WHEN Graham Kinniburgh hit 40, his life changed forever. “It was around the time of the credit crunch,” says the 54 year old, from Greenock. “Within three weeks I turned 40 then I was made redundant and then my dad died. Three hugely significant things all happened within the space of a few weeks. It was a really difficult time.”

While trying to navigate the shifting sands of such huge upheaval, the way through for the former compliance manager did not appear, at first, to be on a road marked Beverley Hills.

But this – although it might not seem like it yet – is a story about making movies.

So, let’s jump-cut to last month.

Graham Kinniburgh is clutching an Oscar in the back of a stretch limo in Los Angeles, and counting his blessings. That little golden statue he’s been larking around with at an Academy Awards winners party embodies everything about life’s second chances.

The National: Floodlight PicturesFloodlight Pictures (Image: Floodlight Pictures)

“You hear about people being laid off all the time, and I remember thinking: ‘Don’t panic, just see what happens.’ But you have a skillset in one area of work that you know, and you’re just trying to get your CV out there, to see what happens. 

“I kept applying for jobs and nothing happened. It was pretty rough.”

For the best part of two years Graham failed to find the right gear. By then living in Northern Ireland with his wife Fiona, the self-confessed “fantasy geek” started to indulge a creative impetus he’d harboured since he was a boy, noodling around with the idea of screenwriting.

With no obvious waymarkers, he signed up for a general media course with CSV Media, an up-skilling organisation for the unemployed.

He set aside his pride while rubbing shoulders in classes with students 20 years his junior, making radio plays and learning about journalism. An essential component of the course was an unpaid work placement in some form of media.

“Game of Thrones had just filmed a pilot in Northern Ireland and I’d come across the set when I was out a walk,” says Graham. “I’d read the books and it was exciting to think that HBO, the same company who made The Sopranos and The Wire, were here.”

In a move that was at the time best filed under “long shots” Graham’s wife knew someone who knew someone, so asked someone to ask someone if there was any chance of her 40-something husband getting some unpaid work experience.

“Long story short, I got in front of the producers and offered to work for nothing for three months,” he recalls.

“They brought me on, and on day one they handed me the first 10 episodes of scripts for Game of Thrones, which was pretty memorable. When I read them, I knew they would do the material justice.”

Graham spent the first few months on the Belfast film sets making tea and photocopying, fulfilling whatever dogsbody tasks were asked of him. By the time he was at the read-through of scripts in Belfast’s Titanic Drawing Office, there’d been a distinct whetting of appetite.

“I made a point of speaking to every department, trying to get an idea of what their involvement was in the shows,” he says. “They brought in some of the cast for that read-through and that was a big event.”

His eagerness paid off. Within weeks, Graham was called back for a paid gig, working as a trainee assistant director, spending several years on what became the No1 TV drama in the world, honing skills and a reputation that would see him progress up the assistant director hierarchy from trainee to third to second.

Which brings us back to the limo.

As a well-respected first assistant director (in layman’s terms, probably the most important person on any film set) Graham had been recruited as 1st AD (as they say in showbiz) on a short offbeat film entitled An Irish Goodbye. Written and directed by Tom Berkeley and Ross White, the film is the story of two estranged brothers who are thrown together after the untimely death of their mum in rural Northern Ireland.

The National: An Irish Goodbye, Floodlight PicturesAn Irish Goodbye, Floodlight Pictures (Image: Floodlight Pictures)

He says: “When I first read the script I remarked to my wife that I thought it was great and that I was looking forward to doing it. It was a short shoot, and challenging but I always had a really good feeling about it.”

Talk about the luck of An Irish Goodbye. Having won hearts on the film festival circuit, it won a BAFTA in February, followed swiftly by an Academy Awards nomination for Best Short Film . . . and an email from the producer of the James Bond franchise to come and “y’know, hang out at her bit”. He adds: “Barbara Broccoli had seen the film and loved it. She contacted the guys out of the blue and offered them to come to her place for the Nominees Luncheon a few weeks before and then put some of them up for the Oscars.”

A wider invite for the film’s key players saw Graham and Fiona on a plane to LA where they’d watch the ceremony in Barbara Broccoli’s pool house, which is a very long way from the Royal Bank of Scotland Mortgage Centre in Greenock, where they’d met at work.

“I got sent her address and there it was: ‘Beverly Hills 90210’, the classic post code. You can imagine!”

So what does it feel like to see your part in a tiny team effort land the highest accolade in the business, leading to a party with the biggest names in the business at the Vanity Fair winners’ hoolie?

“Like scoring a goal for Scotland in a world cup final,” says Graham.

Except, for him, it’s probably even better than that. Because the second chances embodied by that wee golden statue went way beyond a stellar second career.

The light shining off the Oscar in his hand for his work on An Irish Goodbye was unimaginable during the dark days of the cancer diagnosis he was given months after he’d finished making it.

The National: An Irish Goodbye, Floodlight PicturesAn Irish Goodbye, Floodlight Pictures (Image: Floodlight Pictures)

“I didn’t work for half of last year,” he says. “I had cancer at the base of my tongue. I couldn’t eat any solid food for two months and couldn’t sleep for more than 90 minutes at a time. It was a rough time.”

Thirty sessions of radiotherapy and five full days of chemo, followed by six weeks of dire side effects, made that Academy Award winners party a bit extra-special.

Graham says: “The actor Stanley Tucci became a role model for me because he’d written openly about having that type of cancer and recovered well enough to be working again and in particular to be on TV, hosting a programme where he was clearly enjoying food and drink again, when that was something I was really struggling with.”

It has been, he says,  “a rollercoaster year”. He’s been given “as good an all-clear as I can in the circumstances” and has returned to work, now undoubtedly a role model to others, both cancer survivors and those on the outside looking in on the world of celluloid.

“Growing up in Greenock I saw folk like Peter McDougall, Richard Wilson, Alan Sharp and Stella Gonnet proving it could be done. I saw them as success stories,” he says.

“I had no idea I’d end up working in that world.”

And yet he has. If Hollywood’s looking for Graham Kinniburgh, he’s there in the credits of current fantasy-geek biggie Dungeons & Dragons, and back at home with his feet on the ground in Saintfield, County Down. A place where Barbara Broccoli is, presumably, welcome anytime.

An Irish Goodbye is available on iPlayer and Prime Video. Dungeons & Dragons is out now in cinemas.