Chapter 6: The 1980s: The Satellite Era

Ireland in the 1980s

Whereas liberal currents seemed to be the advancing wave of the seventies, the tide receded in the eighties and the offensive passed from those who wished to push forward to those who wished to pull back. The reasons for this turn of the tide were complex and not due to factors within Ireland alone. Intricately tied in to the ebb and flow of an increasingly globalised market economy, Ireland felt the full impact of economic recession and the accompanying wave of ideological reaction.

As to why world markets were in recession and why Ireland faced economic crisis, there was a seemingly impenetrable web of mystification. Either it was spoken of as a mysterious and inexplicable force of nature or it was put down to specific acts of will, such as an arbitrary decision of Arab sheiks to raise the world price of oil or the profligate spending of Fianna Fail governments. It was, however, neither inexplicable nor so simply explicable by such specific causes. What was at stake could only be explained in terms of much larger forces. What was really happening was a global restructuring of capital. There was an economic crisis, because there was a struggle underway for a massive re-allocation of the world’s productive resources and re-negotiation of the international division of labour. The post-war world was marked by inroads into the rate of profit made by the labour movement’s struggles for higher wages and social welfare provisions, by the third world’s challenges to the first world’s ability to extract cheap raw materials and cheap labour from it and by various liberation movements, demanding the rights of excluded groups to their place in the sun, their right to produce and to share in what was produced.

In response, there was an attempt to reorganise the system so as to stem the tide, to re-seize the initiative and to restore an acceptable rate of profitability. It was a response, due less to a conspiracy of minds and wills than to the mechanisms of a system in disequilibrium functioning to restore equilibrium. The mechanism, the capitalist system, was pushing back to its original impetus, the unfettered free market, and pressuring to eliminate the fetters that had accumulated against its free functioning. Thus there came the recession, the receding tide, bringing the closing down of industries, the cutbacks in public expenditure, the decline in employment and the erosion of the power base of the trade union movement. Thus came the push to privatise and to dismantle the public sector, with its ideological concomitant in the glorification of the entrepreneurial spirit and individual acquisition, its cynicism about higher ideals and its rejection of social movements.

Crucial to the whole scenario was the new technology, brought in with breathless hard sell for the hardware of the electronic cottage, the paperless office, the wired society. Suddenly the bookshops were full of paperbacks with titles like The Mighty Micro, The Micro Revolution and Microman. The airwaves were alive with media pundits, initiating us into the glories of ‘the information age’, ‘the third wave’, ‘the satellite era’, ‘the communications revolution’, ‘future shock’ and ‘post-industrial society’. There was a great torrent of words, full of the new slogans of ‘information is power’ and ‘information for all’, full of promises of a new leisure society, of new interactive capacity, indeed of a whole new era of democratic participation and consumer sovereignty.

However, all of these euphoric discoveries about the wonders of the microchip and future scenarios opened up by it tended to have a smothering effect, making it nearly impossible to see the wood for the trees. What was systematically obscured in it all was the whole dimension of the political economy of the information age, the structure of power of the third wave, the ownership and control of the wired society. The communications revolution was developing according to the imperatives of the market economy. Every mode of production generates a communications apparatus specific to its structural need to maintain and to expand itself. The new technology was being assimilated to the monetarist strategy of de-industrialisation, deregulation and automation. It was being used as an instrument for a retooling of the productive apparatus and a pruning of the work force, to pave the way for a whole new phase of capital accumulation. It was providing the technological basis for a new cycle of productivity, for a new level of control over patterns of production, distribution and consumption, for new forms of labour and social relations. It was making possible an unprecedented concentration of ownership and accumulation of wealth at the top, at the expense of an increasing marginalisation and impoverishment at other levels. Up against the power of stateless money, even the nation state was becoming increasingly powerless.

With the forces at work being so faceless and with the overall process seeming so impenetrable and out of control, the attempt to understand the world and to get a grip on it sometimes gave way to a retreat to the security of old certainties and to an appeal to supernatural intervention to take external control of a world with no apparent means of internal control. While satellites whirled in orbit overhead, a large part of Ireland retreated into its peasant past and fixed its gaze into the dark world in which plaster statues moved and uttered messages for mankind. Gathering around the kitsch icons of a mythical virgin-mother and addressing their supplications to persons long dead, if they ever really existed, it turned its back on the real, if not so virgin, mothers who might be dying by their grottoes in the dark of the night and closed its ears to the realities of the living.

At the same time, it could not get enough of the televised rituals of British royalty or affairs of Dallas and Dynasty personae, no matter how parasitic and predatory their lifestyles, no matter how illicit and frivolous their liaisons, no matter how contrary to its own declared values. Yet it reaffirmed its refusal of the most minimal legal legitimacy to the most decent couple next door, who might be bound together in a second union. Those who were most enthusiastic about the visit of the US President to his tenuous roots on Irish soil and were most fawning and forelock tugging before Ronald and Nancy Reagan didn’t seem nearly so troubled about divorce and remarriage then. But when it came to the battered wife down the road or the deserted husband across the way, the same gushing hearts were hardened and determined that their neighbours should lead blighted lives, in the ruins of devastated relationships, so as not to threaten their own sacred marriages. During the referendum on divorce, they constantly asserted that they did not want their country to be like Dallas and Dynasty, yet they did not want to do without Dallas and Dynasty either. Nor did they want to confront the meaning of the voyeuristic pleasure they took in it.

Ireland found its own confused and contradictory ways of combining old and new, of welding anachronistic traditions to the latest technologies, Knock being the most potent symbol of its ironic mixture of apparitions and airplanes. In this strange world of 1980s Ireland, mountainy men minded their sheep wired up to walkmans. Married couples came home from confession and communion to their thatched cottages and inserted a pornographic video into their VCRs to help their sex lives. Unemployed youths left their space invaders games to build bonfires and to follow the beat of the drum once the orange marching season began again.

Not that Ireland was alone in manifesting such gaps between advanced technology and antiquated traditions. America was full of fundamentalist evangelists preaching born-again christianity, creationist biology and reactionary politics-via satellite broadcasting. A society that mastered silicon chips, laser surgery, supersonic transport, satellites and space shuttles fantasised itself as Rambo. The most sophisticated cinematography was put at the service of the silly supernaturalism of ET, Gremlins and Back to the Future. The most complex technology was enlisted in the flight from complexity into simple images that were infantile, but by no means ideologically innocent. A society that penetrated the secrets of the atom and pioneered the most awesome applications of its energy put the ultimate state power in the hands of a man with a comic strip mentality. It was a society whose technological capacity far outstripped its wisdom. It was a society producing more and more channels of communication for those who had less and less to say. And, with an insensitivity born of its internal contradictions, it continued to produce high grade hardware to disseminate low grade software.

