'Growing Up Down's': Tommy's got talent

William Jessop's film about a theatre company for people with learning difficulties is a project close to his heart: his brother, an actor who has Down's, is one of its key players. They tell Jeremy Wright about family life in the limelight

To truly command the stage as Hamlet is enough of a challenge for any thespian. To do so while your big brother stands by, filming every word and action for a TV documentary, raises the bar even higher. And that's all before one considers the complications that come with having Down's Syndrome.

But Tommy Jessop, whose professional TV credits include Coming Down The Mountain – a play by Mark Haddon about a Down's teenager under threat of fratricide from his jealous sibling – and the hospital drama Holby City, is used to working hard to stay focused. He is currently awaiting the outcome of auditions with the RSC and National Theatre and he knows, as Shakespeare would have it, that the play's the thing.

A member of the Winchester-based Blue Apple Theatre Company, which caters largely for actors with learning disabilities, 28-year-old Tommy headed a six-strong cast that took their production to mainstream theatres across the south of England – all the while under the watchful lens of his film-maker brother, William.

The results will be shown next month on BBC3 in an hour-long programme entitled Growing Up Down's. William's film, co-produced by the independent production company Maverick, charts not only the rehearsals and the tour itself, but also takes a closer look at the personal development of the four leading members of the cast.

Meeting the brothers together in a busy café at the public library in their home town of Winchester, I am struck not so much by their differences as by their similarities.

On the surface, they may appear chalk and cheese. Thirty-year-old William, the writer, film producer and Oxford English graduate, is a slim, 6ft something – all shaggy hair, beard and softly-spoken eloquence. He describes his leather-jacketed sibling – two years younger and more than a head shorter – as a cool character, with the air of a young Marlon Brando. Yes, his everyday speech can be hesitant, sometimes indistinct, and his gaze is often downward. But with both men, I sense a passion for words and storytelling that neither can suppress. When recalling how he'd had to order his real-life girlfriend Katy, who was playing opposite him as Ophelia, "Get thee to a nunnery", the line comes out full-force from Tommy's diaphragm, complete with a dramatic pause.

William reveals: "There were times when I was behind the camera that I had to pinch myself and think, 'This is Tommy who's doing that.' But he is just very normal. He's very witty, he likes the things that I like. We talk about football and what's in the news. He's got interests, he's got passions, he's got hobbies, he has had a girlfriend.

Tommy in front of his picture on a poster for 'Hamlet' Tommy in front of his picture on a poster for 'Hamlet'

"All right, he probably wouldn't get many GCSEs, but he has read Shakespeare in the original language, he has understood the themes, he has internalised these great speeches that Hamlet speaks, and delivered them to an audience in a way that the audience understands. Not just delivered them but played them. The number of people who would come up after a performance and say, 'that's the first time I have ever understood Hamlet,' was incredible. If nothing else, he's a phenomenal actor with huge talent."

That talent was apparent from a young age, when Tommy regularly took leading parts in school plays and spent much of his time trying to make people laugh. Still, the passionate Newcastle United fan surprised his parents, Jane and Edmund, when he said that he would rather be a professional actor than a footballer. But after progressing through youth theatre, there seemed little provision for someone like Tommy. So Jane, a former marketing executive, who was also chairman of her local branch of Mencap, founded Blue Apple.

She says: "Now, 70 people with learning disabilities take part each week. Formerly isolated and vulnerable people are fulfilled and creative performers who are changing public and professional understanding of learning disability."

Tommy, growing up in a close, loving family, was most certainly less isolated than many. William recalls: "In many ways, we were just like any other brothers. We played football together, or on the climbing frame, or cricket. I know my Mum was worried at first about how having someone like Tommy for a brother would affect me, but actually I don't remember it ever being an issue. I like to think that Tommy helped me from a very early age to understand that there are different types of people in the world, who do things in different ways, but who still have the same emotions and feelings as everyone else.

"I used to enjoy looking after Tommy – I remember that in a reading competition when I was about six, my tactic was to deliver the words as if I was reading Tommy a bedtime story. I ended up winning. When we were together in public, I think I was aware that people were looking at Tommy differently, but this never bothered me.

"When I got to my teenage years, I think Tommy grounded me. My main worry about things was not that my parents would find out – but that Tommy would copy me. I remember telling people my brother had Down's Syndrome, but although this sometimes elicited sympathy (which surprised me), it never led to prejudice. Anyone that met Tommy immediately fell in love with him, and I was proud to have him as my brother.

"I now realise that Tommy is an incredibly strong, bonding force in our family. We're all still very close, and I love spending time at home. He's also fascinating to work with, both in documentary and as a truly fantastic actor."

Tommy is eager to return the compliment. "It's been really fun growing up with William," he says. "We have a laugh. We watch sport, we talk sport and we both support the same football team. He has helped me massively with my acting career by making films and writing plays. He helps me with speaking lines clearly. He helped me understand Hamlet and helps me create audition speeches, for which I am pretty thankful. I am actually honoured to have William as my older brother."

Although Blue Apple's Hamlet cast are in their 20s and one, James, is in his 30s, the actors' learning disabilities mean that they are to some extent still going through their teenage years, explains William. They also sometimes have great difficulty separating reality from acting.

"For instance, Lawrie, who was playing Claudius, was worried that because his character was evil that he really would go to hell. And Tommy, as Hamlet, was being horrible to Katy in the play, and she found it really difficult to separate the two." In the end the pair decided to split up.

"Because I am Tommy's brother, there are some really quite intimate scenes, where I am watching something real unfold," says William. "Tommy and Katy started going out during the filming and Katy was his first-ever girlfriend. The scene in the documentary where they are breaking up is so powerful. Because I know Tommy so well, I don't see him as someone with Down's. I just see him as Tommy, but it was moving for me to see how mature he was."

Looking around the rest of the company, it's a similar story, he adds. "These are people who are supposedly low-functioning, but on the stage they become giants. What I want the audience to see is that these are just normal people. They are doing Hamlet in the original Shakespeare, they are pretty bloody intelligent. Tommy can't really tie his own shoelaces, but he can stand on stage and break your heart. I hope the film will help people raise their expectations."

So what does Tommy consider the best aspect of his time as Hamlet? "Being the centre of attention. I really like being the centre of the crowd and the centre of attention."

William coaxes a final thought from Tommy – one that not only reveals his brother's appreciation of Shakespeare, but that might also give pause to anyone who may still think that a life with Down's is a life not worth living.

"What was your favourite line?" he asks his brother.

Once again, acting the speech then and there in the café, Tommy intones: "To be or not to be. That is the question."

William asks: "And what do you think that means?"

Tommy: "Should I live or should I die?"

William: "And what do you think you should do?"

Tommy: "Live."

'Growing Up Down's' will be shown on BBC3 in February; blueappletheatre.com

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones