Long Read Interview: Actor Martin Compston tells Janet Christie why new BBC drama Mayflies is his most emotional role yet

Heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time, the Andrew O’Hagan adaptation will start a conversation
Martin Compston stars in BBC Scotland's Mayflies, the TV adaptation of the Andrew O'Hagan novel. Pic: Jamie SimpsonMartin Compston stars in BBC Scotland's Mayflies, the TV adaptation of the Andrew O'Hagan novel. Pic: Jamie Simpson
Martin Compston stars in BBC Scotland's Mayflies, the TV adaptation of the Andrew O'Hagan novel. Pic: Jamie Simpson

Martin Compston has his hands full. Yes, he’s a big on screen TV presence with his new BBC series Mayflies with Tony Curran in the two-part adaptation of Andrew O’Hagan’s much-loved novel, as well as Line of Duty, The Next, Vigil, Traces, and most recently thriller Our House and BBC travelogue Martin Compston’s Scottish Fling with Phil MacHugh, but right now he’s got a more hands on role at home in Las Vegas as he potty trains his three-year old son.

His American wife Tianna is away working and Compston is holding the fort.

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“We’ve spent most of the year in Scotland at our home in Greenock and when we get back here she’s got to travel so I’m being a stay at home dad,” he says, smiling and clearly enjoying it when he joins us on Zoom.

Martin Compston is always happy to be filming in Scotland. Pic: Jamie SimpsonMartin Compston is always happy to be filming in Scotland. Pic: Jamie Simpson
Martin Compston is always happy to be filming in Scotland. Pic: Jamie Simpson

“We’re potty training, which is keeping it interesting and he’s all chuffed and happy with himself. You get wee moments of joy between you which are priceless,” says Compston.

“It gives me time to recharge and take stock and be present with the family before the madness kicks off again. We love our home in Greenock and there’s always something going on which is great, but here I love the anonymity. We’re a bit out of Las Vegas, up in the mountains where it’s really quiet and nobody knows you, unless you go down the The Strip, so it’s just cutting about saying hello to the neighbours. It’s a weird thing to say about Las Vegas, but it’s a really calm pace of life out here; it’s a good place to come and reset.”

It’s been a busy year for Compston, with Mayflies being made in record time in locations around Glasgow and Ayrshire. Starring Compston and Curran (Underworld: Evolution, Roots Outlaw King) as best friends Tully and Jimmy it has a twin timeline starting in the present with Tully receiving a devastating diagnosis, and flashing back to the 1980s where they’re at the heart of their gang of pals, played by a young cast. Also on board is new Shetland lead Ashley Jensen, Tracy Ifeachor (The Originals, Doctor Who), Elaine C Smith, Shauna Macdonald, Cal MacAninch and Colin McCredie.

Given that O’Hagan’s book is already hugely successful it’s no spoiler to say that Mayflies is about what happens when one friend asks another to help him when he gets a bombshell terminal diagnosis, but more than that it’s about male friendship. It helps that Compston and Curran have been pals since they worked on Andrea Arnold's prize-winning 2006 film Red Road.

“I was at an Arctic Monkeys gig in Budapest when the offer for Mayflies came through at 1 o’clock in the morning and I knew Tony would be up in LA so I called him and said is this happening, then a week later we were at the read through.

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“When we did Red Road Tony was living in LA and I was thinking of going there for pilot season and we all do that thing, ‘yeah just come and stay at mine’s mate’, which nobody ever takes you up on, but a week later I turned up with a suitcase! Ha ha. God bless him. So I slept in Tony’s kitchen for the next three months. He really took me under his wing and has been very kind to me over the years and it’s perfect casting with him as Tully. He’s just this ball of energy, relentlessly positive and magnetic. After a whole morning’s filming you get back to your trailer and you’ve barely put your arse on the seat and you’ve got chap, chap, chap ‘hey man, I’m coming in’ and he’ll be in having his dinner and you just sit and laugh for the next hour, then you go again filming. You’re just joined at the hip. He’s always up to something, and loves his craft, always wants to talk about scenes and it’s infectious, that enthusiasm.”

The friendship gave Compston and Curran a shorthand for portraying the relationship between Jimmy and Tully, men now in their fifties with a lifetime of memories between them.

