Barry Devlin's new Tyrone-set drama takes Poldark's prime-time Sunday slot

As Barry Devlin's new Co Tyrone-set Second World War drama My Mother and Other Strangers begins on Sunday, Jenny Lee recalls her visit to the filming of the series, were she spoke to cast members including Hattie Morahan, Owen O'Donnell and Castlewellan's Eileen O'Higgins

The new Barry Devlin drama My Mother and Other Strangers airs on BBC ONE on Sunday evening Picture: BBC/Stefan Hill
The new Barry Devlin drama My Mother and Other Strangers airs on BBC ONE on Sunday evening Picture: BBC/Stefan Hill

SUNDAY evening drama for the next five weeks will transport viewers across Britain and Ireland to rural Co Tyrone during the Second World War.

From the writer of Ballykissangel and The Darling Buds of May, My Mother And Other Strangers follows the fortunes of the Coyne family and their neighbours as they struggle to maintain a normal life after a huge United States Army Air Force (USAAF) airfield, with 4,000 service personnel, descends upon the rural parish.

While it's a historical drama, My Mother and Other Strangers – which takes over from Poldark in Sunday evening's prime-time slot on BBC One – is first and foremost a human story.

The main focus is the love that unfolds between Rose, played by Hattie Morahan (The Bletchley Circle) – who is married to Michael Coyne, portrayed by Owen McDonnell (Single-Handed) – and a handsome and charming USAAF liaison officer, Captain Dreyfuss, played by former Mad Men star Aaron Staton.

Executive produced by Stephen Wright for BBC Northern Ireland, with funding from Northern Ireland Screen, shooting took place in a number of locations earlier this year – Glenarm, the Maze prison, Aldergrove and the Dark Hedges, while the small coastal village of Kearney on the Ards Peninsula doubled up as the fictional Moybeg.

The drama was inspired by writer Barry Devlin's own memories of growing up in Ardboe – which during the Second World War had a big American airbase – Station 328 – one of 26 set up in the north of Ireland during the conflict. Although Devlin was born after the war his memories of the base, when owned by the RAF are still vivid.

"If you are a 10-year-old kid who is fascinated by aeroplanes and there is this place just in your peripheral vision that’s lit up at night, with aeroplanes going in and out of it, exotic servicemen and women driving around in Jeeps and so on, it would be odd if it didn’t stick in your mind," he says.

In My Mother and Other Strangers, the character of young Francis Coyne is semi-autobiographical.

"He's the geeky child that I was, the anorak that I was, the anorak who loves aeroplanes, is slightly timid, wants to be loved by adults and is willing to get into mischief but not actually suffer any of the consequences," Devlin, a former member of groundbreaking Celtic rock band Horslips who went on to become a film director and screenwriter, says.

The father figure, Michael Coyne, is reminiscent of Devlin's own father, though the pivotal character of Rose is entirely fictional.

English-born Rose is the parish school teacher and very much a stranger in a village where for many the war doesn’t have a great deal of resonance. The daughter of television and film director Christopher Morahan and actress Anna Carteret (Juliet Bravo), Hattie Morahan was "flattered" that Devlin singled her out for the role.

The respect for their craft is mutual.

"I had never read anything that had such a strong flavour of place in a particular world and the way people spoke to one another," Morahan says. "I was fascinated by these characters, her family and all the people in the village. It felt like we were seeing a little slither of a real life lived elsewhere.

"Rose is a really fascinating person and I really, really love her as a character. She’s one of life’s jugglers, as any working mother is, really. She is quite a principled person and wrestles with her morals as we see glimpses of the more passionate, romantic and girly side of her."

Another actor attracted to the role because of Barry Devlin's writing was Irish actor Owen McDonnell, who confessed he was first a huge fan of his music.

"I've always been a fan of Barry's since he was in Horslips in the 70s. I loved their music, so I was a bit starstruck. But he doesn't look the same – he doesn't wear lyrca anymore," laughs O'Donnell whose character is the village publican and grocer and a highly respected community figure.

"When I read the script – they are some of the best TV scripts I read in a long, long time – I thought it was a really well observed and created world. It's not chocolate-box pretty – there is a reality to it. I think people will be able to empathise with the difficulties the family go through – the universal difficulties of work-life balance and maintaining your position in society – particularly in the financial position we are in now."

One theme very evident in the first episode of the drama is the threat posed by the American soldiers to the men of Moybeg. Another central character in the drama is Emma Coyne, played by Brooklyn actress Eileen O'Higgins. The Castlewellan girl enjoys playing the pretty, yet innocent 16-year-old.

"Emma is at that uncomfortable, awkward stage stage of suddenly discovering boys. She is fiercely intelligent, but when it comes to fancying someone common sense goes out the window," the actress says.

During our visit to filming in the charming National Trust village of Kearney, three miles east of Portaferry, we see some of these handsome soldiers driving around in restored 1939 Austin 10 Jeeps and also witness Eileen flirt with the doctor's son Andrew in the hen shed. He's one of many young men vying for her attention.

"I actually had a chicken phobia after I got locked in a hen house when I was younger, but after today I'm healed from it," O'Higgins laughs.

"The kiss in episode one, where I attempt to kiss the airman, was probably the most awkward I've done as it was at the start of filming there were loads of people watching," O'Higgins says, wisely declining to comment on her own affairs of the heart.

:: My Mother and Other Strangers begins on BBC One on Sunday November 13 at 9pm.