Oonagh Kearney, director of a new two-part drama based on the ‘Wagatha Christie’ libel trial, on why she admired both women at the centre of the case
“There’s something kind of delicious about that,” she says. “An inversion of the football game where the women are there supporting their husbands… maybe there’s a sense of dues being paid.”
Kearney, from Ballintemple in Cork, has directed Channel 4’s hugely anticipated two-part series Vardy v Rooney: A Courtroom Drama.
If your memory needs jogging, the case centred on whether Rebekah Vardy, wife of footballer Jamie, leaked stories to the press about Coleen. But it was so much more than that.
It all started on October 9, 2019, when Rooney revealed she had slowly and systematically been running a social media sting operation to discover which of her friends had been in cahoots with journalists.
She restricted her Instagram stories, and created entirely fabricated narratives — such as the flooding of the basement of her Cheshire mansion. She laid the bait and then waited. It worked, and in a now legendary post she revealed the culprit: ‘“It’s… Rebekah Vardy’s account.”
And so “Wagatha Christie” was born.
Rebekah Vardy, heavily pregnant at the time, was trolled online. Incensed, she sued Rooney for defamation — a decision that would end up costing her millions of pounds.
In May this year, all eyes were on room 13 of the UK’s Royal Courts of Justice.
But the media circus had almost passed Kearney by. And with good reason: she was pregnant and heading towards the end of her first trimester.
“I wasn’t feeling brilliant. So I feel like the trial happened when I wasn’t looking at it,” she says.
It wasn’t until she was approached by Irish producer Julie Ryan about a potential dramatisation that she started to pay heed, and realised how compulsive it was.
There was so much salacious detail: exhaustive analysis of Peter Andre’s “trouser equipment”; Coleen being compared to a common pigeon; infidelity; confusion over the identity of Davy Jones and his locker; and a strangely misplaced phone lying at the bottom of the North Sea.
But for Kearney, the heart of the drama was what motivated these women to take it all the way to the High Court.
“It was about… these two women who aren’t part of the media elite, who don’t come from wealthy backgrounds, taking cases to the High Court to sort out their own issues. It’s highly unusual. I don’t know if we’ll ever see a case like this again,” she says.
“It was always trying to understand who they are, why they behaved in a certain way, and why they said what they said.”
She also found Rooney’s sleuthing pure genius. “The independence of mind, the innovative thinking alone, the kind of daringness, the fact that she didn’t even tell her husband that she did this makes her interesting, right? There is a touch of brilliance about how she did that,” she says.
At times, she also admired and was surprised by Vardy.
“[Lawyer] David Sherborne takes her to task over her lack of morality for saying these things,” she says referring to a 2004 News of the World interview in which Vardy said singer Peter Andre was “hung like a small chipolata”.
“But when you listen to the language she uses describing his ‘trouser equipment’, even that phrase, she’s a writer. I have to say, these women, they both can turn a phrase.”
Even if it is an offensive one.
Kearney began her career in theatre. She studied English and philosophy at University College Cork but spent most of her time in the Granary Theatre “putting on plays for a bag of crisps” or nothing at all.
Then in 2005, Ken Loach came to Cork to shoot The Wind That Shakes the Barley and she landed a job as a casting director.
“It was one of those kind of fork-in-the-road moments where I suppose my eyes were opened to the power of film,” she says. “A lot of us were in our 20s and we couldn’t quite believe our luck that we were working on this project.”
After production wrapped, Kearney was accepted into the National Film and Television School in London. She describes being there as a “coming of age” and graduated several years later “without any experience, desperately looking for employment”.
She spent the following decade rustling up funding, making short films and shadowing directors. She produced some award-winning films including Five Letters to the Stranger Who Will Dissect My Brain, Women’s Christmas Night and On The Hemline. Most recently she worked as second unit director to Dearbhla Walsh on Sharon Horgan’s acclaimed series Bad Sisters.
ButVardy v Rooney is undoubtedly the most high-profile TV show she has worked on.
“Obviously, I’m really nervous,” she says. “I’m sure the real Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy will watch this. I hope that they will. I mean, who knows what they’ll think, maybe they both will hate it, but I think we’ve tried to be fair.”
The series was written by Chris Atkins, and is constructed entirely from court transcripts.
Atkins is a Bafta nominated film-maker who was found guilty of tax evasion in 2006, and was sentenced to jail for five years.
He has described being questioned on the witness stand as “terrifying” and the worst experience of his life — far harder than being in prison.
The producers were keen to convey the pressure and intensity of that experience, and to examine the structure of the judicial system. “The objective is to reach fair judgments,” Kearney says. “But it does show… do the means justify the end? Because it is quite brutal, and quite tough.”
Kearney and the production team wanted to avoid depicting the women in hero and villain roles — a challenge given how badly Vardy emerged from the case.
“Vardy is kind of seen as the villain, for sure,” she says. “I think when you scratch below the surface of that, it’s always going to be more complicated.”
Kearney believes “wounds run deep in both of [Vardy and Rooney’s] stories... Rooney is a very private person, but she was thrust into the limelight when she was young. And was also very publicly betrayed in her early life.”
Early on in their relationship, Coleen had to handle stories about Wayne’s infidelity — humiliating front-page splashes about him sleeping with multiple escorts, including a granny.
“So that’s going to touch a nerve with her, knowing who she can trust,” Kearney says.
Vardy was sexually abused by a family friend when she was 12 and alleges that her mother didn’t believe her when she confided in her.
“[She] ran away from home when she was young, comes from a broken past, and has a couple of broken marriages behind her. And famously she was abused, which is terrible… her trauma is that she wasn’t believed... and here we have this trial, almost reliving that,” Kearney says.
At times she felt “sympathetic to both and at times, I admired them both for different reasons and that’s the pleasure of being a director”.
TV production usually takes years, and this was turned around in a matter of months.
“It was refreshing. And it was exciting. And it was intense,” Kearney says.
“There was a momentum… we had these court transcripts. They’re in the public domain. Anyone can get their hands on them. Let’s try and make something. Let’s be first out.”
The series stars Micheal Sheen and Natalia Tena, who played the wilding Osha in Game of Thrones, and was shot in Hungary. On top of the lightning-fast turnaround, Kearney was also pregnant during the shoot.
“I was in that lovely energetic space of a second trimester,” she says.
“I just felt really capable and I hope more pregnant women will get to direct.” She was in the final stages of editing the series when her son arrived six weeks early.
“We went for a scan in Cork and didn’t leave the hospital. And then a week later, we had the baby. He came in October and he was due last Thursday.”
After a few weeks out of commission, she was back signing off on the series.
“I was in that post-birth fuzz of looking at edits, and having conversations about the wording of a text message on screen and how the graphic works,” she says. “But it was good. It’s kind of been a bit of a whirlwind.”
The day we talk, Kearney is busy scouting locations in Donegal with six-week-old son Peter.
It is for the upcoming TV series Obituary by Paddy Hayes, starring Siobhán Cullen. She describes it as a “fabulous outrageous black comedy”. She is also working on an Irish language feature film, and is in development with RTÉ for a Cork-based TV series titled Notions.
Things have got more hectic since having her son. “Nothing like having a baby to do that,” she says. “It’s going to be a busy few years.”
‘Vardy v Rooney’ will air on Channel 4 on Wednesday, December 21 at 9pm