It takes only 4 minutes for LITTLE BOY BLUE, ITV’s heartbreakingly realistic portrayal about the shooting of Rhys Jones in 2007 to bring a lump to the throat.
There’s a knock on the door as the titles fade and there stands 11-year-old Rhys (Sonny Beyga, starring in his first television role); football mad, head-to-toe in his Everton kit and eager to have his £5 subs paid and get out on the pitch.
It’s a scene played out across the country: mum is ironing, there’s paint testers lined up along the wall, Dad is getting ready for his shift. All that matters to Rhys is kicking balls around the bins lined up in the driveway to practice curving his shots around the wall.
The tragedy of watching events play out in those opening scenes is that we know what’s to come and we’ve got another three quarters of an hour to witness the family’s suffering. I’ve always thought that what shocks us the most, is normality being threatened. Two young girls disappearing on a Sunday afternoon or a boy being taken whilst shopping with his mum. These images are the most shocking because there was nothing at all extraordinary about the events that preceded the horror that followed.
When the second knock at the door comes, Mum, Melanie Jones (Sinead Keenan) is met by a frantic looking football coach who tells her Rhys has been shot. Disbelievingly, she takes a short journey to the car park where he lies dying and cradles him. Keenan is strong throughout the episode, from her initial shock to the frantic moment where she struggles to tear off her blood-soaked shirt.
It’s always hard to judge this type of piece; emotions are tied up with the truths of the matter. On the surface, it feels a little like the big moment is in the opening five minutes and the rest is police business. Yet there are some effective structural choices. There’s a lovely quiet scene with Rhys’ father, Brían F. O'Byrne sobbing in the back garden surrounded by his son’s footballs. No words, no movement, just a great angle and a haunting expression.
Perhaps surprisingly, the most shocking scenes of the entire episode lay with Rhys’ killer, 16-year-old Sean Mercer (Paddy Rowan, another young man in his first role). Following his police interview he sits with his parents watching TV and slurping down his dinner. He boasts of answering ‘no-comment’ even to his name and is congratulated by his mum and dad who remind him if he says nothing he’ll get away with it. I find it difficult to comprehend how those parents could rest easy covering for their son’s crime when not too far away, another set of parents were in the midst of such grief.
Unfortunately, the police scenes are the weakest, and there’s a fair amount of them. Stephen Graham is a fine actor (outstanding in things like This is England) but as Detective Superintendent Dave Kelly he’s a bit too much of a cliché and so far all he’s done is grumble and have awkwardly scripted conversations with his superiors. For me this is what relegates Little Boy Blue somewhat; it’s logically going to be compared to things like Appropriate Adult, See No Evil and the more recent Moorside, all of which were brilliant because they were dark and haunting.
The family moments are strong but ultimately the episode is dominated by police action and this is where it somewhat loses its hold on a sympathetic audience.
- Aired on ITV1, April 14 2017 at 21:00.