Entertainment

Snow joke as James Nesbitt Christmas movie shines light on poverty

In The Heist Before Christmas 12-year-old Mikey finds two Santa Clauses in the woods. One has just robbed a bank (James Nesbitt), the other Santa (Timothy Spall) claims to have fallen out of his sleigh.
In The Heist Before Christmas 12-year-old Mikey finds two Santa Clauses in the woods. One has just robbed a bank (James Nesbitt), the other Santa (Timothy Spall) claims to have fallen out of his sleigh. In The Heist Before Christmas 12-year-old Mikey finds two Santa Clauses in the woods. One has just robbed a bank (James Nesbitt), the other Santa (Timothy Spall) claims to have fallen out of his sleigh.

"I've always wanted to be in a Christmas movie," says James Nesbitt, whose dream has come true this year in the Sky comedy thriller, The Heist Before Christmas.

The festive flick sees the Coleraine actor play a criminal who pulled off a bank robbery during a charity Santa run.

On the run with a black bin bag full of cash, he is joined by another Santa, played by Harry Potter actor Timothy Spall, who claims to be the real Father Christmas and to have fallen out of his sleigh.

The Heist Before Christmas was filmed in various local locations across Northern Ireland, including Monkstown, Larne, Rathfriland and Shane's Castle near Randalstown.

The movie revolves around young Mikey Collins who comes across the two Santas in a wood. With his mum (Laura Donnelly) working hard to provide for her family, but struggling to put food on the table, let alone buy his brother Sean a bike for Christmas, tough-talking Mikey takes action.

Lurgan actor Bamber Todd with Timothy Spall in The Heist Before Christmas
Lurgan actor Bamber Todd with Timothy Spall in The Heist Before Christmas Lurgan actor Bamber Todd with Timothy Spall in The Heist Before Christmas

Determined to prove to the gun-wielding Santa that he isn't scared of anything, Mikey risks everything for the loot, convinced that this is the answer to giving his family a happy Christmas.

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However, through a series of exciting escapades, he comes to realise that maybe the spirit of Christmas is alive after all.

Nesbitt was full of praise for his two young co-stars – Lurgan's Bamber Todd (13) and Belfast's Joshua McLees (11).

Pictured at the Northern Ireland premiere of The Heist Before Christmas are local actors Joshua McLees and Bamber Todd. Picture by Matt Mackey/PressEye
Pictured at the Northern Ireland premiere of The Heist Before Christmas are local actors Joshua McLees and Bamber Todd. Picture by Matt Mackey/PressEye Pictured at the Northern Ireland premiere of The Heist Before Christmas are local actors Joshua McLees and Bamber Todd. Picture by Matt Mackey/PressEye

"It was a magical experience, especially working with these boys. They were so impressive in terms of their understanding of the discipline, the graft and also the fun."

The camaraderie and banter was clear to be seen during my chat with the trio at Belfast's Grand Central Hotel, ahead of the Northern Ireland premiere screening, as they poked fun at each other and chatted about the fortunes of their football team, with Nesbitt joking "my Christmas wish is that Man United avoid relegation".

The Heist Before Christmas is directed by Ed Hall (Downton Abbey), who in his search for discovering raw talent auditioned over 600 boys, and even held casting on the streets of Belfast and in boxing clubs.

The key ingredient to acting, he says is "understanding the character", something Bamber and Joshua nailed.

"Telling a child how to replicate behaviour isn't acting. I remember a scene in the house when I said to Joshua after a little exchange with his mom, 'What do you think he would do next?' He just walked back into his bedroom and collapsed on the bed looking up at the ceiling. That was real. That was acting."

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An excited Nesbitt, who reveals he once donned "the big red suit" as a favour for his school teacher sister, relished being in his first Christmas movie.

"Like bands who always want to do one Christmas single, I always wanted to do a Christmas movie and this couldn't have been more perfect.

"It was a privilege to be a part of something that actually was fun, well written, set here in Northern Ireland and also has a decent message, holding up a mirror to what are very challenging times."

The film's storyline also made the young actors think about how difficult Christmas can be for those less fortunate than themselves.

"When I was playing Sean I kind of just adapted and became him and felt what it would be like to have nothing. It must be pretty hard because the Christmas I'm getting is pretty good," adds Moneyrea Primary School pupil McLees, who is hoping for golfing accessories on December 25.

"I would like for every child to get what they would like for Christmas," adds a mature Todd.

Also starring in the film is Bronagh Waugh, who plays police officer Georgina. "I'm back in uniform again, but in a slightly softer way, which was really nice," laughs the Ridley star.

The Heist Before Christmas is a captivating blend of comedy, drama, festive magic and poignant social commentary about the impact of the cost of living crisis.

"There is real depth and truth in the difficulties that the boys' family are going through that I think lots of people will identify with, but it is told with such humour and wit," says Waugh, praising the script of Bafta-winning Lurgan screenwriter Ronan Blaney.

"It's such an Irish thing to use humour to deflect or deal with difficult times. Ronan balances truth, pain and reality with real love and hope.

"Hope is a radical act and something we all must cling onto at Christmas time. Tim played that so perfectly and I'm firmly on the believing side," adds Waugh, excited that her two-year-old can actually watch her on TV. "Everything else I'm in is too scary," she cringes.

Director Hall describes the story as a "fairy tale for our times" and wants audiences take away a sense of optimism.

"When the chips are down, when the world is closing in on you, if you do the right thing, if you do things for love, and you're honest with yourself and the people around you, then it will all come out well in the end."

The Heist Before Christmas director Ed Hall with actress Bronagh Waugh
The Heist Before Christmas director Ed Hall with actress Bronagh Waugh The Heist Before Christmas director Ed Hall with actress Bronagh Waugh

Christmas spirit was certainly shining upon the crew during filming in February, in the weather conditions during a dramatic night shoot.

"There's a sequence when there's a buggy chase and Bamber ends up on a bridge over the river. We shot overnight and the snow kept falling. We had to stop early in the end because we were getting snowed in and not before we got this incredible sequence in real show."

This was one of Bamber's favourite scenes from the movie. What I wanted to know though, was he driving?

"To all intents and purposes I did," he replies diplomatically. "Good answer," laughs Nesbitt.

"My bit on the buggy was, maybe, 1am in the morning in a real snowstorm in a forest. I'm fake driving this buggy with a car in front towing me along and having to breathe heavily going up and down on these hills. That was so much fun to do," he adds.

The Heist At Christmas premieres on Sky Max and streaming service NOW this month