Anna Friel's New TV Drama

Anna Friel's New TV Drama

New ITV drama Butterfly doesn’t hit screens until Sunday, but it’s already making headlines. The three-part series stars Anna Friel and Emmett J Scanlan as the parents of Max, an 11-year-old boy who identifies as a girl. One of this autumn’s most thought-provoking shows, SL contributor Susan Griffin sat down with Friel to discuss why it’s so important to see transgender issues on our TV screens…

When Anna Friel and Nicola Stephenson kissed in an episode of Brookside back in 1994, it caused shock, indignation and lengthy debate. Anna, who was only 17 at the time, recalls being called a “lezzer” and “dyke” on the street because “people were that affronted” by the country’s first pre-watershed lesbian kiss.
“At that point I knew about lesbians, but I didn’t realise there were people who were so unhappy and felt so lonely with no one to talk to they were threatening to kill themselves,” Anna, now 42, says. “Look how much things have changed in those 24 years because people have opened their eyes.” She hopes the same will happen following her new drama Butterfly.
The three-part series focuses on schoolboy Max (played by newcomer Callum Booth-Ford, surely a shoo-in for a raft of awards) who identifies as a girl and explores what his transition to Maxine means for him and his family. “You’re not just watching three hours of a boy becoming a girl, you’re watching a story about a family in crisis,” says Anna who also served as co-producer on the series.
There have been dramas about transgender adults over the years, but it’ll be the first time the mainstream spotlight’s been focused on the harsh realities facing transgender children and their families. Paris Lees, the transgender journalist and activist, is already calling it “game-changing” and “the best thing that’s happened to the trans community for years”.
Set to change the public’s perception of what it means to be a transgender pre-teen, it seems fitting Butterfly is produced by RED, the company that launched two decades ago with Queer as Folk, the seminal series about gay men living in Manchester. When we did Queer as Folk, we put people on screen that hadn’t been on screen before,” says RED Founder Nicola Schindler. “There’s been much conversation about gender and the trans community but a drama’s never told a story about a transgender child. These children don’t have anyone on television going through their journeys.”

At the centre of the story are the Duffys – mum Vicky (Friel), dad Stephen (Scanlan), and their two children Lily (Millie Gibson) and Max. Vicky allows Max to dress as a girl behind closed doors but Stephen, struggling with his child’s behaviour and what he wants to believe is ‘just a phase’, has left the family home. There are disturbing flashback scenes of the events leading up to his departure and in present day, we witness the parents’ confusion and divided opinion as to how they should move forward.
“It’s honest and truthful, you see them on a journey of discovery,” says Friel, who watched the entire series in one sitting with her 13-year-old daughter Gracie. “I knew very little about the subject, but I fell in love with the Duffys and found Vicky very relatable. She still loves Stephen, but he can’t bear the situation, while Vicky is having a silent battle with herself as she faces the prospect of saying goodbye to her son.”
The emotionally complex tale is written by the award-winning Tony Marchant who, despite his pedigree, admits he found the task a huge responsibility. “I’m a middle-aged straight man and obviously people would ask, why are you writing this?” he says.  “This isn’t something you can make up, the research needs to be assiduous because if you get it wrong, you’re doing a massive disservice to a really vulnerable and under-represented community.”
In preparation, the creative team and cast worked closely with Mermaids UK, which provides support to transgender children. “I met so many wonderful families and they just kept saying, ‘Thank you for telling our story’,” recalls Friel. “It just opened my eyes to the amount of bullying that’s going on. I was absolutely flabbergasted, and it wasn’t just the children in the schoolyard, it was the parents as well.”
Schindler trusts people will identify emotionally with the show. “Basically, it’s a story about a family, a family’s dilemma, loving your child and not understanding your child,” she notes. And Friel, too, hopes Butterfly will engage, inform and prompt discussion. “I’m not someone who’s going to start lecturing people and say we’re some big, worthy drama because each and every person has a right to an opinion, whatever they feel,” she says. “But please, find understanding.”
The first episode of Butterfly airs on ITV at 9pm on Sunday 14th October

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