Ireland became caught up in the whole worldwide shift to the right. A massive wave of reaction overtook the progressive advances of preceding decades. It heard and saw and added its own to what was being said and done elsewhere, in an ever more blatant backlash against socialism, secularism, feminism and any such causes championed by the left. Indeed, the strident selfishness, made ideologically respectable by the new right, took the offensive, even against the middle ground of support for public enterprise, concern for civil rights and campaigns for piecemeal social reforms. The urban yuppie element, willing to step over anyone or anything in the path of its aggressive acquisitiveness, was perhaps even more insidious than the older rural rosary-reciting element, wishing hellfire and damnation upon feminists, free thinkers and assorted liberals.

RTE in the 1980s

The fact that the much-heralded communications revolution was caught up in a tidal wave of reaction had drastic implications for the situation of Irish broadcasting. The fact that it was pressing ahead on an aggressive laissez-faire push for a massive shift of power and resources from the public to the private sector had obvious consequences for the whole future of public service broadcasting. RTE, like other European public service broadcasting organisations, had become caught up in the debate between those intent on defending and extending the values underlying the European tradition of public service broadcasting and those who believed that the free market should reign supreme. In Thatcher’s Britain, the free market option was in the ascendant. The Hunt Report in 1982, the White Paper in 1983 and the Peacock Report in 1986 came down firmly on the side of de-regulation of broadcasting, breaking with the reithian tradition in British broadcasting.1 The way was opened to a new level of commercial penetration, with a minimum of restriction on the free play of market forces, assuming that commercial competition was the surest guide to quality. Although the Peacock Report disappointed hard-line monetarists in failing to recommend the introduction of advertising on BBCTV, its other proposals supported the strategy of de-regulation and commercialisation, envisioning the eventual replacement of the licence fee with a pay-per-view system, based on scrambled signals only unscrambled by subscription.

The monetarist case came nicely packaged as widening the viewer’s choice, as promoting diversity and initiative, as taking power from stuffy government bureaucrats and transferring it to the consumer. Underneath all the freedom-of-choice rhetoric, however, was the reality that it was freedom of choice only for those with the ability to pay. Moreover, the range of what they could choose was determined only by those with the resources to finance production. Paradoxically, real freedom of choice required public regulation, albeit a new democratic form of regulation, as opposed to the reithian elitist form of regulation. Defenders of the public sector pointed out that freedom for the pike was death for the minnow. The only real freedom of choice was restricted to the elite, who held the balance of power in the struggle for control of the world’s telecommunications systems. It was Rupert Murdoch and not the next door neighbour, who was acquiring shares in satellites who would decide what consumers could choose. What they would be able to choose was foreshadowed in US cities with over a hundred channels with various episodes of I Love Lucy on a dozen of them. Ironically, more channels might in practice mean less choice.

In Ireland, such debate as there was on this question was often under the surface and somewhat confused. The most explicit confrontation in the struggle between public versus private control of broadcasting erupted in relation to government moves against the pirate radio stations. The whole episode was farcical, in somewhat typical Irish style, not only because the illegal stations immediately resumed broadcasting, but because public reaction was so successfully orchestrated by the pirates and so far off the mark as far as any real understanding of the issues was concerned. The whole debate was posed as being between public broadcasting, as if synonymous with censorship, bureaucracy, centralisation and boring programming, and commercial broadcasting, as if opening the door to freedom of expression, decentralisation and exciting programming. Vincent Browne, then editor of the Sunday Tribune, was been particularly aggressive in making the case for deregulation, arguing that the same freedom as applied in publishing should apply in broadcasting and contending that the monopoly in broadcasting gave RTE an unfair advantage in attracting advertising revenue. Indeed, at a 1985 meeting of the Media Association of Ireland, he even asserted that he would not bemoan the closure of RTE..2 This argument, of course, glossed over the enormous inequality in publishing. Not everyone who felt they would like to run a national newspaper could launch The Irish Independent or The Sunday Tribune. The fact was that there had been an erosion of support for public service broadcasting. There was little sense of it being perhaps the only guarantee of any sort of freedom of choice, the only bulwark against wall-to-wall Dallas and the best hope for relevant and vibrant programming.

Between section 31 and the decline of RTE, perhaps it was no wonder. John A. Murphy, professor of Irish history at UCC, went so far as to raise the question as to whether there might be some government conspiracy to run down RTE to the point where the public would be glad to put broadcasting in private hands.3 RTE made no secret of their feeling that RTE had not been served well by successive governments. They argued that they were starved of funds and denied requests to devise a more efficient method of collection of the licence fee and that his meant that it lacked the necessary finance to satisfy audience demand for home-produced programming. A strategy of seeking co-production finance seemed to provide a partial answer to this problem, until the government clamped down on the tax-based investment schemes that formed the basis of RTE’s limited partnership agreements. This hit drama production particularly hard.

Although Fianna Fail, back in government in 1987, introduced new incentives for private investment in film making, it tied this to the strategy of rolling back the role of the public sector, simultaneously abolishing the Irish Film Board. The future of the public sphere became ever more precarious with Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats committed to quasi-monetarist policies on public spending and favouring the commercialisation of broadcasting in the context of the aggressive mood of deregulation prevailing at the international level. The Labour Party , although a weak presence in the coalition government from 1982 to 1987, did prevent Fine Gael policies from finding their way into legislation. It did not, however, have the power to implement its own policies, which were against the commercialisation of broadcasting. The Fianna Fail government, facing no such obstacles, in October 1987 announced its intention of excluding RTE from local radio and of introducing commercial television.

Lack of government support has not been the only problem for RTE. There was increased competition from new sources, such as Channel 4 and VCRs. Also on the horizon were commercial alternatives, vying for audience and advertising revenue, in local radio, cable and satellite transmission. The very future of RTE seemed to be in question. RTE was well aware of the threat. Muiris MacConghail, controller from 1983 to 1986, stated at the time of the publication of the Hunt Report and then the White Paper that it was the threshold to deregulation here as well as there and it would “rend the very fabric of public service broadcasting” He saw some hope of an alternative to the domination of international airways by US commercial interests in a concordat among European public broadcasting organisations in co-production and co-finance of programming alternatives. He emphasised the need to put together some sort of survival kit to defend public service broadcasting as the only alternative to being cannibalised by the Americans.4

Also addressing the global crisis in communications and the choices it posed for Ireland, Sean Mac Reamoinn stressed the need to have, not only a strategy for dealing with the symptoms, which related to the fact that broadcasting had become spastic, but also a philosophy for dealing with the basic disease, which was rooted in the fact that Ireland had lost its way. As broadcasting both moulded and mirrored its society, the problem needed to be tackled on both levels to be in a position to face the challenge of the new technologies of communication, “instead of watching with the glazed look of a mouse confronted by an army of cats.”5 It was a brilliant image for capturing the vulnerability of a small nation, not quite believing in itself, confronted with the voracious forces looming before it. Taking up the mouse metaphor a few years later, Con Bushe argued the need for small countries like Ireland to harness their resources intelligently, if not to become cultural dependencies of the powerful and wealthy taking increasing control of the means of communication: “If the mouse is to survive alongside the elephant, she must think and act as a smart mouse and not as a mini-elephant” .6 He strongly defended the concept of public service broadcasting, while stressing the need for a new legislative and economic framework for it, if it was to renew itself and withstand the onslaught from the apostles of free trade.