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“We were really lucky that we had inbuilt chemistry because it’s so emotional and charged. Our first scene together he gives me this devastating news and from there it’s a downward spiral. All the scenes are really tough and every day you were on the verge of tears. So it’s great to see the ‘young team’ [Tom Glynn-Carney (Dunkirk) as young Tully and Rian Gordon (Vigil) as young Jimmy] doing their bit and all the life and joy and happiness they bring. It lifts the whole piece.”

“Mayflies is all about relationships, particularly this friendship between two guys, which I don’t think we see much of, so it’s very touching. I think it’s a West Coast thing, that we’re not as open - I sort of hug my dad and my pals when Celtic or Scotland score, that’s about it, but this, it’s really nice to see two guys opening up, because you’re very aware, assisted dying or otherwise, that you’re on a clock. Tony’s character keeps reiterating he’s dying either way, that’s the heartbreaking thing, so their time is precious.

As well as dealing with the difficult theme of assisted dying, Mayflies is evocative of the spirit of the 1980s, with its music and rebellion and coming of age against a backdrop of Thatcherism and austerity.

“The group of pals, I think Andrew really described them beautifully, ‘as saft as Tunnock’s teacakes’ and I don’t know how much they would have survived in Greenock because I always loved films and acting and plays and writing, but never opened up to my best pals. They still don’t think this is a real job.”

So aspiring to be a footballer or welder was OK, but not an actor?

“That’s right. My best pal played guitar in his room and wrote songs and never told me until we were in our twenties. So it was nice to see a group of pals, they were Andrew’s pals, who loved films and books. They talk about Stand By Me a lot and that film meant so much to me growing up, but I couldn't talk to my mates about it.”

Does he still have the same mates today?

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“Oh aye. My best pal’s been my best pal since I was two years old. I’m very lucky with this job that I get to travel the world, live in different places, meet some amazing people and do amazing things but there’s a great line in Stand by Me that you never have pals like you have when you’re 12 years old and that’s genuinely how I feel.”

There’s a line in Mayflies about knowing things at 18 that you’ll never know again, does that resonate with Compston?

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“Ha! That I wisnae gonna play for Celtic was a big career realisation for me when I was 18,” he says.

Greenock born and raised, Compston burst into acting after playing football at youth level for Aberdeen then signing for professional side Greenock Morton before landing the lead role in Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen, despite never having acted. With the film a success at Cannes and Compston winning Most Promising Newcomer at the British Independent Film Awards, he went on to forge a successful career that has seen him best know as DS Steve Arnott for BBC’s Line of Duty and for playing serial killer Peter Manuel in 2016 TV series In Plain Sight and more recently The Nest, Vigil and Our House.

“Talking professionally, I wish I had the experience and craft I have now with the instinct and fearlessness I had when I was 18. Then it was just all about the work, you didnae care, you just went and done it whereas now you’re very aware of time constraints - the light’s going, is it raining? Whereas then you just loved being on set; the absolute joy of being there.”

“And also - great credit to Ken Loach - when I think back on the amount of things I suggested and did that he let me away with, I don’t think I would have the balls to do now. It’d be ‘oh my god it’s Ken Loach you can’t just dae that, you can’t just change Paul Laverty’s script’, whereas then I just did. I was like ‘well I think this is right, more truthful, better, I’m going to do it’. I wish I had that fearlessness.”

But let’s address the elephant in the Zoom, because Mayflies is a drama about assisted dying, so what would Compston do were he to find himself in a similar situation?

“I think we show very strong opinions on both sides. From my own personal view I’m a patron of a hospice [Ardgowan Hospice in Greenock] and work quite closely with them and see the wonderful end of life care they give to patients and their surrounding family so I know those things that are in place for people in that situation.

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“I think that was the reason I became patron of a hospice when my uncle went through a quite painful and drawn out death. The care there was lovely, but it went on for day after day and I saw the toll it was taking on my mum, my aunt, my grandfather and his kids, and the care they gave him. It’s such a horrible thing for the person going through it, but it affects so many other lives, and I think we show that. There are a lot of contradictions, a lot of emotions flying about.”

“Also, getting into research, you see heartbreaking cases of people who felt they had no option but to go abroad and end their life, miles from their home, and that’s surely not right either. It’s such a vast question in terms of there’s so many different illnesses. Hopefully we get across that it’s not an easy thing to do. It's rigorous to get through and there’s certain conditions - you have to be of sound mind, and be able to do it yourself, and some people terrified they’re going to physically deteriorate to a point where they can’t travel.

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“I just think there has to be a fuller, stronger debate around the issue. I think we’re hopefully making it a bit more mainstream, but there’s definitely a bigger conversation to be had.”

