Three Families: Is the emotional BBC drama a true story? The emotional and heartbreaking drama is essential viewing

The emotional BBC drama starring Sinéad Keenan and Amy James-Kelly tackles the subject of abortion in Northern Ireland through the real-life experiences of three women.

By Alex Fletcher Updated: 11 May 2021 - 7.53pm
Drama

Three Families

Sinéad Keenan

BBC Amy James-Kelly in Three Families

BBC One two-part drama Three Families is emotional and powerful TV that deals sensitively with the heated subject of abortion.

From a mother who faces prison for trying to help her pregnant teenage daughter to a newlywed couple who discover their much-wanted child has a fatal foetal abnormality, Three Families approaches the subject of legal termination from differing perspectives.

Set in Northern Ireland, where abortion laws have been more restrictive than the rest of the UK, writer Gwyneth Hughes uses the drama series to explore the trauma and real life impact of laws on abortion.

“Classically the abortion debate is presented as two opposing and immoveable camps – “pro-life”, and “pro-choice”. But as I discovered, it’s not as simple as that,” said Hughes.

Three Families - Meet the cast and characters

Is Three Families based on a true story?

The creative team behind Three Families used real life stories but altered all names and locations so they couldn’t be identified.

An example is the character Theresa, played by Sinéad Keenan, who was someone that was anti-abortion until her own 15-year-old daughter fell pregnant.

“I’ve changed Theresa’s name, and other details about her life, to protect her anonymity and her privacy,” said Hughes.

“I did the same for all members of the Three Families who generously shared their time and their stories with me.

“The real ‘Hannah’ is a spirited, funny, vivid young married woman from a small town; I loved her positive attitude and the joy she managed to retrieve from her terrible ordeal.

“The real ‘Rosie’ is a warm, beautiful, elegant older woman, who thought the chance of a baby had passed her by, and whose mental and physical suffering was extreme.

“The real ‘Theresa’ chose her daughter over the traditions of her faith, and had to find reserves of courage and endurance which almost broke her. I tell their family stories as closely as I can to the accounts they gave me, and want to thank them all from the bottom of my heart for their welcome and honesty.”

Sinéad Keenan as Theresa in Three Families on BBC One BBC

Explaining how they got real life stories, executive producer, Susan Hogg said: “James Gandhi, our development producer and Laura Timms, our script editor had already carried out a lot of research so we were able to identify our Theresa, Hannah and Rosie quite quickly.

“These women and their families were incredibly generous with their time and emotional commitment. Thanks to their frank and open testimony as they shared the detail of their traumatic experiences, the drama began to take shape in Gwyn’s head.”

Keenan, one of the actors at the heart of the series, said that the cast knew the show had to be handled with the “utmost sensitivity”.

“The very fact that there are still women unable to access abortion services when the law now requires Northern Ireland to make those services available, also made these stories all the more poignant. ”
- Sinéad Keenan

“The woman I play, Theresa, (not her real name) wanted her anonymity protected at all costs, such is the shame and stigma surrounding abortion in Northern Ireland. But she understood the necessity to have her and her daughter’s story told,” said Keenan.

“The very fact that there are still women unable to access abortion services when the law now requires Northern Ireland to make those services available, also made these stories all the more poignant. The women of Northern Ireland continue to travel.”

Kerri Quinn, who plays Louise in the series, said: “I hope this drama gets the recognition it deserves, from the brave women who shared their stories, the wonderful cast/crew/director/producers etc. It’s a very delicate issue that people feel very passionate about.”

Owen McDonnell, who plays Mark, added: “I hope that audiences will understand that decisions relating to abortion are personal. That all viewpoints should be respected and that there are no easy decisions when faced with these choices.”

Is abortion still illegal in Northern Ireland?

Abortion in Northern Ireland was decriminalised in 2019.

However, campaigners have argued that although services are legal, they are not officially in place and many women are still travelling to England, Scotland and Wales.

They claim women don't have the access to services they need and that although Northern Ireland has caught up with 'pro choice laws' of other countries, women are still being let down by the lack of abortion services.

Before 2019, in the vast majority of circumstances it was a criminal offence in Northern Ireland to perform or have an abortion. The only allowances were if a woman's life was at risk of there was a rick of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

The making of Three Families

Colin Morgan as Jonathan in Three Families BBC

Hughes said her biggest challenge was bringing these true life stories related to abortion into two-part drama series that connected these characters.

“My problem was that none of these three women have ever met,” said Hughes.

“They were all on the same journey, in some ways; yet their lives are completely separate. They don’t live in the same towns, they don’t share the same interests. They simply don’t know each other. I had to scratch my head very hard to find ways to weave their stories together, and keep them moving forwards through a beginning, a middle and an end”

Hogg added “This was not an easy process, wrangling six years of the real experience of three families who didn’t meet was a huge technical challenge for Gwyn, but her extraordinarily skills came to the fore and our wonderful scripts were delivered.

“We had agreed that we would anonymise all of our real contributors to protect them, so we changed their names, the locations of their homes and in some cases the make-up of their wider family circle. All of these changes were agreed with the families before we went into production.”

Director Alex Kalymnios spent a lot of time watching documentaries on the subject and studying shared experiences and articles from women who had spoken in Northern Ireland.

He said: “It was really important for me to have an understanding of ALL these women’s collective trauma and also grasp the complicated law restrictions surrounding abortion.

“Ultimately, I wanted to make sure I found the personal way into the stories we were telling. These are ordinary women - this literally could happen to you - if you lived in a country with these laws. So all these women I watched through my research were always at the forefront of my mind when I approached my prep for the project.

How to watch Three Families

Amy James-Kelly as Hannah in Three Families BBC

Watch Three Families on BBC iPlayer.

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