Author Andrew O’Hagan on ‘Mayflies’, the TV adaptation of his extraordinary novel

Andrew O’Hagan’s Best Selling Book of 2020 May holidays it was called ‘that rarity: a novel about death that improves life’. Written as a eulogy to his friend ‘Tully Dawson’, it centers on a group of teenagers in the prime of their youth, their friendships built on music, film and a wild spirit. The story is set in two parts – first in small town Scotland in the 1980s, O’Hagan’s own Ayrshire, and then when they reconnect three decades later. O’Hagan described it as “a love letter to male friendship and what it means”.

May holidays won the Christopher Isherwood Award and is added Esquire a long list of editor-in-chief accolades for fiction, non-fiction and journalism. Three of his novels were nominated for the Booker Prize.


Faber & Faber


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Now Mayflies has been turned into an intimate and moving two-part BBC drama starring Martin Compston, Tony Curran and Ashley Jensen.

O’Hagan spoke with Esquire ahead of this week’s broadcast.

Mayflies,1,young hogg Paul Gorman,young jimmy rian gordon,young tibbs mitchell robertson,limbo matt littleson,young tully tom glynn carney,© synchronicity films,jamie simpson

Jamie Simpson

Adaptations of anything they have a checkered history. At what point in the process did you think ‘I’ll be fine here’?

That thought came twice. First, when I read the scripts and realized the story could work for TV. Most novels don’t, and screenwriter Andrea Gibb was fearless in taking things out and putting them in. The second moment was when I heard the actors reading. Collectively, they simply understood what it was all about. Such good actors.

Did seeing the series come to life make you think differently about your story?

In a few looks, yes. I saw much clearer female views, how much they resisted (even more than I wrote) about the ‘boys club atmosphere’ around Tully’s end-of-life decisions. I also thought differently about how memory can work: the series sets vivid things from 1986 in ways that define adult characters, and I did it the other way around. That kind of technical stuff can be pretty exciting.

You’re condensing a 288-page novel into two hours of TV. It requires some sacrifices. How painful was that?

Not much. I was sorry to lose the scenes in Sicily – that vacation was like a reflection of their teenage adventures in the book – but on a show like this you get pretty real, especially when you’re working as an executive producer. For me, it was the leading force in all of this [Bafta-winning production company] Synchronicity Films and its host, Claire Mundell. She set the stage for the talented director, [multi-award winning Scot] Peter Mackie Burns, and drew the whole thing together.

People who only know Martin Compston as DI Steve Arnott from Duty service (“The cause of death wasn’t clear”; “Well cutting off his head couldn’t have helped”, etc.) his role as Tully’s sidekick Jimmy would soon be turning heads. He’s amazing, isn’t he?

Yes, totally. Martin has been in the business since he was a kid, doing brilliant things, and he just has an instinct for where the camera is and how to get into the character. He does it so economically, so truthfully, and I think this is his most profound performance yet. He brought integrity to the entire production and was a pleasure to work with. He is also good to hang out with, as well as the excellent Tony Curran. I was knocked out by how beautifully they blended together as actors.

Mayflies, 1, jimmy martin compston, tully tony curran, © synchronicity films, jamie simpson

Jamie Simpson

He and Curran, who plays Tully, are friends in real life, right? Can you explain what it was bought for May holidays?

There was everything. They understand each other’s magic, and that’s impossible to fake. Tony is just so warm and infectious in his vitality – very Tully, in that way – and Martin was a natural mate. They could complete each other’s sentences. As Tully gets sicker and sicker, James (as Tully approves) slowly becomes the more dominant friend, and they hit that dynamic without breaking a sweat. For me, it’s the gold standard — it’s like watching a couple of international soccer players work on the field and score a goal.

I’ve already watched the “Some people are just stars…” speech during the wedding in the first episode three times. Three times I turned into a babbling mess. Not very Christmassy, ​​is it?

On the contrary, Johnny! People love gibberish at Christmas, and you can only watch it so many times It’s a wonderful life. This is the season when sadness comes with joy, and May holidays maybe he finds a place in all that. On the other hand, it’s nice to make an offer for the least Dwarf– as the movie of the year!

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May holidays is about male friendship and how men are silly when they say they love each other. Just a savage jab here… you must have been inundated with guys thanking you for bringing it up and helping them try to fix it?

I’ve been a writer for a long time and I’ve never had a reaction like this. Guys write to me all the time saying that the book made them want to read or about their own past. I wanted the book to open a new channel in how men talk about emotions. I hope that’s done, even a little bit, because that whole toxic masculinity thing – while important – doesn’t describe most men I know.

Depressingly for almost anyone else with any ambition to be a writer, you’re supposedly out May holidays during lockdown – a ‘smaller’ project as a break from your magnum opus, Caledonian road. What can you tell us about it?

That’s not exactly true: May holidays lasted a year. But I did it during a break from a big novel I’d been working on for six yearsCaledonian Road. It just seemed right to do it that way. Caledonian road is now finished, and it is a great social novel of our time, about five families in modern London. It draws on years of research in royal palaces, prisons, country estates, in fresh machinery factories, with gangs of exercisers, with oligarchs and migrants, in the art world and in the British media. All these characters slowly float together. The book was a great new adventure in journalism and fiction for me. It will be out in the spring of 2024. The rights to screen the multi-series drama have just gone to Johan Renck, who directed Chernobyl for HBO.

Having Elon Musk all over the news makes me think The Secret Life: Three True Stories, your collection on digital provocateurs. Especially the considerable amount of time you spent with Julian Assange. Would you like to slam Elon?

I would. It’s been a while since I’ve climbed into a bunker with a tech nut. I am ready to work all day and all night with Elon as he tries to put an end to human communication.

Andrew O’Hagen mega-fans will be delighted with your role May holidays. How was it and what ‘souvenir’ did you keep from the set?

On the day they were shooting the wedding scene, I happened to show up in full wedding attire, you know, like a six-piece suit and polished shoes. The director understood. They called me from the costume department. I had a flower attached to my lapel. I was ready. It turned out to be Ashley Jensen’s character [Tully’s partner, Anna] needed a brotherly figure to escort her to the altar. Of course, the showbiz gods have a way of bringing you back – there’s no such thing as a free walk – so I was routinely described in some papers as the father of Ashley’s character! We’re the same age, so I’ll hurry up and show you how bride Ashley looks on.

It’s a cliché that pop music is embedded in your formative years, whenever they were, and those songs stay with you for life. But the music was just better 1980s, right?

Unquestionably. I mean, there was a time when New Order, The Smiths, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Echo and the Bunnymen and a dozen other brilliant bands had singles in the same week. I mean, come on! Now you’re lucky if you have two great songs a month! The music was better and the best of it carried with it the whole political and political culture. British music was a matter of heavenly importance. So there you go. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the great days of British music and hate all the bed-wetting nonsense and jangly beige Suffolk soul-lite crap that passes as genius now.

What TV show is on other the strongest ending?

Six feet under it had a brilliant, timely, humane ending, showing a sort of flash forward of all the main characters to the end of their lives. I like the ending. I’m still recovering from Bet Lynch leaving Rovers Return in 1995.

What would the real Tully make of all this?

He would love that. Like all working-class heroes, what he really loved in life was a good drama.

May holidaysis broadcast on BBC One at 21:00 on the 28thth and the 29thth December. Both parts will be on iPlayer. The novel was published by Faber & Faber

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