Owen McDonnell told David Hennessy about what attracted him to Responsible Child, the new BBC drama that sees a twelve-year-old boy on trial for murder and asks, can a child be responsible for such a crime?
Based on real events, BBC’s Responsible Child tells the story of a 12-year-old boy’s trial for murder. Accused of murdering his stepfather with his older brother, it is a story of a tense home, family abuse and neglect that culminated in murder. Irish actor Owen McDonnell, known from series such as Killing Eve and Single Handed, plays the child’s barrister who has to square that the 12-year-old boy in front of him and the case’s accused are one and the same.
“It wasn’t too simplistic about it,” Owen McDonnell says of Responsible Child and the issues it explores. “It’s a complex issue and one that the media tends to deal with in terms of good and evil.
“I think all these situations are more complex. It allows us into the backgrounds of what happens in a child’s life before they actually ended up committing a pretty serious and heinous crime but it doesn’t condemn that child as being spawn of Satan or anything like that. In very different circumstances maybe that child would have grown up to be a normal, run of the mill kind of person and instead of ending up in prison.
“The whole idea of trying children for any criminal offence from the age of ten struck me. I didn’t know that that was the case.
“Maybe the arena of a crown court where it’s two barristers trying to get a win is not the arena that we should be dealing with children who have committed crimes and whether we should be looking at why these crimes are committed rather than just your ‘guilty or not guilty’ and figuring out how we can help them rather than criminalising them.
“That’s only my opinion, the show seeks to open a debate on that and get people talking about it.”
The cast also includes Michelle Fairley of Game of Thrones and Tom Burke. Owen has full of praise for the performance of the young actor Billy Barratt who plays Ray.
“The character that I play is a very interesting guy. He’s a duty solicitor who finds himself in a situation with this seemingly nice twelve-year-old boy and how you would deal with that situation and try and see this child’s perspective. I like the fact that it’s grey, it’s not black and white. It shows what could have happened and leaves it up to you how you process that.
“As the co-solicitor, you’re trying to be lots of things to him: Home, parent, give him good legal advice, find the right barrister for them, find the right legal team, try to protect them within the system.”
The film tells the back story that is one of abuse in the home: “I don’t know whether it’s a question of whether abuse justifies the action but whether they could be considered as mitigating factors and these events never come out of nowhere.
“Could this event have been prevented had there been more care, had there been more intervention from social services? We’ll never know the answer because there wasn’t. I think it’s important to try and understand that any child who commits a criminal act is a product of their environment as much as anything else.
“Billy’s character Ray’s parents have split up, he left his father’s house because his father was drinking and he couldn’t stay there anymore. He came to his mother’s house, he lived with his older brother and two younger half siblings and his mother’s new partner who drank a lot. Her new partner was violent towards the older brother, was on trial for attempted murder of the older brother and then after his release came back into the home so there was this constant tension there.
“I don’t think you can justify someone taking someone else’s life but you can understand why it may have happened and I think in the case of children, that should be taken into account.”
The film is based on a true story. Writer and director Nick Holt was researching a documentary at a court house when he asked if the young boy he saw was a witness but was shocked to be told it was actually the accused: “What I found very interesting was looking at the newspaper headlines from that particular time and how the newspapers reported the case and demonised the young boy as opposed to going into detail on the background. I found that really, really interesting.
“When you’re talking about real events that happened in real people’s lives, it really does focus your mind. You feel a commitment to tell a nuanced story because we’re pretending and doing it for television but it was real events that had various impacts on a number of people’s lives. A man lost his life. Two kids’ lives were indelibly changed so there’s a certain responsibility that comes when you are doing stuff that is from real life.
“I hope we have done it justice and I hope it will spark a debate about the age of criminal responsibility and whether children should be tried in a crown court and whether there should be a different system up to a certain age, what that age is I don’t know.
“When I was ten, I didn’t really think about anything I was saying. I said whatever came into my head. I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s questionable whether a ten year old should be tried as an adult even if they do something that is terrible. The act may be terrible but is the child terrible? I don’t think you can describe a ten-year-old as innately evil and people do but there’s always an environment that they come from, something that has triggered these events.
“I don’t know if you would possible process at that age what it means to lose potentially all your teenage years, all your twenties in a prison or come out of that and be a useful member of society. That is my opinion, not necessarily that of the film. The film is very balanced and seeks to prompt a debate rather than necessarily answer questions.
“Obviously there needs to be a comeback for people who break the law, whether the current system is the best way to deal with juveniles in that situation, I don’t know. It is an interesting thing to ponder if you put yourself in that situation where your children did something, what it would like for them having to go to prison.
“The relationship between the boy and his mother is particularly heartbreaking. She’s not really there for him. All he wants is for her to be there for him and she’s not really. That is an insight into what can go wrong.”
Responsible Child airs on BBC2 at 9pm Monday 16 December.