Because of the nature of the storyline Compston found an immediacy that meant he bypassed the actor’s toolkit for playing emotional scenes.

“It’s the most emotionally present I’ve been on a job. Other jobs you’ve got mechanics to get your head to places but with this you didn’t need that because of the subject matter, script and wonderful cast. At times I would just look at Tony or Ashley and I’d be gone. I didn’t need to be anywhere else in my head. I was just present all the time. There’s a scene at the end with myself, Ashley, Tony and Tracy that’s probably the most emotionally charged scene I’ve ever done. Kudos to our director Peter [Mackie Burns] for allowing us to shoot in sequence so we felt like we were going through the day and you were just gone all the time regardless of where the camera was pointing. It was so heartbreaking to go through it, but really uplifting at the same time.”

Putting aside legalities, there can never be a right or wrong way to behave in such a situation, so did Compston and Curran ever have a conversation about what they would do?

“Tony went to the Maggie’s Centre and spent a bit of time with somebody who had terminal cancer and we spoke about that a lot and Peter, our director, and Andrew [O’Hagan] had friends in similar situations so we spoke to them a lot.

“I think it would be a question of the illness and the situation. Certain illnesses, I know what I would do in my head, but wouldnae be keen on saying it because I don’t think you would really know until you were in that situation. I think we’ve all got ideas and we do well at showing both sides, getting the conversation going.”

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As well as Mayflies, Compston has been busy working in Scotland on Prime Video series The Rig.

“It’s a big action drama and I’m right chuffed with it,” he says. “I love working in Scotland on something with such ambition. The scale is huge in terms of the story and action. It’s probably not the best thing to say for a West Coast boy, but Edinburgh might just edge as my favourite city. I love it. I love the history of the place and my wife was an architecture student so she’s in heaven wandering around. We had a great time filming there, and the fact that it’s such a big ensemble, you don’t feel like you’re carrying it.”

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Director/producer John Strickland also directed Compston in In Plain Sight. “John’s probably one of the directors who’s got the most out of me in my career” says Compston, and relates how when they were filming for the crime drama in Greenock the actor’s father visited the set.

“My dad still works in the shipyards - he’s a welder and pipe fitter and he worked offshore - and he and John were just talking about their lives, then a couple of years later John called me and said ‘I’m doing this thing with Amazon and I think there’s a part you’d be great for. It’s set on an oil rig and I remember your dad telling me about his work so I know you’ve got a bit there,’ and I’ve still got friends who work on oil rigs,” says Compston.

“I thought it was going to be this drama about big, hard drinking men offshore, lives a mess and dangerous situations, and it kind of starts like that, then takes a 180 degree turn and goes… I don’t quite know what… I don’t think you can put it in a box, it’s so many different things. It’s supernatural, sort of end of days, it’s absolutely wild. So the scope and the scale of it is really exciting and to be involved in big stunts on that scale, and the fact it’s filmed in Leith was brilliant. I’m just chuffed for our industry at the moment, it’s absolutely thriving.”

Five out of Compston’s last six jobs have been in Scotland and he’s hopeful to be working here again next year.

“Obviously that makes it easier for us as a young family that I can be home nights or weekends, but also Greenock’s always going to be home, and I’m very lucky that the wife and the wee one love it as well. But my wife’s American, she has a job here, she has family here, it isnae that I just decide where we live and we all follow me about. We’re under no illusions of how lucky we are to be able to travel between both.”

As well as travelling for work, Compston has just returned from Bangladesh where he visited UNICEF children’s projects with Soccer Aid, which he has been part of since 2014.

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“Some of the things you see out there, it really did change a lot of things for me. I’m trying to remember what’s important and to make more of stuff instead of these things,” he says, nodding at his laptop and mobile.

“Because children just want to play and have a carry on and if you’re scrolling social media and stuff, and it’s so easy to fall into that, then you’re missing moments of magic.”

Like potty training.

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“Ha ha, yeah, like that, just the two of us. Because he’s just turned three and it was the first time he’d gone himself, just the joy on his face, doing a wee dance around the room. That’s what really matters, and it’s great having this time. It’s the most exhilarating, exhausting thing you can do at the same time. But I’m really just loving being at home and being a dad.”

Mayflies, BBC Scotland, 27 December, 10pm, BBC One, 28/29 December 9pm, BBC iPlayer 27 December. Watch Trailer Here