A terrified six-year-old girl called Milly stands shaking in her pyjamas in the middle of a frozen canal.
As a fireman makes a desperate attempt to save her from the cracking ice.
It’s a heart-stopping, shocking and haunting scene in Lost Christmas, to be screened on BBC1 this Sunday (Dec 18).
A sometimes bleak 90-minute film that defies the sentiment of so many festive tales and shows a family audience that bad things can happen.
That mums and dads and children die.
But also that there may be second chances for those who have lost and are left behind.
Many audience members were in tears as the end credits rolled after the film’s premiere at the British Film Institute in London yesterday.
Agreeing that this was a marvellous story destined to be told for years to come.
Larry Mills plays a boy known as Goose with Eddie Izzard as Anthony, a man with no memory of who he really is.
Standing in a frosty Manchester cemetery, Anthony tells Goose: “Sometimes you have to go towards the things that make you want to run away.”
Lost Christmas is one of CBBC’s most expensive productions to date – a co-commission with BBC1 – and may surprise some viewers.
Sue Nott, executive producer for CBBC, told a post-screening Q&A:
“It’s pushing the boundaries.
“But there’s something about Christmas with Scrooge, with Dickens, with Oliver Twist – the kind of stories that people accept and expect at Christmas.
“Yes, it is quite a hard one for us. But it was very much designed with a family audience in mind. Our hope is that people will watch it as a family and enjoy it as a family.”
The drama broadcasts on BBC1 between 5:30pm and 7pm on Sunday and will be shown on CBBC at the same time on Christmas Eve, with some edits for language and content.
Director John Hay co-wrote the screenplay with David Logan.
John told how Lost Christmas was inspired by classic festive films and songs, including Fairytale of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl.
“This is a sort of Fairytale of New Manchester,” he explained.
There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble director John usually auditions thousands of child actors before he makes a choice.
But he was so impressed with Larry, now aged 11, that he saw no-one else for this project.
Even more remarkable considering this is Larry’s first major film role.
Lost Christmas begins “Last Christmas Eve” when we meet Goose and his family.
Before too long we also encounter Anthony, lying flat on his back on inner city cobbles.
“Everybody’s lost something,” he says.
Including Frank (Jason Flemyng), estranged from his wife and daughter and seeking solace in booze and petty crime.
And Geoffrey Palmer’s Dr Clarence, whose once tidy home is now overflowing with books.
Those familiar with Manchester and Salford will recognise many of the striking locations.
Including a spot of fire juggling by Eddie outside Manchester Cathedral.
While some may be moved to subsequently read The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde, which also features in this rather wonderful film.
As well as Lost Christmas – the novel by David Logan.
It’s a TV drama not to be missed, also including the likes of Sorcha Cusack, Christine Bottomley, Steven Mackintosh, Connie Hyde, Brett Fancy, Adlyn Ross, Chloe Newsome, Jessie Clayton and Jason Watkins.
Not forgetting young Libbi Rubens as Milly.
Or some magical original music from Debbie Wiseman.
My transcript of the BFI Q&A is below for those who want to read more.
Edited to remove any potential spoilers.
Q: This felt really cinematic like a proper film?
John Hay: “We wanted it to have a cinematic feel. Graham Frake, who is the director of photography, he just did the most amazing job. It really does look stunning. It was a great crew who brought that cinematic look to it. It wasn’t just me. It was obviously about the way it’s staged and the way you present the story. It’s quite cinematic. There was obviously a series of decisions to make…I think a lot of people have got big screen TVs and sound and that cinematic sensibility transfers much better than it did, even five years ago.”
Q: Also plans for a theatrical release?
John Hay: “That’s right. That is the theatrical version you’ve been watching with proper sound for the cinemas.”
Q: And this is the first public audience to see it?
John Hay: “It is, yeah. It’s fantastic.”
Q: How did you feel sitting out there and getting their reactions?
John Hay: “I didn’t realise it was quite so funny, actually. I’ve been watching it so many times. It was just amazing. I was worried about moving from comedy and then going straight into the drama and the emotion of it. But it transferred very well. I was really, really pleased. You guys seemed to like it, I guess.”
Q: References to other films and stories?
