Grieving parents … Sinead Keenan and Brían F O’Byrne are cast as Melanie and Steve Jones in the powerful factual drama, Little Boy Blue. Below: Sinead Keenan as Melanie Jones and Sonny Beyga as her son, Rhys.
When I saw the first episode of Little Boy Blue, I was overcome with emotion. It was even more heartbreaking knowing it was based on a true story, with Bafta-winning writer and executive producer Jeff Pope steering the narrative.

The four-part TV series tells the story of how a happy-go-lucky 11-year-old Rhys Jones became collateral drama in an outbreak of gang wars in his neighbourhood in Liverpool. Shot in the neck outside the Fir Tree pub, while en-route home after football practice, he is pronounced dead after being rushed to hospital.

His parents, Melanie (Sinead Keenan) and Stevie (Brían F O’Byrne), as well as his older brother were inconsolable. Meanwhile, Detective Superintendent Dave Kelly (Stephen Graham, below) did his best to find those responsible, a task made even harder by undue pressure from his superiors and suspects who subscribed to the same “no comment” mantra.

In many ways, Little Boy Blue reminded me of the first episode of Broadchurch, where the detectives tried to get to the bottom of who murdered Danny Latimer. Let me qualify that comment: it's enveloped in powerful emotion, chaos and drama.

And the casting director on this particular project deserves high-praise; each actor plays their role with commendable conviction, with Keenan and F O’Bryne delivering unparalleled performances.

On telling Jones’s story, Pope said: “I asked myself this question a couple of years ago. You can’t just barrel in and trample all over someone’s grief. The key to this type of drama is to set about it in the right way, take a responsible line and really look to try to understand what happened. The reason why I’ve explored factual dramas for so long now is because we’re constantly surprised by what happens in real life. Those little details. It sounds a cliché but you wouldn’t think to make them up. By going deeper and deeper and deeper into the DNA of what happened you find something that’s a truth for all of us.”

He continued: “We get a lot of headlines in life, don’t we? ‘Boy Murdered In Car Park’. And then ages later, ‘Kid Convicted Of Murder Of Boy In Car Park’. But how did it happen? What was the impact?

"As a journalist, which in my heart is how I think of myself, you want to find out what happened and why it happened. Truth is very precious and it needs to be carefully guarded and preserved.”

Keenan (Being Human) deserves much praise for her volcanic eruption into sheer despair in the first few frames of the first episode.

Slipping into the skin of the character meant manifesting those guttering emotions.

She said: “They are tough scenes to film. But then I’m also very cognisant of the fact I’m just pretending. That this is somebody else’s nightmare.”

Opening up about her understanding of the relationship the family had with Detective Kelly, she said: “As far as I’m aware, and certainly in our script, Dave was a rock for Melanie and Steve throughout the whole process. Because it was such a shocking thing to happen, it grabbed people’s attention throughout the UK.

"Dave Kelly was under an awful lot of pressure to very quickly get these guys, get them arrested, get them locked up and to solve the case.

"But he took the time to make sure everything was done by the book. Because he knew once the case went to trial, if there was any margin of error, the whole investigation could collapse. So he very much put himself on the line in the way he dealt with it.”

Before shooting his scenes, F O’Byrne (Million Dollar Baby, Prime Suspect), met Rhys’s parents.

“I wanted them to feel secure and to know we were approaching this work with respect. To ease their worries in some way. It was important for them to understand we were not going to sensationalise anything and that we all wanted to do justice to their story.

“Certainly, there’s a way of looking at grief in this story in a way we’re not aware of in some ways; that people grieve in different ways and it’s an individual journey you go on. And this has an effect, just in the process of grieving, on relationships. That’s something I hadn’t thought about a lot.”

As much as the series magnifies the roller-coaster of emotions of the family, it also highlights the wave of support the family received from the community, the first responders, the unsung heroes and others.

Giving his take on the heartbreaking scene shot at Goodison Park, he recalled: “In the days after Rhys’s death, his parents and older brother Owen lined-up on the pitch to pay tribute to him. The fans had been asked to help recreate that moment for our films by staying in their seats at half-time in a match between Everton and West Ham.”

Keep those tissues close by as there are plenty more scenes where you will be bursting into tears, especially after hearing Steve’s poem to his dead son.

A stellar factual drama, handled with the sensitivity and gravitas it deserves.

Little Boy Blue airs on ITV Choice (DStv Channel 123) on Wednesdays at 8pm.