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Wednesday 24 Sep 2014

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Accused – Juliet Stevenson plays Helen Ryland

Juliet Stevenson as Helen Ryland

Juliet Stevenson plays Helen Ryland, a primary school teacher who loses her only son, Rob, when he is fatally injured within an hour of starting a new job in a local factory. Yet it is much later that she and her husband, Frank (Peter Capaldi), hear the appalling news that their only child is dead.

Someone must be responsible and grief-stricken Helen is desperate to know how and why Rob died. But decency and honesty are in short supply and when prosecution proves impossible, Helen takes matters into her own hands in her desperate fight for truth and justice.

Since emerging from RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in the early Eighties, Juliet Stevenson's extensive and varied work in film and on stage has established her as one of the finest actresses of her generation.

Seminal work on television includes her performance as Nina in the late Anthony Minghella's BBC Two breakthrough film, Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991), which won her a place in the nation's hearts. The film went on to be a classic of its time with the title entering everyday speech.

Aficionados of her work wish she was on television more often. But Juliet is not driven by fame or fortune and is far from starry. Her real-life role as mother to her two children comes first and her acting career has always been counterbalanced by her commitment to campaigning for charitable causes.

But last year viewers enjoyed her performance as journalist Catherine Heathcote in Place Of Execution (ITV), a role which scooped a Best Actress, Dagger Crime Thriller Award.

Juliet explains what brings her back to mainstream television this autumn: "I really like the democratic nature of television - we've all got access to television and can share the experience of it.

"So when a really good script comes along and talks about what actually matters to all of us, like grief, loss, or a family falling apart, and it's by a leading writer like Jimmy McGovern, then, to be honest, I feel chuffed and privileged to be involved. No-one knows television better than Jimmy. He is a consummate storyteller.

"Accused has such a compassionate idea at its heart," says Juliet. "Each week we meet someone who has committed a serious crime for the first time in their lives - these people aren't hardened, professional criminals but people driven to commit a crime because of desperation of some sort or another.

"By the end of their journeys, Jimmy's brought us inside their lives and shown us what it really feels like to be in their place.

"I heard Andy Serkis has read his episode called Liam's Story and was blown away by the precision and power of it.

"It gave me a great sense of what this series sets out to achieve. If you'd read a truncated account of Liam's crime in the tabloid press you'd think he was unforgivable, and my character Helen could be seen as unhinged.

"But these compassionate stories question all our assumptions and prejudices. What is right and what is wrong? For me, they're a great antidote to the brainless, judgemental headlines we see around us all the time."

Juliet explains the challenges of playing Helen and telling her story.

"Quite simply put, Helen is facing the worst, most unimaginable horror. Every parent, from the moment their child is born, lives in fear of losing them but to remain sane, functioning parents we try not to think about this awful possibility.

"Yet there are parents who, on a daily basis, deal with the loss of their children," says Juliet, whose charitable work has championed many international humanitarian causes - in particular, those fighting cruelty and negligence towards children.

Closer to home, Juliet reflects: "I kept thinking about the terrible loss of life amongst the young soldiers in Afghanistan, and the ongoing suffering of their families.

"My first child was born 16 years ago and, from that moment of becoming a parent, your life is focused on your child's wellbeing, so I found playing Helen very uncomfortable. To spend a whole film dealing with a mother's grief is a very hard place to go, even in your imagination.

"As a mother, my empathy for Helen is absolute, but I kept reflecting that Rob is Helen's only child, so she also faces the loss of motherhood and, of course, her husband, a devoted father, is devastated, too.

"Suddenly, these parents have their boy ripped from their lives after 18 years and they are just left facing each other in an empty house, both utterly broken-hearted."

But their different response to the tragedy opens up cracks in their marriage, says Juliet. The focus of Helen's grief goes into exonerating her son's good name and making his former employers accept responsibility for his death. But there is a catch, explains Juliet, Helen is not a worldly cynic.

"Helen's lived a good, decent life working as a primary school teacher - she's never had cause to question the system before or doubt it.

"What she encounters is that those responsible for her son's death are avoiding their culpability and using the law as a shield. That this can happen comes as a huge shock to her.

"She comes in good faith to find out the truth and instead encounters duplicity. They will not hold up their hands.

"Helen has to work this out moment by moment and the audience does so at the same time. Initially, she's in shock and not suspicious, but then becomes disillusioned and stops taking anything at face value."

The story rings all too true, says Juliet, and she was concerned to make her performance as Helen as authentic as possible. Aware that her own accent did not hit the right note, after discussion with director Richard Laxton, Juliet decided to play Helen with Mancunian accent.

"An accent is a way of life – it informs the way we are with other people. I wanted must to do justice to Helen by finding the right voice for her.

"I had the great, good fortune to be working with Janet Horsfield, the production's very gifted hair and make-up designer. What's more, her accent was perfect for Helen, so I decided to make Janet's speech patterns the basis for Helen.

"Janet took me on. She has the most amazing ear and as we were together throughout the filming day she trained me in Mancunian and I spoke in the accent all day.

"Janet became an ear for me. She even gave me notes saying things like: 'You're nearly spot on but you need to practise your flat A,' or 'You're rushing your vowels, Juliet.' She was a Godsend. Quite frankly, she could swap careers and become a professional voice coach!"

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