Sue Nott spoke about reading the first draft of the script:
“Obviously we’d been talking about references of Scrooge and that was all there, and A Christmas Carol and second chances and redemption. I said, ‘It reminds me of one of my favourite Oscar Wilde stories, the story of The Happy Prince.’ It’s a story about a prince who dies and they make a statue of him. And as a statue he’s looking down on the town and he realises that all the people in his town are really poor and he’s really sad that he never realised that when he was alive.
“And then a swallow comes. And the swallow is just about to go and migrate because it’s coming to winter and the prince says, ‘Please take some of these jewels and all this gold that’s on me and take it to help the poor people.’ So the swallow keeps taking more gold and more jewels from the statue until the statue is left completely bare and ugly. And the swallow sacrifices himself because he leaves it too late to migrate.
“The whole story reminded me of that beautiful sense of sacrifice and second chances. Of doing something noble and good for somebody else and being given a second chance.”
Connal Orton said basic ideas for the drama had been discussed for several years until they decided to really go for it: “We then took it to the BBC and it actually happened remarkably quickly from that point.”
John Hay: “It always comes down to those very human losses.”
Q: By CBBC – and BBC – standards, it’s an expensive production. Was that a big decision to make in terms of the money?
Sue Nott: “Yes it is a big production for us. We wanted to do a Christmas special and it was a co-commission between CBBC and BBC1. So it will go out first of all next Sunday evening at 5:30 on BBC…and then it will go out on CBBC om Christmas Eve at 5:30pm. So that way, hopefully, the widest possible audience will get to see it. And we hope that everybody from the youngest to the oldest will watch it together.”
Eddie Izzard: “I think it’s actually timeless. I don’t see it as a kids’ thing, I see it as a family film. I think you’ve got to be a teenager really to grab hold of where we’re going with some of the loss.”
David Logan explained how the novel came about: “The screenplay came first and then someone said that it would be a good idea to have a novel too. I jumped at the chance because I wanted to write a novel. John and I had written 17 drafts of the script. So when I came to write the novel we knew the story. There’s lots of little differences.”
Q: Larry – anybody watching the production would assume that you’ve got quite a lot of credits under your belt and that you’ve done a lot of TV and film. But that’s not the case, is it?
Larry Mills: “No, it’s my first film, actually. It was a great experience and weird seeing it up on a big screen.”
Q: How did you prepare? Was it a very scary experience coming on set for the first time and having the cameras point at you?
Larry Mills: “I don’t think so. It didn’t seem to scare me. The whole prospect of this whole thing never really scared me in any sort of way. I was just very excited. Of course I’d never done anything like this before. The whole time I was there it was just brilliant and I loved shooting it and it’s a great film.”
John Hay: “I saw you (Larry) in a little rehearsal room just outside Soho, didn’t I? And your dad was waiting outside. I said, ‘Oh, I’m just going to workshop him for a little while.’ And about two-and-a-half hours later his dad said, ‘Oh I thought he was only going to be 10 minutes.’ So he had to cancel about three appointments. And he’s done such a brilliant job.”
Eddie Izzard to Larry: “This is a great start for you. You’ve got to keep up this standard now, which is going to be fun.”
Q: For a child role people normally audition thousands?
John Hay: “I saw about 3000 people for Jimmy Grimble but actually I saw one for this. One person. Actually Larry was up for something called Horrid Henry. And my casting director Suzanne Smith, who is just absolutely amazing and I’ve worked with for years, she rang me one day and said, ‘I’ve just done these auditions. There’s this kid you want. He’s absolutely fantastic. You’ve got to get him. But I think they might want him too.’
“So she said that to me and I thought, ‘Oh great.’ Then I waited until they’d cast Horrid Henry and then I realised that they didn’t want anyone who had no experience. I’ve always used kids who have no experience from Thomas Sangster onwards, like Lewis McKenzie in Jimmy Grimble. I just love someobdy who is completely untrained because it just brings a freshness of approach. So I saw him. But I obviously had to pretend that I was seeing other people!
“I turned round to Suzanne at the end and I said, ‘No, I don’t want to see anyone else. He’s brilliant.’ And that was it. The first time ever in my life. I do normally see thousands of people.”
Q: Eddie – the first family film you’ve actually been in?
