Is Mayflies a true story? What the BBC drama is based on

It's the latest must-watch BBC drama starring Martin Compston

a still of Martin Compston in Mayflies on BBC One
(Image credit: Future/BBC)

Those watching the poignant new drama want to know if Mayflies is a true story or not.

Youth, friendship, identity and loss - new series Mayflies on BBC (opens in new tab) makes for some powerful viewing. The Scottish-based drama is brought to life by stunning performances from some of the country's best acting talent - including Line of Duty (opens in new tab)'s Martin Compston, Thor actor Tony Curran and Ashley Jensen (of Extras and Agatha Raisin fame).

Some audience members watching along will already be familiar with the storyline which started life way before it was a screenplay. We delve into the source material that inspired Mayflies and whether the plot is based on a true story or not.

Is Mayflies a true story?

Yes, Mayflies is based on the novel of the same name written by Andrew O'Hagan who has confirmed that Mayflies is autobiographical. In fact, the character of Tully is based on O'Hagan's old friend named Keith Martin.

As The Guardian's (opens in new tab) Tim Adams clarifies in an interview with the author: "O’Hagan is keener to stress that this one – much more than his previous five novels – is nearly all true. The death of his oldest friend gave him no choice, he says, but to put aside the fiction he had been writing for several years – a big Dickensian-sounding novel, set in the present-day divisions of Islington’s Caledonian Road – to make some emotional sense of those last months."

Mayflies (Paperback) by Andrew O'Hagan (opens in new tab)

Mayflies (Paperback) by Andrew O'Hagan (opens in new tab)

RRP: £8.67 | View at: Amazon (opens in new tab)

In the summer of 1986, James and Tully ignite a friendship based on music, films and the rebel spirit. With school over, they rush towards a magical weekend of youthful excess in Manchester played out against the greatest soundtrack ever recorded. And there a vow is made: to go at life differently. Thirty years on, the phone rings. Tully has news.

Andrew O'Hagan (opens in new tab) claims that In the book an event involving the character James is actually based on a true story about him - and indeed something that went on to change the course of his life for good. In 1985, real-life O'Hagan went for a job interview as an office boy at a fence-building firm in the small town of Irvine, Ayrshire, on the west coast of Scotland. But upon arrival, the foreman dismisses him entirely after seeing a "tattered copy" of Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre just poking out of his pocket. "Away you to university or something," he tells him.

In the book, the character of James explains that leaving school and getting a job locally was the done thing at the time. But it's this moment with the foreman and further encoruagement from a motivational English teacher which gives James (and indeed O'Hagan) the push to apply and attend University.

Sure enough - a decade later - the same teacher surprises O'Hagan at a reading of his first novel Our Fathers (opens in new tab). According to The Guardian, she told the author: "I always knew it about you, you were never going to settle for anything less than scandal or glory."

Speaking about the TV adaptation, Andrew O’Hagan said, “The story is a very personal one to me, and it’s amazing to see the characters come to life in Andrea Gibb’s wonderful adaptation. Director Peter Mackie Burns has a singular vision, and I look forward to seeing what he makes of the Ayrshire landscape and the emotional reality of this story.”

Meanwhile, Claire Mundell, executive producer, founder and creative director of Synchronicity Films, praised Andrew's work. She said, “Andrew’s novel is nostalgic, poignant and moving, following a life-long friendship and exploring the optimism of youth and the realities of later life. 

"It honestly depicts the bonds and boundaries of a shared life and values. We are excited to be working with Andrew, Peter, Andrea and the BBC to collaborate on an authentic scripted adaptation of this acclaimed Scottish novel.”

Andrea Gibb, screenwriter and executive producer added, “Adapting Andrew O’Hagan’s magnificent novel has been one of the highlights of my career. Andrew tells his story of enduring male friendship with love, truth, tenderness and a searing humanity. There’s not an ounce of sentimentality. 

She continues: "It’s very funny and deeply moving. The characters of Tully and Jimmy are instantly recognisable and totally unforgettable. Both are so alive and vibrant they leap off the page. It’s been a joy and a privilege living with them.”

Mayflies airs on BBC Scotland and BBC iPlayer on December 27 and BBC One on December 28 onwards.

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Emily Stedman
Features Editor

Emily Stedman is the Features Editor for GoodTo covering all things TV, entertainment, royal, lifestyle, health and wellbeing. Boasting an encyclopaedic knowledge on all things TV, celebrity and royals, career highlights include working at HELLO! Magazine and as a royal researcher to Diana biographer Andrew Morton on his book Meghan: A Hollywood Princess. In her spare time, Emily can be found eating her way around London, swimming at her local Lido or curled up on the sofa binging the next best Netflix show.