Award-winning screenwriter Nick Leather has written a drama about the 1993 IRA bomb attack on Warrington and its impact on two families. He told Philip Cunnington why we shouldn’t forget the events of 25 years ago
On Saturday, March 20, 1993, Nick Leather was driving into Warrington town centre with his dad, on his way to get a Mother’s Day present.
But as they drove into town, Nick, then 15, and his dad heard a news report on the radio – an IRA bomb had exploded in the town centre, the second attack in as many months – the first was on a nearby gas storage facility.
Nick, now 41 and an award-winning scriptwriter, has turned the events of March 20 and the aftermath into a new BBC drama, Mother’s Day.
The blast claimed the lives of two young boys – three-year-old Johnathan Ball and Tim Parry, 12 – and injured dozens more. Johnathan died at the scene, but Tim fought for life in hospital for five days, until his parents made the heart-breaking decision to turn off his life support.
Tim’s mum and dad, Colin and Wendy Parry, campaigned tirelessly for peace in Northern Ireland in the years following the bombing, and the drama follows them and Dublin housewife Susan McHugh – who organised peace rallies in Ireland after hearing of the events in Warrington.
The Parry family had close links with Wigan, as Colin lived and worked in the town for many years, and Tim attended nursery at St Matthew’s,Highfield.
But why did Nick, originally from Newton-le-Willows, near Wigan, decide this was a story he wanted to tell?
He says: “One reason, obviously, is that I’m from the area, and then on that day, March 20 1993, I was in the car with my dad, going into Warrington, on my way to get a Mother’s Day present, and I would say probably like half the people I knew were there, on their way back from there, or in the town centre itself.
“My dad put on the radio and it just said there had been a major incident and the town centre was closed, and just the shock of that.
“Because it was three weeks after the gas works bomb you knew straight away it was an IRA bomb and I can remember my dad saying, ‘No, no not again, they wouldn’t do it, not again’, and I remember my dad saying the town centre’s closed, if a bomb’s gone off in the town centre people are going to have died.
“And then once we saw, the following morning, the image of Johnathan and then we saw Wendy and Colin over the next few days and the tortuous situation they were in as Tim fought for his life, it had a tremendous impact as a kid growing up in the area. It’s something I’ve never forgotten really.”
Nick’s other work includes the Bafta-winning drama Murdered for Being Different, about the murder and assault of Sophie Lancaster and Rob Maltby in Bacup, Lancashire. Sophie and Rob were attacked in a local park, simply because they stood out from the crowd.
But why tell the story of Warrington now? Nick says: “I’d done Murdered for Being Different, and someone at the BBC said it might be a good time, if I had any other real-life stories I wanted to tell, it might be a good time to pitch them, so I just said there is only one story I’d always wanted to do, and it’s the Warrington bomb – it was in development within a week.
“You start to feel very passionate about it and you think it’s wrong NOT to tell the story, and these are the kind of stories which should be told over and over again, because people shouldn’t forget about these things.
“I got to the point, years later, that I would talk to people about the Warrington bombing, particularly in London and people wouldn’t remember it or hadn’t heard of it, and I was horrified.
“Everyone needs to know about what happened, but also how Colin and Wendy responded, the remarkable way they responded. You can now see it was one of the turning points in the history of the Troubles, so it’s an important story to tell.”
The events in Warrington and Bacup are tragic, and the impact of them is still felt today, but how do you go about portraying them? Isn’t there a tension between the truth and good drama?
Nick says: “From speaking to people, you realise that everyone’s being absolutely accurate, everyone’s telling the truth, but it’s different.
“We process everything so differently and everyone has a different version of things so you then have to impose yourself on it and how you’re going to tell the story. You’ll focus on one or two things, so the audience can get to grips with the characters.
“I mean, they’re called factual dramas, but they should be called truthful dramas, as you may change the facts, or the details, but they should always be essentially truthful to what happened.”
Having written dramas centring on events in Bacup and Warrington, as well as Hollyoaks (Chester) and for Jimmy McGovern's Broken, set in a northern city and filmed in Liverpool, much of Nick's writing is based in and around the north west, but does he think of himself as a northern writer?
He says: "I’ve got a thing on my wall here that says don’t write what you know, write what you feel. I’m writing a bit of what I know, but I don’t set out to do that, I just write what I feel, and I would happily write about anything, anywhere.
"I will always be a northern writer, and it might affect the way you write and certain elements in your voice, but I think even being from a small town I think probably affects your view of the world - I’m definitely not a city writer, but I would hope it would extend a bit further.
"I mean, at the moment I’m writing McMafia so I am stretching myself to drug-trafficking, money-laundering Russian oligarchs. But even if I’m writing about them, in my head the scene could still be set in Willow Park, in Newton-le-Willows. In the script I’d write Hyde Park, but in my head it would be Willow Park."
Mother's Day - Everything you need to know about the new BBC drama
For a young lad growing up in smalltown Lancashire, writing is an unusual career to move into, so how did Nick go from Newton-le-Willows to Moscow and beyond?
"I was reading a Children’s Commissioners report a while ago, and it said if you meet someone from a particular career, it increases your chances of going into that line of work, because you realise that it exists, it makes it possible," he says. "But I definitely never met a scriptwriter, or a playwright. I would have met a journalist and when I was a kid that’s what I wanted to be, because I wanted to write, and in some ways that’s why I like factual dramas because in some ways you’ve got that journalistic element with the scriptwriting.
"But the one thing that made me realise scriptwriting existed as a job was that my dad was really into radio comedy, so we’d have – which is probably pretty rare – these books of scripts at home.
"So when I was at school and we had a storytime after lunch when you could bring your own book in, I’d sit there and read the collected scripts of Galton and Simpson. So that was probably quite influential. Then I won a young playwrights' competition at the Royal Exchange in Manchester and it sort of went from there to radio to TV.
"So, it was probably my dad, is what I’m saying – he was good at telling stories too."
And what other stories does Nick have to tell?
"I’ve got a few projects in development and a couple of scripts commissioned," he says. "I know the next thing I’d like to write is a series about being a man in 2018. A primetime series about that really.
"For all of us, what is like being a man when sort of the brand ‘man’, which most of us were brought up to aspire to, is seen as a terrible brand. We were all aiming to be the wrong thing, but it’s quite hard to unpick it now – how do we work out who to be, what is the right way to be a man for now?
"If you remember Gerald Ratner, the guy who ran his own jewellery business, who trashed his own brand, calling it crap. With maleness, being a man, we’ve had our Ratner moment now, so how do we detoxify ourselves now, so I’d like to write about that now."
Mother’s Day is on BBC2 on Monday at 9pm.