Although many in RTE expressed a self-critical need for renewal within the parameters of public service broadcasting, others felt that RTE needed a shake-up that only breaking its monopoly and opening it to commercial competition would bring. This certainly seemed to be the thinking dominant in the national press, in the commercial sector and, most importantly, in both government and opposition in the oireachtas. Ted Nealon, the minister of state for communications in the coalition government, described the Hunt Report as ‘a very good model’ for coming to terms with the future of broadcasting in an Irish context. 7 Amidst all this, RTE has felt itself about to be swamped, fighting against formidable odds for both audience and advertising revenue.

The EEC looked at ways Europe could band together to withstand the American onslaught reflected in the “Television Without Frontiers” directive. RTE began to expand the net in drawing upon a wider field in its imported programming, showing more European, Latin American, Australian and Canadian material. Much of this sort of development was in the spirit of the MacBride Report’’s demand for a new world information order, which reflected international disquiet over the pattern of global information flows. UNESCO became a centre of protest against the one-way vertical flow of information from centre to periphery. Because of its calls for a reassessment of the values implicit in US media and the implications of US dominance of international communications, the US withdrew its support for UNESCO.8

Nevertheless, the forces of protest against the encroachments of wall-to-wall Dallas were not so powerful as the forces out of which Dallas emerged onto the centre of the world’s stage. Of course, the patterns of dominance in the televisual representation of the world were tied to the patterns of dominance in everything else. Even the UN was becoming a shadow of what it once was in the power struggle with the international financial forces in the ascendant in the world arena. Never before in history has so much power and wealth been so concentrated in the hands of such a faceless few. Not that they had a clear vision or unified strategy about what to do with it.

A discernible slippage of support for public service broadcasting made its presence felt even from within its own institutions. Even within RTE, there was a wavering in the face of the monetarist barrage. Although there was always a diversity of opinion regarding the balance between commercial and public service aspects of television, the shifting of the balance was a reflection of the general ideological climate, in which the fulcrum against which everything had to be kept balanced kept moving to the right. There was also a certain careerist courting of commercial contacts, so as to be able to jump ship at the right time and place.

RTE, like other such national institutions, was being caught in the middle between forces of increasing centralisation at one level and forces of increasing decentralisation at another. At the same time as there was a trend towards concentration of ownership and control of the commanding heights of world communications, there was also a trend towards fragmentation of production, transmission and reception on other levels, both of these trends making inroads against the middle level, nationally-based institutions heretofore in control of communications. It was the trend at the bottom that received most attention. The proliferation of cable and satellite and video cameras and players gave rise to proclamations of the de-massification of the mass media. Indeed, it was said that every viewer was becoming his/her own programme controller and even his/her own producer, director, editor, performer and crew. However, to get carried away with this sort of thinking was to equate ownership of a VCR with ownership of Sky or HBO and to put a student video project or a ten minute spot on late night Channel 4 on the same level as a production of Lorimar or Spelling or distribution by Viacom. It was true that more space opened up for independent production companies, but this did not put City Vision on a par with Paramount. Nor did it put Attracta in the marketplace with the same chance as Lace. Nor did it bridge the gap between the bank balance of those who made The Best Man and those who made Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Arguing that this communications revolution called for a reappraisal of the role and resources of RTE, the government commissioned a team of management consultants from the firm of Stokes Kennedy Crowley to carry out a review of the structure and of operations of RTE. It was an initiative not exactly well received by RTE, though it did not have much choice in the matter. It came in 1985 in the midst of a series of internal upheavals in RTE and as an instrument in a power struggle between the government and the RTE authority during which the government suspended appointment of a new director general until it could put a new authority in place. It was therefore difficult to take at face value the claim that SKC were brought in to provide an in-depth study of RTE necessitated by impending developments in broadcasting. As Gene Kerrigan put it, it was “the kind of story you’d need to be locked to believe and ought to be locked up for telling” 9 Of course, no one did believe it. Nevertheless, those who told it got their way. Not only that, but stuck RTE with the bill for it, adding to its already severe financial problems. There was considerable resentment in RTE on a number of counts. When the outgoing authority proceeded to appoint a new DG, despite the minister’s request, the minister overruled the appointment. It was felt to be gratuitous interference in legal broadcasting from a minister who took no action against illegal broadcasting. RTE felt its efforts were being sabotaged by the government. It was being deprived of revenue and subjected to unfair competition through pirate broadcasting, which did not pay tax, PRSI, performing rights fees, etcetera. It was forced to abandon a number of co-productions in the pipeline, due to the action of the minister for finance in undercutting the financial basis for external investment.

It was also feared that the SKC report was to be the means, not only of affecting the appointment of the DG, but of laying the basis for the entry of the private sector into the more profitable aspects of public broadcasting. Muiris MacConghail said it was time to say “no, minister”.10 The atmosphere of uncertainty and upheaval already prevailing at RTE was sharply accelerated during the period of the SKC review. It was felt that RTE was full of people who understood the problems and possibilities of RTE in the satellite era better than any firm of management consultants ever would. It was felt that bringing in a commercial firm such as SKC was treating broadcasting as a commercial business like any other. It failed to recognise the difference between providing programmes and manufacturing packets of biscuits or tins of peas. It implied that it was possible to assess RTE by examining its financial and administrative structures, without reference to the particular character of its product. It could investigate costs, cash flows, staffing levels, work practices, fixed assets and the like, but it could shed no light on the quality, range and relevance of programmes. RTE did, however, co-operate with the SKC review and a number of groups within RTE, particularly the trade unions, made representations and submissions. When the SKC report came out in September 1985, it recommended: rationalisation of managerial structures, revision of work practices and financial methods (total costing, indexation and direct collection of the licence fee, reduction of staff numbers), increase in home production by 35%, expansion of sources of programme production (in-house production, co-production, commission of independent production), development of international sales, provision of programming and services to satellite broadcasting, making software, rather than hardware, the investment priority.

RTE staff reaction to the report, although critical, was relieved that it did not recommend the worst that had been expected: the splitting up of RTE and the privatisation of the profitable areas of public broadcasting. The fact that it took on board suggestions made in trade union submissions evoked positive response and support for its proposals on total costing, the licence fee, managerial efficiency and higher output of home-produced programming. There was, nevertheless, criticism of it as a ‘price is right’ type of report, that did not deal with a number of issues of central importance, such as programme quality, industrial democracy and the relationship between RTE and the government. RTE undertook to reappraise its operations, both to implement such recommendations of the SKC report as it saw fit and to attend to matters of programme quality as well. There was a flurry of re-organisation, resignations, voluntary redundancies and new appointments.

There was an atmosphere of a new broom. By mid-1986, there was a new RTE authority, a new DG and new management across the board. There was a sense of things having been suspended in air, shaken up and beginning to settle down once again, so as to concentrate on the primary activity of programme making. The autumn 1986 schedule showed a 15% rise in home production, although it included the lowest ever output of home-produced drama. Drama had perhaps suffered most from the administrative upheaval and the financial crisis.

RTE Drama in the 1980s

RTE drama in the early 1980s was not unlike that of the late 1970s. Such changes as came to characterise the eighties evolved and only became apparent over a period of several years. They did not suddenly erupt on new year’s day 1980. Thursday Playdate and then Sunday One were regular slots for single plays with a strong drive towards realistic drama of contemporary social relevance. There was, however, a discernible drift in the direction of the policy characterising Niall McCarthy’s time as head of drama, overseeing the virtual demise of single plays dealing with contemporary social issues.

The early 1980s plays were not, any more than those of the late 1970s, radical reassessments of the fundamental structures of Irish society or revolutionary visions of alternative structures. They were liberal probes into particular areas of social tension. They were not panoramic reconstructions of the temper of the times, but more flashlight illuminations of particular dark corners, close to the particular experience of particular authors. They were often revealing and insightful, but insofar as they were cameos without context, they were not perhaps as revealing and insightful as they might have been had they been constructed with a higher degree of contextual richness and socio-historical expansiveness. Many of these plays were domestic in setting and devoted to close-up examinations of family relationships at their pressure points. Accurately observed as some of these relationships and pressures were, most could have benefited from a more acute awareness of the evolution of the socio-historical context in which these relationships and pressures were rooted.

Parental tension came in for a fair airing. The generation gap was, of course, a perennial site of dramatic conflict, but the accelerating tempo of social change was widening the gap and increasing the difficulties of bridging it. Maureen Donegan’s Choosing portrayed the growing pains of a young lad in his first year at university. Every new encounter, every new experience, seemed to open new cracks in the monolith that was his world and to bring new stresses in his family life. In outgrowing his parent’s world and growing into his own new world intellectually, morally and socially, crucial moments were his first sexual experience with a more worldly-wise fellow student and his first encounter with the life of those working on Kinsale oil rigs. Maeve Binchy’s Ireland of the Welcomes explored the differential effects of emigration on successive generations. It showed the enormous psychological and cultural gulf between Irish parents, who had emigrated to Britain, and their children, who had grown up there. The impending decision, about whether to return and build a new life for the family back in Ireland served as a stimulus for bringing such differences to a head. In the more confined world of The Lost Hour and its sequel The Key, adapted from John McGahern’s novel The Leavetaking, growing pains took a heavier toll, as there was no such room for manoeuvre. Growing up in a back-of-beyond garda barracks, a sensitive young boy struggled to cope with the death of a mother and the life of an insensitive father, as he was saddled before his time with the weight of an adult world.

Parental pressures surrounding mating occurred again and again. Babies on the way had a way of resolving certain matters on the surface, while leaving certain deeper matters unresolved, in Teresa’s Wedding and One for Sorrow. William Trevor’s Teresa’s Wedding showed an unwanted marriage, under the shadow of an unwanted pregnancy, arranged by parents and priest, fatalistically committing the next generation to resign themselves to reproducing the resignation of the generation that went before. Sean McCarthy’s One for Sorrow showed two young people and four disapproving parents, under the pressure of pregnancy, followed by the birth and sad death of their baby.

Marital problems, not surprisingly, loomed fairly large at a time of continuing re-definition of sex roles and changing socio-sexual mores. A number of plays subjected the institution of till-death-do-us-part marriage to serious critical scrutiny and examined the particular pressures and acute contradictions surrounding it in an Irish context. Teresa’s Wedding showed a very typical pairing under a very typical pattern of circumstances in a typical country town. On this very traditional terrain, on which no one had anything but the most traditional approach to sex roles and relations between the sexes, it was clear how enormous was the gulf between the separate psycho-social worlds inhabited by the separate sexes. Teresa, the typical girl, could only really talk to her girlfriends. Artie, the typical guy, could only really talk to his mates. The painful awkwardness in their perfunctory talk to each other was further underlined by their acute inability to establish any sort of eye contact, even when there was something important to discuss with each other. Not only was each closer to other friends than to each other, but all the external rituals of mating were far easier for each to cope with than their actual mate. In their traditional upbringing, most particularly for the female of the species, it was getting married that was the important thing, not the relationship with the person married. Teresa, like her sisters and friends, had always pictured her wedding in the (ironically titled) Church of the Immaculate Conception, followed by the reception in the very lounge bar in which she stood, with everything imagined to be exactly as it was. Only the bridegroom had been mysterious. He was only part of .the picture as a kind of vague, faceless, bodiless presence. Indeed, at the actual wedding the actual bridegroom was still a vague enough presence. Each of them saw members of the opposite sex as interchangeable parts, with neither of them anything very special to each other. It was the same for their peers, just as it had been for their parents. As Artie’s father put it:

