Billy Howle discusses major new BBC Two drama, MotherFatherSon

MotherFatherSon is a new eight-part drama for BBC Two, written by Tom Rob Smith and starring Richard Gere, Helen McCrory, Billy Howle, and Sarah Lancashire. Episode 1 is available now via BBC iPlayer.

Max (Richard Gere) owns one of the world’s most influential media empires. Information is his trade: he holds dark secrets on everyone, and uses his power ruthlessly.

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His son Caden (Billy Howle) is the youngest ever editor of Max’s prized newspaper, The National Reporter. But Caden is crumbling under the pressure of his father’s expectations, numbing his pain with drugs and excess. When Caden suffers a massive stroke, he’s left like a helpless child, battling to rebuild his life.

For Kathryn (Helen McCrory) - Max’s estranged wife - this is a second chance to be a mother to her son. A respected former journalist from a wealthy British family, she’s determined to reconnect with the sensitive boy Max ripped away from her.

As Max and Kathryn fight for the soul of their son, another fight is about to begin. Caden knows secrets that could bring Max’s empire crashing down. And Caden’s silence can’t be bought. This is a fight for family, a fight for truth - a fight for the heart of the nation.

Billy Howle tells us more.

Tell us about Caden
Caden Finch is the son of Max Finch and Kathryn. His parents divorced when he was about 10 years old. His father Max takes him under his wing. Max is a media mogul/tycoon who owns a lot of newspapers, and teaches Caden from grass-roots level all the way up to becoming the editor of a newspaper. So at quite a young age, Caden becomes the editor of a newspaper called The National Reporter, and it’s brought into question whether he’s up for the job, whether he’s adequate, whether he has the skills required to run a newspaper.

As a result of Caden’s addiction to narcotics he has a stroke in episode one, which brings a rather estranged and dysfunctional family unit (Mother, Father, Son) back together under quite adverse circumstances.

Would you describe him as troubled?
I think we’re all troubled really. All people have strengths and weaknesses. It would be very easy to write a character who is either strong or weak - what Tom Rob Smith does very, very well is show the dark and light in all of us.

Everyone always talks about whether a character should be likeable or not on the screen, but as an actor I don’t manage or manufacture my performance around levels of likability, because I don’t think that serves the story. Also it propagates an idea of hero and antihero, good versus evil, which I don’t believe in.

Where do we meet Caden in episode one?
We find Caden employed by his father to run the newspaper, The National Reporter. Caden is Editor-in-Chief, and it’s brought into question early on whether he’s actually up to the job and whether he is best suited to that particular line of work. Towards the end of the episode, when Caden is spiralling out of control and relying on a lot of Class A substances to get by, he has a devastating stroke. Immediately we see him stripped of everything that he once was.

From the start of episode one, when we find him in the finest, bespoke Savile Row tailoring, he's suddenly he’s in a hospital gown, his personality completely changed, his ability to speak completely gone, and his motor skills severely impaired on the right side of his body. We see Caden progress from there and rebuild his life in the best way that he can.

What were you first impressions when you read the scripts?
That I’d never really read anything quite like it, to be honest. The two scripts I was sent made me want to know what happens next, which is a good sign when you’re reading a TV series! I also thought what a challenge it would be (and is currently) to portray Caden and do that justice on a number of levels. The first being the fact that he does have a stroke. Physically and emotionally that’s incredibly challenging. And the way Tom has written these Mother/Son and Father/Son dynamics and relationships are incredibly intricate and powerful, and I think that rings true throughout the entirety of the series, and will speak to everyone.

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How would you describe MotherFatherSon in a few words?
It’s a thrilling political espionage story about the editorial press, and also a really dysfunctional familial love story about a mother, a father and a son.

At the beginning, what’s his relationship with Max like?
Max and Caden are wildly different. Although they’re obviously related by blood and certain traits of Caden are reminiscent of his father, there are many differences. One key aspect of Max is ruthlessness, and being able to get what he needs or what he wants at all costs. That’s required of Caden because of his job, as to run a newspaper you sometimes have to make quite cut-throat decisions - but it’s clear Caden struggles with that aspect of his job, and struggles with the expectation that he will fill his father’s shoes.

Does Caden love Max, or do they have a business relationship?
I suppose it’s difficult to be employed by your dad in a lot of situations, and this guy’s running a newspaper, so there’s a huge amount of responsibility on his plate. Of course that affects their relationship adversely. Yes there’s love there, because as human beings we want to love our families and we want our families to be supportive of us in all aspects of our life. But that is set against the fact that Caden is employed by his dad, and there are expectations of how he ought to run this newspaper - so there is a sort of love lost there.

There is certainly a strain in their relationship. Max is very much a product for his upbringing and there’s a sort of cut-throat ruthlessness, a necessity to be hardened and not to show weakness as a businessman and therefore as a person as well, so that affects Caden’s ability to sustain his own relationships and friendships and live as a normal person would do.

What’s Caden’s relationship like with Kathryn, his mother?
Kathryn and Caden were essentially estranged from when Caden was about 10 years old, through divorce and then a series of alimony payments which Caden wasn’t privy to at the time, but as he’s grown up he’s asked questions and wanted to know answers. His dad hasn’t mollycoddled him and has told him a version of the truth - but being a newspaper man he’s quite good at manipulating the truth. So Caden didn’t really have that maternal bond that people may require to understand relationships with women later on down the line. And that comes to the fore later on in the story, as we start to realise why they were estranged in the way they were.

Many families are dysfunctional, but due to this family’s power there are huge consequences for others in this case. It could be incredibly detrimental to a large number of people. You’ll see across the series, but the decisions that Max, Caden and Kathryn make in the midst of this family breakdown could be life-changing for potentially millions of people. So pretty scary stuff!

  • Catch MotherFatherSon on BBC iPlayer.