Stephen Bradley

Posted by Sue Leonard on Saturday 28th March 2020

At the start of this year, when Deirdre O’Kane danced her way to the final in RTE’s Dancing With the Stars, nobody watching can have guessed that she had any worries to contend with. Full of Joie de Vivre, she was on the top of her game – juggling a busy career in acting and stand-up with a sprinkling of TV presenting on the side. She seemed to be the busiest woman in Ireland, but there was a dark reason for this.

Three years earlier, in 2016, Deidre returned from a spell I London with her husband, the filmmaker Stephen Bradley, with whom she had made Noble. They rented a house, and Deirdre set to work, but Stephen didn’t feel well. A tumour was found on his liver – 4th stage bowel cancer was diagnosed, and he was thrown into two years of painful, invasive treatment.

During this time, being freelance, Stephen’s earning power was nil. And although the crisis was over by 2019, the shock of the past years caught up with him and left him feeling very down. Struggling to cope with day to day living, he was still unable to put his mind to work.

Yet he hadn’t been idle. Being bedbound most of the time, under the influence of opiates, steroids, and other drugs, Stephen wrote down everything that was happening to him in vivid and painful detail. And although the account, now published as a memoir, Shooting and Cutting, makes for, sometimes, challenging reading, life on the wards comes vividly alive, and it comes across as a brave triumph over adversity.

I meet Stephen in Dublin. Walking through the door, bang on time, he looks every inch the filmmaker, with his untidy mop of grey hair. He’s in a good place now – having embarked on a plethora of new projects, but how did he get through those gruelling years of treatment in such apparent good humour?

“It was the fact that Deirdre really did take on the burden of everything,” he says. “When I first went into hospital, I was trying to be a dad to Holly and Daniel. I was paranoid about what was happening at home, but once I started treatment, Deirdre, her siblings and my sister, Susie circled the wagons and I was able to recede into a cocoon where I never worried about those kinds of responsibilities. I could completely concentrate on the visceral pain of it.

“I focused on getting through. I had two huge operations, two lots of chemo and other drug targeted therapy. There were sometimes setbacks; I dropped to 8 ½ stone at one point, but there was always something happening, it was never a boring nothingness. I didn’t give or take phone calls, I hardly emailed, and only a select few friends would come and see me. That cocoon was really safe and secure.”

When Stephen’s diagnosis first came, he was worried because he hadn’t any health insurance.

“We’d only been back three weeks. I had medical insurance when I lived here before, and the insurance forms were on the top of the pile, so I was in the public system whether I liked it or not.”

As it turned out, his care was exemplary. He had an amazing team of doctors and nurses – ones he trusted implicitly. And a drug that helped save him is one that is no longer available in the UK.

“It was like my gastroenterologist said at the start. If you go into one of the centres of excellence like I did, with a serious disease then the care, attention and science of it is amazing.”

Although he is Irish, Stephen has sometimes been confused as a West Brit. And this could be because he went to Harrow – the school his father had attended. But when he arrived there, having spent the previous six or so years in Cork, there was no doubting his nationality.

“I had a really strong Cork accent,” he says. “Liam Brady was the great footballer of the time, and for the whole of my Harrow career I was called Liam.”

After Harrow, coming back to Ireland, Stephen studied law at Trinity College Dublin.

“But I wanted to be an actor, and I spent most of my time in Trinity Players. There were amazing actors in players with me,” he says. “I did a play that Anne Enright wrote, and Dominic West was in the year behind me.”

Another contemporary was his now agent, Richard Cook, and he came up with the idea of taking sixteen student actors from all the colleges on a tour of North east America, with three plays to perform over four months.

“It was a testing ground for anyone who had aspirations to be a professional actor. It was a baptism of fire. It was fun. It was gruelling. But it made me get sense and realise that I didn’t have what it takes to be a professional actor.”

Undaunted, Stephen turned his sights to producing. He rang James Hickey, who, at the time, was the only media lawyer in Ireland, handed him a bundle of newspaper cuttings about his recent American tour, and asked for a job. And, as Hickey happened to be working on the contracts for My Left Foot, he managed to secure work as an assistant on the production.

“It was a great start,” he says, “and a lovely film to be on, but the difficulty was that it was the only film made in Ireland that year, and it was to be two years before another film was made here.”

These were the days before Michael D Higgins instituted the Film Board, when there wasn’t really an industry here.

“I had no hope of getting another job, so I went to London and was employed by John Kelleher for Windmill lane. Then I came back to work with Noel Pearson and Jim Sheridan who had been offered a development deal with Universal on the back of My Left Foot.”

In 1992, he set up Temple Films with Ed Guiney.

“It was a great learning curve. We made other people’s films for seven or eight years, then Sweety Barrett, which I wrote and directed. I then realised that I really wanted to write and direct but not produce.”

He makes some mention, in the book, of his former career in film, including the war stories. There’s the unaccountable banning of the movie, Boy Eats Girl in 2005, and the disaster of his French wartime thriller, Wayfaring Strangers, which collapsed through lack of finance on the last day of preparation.

The focus of his filming though, is on his ongoing projects.

“When Patrick O’Donoghue of Mercier Press read the first draft, he said, ‘what I’m interested in, as well as the treatment is how do you get going again?’”

When Stephen mentions what he’s working on – from a book on the Beatle’s manager George Martin, through several screenwriting and film projects, to helping Deirdre set up, The Deirdre O’Kane Show, for Sky, it’s clear that he’s enough work to keep him going for years.

“I’ve learned that in the film industry you need to have six or eight projects simmering because they won’t all happen. You think they will, but life being what it is, they won’t, and also they take so long.”

Medically, Stephen is now in a good place.

“I think of my future quite a lot,” he says. “I don’t do much googling because every case is unique, but obviously, when you’ve had stage four cancer there is an uncertainty there. There are downers, but when I’m feeling well, and my energy levels are high, as they are now, I’m on a up.”

Shooting and Cutting by Stephen Bradley. Mercier Press: €15.00.  Kindle: €6.54

Published in The Irish Examiner 25th January.

© Sue J Leonard. 2020

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