“You have to make the most of a thing like this… when you weigh it all up, isn’t one marriage like the next one?
A pig in a poke at the best of times”
It told the truth about so much Irish mating and marriage: a dance, a bit of awkward sex in a dark field, getting caught and making the most of it. Alternatively, there were the patterns of Teresa’s sad sisters: using a well-off man to get out of the town and growing embittered with the boredom of calculating marriage or recoiling from the shock of sex, seeing men as vulgar farm animals, refusing to consummate marriage and longing for escape to a convent. Taking a somewhat sardonic stance in relation to it all, the bottom line was that perhaps Artie and Teresa would make ago of it:
“At least, there was nothing that could be destroyed”.
Showing another couple caught in the trap of a shapeless marriage, but not so resigned to it, was Michael Callan’s Love is… Unsure of each other and their future together, a time of reckoning was coming for Larry and Dee Mitchell, showing evidence of the more modern pressures on marriage and confusion of sex roles. A shadow was then cast upon the struggle towards resolution by a charge of rape, bringing all sort of private intimacies into the public arena, once the machinery of the law was set in motion to confuse further the already confused situation. Another marriage with the life gone out of it, coming into crisis was featured in Barbara McKeon’s Still Love. The prospect of finding the love and understanding a woman sought brought up for consideration the wisdom of taking promises for life at the age of twenty. It posed the question of whether a wife and mother could move on from a husband and children, who had become strangers to her or whether it was too late to change course. However, it did so in such a gauche, shallow and pokerfaced manner, as to pose no serious challenge to anyone who did not want to consider it a serious question. Also focusing on a wife and mother taking stock of her situation was David Hayes’ If You Want to Know Me. When her husband returned home after three months in a hospital and her four grown sons were home for the occasion, this woman began to realise that she had submerged herself in her family for thirty years and that she had no life of her own. This sort of treatment of a middle-aged woman in this sort of mid-life crisis was a break from the more traditional Irish treatment of the wife/mother role, although it had become something of a cliche in international terms
For: those who decided they wanted out, there was, of course, no divorce. There was, however, that particular Irish solution to an Irish problem: annulment. Tom McIntyre’s Painted Out had a certain documentary value in outlining the awkward procedures of the annulment process and the mental gymnastics of its tribunals. As drama, however, it was an empty shell. There was no convincing characterisation of the female journalist seeking the annulment, no real sense of what her marriage had been all about, no plausible account of her motivation in pursuing a procedure she scorned. It was mostly talk, talk, talk, empty judicial talk, and it left one feeling flat, dissatisfied and disoriented, rather than incited to sort out the issues it was presumably intended to raise. Hugh Leonard put the disorienting effect down to the direction, criticising the shooting of the tribunal in close-up as making it like sitting too close to a tennis match or reading a novel in which every second word was italicised.ll

An earlier more engaging RTE play by McIntyre was a comic morality play entitled Scruples, the primary point of which was to observe that

“Scruples only affect the best.
Most of the population around here never heard of them.”

However, a secondary point worth observing was that this moral divide between the scrupulous and the unscrupulous, was the point of tension within a marriage. Radically different moral standards prevailed between a conscientious ex-school master, pillar of a small town community, and his battle-axe of a wife when he became beset with scruples over a sum of unpaid tax in the past and she insisted he should put it out of his mind. It was a recurring scenario, whereby the practical woman regarded a man’s principles as silly and indulgent luxuries that could ill be afforded. It was a dramatic scenario with a number of variants, all rooted in the traditional sexual division of labour, whereby women were totally circumscribed by the practicalities of domesticity, freeing men to engage in impracticial philosophy. It was a scenario that was breaking down, although it remained untouched in numerous backwaters and pockets of resistance.
Some plays brought together marital tensions with cultural tensions. They explored the interface in scenarios in which the divide between English and Irish, protestant and catholic, formed the point of tension in a marital situation. Jennifer Johnston’s first written-for-television work The Bondage Field was a gritty, highly-charged play, revolving around the shock and subsequent soul-searching of a young English woman, who only discovered that her Irish husband was an IRA volunteer when he was arrested and brought to trial. Looking back, she needed to unweave the implicit lie knit into their relationship. Looking ahead, she had to decide whether to stand by her man or to leave him to his eight years in prison and put Ireland and its troubles behind her. In doing so, she had to cope both with the breakdown of trust between them and with the gap between their cultural backgrounds, which was wider than she had ever imagined. When two IRA men came to visit her, they tried to explain her husband’s behaviour in an appeal to the historical context:

“the way kids get brought up here…the shadows that get laid across their minds…an unending spiral”.
But, far from drawing her in to their world, it only made it seem more alien. Less gritty, in fact so smooth and so thinly textured as to border on unreality, were the mild mannered and statically conceived religious differences between the comfortable and complacent suburban couple in Barbara McKeon’s The Parting Gift. When Stephen, described as English, protestant, middle class and divorced, was tragically killed, the question arose as to whether he would be buried as a protestant or a catholic, so that they would be buried together. Kathleen insisted he be buried in his own faith. The catholic priest who performed their wedding ceremony was in attendance at his funeral. Thus her parting gift to him: the burial of religious differences. It was the mildest of middle class liberalism and gentlest of progressive ecumenism, at least by the standards set by Jeremiah Newman and Ian Paisley. But, quite honestly, it was difficult to care, at least for anyone who had been spending the previous two decades discussing the death of God and world revolution, attending marches and funerals north of the border and struggling for a bit of secular space to the south of it.
From coming of age to memories of lost youth, there were pictures of contemporary life at the various stages of the life cycle, though mainly in a kind of claustrophobic close-up that missed that chance to construct character and context in way in which the one illuminated the other. It wasn’t that writers, directors and the rest didn’t try to do so. It was that one was left with the strong impression that few had either the psychological or the sociological insight to do so any way satisfactorily.

Youth was seen mainly within the family home or within the immediate circle of family friends in the local community. Schools seemed to be a no-go area after The Spike, though Choosing did give small glimpses of student life at university level. There were some interesting critical representations of christian brothers education during this period, but they were in other media. In the cinema, there was Cathal Black’s Our Boys and, in the theatre, there was Neil Donnelly’s Silver Dollar Boys, Irish counterparts of the Australian The Devil’s Playground and the American Catholic Boys. On the female side, the only representation of convent education was in the cinema, in Desmond Davis’ film of Edna O’Brien’s story The Country Girls. But, as far as television was concerned, schools were virtually absent in RTE’s in-house productions, though Irish schools did appear occasionally in co-productions, in the Access dramas and in British television drama set in Ireland. There was not a single school in any of its serials in the 1980s. Barbara McKeon’s Amy took youth into a city centre disco, dreaming of a better world than the real one and not easily finding it, pushing some into a dangerous world of fantasy and self-deception. The author’s aim was to say something about relationships in a society that promised the good life, but seldom delivered it, but it was hard to say what this was..

Moving into the world of work, the overall picture was fairly sketchy. There was the disco in Amy, where Amy and her friend Val worked as waitresses. There were the Kinsale oil rigs in Choosing, where the students were exposed to workers as “the ones who really run things”. There were factories featuring in three different plays, each finding dramatic conflict in the lives of factory workers at three different levels. Martin Duffy’s Your Favourite Funnyman concerned the personal and artistic conflicts of a factory worker by day and stand-up comedian by night. Once he began writing his own material and sacrificing secure routines to develop his craft, he met with discouragement from all sides, from wife, factory boss, cabaret manager and audience. Deciding that Ireland with its peasant background and provincialism was hostile to talent, he took the boat.

