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‘We were all going through traumas under one roof’: the drag queen adoption drama inspired by real life
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‘We were all going through traumas under one roof’: the drag queen adoption drama inspired by real life

Lost Boys & Fairies is not a true story. But like most drama and fiction, it draws heavily on the real-life experiences of the people who made it. Daf James, the Welsh playwright and screenwriter behind the story, also adopted three children with his husband when those children were aged between two and five. As in the show, he went to activity days to meet children who needed carers, got interrogated by social workers and had plenty of sleepless nights. So when we see his protagonist Gabriel getting hit in the head with a football by a seven-year-old in a Cardiff park, are we watching fiction here or reality?

“Everything I write is personally inspired,” Daf tells me, over Zoom from his attic bedroom, just minutes after we have both put our children to bed. “But I’ve learned how to adapt my lived experience into fiction. Andy is a fictitious character; the father is a fictitious character; the children are fictitious characters.” Andy, the saint-like husband of Gabriel, is played by Hawkeye star and Northern Irish actor Fra Fee, who tells me that his role in Lost Boys & Fairies was “genuinely the honour of my life”. It’s a statement that, like the show itself, hits a note of radical sentimentality. “I’ve never played a gay man on screen before,” Fee goes on, “which sounds a bit mad as a gay man myself. So to get the opportunity to do something that felt so positive was such a gift.”

‘Everything I write is personally inspired’ says the writer of Lost Boys & Fairies, Daf James.View image in fullscreen

Adoption is both ordinary and extraordinary. According to government figures, in March 2023 there were 83,840 looked-after children in the UK – meaning those in care or on the adoption pathway – and yet in 2022 just 2,950 children were adopted. As a way to start a family it is unbelievably rigorous, slow, meticulous and delicate. “You do see adoption on screen but it wasn’t the experience I recognised,” says James. “The highs and the lows. My worldview exploded. Their stories become your stories so it all expands. That year was the most challenging of my life, and often very dark – not because of the kids.”

Like Gabriel, James had lost his mother, although unlike the character his mum had died just a year prior to the adoption. “So I was grieving, while the kids have had these very difficult starts to life, then gone from their birth families into foster care, then been ripped out of foster care and come to live with these two guys somewhere completely different. So we were all going through these traumas under one roof.”

There is a scene in Lost Boys & Fairies in which Gabriel complains that the excoriating process of digging into his life, his addictions and his vulnerabilities in front of a social worker is “like therapy but without the therapy”. “That’s why the process is so rigorous,” James says. “The shit all flows out and you have to look at all those things because the kids coming in need as much security as possible; that’s your job. My husband and I learned very early on that you have to talk about everything; all the dark feelings. You have to give space to each other. I think that’s true of grief and I think that’s true of parenting.”

At what point, I wonder, did he look around at his life and think that it might, one day, make a show? “It was very clear to me: this is dramatic,” says James. He felt compelled, he says, to write about the experience; about the transformative, challenging, brilliant, discombobulating whole of it. So when the BBC’s TV Drama Writers’ Programme 2019 (now known as Pilot) was looking for scripts, it only took a little cajoling for him to apply. He was paired up with the Leeds-based production company Duck Soup and, lo, Lost Boys was born. But making a queer, Welsh adoption story that features a hefty chunk of Welsh-language dialogue was always going to make casting tricky. Sion Daniel Young, who plays Gabriel, the character most closely drawn from James (right down to the wide selection of dungarees) is Welsh but not gay.

Super stars… Young (left) as Gabriel and Fra Fee as Andy in Lost Boys & Fairies.View image in fullscreen

“Personally, I do not believe that queer actors have to play gay parts,” says James. “First, that opens us up to really problematic things like asking people’s sexuality, which I don’t think is anybody’s business. Also, from a Welsh-language perspective, we’re dealing with a minority pool there. If I had to cast those parts with queer actors, it would be nearly impossible. Can my story be represented authentically by the actors that we have? Can we have a diversity of race, age and all other identities in the show? And not just on screen but off screen as well? That to me is where the politics of authenticity should exist.”

The most important thing was that the casting captured the chemistry between Gabriel and Andy, which Young is effusive about.

“Of all the relationships I’ve had on screen, mine and Fra’s has been by far the easiest and most enjoyable,” he says. “It’s the highlight of my career because of that.” Did they have a chemistry reading, to check if the spark worked on screen? “Well, we went to have some chicken wings the night before the read-through,” says Young. “But the casting director kept saying: ‘You and Fra, it’s just going to work,’ which was very confident considering we’d never been in a room together.”

This is, by any measure, a queer show. A whole week of shooting took place in the imagined LGBTQ club Neverland, in which the character Gabriel performs as a drag queen. Each episode includes an extended musical number, with choreography, costume, music and a lot of makeup. What was it like to shoot that, especially with Leo Harris, who plays the prospective adoptive child Jake, in the routine? “He wanted to sing along to everything,” says James. “It was quite hard to get him to stop his mouth moving. But his youthful enthusiasm was joyful.”

While Fee is no stranger to musical theatre – he played Courfeyrac in Tom Hooper’s 2012 film of Les Misérables – Young was on less secure ground. “When I first read the scripts, if anything, all those songs – as they kept coming – felt like just another reason why I wasn’t going to be doing this job,” he says, with a sad smile. “But then, actually, it ended up being one of my favourite parts. Some days it felt like you were shooting a music video. Then, with all the flashbacks and stuff, you’d be jumping from one mad thing to the next.”

‘Jumping from one mad thing to the next’ Fee and Young in Lost Boys & Fairies.View image in fullscreen

Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28 – a series of laws that prohibited “the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” – was not repealed in England and Wales until 2003, by which time I was 19. I can well remember what it was like to grow up in a culture, dictated by the government, in which queer people and queer families were treated as other, as inferior and even as shameful. Could James, Fee and Young have ever imagined something like Lost Boys & Fairies being on BBC One when they were growing up?

“I grew up in Tyrone, in mid-Ulster, which felt a world away even from Belfast at the time,” says Fee. “Compounded with that, I was growing up in a staunchly Catholic environment. We learned about homosexuality in school as a wrong and bad thing. We’d write essays in religious studies class about things like euthanasia, suicide, homosexuality. If you didn’t write that these things were essentially sinful you’d get marked down. That was my big education in queerness.” The few glimmers of on-screen representation were Graham Norton, whom Fee calls “the most positive representation of a gay man on the TV, for sure” and occasional gay storylines in soaps such as EastEnders and Coronation Street.

James wrote the first play about gay characters written by a queer person on a Welsh-language stage, at the Sherman theatre in Cardiff in 2010. That play actually starred Young, and was in many ways a prequel to the world of Lost Boys & Fairies. “That felt scary,” says James. “It was about the conflict between my queer identity and my Welsh-language identity. But at the end, I watched my mam and dad and their friends and colleagues stand up and applaud these boys who had been up on stage taking ketamine in their pants. It felt like a personal, political and cultural triumph.”

It is beautiful that the type of queer stories being told on screen and stage have expanded over time from the youthful, explicit world of, say, Queer As Folk to the domesticity of Lost Boys & Fairies with its Ikea furniture, trampolines and jam sandwiches. This is a tender and tearjerking story of queer families and long-term love. One that is, as Fee says, “extraordinary in its ordinariness”.

Lost Boys & Fairies is coming soon to BBC One and iPlayer.

Source: theguardian.com