Vicky McClure as Stella Tomlinson and Johnny Harris as Charles Stone in Without Sin. Photo: ITV
Vicky McClure and Johnny Harris were involved in perhaps the most intense scene ever filmed for a British television drama. No one who saw This Is England ’86 will forget their final scene together. And in the white heat of Shane Meadows’ masterpiece, a deep and lasting friendship was forged.
“I don’t think a week has gone by in the 13 years since that we haven’t spoken on the phone. It is usually every day,” says Harris.
McClure, sitting alongside him on the sofa, laughs. “We’ve seen the best and the worst of each other. We’ve been there when we’re going through our greatest hours. And we’ve been there when we’re at our lowest ebbs.”
Ten years after This Is England ’86, McClure and Harris finally decided it was time to work together again. Three years later, Without Sin arrives on ITVX. And to the surprise of no one, the four-part series – on which they are both executive producers as well as lead actors, and which they helped create via McClure and her partner Jonny Owen’s new production company Build Your Own Films – is not a comedy.
Nope. This is another heavy drama. Brilliantly written, filmed and acted in Nottingham. We meet at Metronome, an arts venue in the city’s thriving Creative Quarter.
“It’s a massive deal for me that you’ve come up here,” says McClure. She’s proud of her city, and eager to show it off. “We see Nottingham in all its glory in Without Sin. It’s built with local knowledge. There are two lions in the Market Square, but everyone always meets at the left lion. It’s quite a big thing! So that’s in the script.”
“I know it sounds like a cliche, but the friendliness gets me every time,” adds Harris. “I’ve just been stood outside and the security guard came up to me. I thought we were in trouble, but he just got a fag out and started chatting…”
In Without Sin, McClure plays Stella Tomlinson, the grieving mother of a murdered teenager, who meets Charles Stone (Harris), the man convicted of killing her daughter, through the Restorative Justice scheme.
What follows is a twisting, turning, revelatory thriller with themes of grief and loss and guilt and redemption. It’s powerful stuff, aided by powerhouse performances from two of the best in the business.
“Can I ask before we before we go into this thing, do you have an instinct already? You’re the first person we’ve asked,” says Harris. I offer up theories based on the opening episode. Harris and McClure smile and nod, giving nothing away.
“When me and Johnny heard the concept that Fran had come up with, it taps into what we what we like to play,” says McClure. “It has got that dark tone to it. But it’s also very real and raw.”
Both McClure and Harris were intrigued to explore the emotions behind the Restorative Justice scheme. Through Stella’s journey we understand why someone might decide to meet the person convicted of murdering their child. In both their stories we see how searching for the truth and striving for redemption are such powerful drivers.
“I think curiosity is the strongest human emotion,” says McClure. “Stella has absolutely nothing to lose. No matter what she finds out, it’s not going to bring her little girl back. At the moment she has very little purpose. Everything’s crumbled around her. So if, all of a sudden, there is a possibility of more answers, she wants to know what those answers are, as painful as it will be.”
“It’s such a powerful, powerful, powerful thing,” says Harris. “In my own life, I know that you may not want to go near your darkest fears, but sometimes they lead to the biggest awakenings. So I believe in the idea of restorative justice – certainly enough to take on this project and explore it further.”
“This show used to be called Redemption,” adds McClure. “And that word is very important. It runs through the heart of the series. Because they both need that.”
As the drama hooks us in, all thoughts of their previous collaborations will be banished from the collective memory. This was, they both admit, a worry.
“We were both mindful about whether we feasibly pull off convincing people that they’re now watching Charles and Stella and not just seeing Lol and Mick,” says Harris.
McClure agrees. “We were both comfortable with the fact that what we created with This Is England will probably never be created again – because of the way the characters had been developed over years and years.”
Sitting with these two old pals, relaxed in each other’s company, excited by their latest collaboration, the depths of soul searching and acting skill required for them to transform into their This Is England ’86 characters is evident. In that series, the first spin-off from the original film, Harris joined the cast as McClure’s abusive stepfather.
“He’s the scariest man on the telly and the softest man on the planet,” says McClure of her friend. “If I had to pinpoint what our friendship is based on, it is honesty. I’ve never been afraid to be honest with Johnny. And we had to do that from the very beginning. Because, you know, THE scene was the first thing we shot.
“So to get ourselves into that headspace was really intense. We were sat talking about not just Lol and Mick but Vicky and Johnny, to tap into what makes us vulnerable. When Johnny came in, I instantly felt incredibly comfortable and was able to be honest. And that’s never left us.”
“We learned things about each other that would probably take decades of friendship,” says Harris. “One of the reasons this friendship holds up is there’s a distinct lack of bullshit – although Vicky put it more poetically.
“I’ve got friends I’ve known infinitely longer and they don’t know me like that. It was extremely intimate, emotionally intimate. We went somewhere very, very, very deep and honest and challenging. You’re going to come out the other side of that intensity either loving each other or hating each other.”
Next came awards season, with McClure bagging a Bafta in 2011 before starting work on Line of Duty the same year.
“I was this miserable London git – and then there was this lovely burst of energy from Nottingham,” recalls Harris. “She’d be like, ‘Right, I’m coming down, I’ve got nowhere to stay so I’m staying at yours’. The madness of the whole awards thing was new to both of us.
“So I credit Vicky with this friendship. She broke through my London-centric barriers. And something incredibly beautiful came out of it, you know?”
They continue to support each other.
“I remember my first phone call with Vicky about Our Dementia Choir,” says Harris. “To see what she has done – because let me put it this way, it wasn’t like some trendy charity to get behind – is incredible. It was real. And it was under the radar.”
McClure smiles. “It’s not under the radar now… but when I first met Johnny, I saw him doing so much for people – especially those that are homeless or going through difficult times. He is like an angel. And you won’t hear him talk about it. That’s why I’m telling you.”
Now it’s Harris’s turn to look bashful. “Come on,” he grins. “I don’t want this to become a love in.” Too late…
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