Five Minutes of Heaven

James Nesbitt and Liam Neeson go head to head in a tale of one of Northern Ireland's most shocking killings. It makes for a tantalising drama, says Gerard Gilbert

So far, so true, and the first half-hour of a new BBC2 drama, Five Minutes of Heaven, recreates the teenage Little's cold-hearted assassination of Griffin. Then the one-off drama, written by Guy Hibbert (Omagh) and shot by the German director of the acclaimed Hitler drama Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel, veers off into "what if" territory. It imagines what would happen if the two men were to meet up now, in deep middle-age, over three decades later. Would there be "truth and reconciliation", as the fashionable post-conflict mantra would have it, or something altogether darker and more volatile?

"The film is about the complex psychological relationship that exists between the perpetrator of a crime and the victim," says producer Stephen Wright from BBC Northern Ireland. "It is not about truth and reconciliation. It is not about finding easy answers."

The real-life Little (played in the drama by Liam Neeson), having spent 12 years in prison for his crime, now works in "conflict transformation", running workshops for traumatised people in Ireland, Israel, the Balkans and South Africa. Or, as the adult Joe Griffin (played by James Nesbitt) bitterly puts it in Five Minutes of Heaven: "He swans around the world telling people what it feels like to kill a man."

Griffin, who was irrationally blamed by his mother for doing nothing to prevent his brother's murder, is presented as a tortured adult – the meaning of Five Minutes of Heaven becoming clear during the long scene in which Little and Griffin prepare to meet each for a TV documentary. However, in real life the two men have never encountered one another, and probably never will. The writer Guy Hibbert is the bridge between them – having worked with them individually for three years in the process of writing the 90-minute drama.

"I would travel from London to Belfast and meet Joe on one day and Alistair on the next day," says Hibbert, who, having been asked to write a drama about the legacy of the Troubles, first got the idea for Five Minutes of Heaven from watching a 2006 BBC documentary series called Facing the Truth. In the programme Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought together perpetrators and victims of murders in Northern Ireland. Little and Griffin were asked to appear on the show, but Griffin declined.

"Joe said that 'if ever I am in a room with that man I will kill him'." says Hibbert. "What happened to them was 33 years ago, so I thought that if ever there was a story to be told about the legacy of the Troubles, it would be this one."

Having made contact with both men, Hibbert began a long, slow and painstaking process of getting to know them in order to create a dramatic scenario in which the two might meet – and what would happen if they did.

"My first question to each of them was 'what if you had accepted that invitation to go on that documentary programme?' Alistair said 'I would go if Joe wants me to go'... Joe said 'Well, I'd take a knife and have my five minutes of heaven', which is the way he put it to me.

"I'd be sitting at the kitchen table with Joe and his partner Sharon and I say 'look Joe if you took a knife and stabbed him what would be the next scene?' – and he said 'you're the writer, you tell me'. I told him that 'your wife and two daughters would be watching TV and there'd be a knock at the door and there'd be a policeman and woman at the door and then we'd cut to the two daughters crying.' I said to Joe I don't want to write that scene...

"Probably the tensest part of the whole project was when I left them in peace for about six months while I wrote the script, and then presented them with it. That was the first time they'd come face to face with each other, if you like. Alistair then found out for the first time what Joe thought of him. For the first time Alistair was faced with Joe's words – and I was the vehicle through which those words came to him. "

Hibbert sent the finished script to Liam Neeson – he hoped he would play Little – just as Neeson was about to start working on The Other Man with Richard Eyre. "I normally never read another script when I'm preparing for a film," says the actor, speaking before the recent death of his wife Natasha Richardson in a skiing accident. "There it was on the bed and I started reading it. It was an absolute page-turner and I called Guy up the second I finished it and said, 'What's the deal here? I'd love to be involved.' I told him my availability and they got it together."

Another fortuitous window of opportunity opened when the German director Oliver Hirschbiegel, who made Downfall, the Oscar-nominated movie about Hitler's final days in the Fuhrer-bunker, became available after a project that he was working on with Guy Hibbert was postponed. "Oliver is minimalist," says the producer Eoin O'Callaghan. "Little fuss, little lighting, little tricksiness. His brain works fast and he anticipates problems." It is also an advantage that he is German, says O'Callaghan, and thus distanced from the events depicted in Five Minutes of Heaven. Not so the stars, Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt – actors from different sides of Northern Ireland's sectarian divide.

"It's interesting that Liam is a Catholic playing a Protestant and I am a Protestant playing a Catholic," says Nesbitt, a teacher's son born in Ballymena, County Antrim. "I felt that as an actor from Northern Ireland there is an instinctive responsibility to tackle the recent history of where we come from." Neeson, a school caretaker's son also, extraordinarily, from Ballymena, agrees with his co-star. "The drama analyses the experiences we've all gone through in Northern Ireland. We may not have witnessed or been part of the violence, but we are all psychologically effected by it."

Where Neeson and Nesbitt differed was over to whether to meet the men they were to portray. Neeson chose not to until the final day of filming. "I didn't want to meet Alistair," he says. "I wanted to rely totally on Guy's script and I knew that he had done vast amounts of research and interviews with those involved. I wanted to rely on that and not get into the situation where I would meet the real Alistair and think 'Oh, I'm taller than him... or 'I don't look anything like him'. "

Nesbitt, on the other hand, wanted to meet the real Joe Griffin from the start. "I've played a few living characters before," he says. "Ivan Cooper, who I played in Bloody Sunday (Paul Greengrass's film of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre), for example. The character comes alive for me off the page, but I had the option of meeting Joe and wanted to."

Whether it was spending a lot of time with Griffin, or whether it is the quality of Guy Hibbert's script, this is one of Nesbitt's best performances to date, capturing the nervy, twisted sense of injustice of a man who thinks his life has been destroyed before it even properly began. "Joe was incredibly honest about the events of 1975 and the impact they had on his life and those around him," says Nesbitt. "He was kind enough to let me video him – something I've never done before."

And whatever critics and viewers think of Five Minutes of Heaven (and, for what it's worth, I reckon it is a fine, thoughtful and – given the recent killings in Northern Ireland – timely piece of work) the fact that, thanks to his participation, Joe Griffin is now receiving trauma counselling for the first time makes it, says Nesbitt, "worth doing the film for alone". Does Guy Hibbert, who has spent a lot of time with both men, think that Joe and Alistair will ever meet?

"I wouldn't rule it out but it's not on their agenda," he says. "I first started out thinking this would be about truth and reconciliation and all those rather cliched thoughts. I had a quite a simplistic view, I suppose, although I had done Omagh. But I learned through the process that it's a lot more complicated than those awful simplistic words like 'closure' and 'forgiveness'. It's incredibly tough."

'Five Minutes of Heaven' is at 9pm on 5 April on BBC2

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?