Earlier this year, Somewhere Boy won the audience award at the prestigious Series Mania television festival in France, fighting off some of the biggest new shows on Earth. And its creator Pete Jackson only heard about it at the very last moment.
“I live in Somerset. I was outside, digging up my garden, and I got a call saying: ‘Get on a train and get to Lille, you’ve won,’” he says. After a breakneck scrabble for London, the festival’s closing ceremony creeping ever closer, he finally found a seat on a Eurostar. “And when I got to Lille, there were police escort motorbikes, the whole shebang, all to race me to the thing. And I missed it by a minute. I got there as they were coming off stage.”
Frustrating, perhaps, but what a way to introduce your first TV show to the world. Even more happily, Somewhere Boy was a deserved winner. The story of an 18-year-old boy who is forced to make his first nervous steps out into the world after a lifetime spent inside a single house with his father, it is the best British drama of the autumn, if not the year.
Jackson is the first to admit that the premise has been done before – if you’ve seen Room or Dogtooth you’ll have a pretty good idea – but Somewhere Boy is shot through with such singular sincerity that at times it takes the breath away. The series resonated with me hard (after the final episode, I had to just sit quietly with myself for many minutes), but I couldn’t completely work out why. Something about it undeniably comes from the heart, but what?
“My dad used to have this old Technics MK1 record player that was pride of place in the living room where I grew up,” says Jackson by way of explanation. “Me and him used to sit and listen to records together. Then recently, I thought I’d dig it out of his garage, so me and my son could sit together and listen to the same records on the same record player. It brought me back to that time. How fleeting these innocent, safe moments in childhood are. How fearful we are of them ending – and what we might do to extend them.”
That’s what the show boils down to. It’s about a father’s desire to slow time, to keep his child safe from the horrors of the world. “It’s terrifying, growing up,” says Jackson. “You know how hideously difficult and complex things will get. You know you’ll always be on your own.” It’s a primal parental fear, knowing that you will one day have to release your kids into the lonely chaos of adulthood and that you haven’t prepared them; Somewhere Boy taps into that with vicious efficiency.
But not many of us would act on that fear by trapping our kids at home with tales of bloodthirsty monsters beyond the front door. “It’s that thing of doing one thing that you believe is good, then having to do increasingly terrible things to protect it,” Jackson says of the father’s motivation. Kids, he says, “have to be allowed to be on their own, and to get everything horribly wrong before they get it right”.
Each episode of Somewhere Boy runs less than 30 minutes. This, and the fact that it’s made by Clerkenwell Films – responsible for the similarly high concept The End of the F***ing World – has led some to wrongly believe that they’re in for a comedy-drama.
“Definitely not comedy,” insists Lewis Gribben, the 26-year-old who plays Daniel, the boy who has to leave home for the first time. While admitting that the show does have a few moments of levity, he goes on to comprehensively list all the pitch-black themes. “You’ve got monsters. You’ve got child abandonment, you’ve got a loner trying to become friends with people, but not knowing how.”
Speaking from his home in Glasgow – “Every time I do anything in Scotland, they just say: ‘Are you ever gonna come down to London?’ Absolutely not,” he states off the bat – Gribben is warm and hilarious company. This is his first lead role, after a handful of years playing drug dealers and criminals (“I know I’ve got a buzzcut, but come on!”).
Gribben says that the 10 days between auditioning and securing the role were “agonising. I had two auditions for other stuff in between, and what I wanted to say to my agent is: ‘Respectfully, fuck off.’ This was the part I wanted. Because I wanted to go dark. I always felt like I could go darker.”
He might be underselling the sweetness of the role. As Danny, Gribben has an innocent, otherworldly quality. Everything he encounters – from online porn to romance to the awful truth about his upbringing – he’s hearing for the very first time, and reacting as such. There’s an element of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth about him, and there’s a quiet joy in watching everyone else bend to his worldview rather than him being forced to assimilate.
This sense of being half a step out of pace with everyone is something both creator and star can relate to. Gribben has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, although he’s understandably keen for nobody to draw too many parallels between character and performer. “I don’t want it to be: ‘Oh, a kid with autism’s playing a messed-up kid,’” he says. “It never really came up in the audition process, but I know what it’s like to be like an outsider and a bit of a weird kid. I was able to relate to it, and feel all those feelings like: ‘I really want friends, but I don’t know how. I’m so weird and different. I want to fall in love, but I’m gonna get my heart broken.’”
Meanwhile, more than one publication has made hay of the fact that, despite being a relatively new writer, Pete Jackson is 43. As I start to ask him about his path to writing, he very politely intercepts me.
“Well, I’m a recovering alcoholic,” he says. “I only picked up a pen the day I finally went to AA. They said: ‘You need to find something to fill that yearning gap in your life that leaving alcohol will give you.’ So I picked up a pen and, with a shake, holding my right hand steady with my left hand, I started jotting down ideas and thoughts. And it turned out I could do it, and I learned how to do it, and it gave me something else. I’m evangelical about writing, really.”
This experience directly led to Jackson writing Love in Recovery, a comedy-drama set in Alcoholics Anonymous that ran on Radio 4 for three series. He’s 13 years sober this month, and Somewhere Boy has only increased his momentum. He has several projects on the go, one of which is the TV adaptation of Nick Cave’s novel The Death of Bunny Munro. That sounds like it might be quite intimidating, I say.
“I’ve never been so intimidated,” he says. “When I was writing the pilot, I banned any mention of Nick Cave around the house. But then I listened to Ghosteen after I’d finished, just before I was going to meet him, and it’s such an extraordinary piece of work. And then I met him and I fell apart. Absolutely starstruck. He wrote an essay on grief, and I know people who have lost loved ones, and they consider it the thing that has helped them the most. Just his humanity, I think, is quite extraordinary.”
I ask Jackson if his newfound prodigious output is him making up for lost time. “There’s always a sense with a recovering addict that you hurtle away from your addictions in one direction because, if you stop, it might catch you,” he says. “There’s none more industrious than old recovering alcoholics who have just got a new career.”
Gribben, too, is going places. Recently named one of Screen International’s Rising Stars Scotland, he scored a role in Masters of the Air, the Tom Hanks-produced miniseries that will close out the trilogy that began with Band of Brothers. Not that he wants anyone to get excited. “I have to emphasise this … I’ve got two lines. I got to fire a gun at some imaginary Germans on a giant blue screen, so that was awesome. And I met Austin Butler, and I didn’t know he was Elvis. When I saw the film I was like: ‘I spoke to that guy! That’s nuts!’”
But this is all in the future. For now, the sad, strange, sweet Somewhere Boy is the focus, and rightly so. What a beautiful piece of television this is.
Somewhere Boy is on Channel 4 and All 4 on 16 October.
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