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Film

Anthony Boyle on Danny Boy: ‘No one is above the law’

A decorated Iraq war soldier later accused of war crimes was a complex role to tackle for actor Anthony Boyle

There are few subjects more emotive in the UK than the Iraq war. Add in disputed (and subsequently dismissed) accusations of war crimes committed by British soldiers and you have controversy squared.

New BBC Two drama Danny Boy tells the story of soldier Brian Wood – awarded the Military Cross for bravery in the Battle of Danny Boy in May 2004. He led a bayonet charge across open ground after his unit was ambushed; he was later accused of war crimes, which were investigated at the Al-Sweady inquiry into mistreatment of detainees in Iraq. 

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In the feature-length drama, he is played by rising star Anthony Boyle, who shot to prominence with his Olivier Award-winning performance as Scorpius Malfoy in Harry Potter and The Cursed Child in the West End and on Broadway. Boyle then consolidated his position as one to watch with a performance in David Simon’s HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America alongside Winona Ryder. 

Danny Boy follows Wood from the heat of conflict to the heart of an expensive, complex legal battle brought by human rights lawyer Phil Shiner (played by Toby Jones). 

When he spoke, he had this thousand-yard stare when he would think about the battleActor Anthony Boyle

“I had Brian on set during the war scenes,” says Boyle. “I would ask him: how is your chest right now? Where’s your breathing at? It was really invaluable. Soldiers often say film and TV is so overdramatic, whereas when someone is shot your training kicks in. It’s so mechanical, it’s so methodical, it’s just boom, boom, boom. 

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“I’ve never been a soldier. I’ve never been in battle. So to have him there talking me through each beat, emotionally and physically, was invaluable.”

The effect on Wood of being accused, along with his colleagues, of mistreating prisoners is ongoing. He came from a military family (his dad is played by Chernobyl actor Alex Ferns in Danny Boy) in which 12 generations of men had served in the forces. 

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“Brian felt betrayed by his country,” says Boyle. “He feels like his family gives 300 years of military service and then suddenly the MoD or whatever are turning their backs on him, leaving him hung out to dry. 

“When he spoke, he had this thousand-yard stare when he would think about the battle,” Boyle says.

“I found a sort of innate vulnerability, especially when he spoke about his sons or his relationship with his father. I thought: ‘That’s my way in.’ And that’s what I want to portray.

“Three hundred years is such an insane time period to wrap my head around. It’s like a tragic Greek bloodline. I don’t know if this is Leviticus, the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son? This real lineage of sacrifice when you are bred to be a warrior. Brian would often say that he wanted to be the tip of the bayonet.”

The lessons he took from meeting and playing Wood are not black and white. Despite the outcome of this case, he believes soldiers on the front line should be brought before the law. 

“There is a grey area in the heat of battle, but no one is above the law,” he says. “I think they should be investigated. One hundred per cent they should be investigated, like every other section of the state.

“And if the British Army takes a prisoner in Iraq, the prisoner should be afforded the same rights someone would have in a jail in Britain. Completely. These investigations are good things. Because sometimes foul deeds are found and they should be punished.”

The actor spent much of lockdown at his childhood home in Belfast. 

“I was in New York with my brother when the pandemic started. We thought, ‘New York is shutting down, we’ll go to Belfast for a week.’ We ended up staying for a year, back to my mum and dad’s house with very thin walls between our rooms.”

Luckily for all concerned, Boyle is now back working – on big-budget mini-series Masters of the Air.

“I think I should have just signed up – I’m spending the majority of my life in uniform,” he says. 

“I don’t know if you saw Band of Brothers? It is the third instalment of that, about the Air Force. There are some up-and-comers that were very excited to work with me – Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg.

“I’m one of the lead roles, playing Major Harry Crosby and working with Cary Fukunaga, who is also directing the new James Bond [the pandemic-delayed No Time to Die]. It’s amazing, man. It’s a really cool experience.”

The young actor is continuing to rack up the credits with some of the greats – Spielberg and Hanks, The Wire creators David Simons and Ed Burns, David Nicholls and Benedict Cumberbatch on Patrick Melrose, Derry Girls’ creator Lisa McGee (he played a small guest role in series one).

“Lisa McGee will be thrilled that you put her in the same sentence as Spielberg,” he says. “And you know what? I’m thrilled for her as well. I like that you’ve said she’s one of the greats because she is.

“I think she is the best comedy writer for the last 30 years. The director rang me and said, ‘Are you in Belfast? Do you want to come over and do a few days on something?’ I had no idea what it was going to be because it was the first series. I didn’t read any scripts, came over, said a few lines and got drunk with some wee girls from Derry. Next year they were the biggest stars on TV. It was brilliant.”

Danny Boy airs on BBC Two on May 12 and iPlayer

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