack, desperate to re-build his life and seize this second chance, has to contend with not being able to tell the people he gets to know, and love, of his true past and the monstrous secret he must keep hidden.

Race against time

C4 head of drama Liza Marshall commissioned the drama and everyone wanted John Crowley to direct. But John had a long-cherished feature film in development which had just been financed and would be ready to go in the summer. Could Boy A be made in time to release John for his next project?

It’s amazing what can be achieved where there’s a will. All power to C4, which expedited programme finance approvals. John and I started crewing, casting and doing location recces simultaneously. The drama was partly set in Manchester and it was decided to shoot the whole film there - a regional remit tick.

John had a clear vision for this film and we needed to have the right people in place to support that. I introduced him to the production designer, Jon Henson, and Jon mentioned the cinematographer Rob Hardy. With Julian Day on costume, Jim Greenhorn on sound (and crosswords), Jessica Taylor on make-up and Sue Calverley line producing we had the core of a great team.

Casting hurdles

The next hurdle was casting Jack. Fiona Weir had a strong shortlist headed by Andrew Garfield, but Andrew was finishing the Robert Redford film Lions for Lambs in LA and couldn’t come home.

Technology to the rescue! His audition was posted on a website and John and I and all the execs fell in love. Fiona then had the unenviable task of trying to find two boys who could play the younger version of Jack and his best mate, Philip, who committed the crime with him. The subject matter itself eliminated many potential kids. But the ones who remained trusted the script and John’s integrity.

It’s about second chances and hope, not exploitation and blame. Alfie Owen, who played the young Jack, had special contact lenses to match Andrew’s melting brown eyes and seemed to step into an internal world when he put them in.

Tight schedule

We were on the usual tight TV schedule of 11-day fortnights for five weeks, with the added restrictions of child working hours on many of the days. But again the gods were with us. The sun shone when it was supposed to - it was cloudy on the right days and no one was stung by the poisonous giant hogweed that was discovered on a key location the day before filming.

The crew got a go on the Alton Towers rides, which was useful ballast to the sombre tone of many of the other scenes. These are at the heart of the drama and everyone respected the concentration and emotional vulnerability they demanded of the actors.

Meanwhile, in the cutting room, Lucia Zuchetti was expertly weaving together the past and the present. We picture-locked in just five weeks - including executive sign-offs. With Paddy Cuneen writing the score and Paul Davies perfecting the sound, we raced to the deadline.

Even before the final mix, we had shown Boy A to Tessa Ross and Sue Bruce Smith of Film 4, who enthusiastically suggested sending it to the film festivals. It was accepted at Toronto and London respectively.

The final mix was completed in August and the HDCAM was couriered to Canada. On 9 September Nick, Tally and I watched as John and Andrew stood on stage in Toronto to a standing ovation - smiling and little shell-shocked.

We then headed back to the UK for the BFI’s London Film Festival screenings and of course the television premiere on C4. The whole project took nine months from start to finish. Some films are more like babies than buses after all.

Boy A is a Cuba Pictures Production for C4. It airs on Monday, 26 November at 9pm

Lynn Horsford: My tricks of the trade

  • I’m not on set every minute of the day, but, when I am, I have the usual checklist:
    - Blackberry
    - iPod Shuffle
    - Sat-Nav

  • I’m happily unembarrassed to wear an enormous bum-bag (just during the shoot I should add).

  • As a compulsive watcher of any survival show. I plan for Bolton as if it were Alaska.

  • To this end, I am a walking pharmacy: aspirin, plasters, antihistamines, travel sickness pills, tranquilisers. Add in the A5 script, pens, pencils, Leatherman and the girly stuff - lippy, hand cream, perfume - and the obligatory bottle of water and I’m a fair rival to the stand-by art director in the pouch stakes.