Monster unmasked — Jonas Armstrong on playing abusive football coach Barry Bennell in Floodlights

Jonas Armstrong
Jonas Armstrong as abusive football coach Barry Bennell. (Image credit: BBC)

Floodlights follows the story of Andrew ‘Woody’ Woodward, who like so many football-mad teenagers, dreamed of becoming a professional player when he grew up. So when Crewe Alexandra youth coach Barry Bennell picked him out as a budding talent in the late 1980s, both Andrew and his parents Jean and Terry were over the moon. 

However, beneath Bennell’s easygoing facade lurked a predatory and manipulative monster who would sexually abuse Andrew for a number of years, and did the same thing to many other boys at other clubs. 

Andrew’s harrowing true story is told in the feature-length drama Floodlights, starring Shameless actor Gerard Kearns as the adult Andrew, who played for clubs including Sheffield United before retiring in 2003. 

Thirteen years later, he took the brave decision to go public about the abuse he had suffered at Bennell’s hands, rocking the football world and encouraging other victims to come forward. 

Here Jonas Armstrong, who portrays Bennell, gives his take on this challenging, heart-breaking and inspiring drama…

How did you feel about playing this real-life character in such a sensitive story?

Jonas: "I was really nervous, but I hope Floodlights breaks down that wall, and makes it easier for people to talk about this. 

"I was trying to find that balance, where it would be believable that parents would trust this guy. If I played him as an overtly grotesque character, you're going to think: ‘I wouldn't go near that fella!’ So it’s finding the charisma, but also showing that demon."

Gerard Kearns as Andy with parents Jean and Terry, played by Morven Christie and Steve Edge.

Gerard Kearns as Andy with parents Jean and Terry, played by Morven Christie and Steve Edge. (Image credit: BBC)

How did Barry Bennell’s abuse manage to go undetected for so long?

"He was [outwardly] charming and disarming, and people gravitated towards him. This is why he was enabled to invite children around to his house, and why the parents did not ask any questions."

Max Fletcher as Andy Woodward

Max Fletcher (second from right) as the young Andy Woodward. (Image credit: BBC)

How was it performing with Max Fletcher, the young actor who plays the teenage Andrew in some challenging scenes?

"I did so many difficult scenes with Max. I remember, one day, his [on-set] chaperone said to me: ‘Max is worried about you, because you look like you are struggling’ – he was looking after me! To be so conscious and hyper aware of what was going on, for a lad his age, was remarkable."

The real Andy Woodward, here years after his football career was over, whose harrowing story is told in Floodlights.

The real Andrew Woodward, who gave up his anonymity to expose Barry Bennell and inspired many other victims to come forward. (Image credit: BBC)

Where can I watch Floodlights? 

Floodlights airs on BBC2 on Tuesday, May 17 at 9 pm and will also be available on BBC iPlayer. 

Ian MacEwan
Senior Writer

Ian writes about TV and film for TV Times, What’s on TV and TV & Satellite Week magazines. He co-hosts the weekly TV streaming podcast, Bingewatch.