And so we come to our post-Broadchurch, Monday-night crime watch. Whereas the final, third series of Broadchurch managed to present a harrowing case of sexual assault with sensitivity and a great deal of procedural realism, almost to the point of documentary style, it has nothing on an actual true story. And this is what Little Boy Blue is – an adapted drama made with the consent of a murdered 11-year-old boy’s family, whose story and tragedy deeply touched and saddened a nation a decade ago. Anything that is based on real-life events makes me nervous (Will it do justice to the victim? Will it do justice to the family of the victim? What is the point of telling the story?), so I approached this with trepidation and a little nervousness.
NB. Spoilers inside
The fact that Little Boy Blue featured the always-excellent Stephen Graham in the starring role gave me encouragement: someone of that stature wouldn’t have attached themselves if it wasn’t a good piece; a worthy piece.
But bloody hell, it got going straight away and immediately became an incredibly hard watch. Mum Melanie (Sinead Keenan) packed off her 11-year-old son to after-school football practice on a bright, sunny summer Liverpool evening. Husband Steve (Brían F O’Byrne) went on his way to work. Melanie pottered around the house, doing chores; her son’s football pitch was outside in the back garden, his footballs strewn everywhere. It was a normal, footie-mad kid’s home back garden in a footie-mad city. It reminded me of my own childhood and no doubt reminded many viewers of a son or a daughter, the energy they bring to a household; their passions and their non-stop enthusiasm for the thing they love; of long summer evenings, the noise of a son or a daughter constantly playing football in the back garden becoming a fabric of their lives.
Rhys Jones didn’t return home from practice that night. There was a knock at the door: a distressed football coach. You must come now. He’s been shot. Rhys has been shot.
The first act followed this awful situation as Melanie first arrived on the scene to find her son – still in his football kit – lying in a pool of his own blood in a car park. Steve soon got to the hospital, still not quite sure whether this had been some sort of mistake, or hoax. It wasn’t. Rhys Jones died after an hour-and-a-half of resuscitation attempts. Melanie said no, this couldn’t have happened. As her family in the waiting room wept and collapsed, Melanie still said no. No this hadn’t happened.
“An 11-year-old boy?” asked newly appointed acting DS Dave Kelly, echoing Melanie’s incredulity and shock in a different place. He received the call at a family barbeque.
And then the procedure. The process that the police have to follow that goes against everything the Jones family was feeling. One key scene illustrated this, horribly. Melanie and Steve had to go and see their son’s body in situ. Naturally, Melanie wanted to touch and cradle her son, even though she was warned the body had to be used as evidence. And even though she was told this, respectfully, she still couldn’t help stroking her son. The attendant took a deep breath: “If you touch him again I’m going to have to arrest you. We have to preserve the evidence.”
It was brutal, but it was procedure. And the Joneses understood. If there was one thing throughout this entire ordeal – this worst nightmare realised – that shone through was that both Melanie and Steve were polite to a fault. When DS Kelly went to visit them – always a key scene in a drama like this – he was at pains to be informal, friendly. Almost disarmingly so. He wanted to introduce himself to Melanie and Steve because he wanted them to put a face to a name. He told them they could call him Ned, after Ned Kelly. It was his nickname. “Can I get you anything? A cup of tea?” replied.
And so we followed the investigation, and we also saw young Kevin Moody, who had been bullied into hiding the murder weapon by a surly gang. What was also very evident, especially towards the end of the episode, was how Rhys’s murder had affected the whole city (indeed, the closing scene saw Melanie and Steve attend a pre-game tribute at Everton football club), and I get the sense we’ll see more of how the city reacted to a tragedy of that magnitude; a city famed for its close-knit community and unique togetherness.
But until that time comes, DS Kelly was tasked with poring through CCTV footage, grabbing hold of any lead that became available and trying to wear down gang leader Sean Mercer (Paddy Rowan), who sat stone-faced throughout his first interview, almost cocky, retorting ‘no comment’ to every question.
Strip away all the emotion – and believe me, it was emotional – and dramas like this, however well played (and it was) and well written (it was), tend to follow a strict narrative course because they have to. The drama based on true events are bound with convention and a need for facts – we know what happened to Rhys, we know who the murderer was and we kind of know how they were brought to justice. That doesn’t stop Little Boy Blue being a hugely worthy undertaking and a powerful, harrowing watch. It just makes it difficult to judge as a drama.