Colin Bateman: Why I had to tell the story of Chuckle Brothers Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness

The new film The Journey tells the story of the unlikely friendship between former DUP leader Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness. Colin Bateman tells Joanne Sweeney why he had to write their story

Colin Bateman in his home town where he was deputy editor of the Bangor Spectator before becoming a full-time author Picture: Mal McCann

COLIN Bateman is as brave as they come with regards to his craft, having taken on the risky task of writing about two of the most divisive figures in the Troubles for his latest movie project.

The Journey, the forthcoming movie for which the Co Down crime writer wrote the screenplay, dramatises the early steps towards the unlikely friendship forged between the late Rev Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in their respective roles as first minister and deputy first minister in 2007-2008.

Bateman was undaunted about showing the 'chuckle brothers' – as the pair were dubbed by the press due to their good-natured relationship – fully in the round. But he knows it will take every ounce of his writer's experience to deal with what he sees as an inevitable hostile local reaction – "That accent's not quite right, that's not a Ballymena accent" – when the movie premieres in Ireland, north and south, next week.

"I like to eat and I like to try new things," deadpans the highly prolific writer in explanation as to why he took on the challenge, over a coffee in his home town of Bangor.

"I'm expecting there will be a lot of talk about it, as we know what Northern Ireland is like and how divided people can be. There will be a million opinions about it."

He adds: "One of the reviewers at a London screening called it the best British film in five years, which is great to hear. But the film trailer has been online for a while, so you look at some of the Facebook comments and think, 'Dear God, people are just going to hate this'. If you accept the good comments, you have to accept the bad ones as well.

"I'm really excited about the premiere and very proud of the movie, but I will probably take a couple of weeks off Facebook."

Directed by Belfast-born Nick Hamm, the film shows a fictional car journey taken by the two politicians – Paisley played by Timothy Spall and McGuinness played by Colin Meaney – leaving the St Andrew's talks in Scotland in 2006 to catch a plane home to Belfast.

The movie, which was filmed in the north and in Scotland, depicts the two northern political titans finally breaking down years of hatred and confrontation to connect to each other as men, rather than adversaries.

Somehow, despite their initial bitter rows and mutual recriminations, the humanity and commitment to peace of each shines through in a piece of on-screen political choreography carefully orchestrated by a government spin doctor, played by the late John Hurt.

At one point in the film, Hurt's character encapsulates the seismic nature of the men's meeting by saying of them: "They are the Troubles. They are civil war. They are anarchy."

While in true film style, it didn't actually happen like that in real life, the St Andrew's Agreement did lead to a new power-sharing deal and a respectful friendship between the two men that endured beyond their year in joint power.

The film's release comes just six weeks after McGuinness, the Sinn Fein leader and ex- IRA commander died, and two and a half years after the former DUP leader's death at the age of 88.

Bateman says it has been well-received by the Paisley family – Ian Paisley jnr has already hosted a screening of it at Westminster. However, the reaction from the McGuinness family, still in the early stages of their grief, and from Sinn Fein supporters, remains to be seen.

"It was important to me that the film was not a Hallmark version of the Chuckle Brothers, some happy-clappy version," says Bateman. "I think it's quite hard on both of them and I don't want either side to embrace it as there's some home truths in there."

Whatever the reaction to The Journey here and in Britain will be, the movie has already been positively received internationally. It was selected last year for both the Venice and Toronto film festivals – unusually for such a small film, Bateman says – where it received rave reviews.

Produced by Los Angeles film company IM Global (which has Mel Gibson's Golden Globe-winning war movie Hacksaw Ridge to its credit for last year), with financial support from Northern Ireland Screen, the £3 million movie is already in profit ahead of its upcoming cinema release here and a major tour in the US from June, according to Bateman.

"The film had to appeal to an audience beyond here so it also had to be written and produced in a way that would make sense to people who have never heard of Northern Ireland and know nothing about the Troubles," the writer says.

"There's a moment when Paisley does this big speech in a garage, which was actually filmed on the Portaferry Road in Newtownards. There was spontaneous applause just after that by the foreign press at each of the three screenings that I saw and the same happened when it was shown at Toronto Film Festival. I've never seen anything like that happen before. It was just amazing."

Bateman has 34 novels to his credit – mostly crime stories featuring his Belfast journalist character Dan Starkey – since leaving his job as deputy editor at the Bangor Spectator newspaper.

The Journey is the 55-year-old's first film screenplay since his work on the 2003 TV film Watermelon starring Anna Friel, adapted from the novel by Marian Keyes. His other film credits include Divorcing Jack (1998) from his breakthrough novel of the same name, Crossmaheart, also that year, and Wild About Harry (2000).

He has written several television series, including Murphy's Law, which starred James Nesbitt and which he co-wrote for the BBC, adapted from his original novel, as well as two series of Irish-language drama Scup for BBC Northern Ireland.

His darkly humorous play Bag for Life, starring Julie Addy from The Fall, which shows the impact of the Troubles on a woman who lost loved ones, is currently touring Ireland.

Bateman says he would next love to write and direct a screenplay for Bag for Life – he's taking a sabbatical from novels for a while to concentrate on stage and screen writing.

"Sadly, the publishing business has gone the same way as the music business, and it's getting harder to justify five to six months on a book when various doors have opened to me because of The Journey," he says.

"I'm coming to push those doors and see where it takes me."

:: The Journey is on general release from May 4. Bag For Life is at the Island Arts Centre, Lisburn, tonight before going on to other venues in the north, including the Marketplace Theatre, Armagh, on May 5 and back to the Playhouse, Derry on May 6.

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