Tony Curran and Martin Compston star in Mayflies. Image: BBC
“You are an integral part of the story – you were literally the first person I told. You were standing there when I got the email.” It’s true. Martin Compston’s journey to starring in Mayflies – a very late, but seriously competitive contender for 2022’s best TV drama – began, as all such things should, in a field in Budapest drinking and dancing with the Arctic Monkeys and The Big Issue.
In the early hours of Tuesday August 16, Compston was at the Sziget festival in Budapest with his wife Tiana and The Big Issue. He had just witnessed his favourite band Arctic Monkeys from the side of the stage (shedding a few tears) and had interviewed their singer Alex Turner for The Big Issue’s global exclusive that very morning. What was already, for Compston, “a highlight of my life – something to take to the grave with me” got even better when his phone buzzed. It was his agent. Compston had been offered a role in a new BBC drama.
Within a week, he was ready to start shooting the BBC One adaptation of Andrew O’Hagan’s much-loved novel, Mayflies, based on a lifelong friendship constructed around youthful hijinks and a love of music.
What followed was a whistle-stop tour through the emotions as he joined his close friend Tony Curran in this beautifully made two-parter looking at music, male friendship and mortality. Here is Compston’s production diary.
I was in a field in Budapest after watching an epic gig by Arctic Monkeys. That was such an epic couple of days for myself and my wife and it’s very vivid in my memory. Finding out about Mayflies was the icing on the cake.
From turning to you and saying “Mayflies” and your eyes lighting up because you’d read the book, then filming it. And now it’s coming out – it has happened so fast. It’ll be about four months from casting until broadcast. That’s unreal.
Accepting the role
I called Tony Curran because he’s in LA so I knew he would be up and said: “Are you doing this? Is this happening? Do we really start next week?” I hadn’t read it yet, but I said, “If you like it, let’s go.”
We were the first ones cast and it was only a week until we started filming. By the time I got to bed it was 4am and we were up at 6am for our flight home from Budapest. It was one of those mornings where your alarm goes off and you’re still smiling. Reading the scripts on the way back, it brought my mood down… but in a good way. I came home, got some sleep and we went into it.
The young cast only met on the Friday and they were filming on the Monday. I said to the producer, “Take them for some food, get them pissed, let them have a carry on.” So they went out on Friday and Saturday and by Monday they had a bit of camaraderie and were ready to go.
It was wonderful to see them enjoying being in the moment – they don’t have that cynicism that comes with 20 years in the business and it was infectious.
They would send me and Tony videos of them on nights out. I got my head down, did the reading, started breaking down the scenes and learning them. Tony came over, we met with our director and producers and me and Tony read through scenes and talked about it as much as we could.
Creating the chemistry
The characters Jimmy and Tully are like family. And Tony has been great to me over the years. We did Red Road together in 2006 and hit it off really well. Tony was in LA and I said I was thinking about doing pilot season over there. He said to come out and stay at his – nobody ever takes you up on that offer, but I turned up a week later with my case and stayed on his floor. He put me up, put a roof over my head, and that is what friendship is all about. We speak every other day, we’ve had Thanksgiving together, we are genuinely close friends. So all that came easily in Mayflies.
He is the most effervescent nuisance you could meet in your life – a big ball of non-stop energy and a wonderfully magnetic guy to be around. The line in the book where they call Tully a life force – that is Tony. It’s perfect casting. That is what makes the story all the sadder, when you see the life of somebody who embodies that spirit so much being sucked out of them by illness.
Finding the character
I drew on memories of going to gigs with my friends. And having been to that Arctic Monkeys gig and been quite emotional that those old friends weren’t there, I could feed all that into my performance. It’s the most emotionally present I’ve been on a job.
Usually, when things are quite sad, you go into your head and think about things that happened to yourself. It’s the tools and mechanics you use as an actor to get you where you need to be. With this, I didn’t need any of it. It was purely the subject matter.
I also spent a lot of time with Andrew [O’Hagan] – and it is loosely based on his life. But rather than talking about how we were going to play the scenes, we just hung out, which was lovely.
Our first scene together is when Tully tells Jimmy the devastating news that he has terminal cancer. From then on, it is this emotional spiral. Every scene is so charged. Me and Tony stayed at the same hotel, so it was a shared experience.
We went to a Celtic game and we went to a Dermot Kennedy gig where we found moments of inspiration. Dermot’s got this beautiful song For Island Fires and Family, where he says, “When I’m face to face with Death, I’ll grab his throat / And ask him, ‘How does it hurt?’” We held each other in that moment and said, ‘Man, let’s just ride this out together.’
We had two timelines and 56 locations to shoot in 27 days. It was wild. There is a beautiful scene with Tony and Ashley [Jensen, who plays Tully’s partner Anna] in his hospital bed – they literally had time for one shot, so they had to get creative. So they shot both of them, cuddled up in the bed, switching the focus between the two. And it is beautiful – you feel like you are there with them.
After each day filming, I’d go back to my hotel to learn the next day’s scenes and I’d be breaking down in my room reading them.
Best day filming
My favourite was the day we shot the gig. In Tully’s mind, he’s seeing his past so that was the one day the young cast and the older cast were in together.
It was surreal, actually, to see everybody. Young Rian Gordon is brilliant as young Jimmy. When I first read it, I thought, am I going to be playing young Jimmy? But, of course, I’m too old – that was heartbreaking, a real wake-up call.
And it is always a joy filming in Scotland. It really is the most beautiful stage. Although we nearly got washed away by a downpour filming on the beach.
Final day filming
You don’t want to pre-empt anybody’s judgement of the show, but I thought the last 10 minutes were wonderful. It’s beautifully done by the director and the main four of us are in the scene – myself, Ashley, Tony and Tracy Ifeachor.
It was a long day with a lot of emotional scenes. Everybody was just gone all day. So many tears. I’d never experienced a day like it on a set before – we’d all been through the wringer. But we were all in it together – and that gave us energy. That last day of filming will really stay with me.
I hope it sparks wider discussion around assisted dying. Because it is the BBC, we have to be neutral and I think we do a pretty good job showing very strong opinions on both sides. We don’t have the answers, but I do think it needs a much wider and more informed discussion.
I’m a patron of a hospice and I think they are wonderful places that give amazing end of life care. But you also see some heartbreaking stuff. So the discussion is so important.
Mayflies is on BBC One and iPlayer from December 28
If you can't visit your local vendor on a regular basis, then the next best way to support them is with a subscription to the Big Issue. As a social enterprise, we invest every penny we make back into the organisation. That means that with every subscription, we are supporting people in poverty to get back on their own two feet.