Martin Compston on Mayflies: ‘It’s the most emotionally present I’ve ever been on a job’
From the start of the BBC drama, based on the novel of the same name by Andrew O’Hagan, it’s clear this will be an utterly heart-wrenching watch.
Martin Compston and Tony Curran deftly display the decades of friendship between their characters, Jimmy and Tully, and the grief they are both thrust into in discovering they have just months left together is palpable.
Jimmy and Tully have been best mates since 1986 when, over the course of summer in a small Scottish town, they ignite a friendship based on music, film, culture and rebellion. The working class boys bond through the whirlwind that is that last summer break at the end of school, the summer where you feel like you’re teetering on the cliff-edge of adulthood, but it’s not too late for some riotous fun.
Thirty years later, Jimmy and Tully are facing a very different cliff-edge. Tully has just found out he has cancer of the oesophagus, liver, stomach and lymph nodes – and he’s got a life expectancy of just four months. Curran, 52, who plays Tully, says: “The first thing that jumped out when I read the two screenplays was just the humanity that was in it.
“The characters that jumped off the page – the relationship between Jimmy and Tully was very powerful and very moving. For west of Scotland lads, it was very tender – there was a tenderness to it. I don’t think anybody I know, and we all know, has never been touched by cancer. I just thought it was a poignant, beautiful story.”
Compston, 38, who plays Jimmy, says of joining the project: “For me, it was a no brainer. Me and Tony go way, way back, so that aspect, filming in Scotland… it was all perfect. Every day you felt like the tears were coming, and you were going home to read the following day’s scenes and it was the same thing. It was full on, but to go through that with one of your best pals was a joy.”
The Mayflies story is told across two timelines: one in the 1980s, which sees the blossoming friendship of Jimmy and Tully backed by a New Wave soundtrack, and one showing the middle-aged men deal with the news that their world as they know it is falling apart.
While shooting constraints meant Compston and Curran did not get to work directly with their younger counterparts Rian Gordon and Tom Glynn-Carney, they say that seeing the timelines intertwined in the final cut added a whole new gravity to their own performances.
“It’s amazing when we watch it back now and see the young team, and all of them together are a joy to watch,” says Compston. “That just lifts the whole piece. And then you see what these two guys are losing, because you see the friendship in the past.”
With this decade-enduring friendship comes a certain vulnerability, an emotional kinship that is deftly explored on screen thanks, in part, to Compston and Curran’s own close friendship.
Exploring the theme of male friendship, Curran notes how men may feel less willing to admit something is wrong medically, and go and see a doctor about pain or discomfort, for fear of showing weakness. Indeed his character Tully admits that, “if I’m completely honest, I’ve been in pain for months” before going to the doctor and getting his diagnosis.
Curran says: “Maybe with men, certainly with my father, if I can talk personally for a moment, my dad died of mesothelioma, he had lung cancer, because he was in the shipyards for years. The ships were full of asbestos. Anyway, he never really went to the doctor, he complained about back pain and stuff. I think with a lot of maybe young boys and men they don’t seem to talk about things as much, but I definitely think that’s changing. I hope it’s changing.”
Mayflies was an emotional shoot for Compston and Curran. “It’s the most emotionally, I think, present I’ve ever been on a job,” says Compston. “As actors we’ve got different tools, different mechanics to sort of get you there, whether you’re thinking about something in your past or you’re imagining something else happening. With this, it was just the subject matter, the script, and doing it with your pal. In that sense, it felt very real. We just felt in it all the time.”
Mayflies starts on BBC One at 9pm on Wednesday, December 28.