Thirty five years ago this summer, 14 years-old Macrea Clarke, from Derry’s Marlborough Road, was busy enjoying his summer holidays when suddenly, out of the blue, he was told he was to play the lead role in a new television play set in the Bogside at the height of the Troubles.
The ‘Journal’ of August 3, 1979, reports that Macrea - who was cast as schoolboy, Joe Logan, in the ‘Play for Today’ adaptation - was nominated for the role by his English teacher at St. Peter’s Secondary School. In all, 200 boys were interviewed by the film-makers.
The paper also recounts that 13 year-old Paul O’Reilly, from Abbey Park, was selected to play the part of Peter, Joe’s friend. Paul got his part through his local parish youth club, St. Eugene’s.
The film, set in the mid-1970s, depicted some of the difficulties of life for all concerned at the time. In particular, it focused on the often abrasive interplay between Derry people and the security forces.
Macrea played a 12 year-old schoolboy attending Long Tower Primary School who forms a special relationship with a young female teacher.
His mother works as a cleaner and his father, whom he resents, drinks too much. His brother, Brendan, lives in England and has spent some time in the Provos.
The 90 minute film cost in the region of £100,000 to make.
During the filming process, the late May Friel, who played the part of Mrs. Logan, said she was ‘thrilled to bits’ to be starring in the film.
“I was first approached around Easter by the BBC to play the part, ” she told the ‘Journal’ back in 1979. “At the beginning of April, Michael Gillen, the headmaster of Rosemount Boys PS, phoned me to say that he had heard that the BBC was having problems finding someone to play the part of the mother and so he had put forward by name as a possible choice.
“I was auditioned but I was told that professional actresses were also to be auditioned in Belfast, Dublin and London, so I didn’t think I had much chance of getting the part. So it came as a big surprise when I was told I had got the part.”
Filming ‘Shadows on our Skin’ was, says Macrea Clarke, a “mind blowing experience.”
“I recall the first night the crew gathered at the hotel they were staying in and they decided they wanted a swim,” he told the ‘Journal’.
“Not knowing beforehand that the hotel had a swimming pool, they had arrived with no swimming outfits. This, for a group of artistic people, was not an obstacle and they all began, one by one, to strip off to their underwear and dive into the pool.
“The manager was duly called and he advised the crew that he could not permit their flamboyant display, insisting that it was prohibited to enter the pool in common underwear. To my surprise, everyone then stripped off to their birthday suits and returned to the pool! I had never seen such nudity before. The manager was left speechless and left the pool area quicker than he had arrived. I then realised that life was not for taking seriously - at
least not always.”
Producer, Ken Trodd, had, prior to ‘Shadows on our Skin’, created such acclaimed television series as ‘Pennies from Heaven’ and ‘Blue Remembered Hills’, both written by the late Dennis Potter.
He said the film crew, about 30 strong, had enjoyed their stay in Derry and had been warmly welcomed by everyone.
He said: “Indeed, children coming from school are most enthusiastic about the film, so much so that the crew try to avoid filming outside during the time kids are coming from school because of the difficulties of controlling the crowd.”
Following its TV premiere in March 1980, no less a critic than Clive James hailed ‘Shadows on our Skin’ as “that rarest of television events, a play about what is going on in
The Australian-born author and journalist - who would go on to front his own prime-time TV shows - said the adaptation “turned out to be the best television play about Northern Ireland”.
He wrote: “The script economically explored the distorted childhood of a Bogside eleven-year-old boy called Joe, impersonated with admirable precocity by Macrea Clarke.
“Nobody except Joe came out of the play particularly well. It was also hard to avoid drawing the conclusion that Joe’s own adulthood, when it arrived, would not be very admirable either. Joe’s house was loud with hatred and stupidity.
“Nobody but an Irish playwright would dare to paint his countrymen in such harsh colours.”