The Street: Stephen Graham plays Shay

Stephen Graham, one of the most magnetic actors currently operating in this country, portrays Shay, a betting shop manager whose life is in chaos. Since he was held up by armed robbers at the shop, Shay has been a serious alcoholic.

His life is thrown into further turmoil when his ex-girlfriend, Madeleine (Maxine Peake), turns up out of the blue and announces that Shay has a son he never knew about. Sixteen-year-old Otto (Leon Harrop) has asked to see his dad for the first time. However, when his son comes around, Shay realises that Otto has Down’s syndrome and reacts very badly indeed. For Shay, things then go from bad to worse.

Stephen, who has delivered incendiary performances in everything from Occupation, The Passion, This Is England and Public Enemies to The Damned United, Inkheart and Gangs Of New York, was very flattered to be series creator Jimmy McGovern’s first choice for the role.

“I was delighted because from day one Jimmy said he only wanted me to play Shay. It’s an absolute honour.”

The actor, a Liverpudlian like Jimmy, has known the writer for years.

“I remember having a pint with Jimmy at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool about six years ago,” Stephen recollects. “I said to him, ‘I’d love to work with you’, and he replied, ‘don’t worry, it’ll happen’. So good things come to those who wait. I only had to wait six years!”

Stephen paints a picture of Shay: “He’s a lost soul. His life is just going along uneventfully until a horrific incident in his betting shop changes everything. He says, ‘before it happened, I used to like a drink every night. After it happened, I had to have a drink every morning’. That sums up the effect of the robbery on him.”

Shay turns to drink, with disastrous consequences. Stephen did a great deal of research into the part.

“I read a lot of books about alcoholism, and I know one or two people who used to be alcoholics. With Shay, it’s a case of just continually topping himself up. I love Shameless, but I couldn’t play someone constantly drunk like Frank Gallagher.”

The heart of this moving episode is the difficult relationship between Shay and his son Otto.

“That’s so beautifully written,” observes Stephen, a diehard fan of Liverpool FC.

“All of a sudden, from nowhere, Shay finds out he’s got a 16-year-old son. He goes round to all the people in the boozer boasting, ‘me son’s a boxer and he’s going to play for Liverpool’. He believes his gene pool is that strong! The idea of a son gives Shay hope, and he tries to get himself together.

“But when he sees his son has Down’s syndrome, that sends him on a rapid downward spiral. He can’t deal with it, so he drinks more and more and tries to pretend that Otto is just not there.

“He loses his steady job and ends up on streets, scrapping over drinks. He tries to find solace in the bottom of a bottle rather than inside himself.”

Stephen adds: “Then there’s this lovely switch from hate and anger, as Shay is forced to look inside himself and understand that he has to sort himself out.

“He slowly realises that Otto’s condition is not his fault and that he’s his boy. Like any addict, Shay has to lose everything and hit rock-bottom before he can pick himself up again.”

The actor had to shoot some tough scenes where Shay abuses Otto but Stephen says that was made easier because his off-screen relationship with Leon is so strong.

“Leon is a lovely lad. We instantly hit it off. He’s a Manchester United fan, and he gave me lots of stick about Liverpool. I brought him a Liverpool top with ‘Otto’ on the back. The next day, he brought me a Man U top with ‘Shay’ on the back. In front of everyone in the canteen, he made me put it on. He’s a smashing lad, a real credit to his parents.

“He’s also a fantastic actor – he took his performance as Otto to a different level.

“At first Shay hates Otto, and that was difficult to play. But, because of our great off-screen relationship, Leon accepted it was just acting. He was so receptive to everything I did. There were no problems at all. It was a beautiful thing to make. Lee will go far.”

Stephen, who is about to embark on his biggest adventure yet, playing the lead, Al Capone, in Boardwalk Empire, a major new HBO series directed by Martin Scorsese, only encountered one difficulty while making The Street: the amount of Pepsi he had to drink.

“I had two days of downing Pepsi non-stop, and I just couldn’t stop burping. Before every scene, I’d be saying, ‘excuse me’. There were all these big emotional scenes, and there I was, just burping my mouth off!”

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