Three Families: Who are the cast? Everything you need to know about the BBC’s heartbreaking abortion drama

Who are the Three Families cast? Is abortion still illegal in Northern Ireland? All you need to know about the two-part series.

By Alex Fletcher Updated: 11 May 2021 - 4.40pm
Drama

Genevieve O’Reilly

Sinéad Keenan

For decades, women growing up in Northern Ireland didn’t have the same abortion rights as those in the rest of the UK.

Three Families is a two-part drama series from the BBC about the women and families who were placed in heart-breaking positions by the legal system.

Inspired by true stories, the series brings together three different families with their own unique experiences and trauma.

“Since I was a teenager living in Northern Ireland in the 1970s I’ve been aware of the trauma which blights so many families, torn apart by the shame of an unwanted pregnancy,” said Three Families executive producer Susan Hogg.

“I was aware of the dedicated campaign to change the law, but what I was most interested in dramatising were the true stories of women and girls who had recently experienced the shame and trauma which I was so frightened of as a teenager. I also wanted to understand the weight of opinion against pro-choice.”

“Two characters in Three Families, Theresa and Louise, are the closest of friends with very different views on abortion. They manage to respect each other’s position and remain friends despite their passionately held views. This is what I would wish for all of the people of Northern Ireland."

When does Three Families start?

Three Families aired on BBC One on Monday May 10 and Tuesday May 11.

You can watch both episodes on BBC iPlayer.

What is Three Families about?

Sinéad Keenan in Three Families on BBC One BBC

Based on real life stories, Gwyneth Hughes’ (Honour, Five Days, Vanity Fair) Three Families follows the story of different women and how they dealt with living in Northern Ireland under strict abortion laws.

The stories include a mother trying to help her pregnant teenage daughter and two young newlyweds who discover that their first child will die of a fatal foetal abnormality.

Explaining the inspiration for the series, Hughes said: “I was amazed to discover that thousands of women from Northern Ireland still had to get on planes and ferries and go to England in search of terminations they could not access at home.

“I’d simply never understood that the 1967 Act excluded Northern Ireland.  I arrived in Belfast to begin my research at the height of a ferocious campaign, which culminated in the Westminster government controversially imposing legal change when the Assembly was suspended.

“But I did not want to write a political film, or a campaigning one. I wanted to be fair to both sides – to all sides, in fact, as in the world of real life there are always more than two!

“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. What about people like our character Theresa, who thought she was against abortion until her own 15-year-old daughter fell pregnant?”

Who is in the Three Families cast?

Sinéad Keenan as Theresa in Three Families BBC

Theresa played by 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,” said Keenan.

“But she understood the necessity to have her and her daughter’s story told. 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.

“Having watched Three Families I hope that the audience, no matter what their stance, will see that in every situation there is nuance, there is grey area, there is difficulty and there is a lot of heartache.

“No decisions are taken easily in these situations and I hope this drama gives people that pause for thought. We haven’t made this drama to change people’s views on abortion, but I hope that people will see that compassion should be afforded to all women regardless of their choices. “

Where have you seen Sinéad Keenan before?

Being Human, Little Boy Blue, My Left Nut

Amy James-Kelly as Hannah in Three Families BBC

Hannah played by Amy James-Kelly

“Initially just the subject matter was enough to pique my interest: it's something I had been following heavily in the press but from an actor's point of view, the character herself and the opportunity to explore something so different to anything I'd done in the past was really exciting,” said James-Kelly.

“There was added motivation and a sense of responsibility due to the fact that this isn't only a very raw and real trauma that millions experience, but also that I would be playing one actual woman's grief, vulnerability and ultimately strength.”

Where have you seen Amy James-Kelly before?

Coronation Street, The Bay, Safe, Military Wives

Lola Petticrew as Orla in Three Families

Orla played by Lola Petticrew

“It's a subject matter that's very personal and close to my heart. So I jumped at the chance to play Orla, “ said Petticrew.

This is something that is a lived experience for people from Northern Ireland. There were a few days between myself, Sinéad, Owen and the director, Alex where we read through the script and then had long in-depth chats. We really wanted to get it right for the women who have let us tell their stories.”

Where have you seen Lola Petticrew before?

Dating Amber, Bloodlands

Genevieve O'Reilly as Rosie in Three Families BBC

Rosie played by Genevieve O’Reilly

“I think the women who shared their stories with Gwyneth are courageous and brave and that their stories should be shared respectfully. I know we were all keen to honour these women and their voices,” said O’Reilly.

“I hope most women will identify and relate to Rosie, whether they have or don’t have children and no matter what side of the debate they fall on. She had to endure and, no doubt, continues to endure great pain and sadness. I think we can all relate to the idea that she and many women like her deserve our support and respect and kindness. “

Where have you seen Genevieve O'Reilly before?

Tin Star, Rogue One, Episodes

Colin Morgan as Jonathan in Three Families BBC

Jonathan played by Colin Morgan

“Amy and I worked on creating as rich a background to our relationship as we could, allowing us to embed a strong bond that pre-exists where we meet them in the drama,” said Morgan.

“It's vital to have this kind of detail for a couple so in love and about to go through what they go through and we knew the relationship needed to be rock solid sitting in the middle of the hurricane that is coming.”

Where have you seen Colin Morgan before?

Merlin, Quirke, The Fall

Mark played by Owen McDonnell

“I think it’s really important to show that every issue, political, religious or otherwise, has its human faces and casualties and that most decisions are not black or white, but fall into the grey areas in between,” said McDonnell.

"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.”

Where have you seen Own McDonnell before?

Single-Handed, Killing Eve

David played by Prasanna Puwanarajah

“The subject matter and the collaborators: this particular chapter of the story in Northern Ireland is undertold and a valuable thing to be explored and understood widely, as so many women have suffered,” said Puwanarajah.

“I’d worked with Genevieve before and was keen to work with her again; and the scripts were moving and rich.”

Where have you seen Prasanna Puwanarajah before?

Line of Duty, Doctor Foster, Patrick Melrose

Kerri Quinn as Louise in Three Families BBC

Louise played by Kerri Quinn

“I think the relationship between Theresa and Louise is so relevant. It’s okay to have a different view on these things, it doesn’t make you enemies. It’s about respecting other people’s views and life experiences. I’ve a group of friends who all have a very varied view on the matter and that’s OK. We respect that,” said Quinn.

“Like the other women in this piece, Louise, deserved her place. She is the most important pro-life representative so it was important to create that balance and delicacy. She is a very active campaigner and so for my own journey I had to explore her motivation. “

Where have you seen Kerri Quinn before?

Coronation Street, Come Home, Derry Girls

Where is Three Families filmed?

The drama was shot on location in Northern Ireland and captures the country’s glorious scenery.

Talking about how he wanted the show to look, director Alex Kalymnios said: “I really wanted to avoid this drama feeling like a social realistic piece and go against what one might expect from an ‘abortion’ drama.

“I wanted the direction to feel elegant and the stories accessible. It was really important to get the balance right visually through the colour palette, the choice of locations and the camera shots. I not only wanted to show off the beauty of Northern Ireland but visually emphasise how these are women living in a modern world.”

Is it based on a true story? Is abortion illegal in Northern Ireland?

Hughes was inspired by true stories and families, but changed the names of the characters in the show.

“I’ve changed Theresa’s name, and other details about her life, to protect her anonymity and her privacy. I did the same for all members of the Three Families who generously shared their time and their stories with me,” said Hughes.

“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.”

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.

Watch Three Families on BBC iPlayer

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