Eddie Izzard: “Yes. I see this as a film. It’s like if you look at Harry Potter. You could think it’s for kids but then it’s really for adults but kids can get into it – kids are going to miss some themes of loss because you just can’t really experience it.
“But Larry and his family and me and my family have both gone through family loss. So that was a curious thing. I didn’t know how to broach that and get into it. I don’t know if we needed to. But it’s just in there. So this is the first time, yeah. But I consider it a dramatic film and I was just trying to touch the reality.
“And there’s almost no comedy in it, which I love. There’s one joke that I made up…I’ve waited eight months to see whether that would get a laugh.”
Q: There are a few bits and pieces in there that make it perhaps not the normal CBBC commission – there’s a little bit of language and it is quite a bleak story. Was there any concern at CBBC about some of the content?
Sue Nott: “I think it’s pushing the boundaries. But there’s something about Christmas with Scrooge, with Dickens, with Oliver Twist. Those kind of stories are the kind of stories that I think people accept and expect at Christmas. Yes, it is quite a hard one for us. But it was very much designed with a family audience in mind. It was a co-commission between CBBC and BBC1. So our hope is that people will watch it as a family and enjoy it as a family.”
Justin then threw questions open to the audience:
Q: I asked John and Eddie about the experience of filming in Manchester and some of those striking locations.
Eddie Izzard: “It’s great. I’ve played Manchester many times. I went to college in Sheffield. I grew up in the south and also other weird places. But I have an affinity with being anywhere in the UK, having also run through it. It’s great. Some of the locations…that main thing around the canal…loads of different locations in a very small area and some were off in Bolton as well. I loved it. Some of it is very run down. Some of it is a little bit scary. Some of it could be beautiful. I remember looking at the canal and it actually looks beautiful in its knackerdness. It was great to do that and it was freezing and it was doing it on a wing and a prayer but I loved it.”
John Hay: “I shot a film there called Jimmy Grimble. And what I love about Manchester, it’s got a scale to it. It’s got a real cinematic scale and I just really wanted to go back there. Because when you’ve got a small kid and big, big buildings. I don’t know if people know the story of Manchester. It was all mill owners who thought they were so much more important than everyone in London and they just wanted to build everything bigger. So they built huge hotels and huge buildings in the main streets. They’re almost like New York scale. That was what I wanted, like these aquaducts and things like that and viaducts. That was what I really wanted to put on film. There was that mix of old and new as well. We see Manchester as a city on the cusp, really.”
Q: Eddie – did you have a clear idea of how to play such an elusive character? Not knowing who he was? Hard to grasp?
Eddie Izzard: “I made some quick decisions. I didn’t overly think it. It was two weeks after doing Treasure Island. (Sky1 Jan 1) So I came off the island on one leg playing Long John Silver and I was in Manchester. And so I didn’t actually have time to be elaborate. I think this has been a problem with me before, is trying to be too elaborate. Or trying to over-theorise ideas. I actually just let it flow through me. John was giving me very positive reactions straight off. I thought he was just being encouraging. But it actually started bedding in and sitting in a way that I really liked. I was just getting reactions back from people who I was working with there who were just thinking that this was working. And I was feeling like it was flowing out of me. It just sort of happened this role.”
John Hay: “If I’d directed this 20 years ago I would have said, ‘Do this, move that, try that.’ But I think that what you get with experience is the ability sometimes to see that certain actors need space. And as soon as Eddie came into rehearsals I just realised that if I gave him space to do it, he could do that. He could just bring something really special to the role. And that’s what I did. I did give Eddie a tremendous amount of space and really the way you see it on screen is the way he shaped it. It wasn’t in many ways the way I think Dave and I thought about him in the film. But he just brought a magic to it. He builds this relationship.”
Eddie Izzard: “I realised he (Anthony) had no fear. Because he had no memory he didn’t know the consequences of those kids who were tagging (an early encounter in the film) – he has no fear. So he walks without fear and without memory and that’s interesting because you have this ethereal quality.
“I fought against the amount of consciousness he has. Like when he’s talking to the doctor, Geoffrey Palmer, and he’s saying, ‘I don’t know what’s happening to me.’ But he needed to be able to say words. He needed to know where he was. I just didn’t want him ever…I wanted fear to be out so that he could just walk in a very strange plane. And that’s what I want for him.”