Men of Consequence, Martin Duffy’s next play, dealt with the trade union activist up against the system. John Burke, lathe operator and alienated wage labourer, produced a newsletter, giving details of the company’s takeover by a multi-national corporation, managers’ salaries and expense accounts. In turn, the management recommended to the company doctor that he be superannuated on the grounds of “temperamental unsuitability for work”, making him, at the age of 28, not only unemployed, but unemployable. His appeal for union support ran up against the stone wall of the average worker interested only in his own wage packet and the union representative settled into a cozy, mutually back scratching relationship with management. Anyone wanting to change the world was a square peg in a world of round holes. The company’s welfare officer, however, was once a social worker who wanted to change the world and had been seduced by notions of Carson’s as a caring organisation. Faced with the reality of his position as the company’s hatchet man, he was brought into a crisis of conscience over the management’s use of the superannuation scheme to victimise a dissident worker. The representation of women was very unflattering, although not altogether unrealistic. It was the time-honoured image of women as having small minds, filled with the trivial practicalities of life, incapable of seeing beyond small details and home comforts to larger principles and social causes. In two parallel domestic scenes, John Burke, the trade union activist, and Tom Nesbitt, the welfare officer, were pictured at home with their wives discussing the situation. John Burke’s wife mocked him for playing the hero and stirring up trouble and argued that supporting his wife and children shouldn’t leave him any time for trade union crusades. In a tone of shrill and embittered bitchiness, she asked if she was supposed to be honoured to live in misery with some eejit, who thought he was a hero of the working classes. He in turn gave out to her for being small-minded and always taking the bosses’ side. When he explained that he had his principles, she replied:

“You can’t eat principles”.
To which he replied:
“You can’t shave without looking yourself in the face”.
In the other home, where everything about the scene was externally more genteel, the conflict was the same. Tom Nesbitt’s wife, amidst a comfortable standard of living no lathe operator would ever see and without having to work, launched into an arrogant and superior tirade against the “pathological trade unionist”. From her pampered suburban life, she moaned on about troublemakers:
“That type moans about anything that might constitute a day’s work… The root of the trouble is always a small group of agitators who would rather spend hot air than do an honest day’s work”.
Without even knowing the man, let alone ever doing a day’s work at a lathe, she pronounced him just one more troublemaker put in his place As to her husband, she told him he was too soft. She remembered when he wanted to change the world and said she thought he had “grown out of all that”. When it came down to it, his job gave her a nice life that she did not want jeopardised by him “getting the name of being too much on the workers’ side”. In the end, no one’s nice life or not-so-nice life was sacrificed, even if their principles were. Both men were transferred to other jobs. John Burke agreed to desist from trade union activity. Tom Nesbitt became assistant personnel manager. With fatalistic resignation, it was decided that no protest on the part of either would matter, because neither were “men of consequence”. For John Burke:
” A consequence is the result of some effective action… working class people are bred to be inconsequential.”
In becoming what he was bred to be, he could keep his factory job and his nagging wife. The Nesbitts could stay secure in suburbia. It wasn’t a very flattering picture of men either. There was nothing great for men to see when they shaved. It was not a very flattering picture of Irish society, all told, but it was fair enough as far as it went.
Also on the terrain of the multinational company in Ireland, in relation to the workforce, was Edmund Ward’s Visitors. Raising problems on a different scale and level, it examined the implications of IDA policy on industrial development, which allowed multi-national companies to set up in Ireland with the help of IDA grants and then pull out when the grant concessions expired. This made possible not only the exploitation of the worker as wage labourer, but as tax payer as well. In the case of the particular rip-off, fly-by-night operation of this play, the man assigned to oversee the creation and demise of the town’s brave new world of industrial development was a local lad made good. Twisting the knife, it was their own John Kinsella, who would preside over the con-job of Rathkilly’s 400 job white elephant and be the instrument of their betrayal. Commenting on his title of vice-president in charge of factory relocation, he cynically observed:

“Looks better under my signature than chief con-man, subsidy-juggler and extortioner of maximum tax concessions. Shorter too.”
Also in the realm of industrial relations, though smaller again in scale and personal in implication, was Kevin Grattan’s Payoff. Like his People In Glass Houses, it looked at workplace relationships and career aspirations in an office environment. It centred on the reflections surrounding the retirement of Charlie Gallagher, a conscientious insurance clerk who was never promoted and never “got on” in the company. Because he was a man who could not be bought and never played the game, the mandatory presentation, the expected speeches and all the normal rituals of retirement in the offing were proving a source of embarrassment to the management. The drama played on the contrast between the small successes of a man considered to be a failure and the huge failures of those considered to be successful. Despite the pathos of an apparently wasted life, he had a certain fulfilment and integrity, which, in a different light, could make those caught up in craven cowardice, infighting and backstabbing seem the real losers. Giving the bottom line on his life, the retiring man told his co-workers:
“Before you go flinging my life in the dustbin, let me tell you it wasn’t a waste. There are a couple of people I’m glad I met, books that gave me pleasure, photographs, paintings. Does none of that count? Is it so important to have your name on the door?”
Perhaps it shouldn’t be so important to have one’s name on the door and other things should count, but these were exceedingly modest claims and very small individual victories on the scale of things.
It reflected a particular theme running through much of modern literature, that of the individual, dropping out of the rat-race and finding his identity within rather than without, in his soul rather than on the door. The drama of contemporary working life tended to be somewhat narrowly conceived. It tended to pit powerful systems over against impotent individuals, who either conformed or resisted the system in their individual ways. At least they were individuals who actually worked and sometimes had ideas and manifested some degree of social awareness, rather than lumpen, inarticulate, anti-social, quasi-criminal figures. However, the absence of drama dealing with the consequential collective activity of the working class was particularly conspicuous at a time when hundreds of thousands were engaged in national work stoppages and marching on the streets, demanding tax equity for the PAYE sector, demonstrating the class tension building up in Irish society and the power of the trade union movement to harness it.

The fate of those having to uproot themselves and emigrate to find work was still a recurring theme, with the question of the possibility of coming home again looming much larger than the advantages of going where the labour market took them. On similar terrain to Maeve Binchy’s Ireland of the Welcomes was Sean Walsh’s The Dreamers. It was about two mates working as labourers and living in a bedsit in London, talking about achieving many things and returning to Ireland and raising the question of whether their dreaming had become a substitute for living. The comings and goings of emigrant labour, with many variations upon the theme, was also a prominent motif in serials and co-productions.

A new twist to migration patterns was implicit in the policy of attracting writers to Ireland through tax exemptions. There was an effort during this period to get such writers to write for television to give a view of Ireland from both inside and outside in this way. Out of this came such plays as Edmund Ward’s Visitors on the role of the multi-nationals in Ireland and Peter Driscoll’s The Babysitters, a psychological thriller. In The Babysitters, as in Passing Through, a literary tax refugee was present in the drama as a central character. Ireland’s experience of finding its way and giving cultural expression to its experience in an increasingly cosmopolitan context meant many new twists and turns to old traditions and the emergence of all sorts of hybrid phenomena. The characteristically modern preoccupation with psychotherapy found expression in Gabriel Rosenstock’s Irish language play Airc, an off-beat treatment of the psychiatric institution and the funnier side of group therapy.

However, whatever the trials and tribulations, the joys and the sorrows, life went on and time passed. The problems of coming of age gave way to problems of ageing and memories of lost youth. In both plays looking at life from the vantage point of its later years, music played a key part, as the carrier of strong memories and frail hopes. In Lee Gallaher’s The Second Last Post, the death of an obscure piano player reunited the members of a former band and revived their remembrances of the days of the Aces High. In reviving the legend of Charlie D’ Arcy and not allowing the star of their show to be consigned to a four-and-a-half line obituary, they were seeking to rescue their own disappointed lives from varying degrees of obscurity and to give them a new dimension of significance. There was a sort of desperation in their reliving of old times and replaying of old tunes, revealing a series of shattered lives where “most of the knockdowns happened on the inside of the bodies.” In Eugene McCabe’s Winter Music, an old piano left over after an auction at a derelict estate became the symbol of lost opportunities and the embodiment of last hopes, for an elderly spinster living with her two bickering bachelor brothers. Into the atmosphere of decay on their dilapidated border farm, where they lived their dour domestic life, Annie wanted only to bring this one beautiful, if also dilapidated, thing. The disappointment of even this one modest wish, and the pathos of seeing it rot and then smashed outside her door, left her feeling that she would be better off dead.

There was a strong driving purpose in the drama policy producing the plays of this late 1970s-early 1980s period. There was a strong demand for contemporary drama taking on the problematic areas in Irish society. There was a willingness to take risks. There was opportunity for new writers. However, in assessing the results of this wholly admirable policy, it was generally agreed that the productions of this period were of very uneven quality. Some, like Deeply Regretted By, Assault on a Citadel and An Taoille Tuile, were excellent scripts and excellent productions. Others, however, radiated a certain sincerity and raised important issues, but showed signs of inadequate script development and make-do production. Some were actually painful to watch. Still Love, although the direction gave it an attractive visual look, was based on a script which gave hopelessly superficial and stilted treatment to a conflict between love and marriage, which must have been irritating and alienating to anyone to whom such conflict had come as a deep and highly charged experience. Painted Out gave such flat, myopic treatment to breakdown of marriage and annulment procedures that it lost the wood for the trees and did nothing to make anyone care.

Historical Series

Although the emphasis was on contemporary written-for-television drama, there was still some historical drama and literary or theatrical adaptation. There was a four part adaptation of Kate O’Brien’s novel The Ante Room, set in late-victorian Ireland and vividly evoking the claustrophobia and guilt-ridden milieu of the catholic bourgeoisie of the era. In an environment heavy with catholic ritual, social respectability and impending death, illicit love was pitted against family loyalties, social mores and religious prohibitions with tragic consequences. There was the six part series Tales of Kilnavarna, adapted from John B. Keane’s books by Joe O’Donnell. It gave an amusing and affectionate picture of the manners and mores pervading traditional Irish rural life, with each episode coming at it with the focus on a particular prototypical character with a particular role in the community. There was The Postman`s Story, The Publican’s Story, The Matchmaker’s Story, The TD’s Story.

To celebrate the O’Casey centenary in 1980, there was a thirteen part series entitled Sean, based on O’Hare’s autobiographies and adapted by Michael Voysey, Neil Jordan and Eugene McCabe. It was not regarded, in or out of RTE, as a successful production. Part of the problem was perhaps with giving the autobiographies, generally regarded as shapeless, self-indulgent and inaccurate, such weight in a serious biographical treatment of O’Casey. There was also the fact that the style of the production was very stagey. It was a theatrical style of television that was becoming less and less satisfactory to an audience becoming increasingly accustomed to a more filmic style of television. There was also a co-production arrangement with BBC to make television adaptations of O’Casey plays, with RTE making The Silver Tassie and BBC doing Red Roses for Me and Juno and The Paycock, to be shown on both channels to mark the centenary.

The really outstanding historical drama of this time, indeed of RTE’s whole history, was Strumpet City. It was a seven part adaptation of James Plunkett’s epic novel, an international bestseller first published in 1969, giving a panoramic view of Dublin life during the years 1907 to 1914, years of direct and bitter confrontation between capital and labour. The epic scale and penetrating truthfulness of Plunkett’s novel were skilfully reproduced and even enhanced by the quality of virtually every aspect of the RTE production: the script by Hugh Leonard, the direction by Tony Barry, the performances by Irish actors, the use of film and authentic locations. It was RTE’s most expensive production to that date. It functioned as a showcase product, marking RTE’s biggest breakthrough on the international market and establishing RTE’s credentials as a producer of high quality television drama. It was shown and acclaimed in 52 countries in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Africa, Australia and Latin America. It received only a very limited airing in the USA on CBS cable television. Although it would have seemed the ideal product for the PBS Masterpiece Theatre slot, it was rejected on the grounds that the accents would have been incomprehensible to an American audience, an ironic comment in a world where there was no problem with the accents in Dallas from Montevideo to Milan to Manila. It was, of course, tied to the problem of the one-way global flow of communications and the fact that even what the more cultured element of the American audience, gravitating to the PBS, could accommodate from abroad was limited. In Plunkett’s view, they prefer upper-crust British stuff to anything with a working class content.12 It would seem that RTE had its eye on the American audience. The casting of Peter Ustinov as the king and of Peter O’Toole as Larkin brought the whole force of the Hollywood star system to bear upon its marketability. Such casting was hardly necessary, or even particularly appropriate, either for aesthetic reasons or for considerations of historical verisimilitude. It was obviously connected to the movement of RTE productions and personnel into the international arena.

However, these were only cameo roles and Irish actors bore the weight of conveying the more important characters and their meaning in Irish social history to their most important audience, that of contemporary Irish society. It was enormously well received by the Irish audience and was particularly popular in Dublin. The characters were extraordinarily well conceived and well conveyed to counterpoint each other and to create a comprehensive social canvas. Stating his intentions in setting the story up in the way that he did, Plunkett said:

“I wanted to explore what I knew of the city, to get it out of myself and find a shape for my feeling about it… Thinking that O’Casey had dealt with the submerged, deprived city and Joyce with the seedy gentility, I thought I would try to get the lot in -the company director types, the priests, the decent working men, and the utterly outcast.”13
And get the whole lot in he did. In a brilliant orchestration of complementary and contrasting elements, he encompassed the entire social spectrum and brought in, not only capitalists, clergy, workers and wives, but the different types of capitalists, clergy, workers and wives. Among the capitalists: Mr. Bradshaw, a ruthless rackrenting landlord, represented the exploitative and conservative catholic bourgeoisie. Mr. Yearling, a more cultured and humanistic company director type, represented the liberal traditions of the protestant ascendancy. Among the priests: Fr. O’Connor was the militant defender of both catholic doctrine and class privilege and the connection between the two. Fr. O’Sullivan was the embodiment of a more humanistic interpretation of religious duty and of more organic ties to the working class. Fr. Giffley was the whiskey priest, whose posting to a slum parish corresponded to a descent from grace. Among the working men: Mulhall was the voice of the working class militant, as ideologically committed to socialism as Mr. Bradshaw and Fr. O’Connor were to capitalism, catholicism and aristocracy. Fitz was the prototypical honest worker, not much concerned with articulated ideologies, but caught in a web of ideological contradictions, because of his loyalty to his fellow workers and sense of fair play, on the one hand, and his ties to the clergy through his faith and his ties to the ruling class through his wife’s domestic service, on the other hand. Hennessy was the more marginal worker, in and out of employment, lacking in work discipline and always bordering on or crossing over the line into lumpen life. Rashers Tierney was the extreme of the lumpen proletariat, an indigent tramp living on the city’s waste and ending up as a rotting corpse in a church basement.
Among the women, all, except those in domestic service, owed their standard of living and place in society to their sexuality. From the pampered luxury of the childless Mrs. Bradshaw to the precarious poverty of the fertile Mrs. Hennessy, they lived by their status as wives. All, that is, except the prostitute Lily Maxwell, whose femininity was associated with more direct financial arrangements. The women, although they occupied definite ideological positions, tended to be ideologically unconscious and inarticulate, functioning as ‘humanising’ influences, pulling men away from their moral principles and political ideologies to domestic practicalities and general human qualities. Only Miss Gilchrist was the direct voice of a political position, that of militant fenianism, a rural nationalist ideology marginal to the urban class struggles of her Dublin context.

With so many characters directly or indirectly bearing so much ideological weight, some might argue that they were stereotypes. There was a popular prejudice to the effect that characters who spoke for strong ideological positions became ciphers and could not be richly textured individuals or psychologically complex human beings. The characters in Strumpet City, however, were colourfully individual and often quite complex. In fact, their ideological specificity enhanced the strength and quality of their characterisation. There were also a number of interconnections cutting across class lines, a fair amount of attention to human qualities binding people outside ideological categories and separating people within them.

Martin McLoone argued that this thrust to a general humanism had the effect of containing and disguising class oppression. Criticising the characterisation from the opposite angle, he contended that the emphasis on general human qualities forced the individuality of each of the characters into a pattern of stereotypes. According to him, the characters that were the strongest mouthpieces for political positions (Mr. Bradshaw, Fr. O’Connor, Mulhall) did not move. Their confrontations resulted in ideological stand-off. A pattern of movement and compromise was pursued through the symbolic presence of children, as victims caught in the middle, and the regressive stereotyping of women. Thus Mary was the chaste rural maiden become loving mother (Mary-virgin-mother) and Lily was the proverbial prostitute with a heart of gold.14 Asked to reply to this argument, Plunkett commented that McLoone read too much into the text. He conceded, however, that if an author cared enough about character, if he dealt with the human element in all characters, class lines would be blurred.15 But this was perhaps to concede too much. Tony Barry argued that the characters were not stereotypes in the sense of being clichés They did represent the people of the time and showed the history of the time in terms of the truth in the souls of ordinary people. They were based on people the author actually knew.16

The defence could be put in even stronger terms. Because the characters in Strumpet City were representative types of a particular socio-historical conjuncture, without being rigid reproductions of clichéd characteristics, they were able to mobilise audience interest simultaneously in their individual life stories and in the historical fate of the forces which they represented. Because they represented social forces, as embodied in full blooded and richly specific individuals, they manifested all the more vividly the reality of class oppression. Unlike Dallas and Dynasty, which manipulated audience sympathy for the human vulnerability of characters deeply implicated in class oppression, Strumpet City never lost its critical edge or blurred class lines. Dallas and Dynasty were constructed to bring the audience into a myopic identification with Pam’s bereavement, Clayton’s financial problems, Fallon’s amnesia, Amanda’s royal romance, Blake’s affection for his children, while cutting out any consideration of the class structure which supports such people in their luxurious, exploitative and parasitic lives.

Strumpet City, however, was structured in such a way as to counterpoint the opulence of Kingstown with the poverty of the inner city tenements. Even within the Bradshaw household in Kingstown, life upstairs was constantly seen against life downstairs. No matter how warm, gentle or concerned Mrs. Bradshaw was seen to be, it was clear that her way of life was grounded in the exploitation of others, as servants, as tenants and as workers. There were no details about masters or mistresses detached from relevant details about their servants. The landlord’s life was seen in clear contrast to that of his tenants. The employer’s place in the scheme of things was sharply focused vis-a-vis the labour of his workers. Neither Plunkett nor Barry have done Strumpet City full justice in insisting it was ‘not political’ but ‘about people’. This failed to take account of the .way in which any construction of what a person’s life was all about was implicitly political. A person’s life was inevitably shaped by forces larger than him/herself, by political structures which determined their place in the scheme of things. A production might or might not approach this with honesty and insight. Strumpet City did, whereas Dallas and Dynasty did not. It illuminated the class forces through the characters and highlighted the social structures through their stories, in contrast to the way in which most productions systematically obscured class forces and social structures through their myopic and sentimental view of character and storyline in which they not only foregrounded individuals but de-contextualised them. The place of the towering figure of Larkin in the overall narrative was significant in this respect. In much of the folk tradition surrounding Larkin in the Irish trade union movement, he has been treated as a mythical figure, whose individual will determined the course of historical events. In songs and stories, the rise and fall of labour corresponded to the coming and going of Larkin:

“Then on came Larkin like a mighty wave.
We stood by Larkin through thick and thin.
Then Larkin left us. We seemed defeated.
The night was black for the working man.”
Within the narrative, those on both sides constantly referred to ‘Larkinism’ and ‘Larkin’s union’ and spoke of Larkin as a charismatic figure, who single-handedly provoked the labour crises of 1913:
Mulhall: “Larkin will put a stop to stevedores being paid in pubs”.
Fr. O’Connor: (On coming across riots in the street): “Mr. Larkin’s handiwork, no doubt”.
However, it was not entirely fair to argue, as McLoone did, that Strumpet City conspired in the reproduction of this view of Irish labour history. The casting of Peter O’Toole in the RTE production might have indicated such a tendency. However, the structure of the narrative itself subverted it. Plunkett quite deliberately kept the figure of Larkin in the background, so as not to throw the construction out of balance. It was the class forces, as embodied in the ordinary people of the time, which were foregrounded in the story as a whole. Not that the figure of Larkin was not important in a truthful telling of the story of the times. Historical forces have been embodied in a particularly powerful way in the leaders that history has thrown up. An ironic footnote to the story came when RTE was shooting crucial scenes for Strumpet City in O’Connell Street and had to take great care to keep the formidable statue of Larkin out of shot.
The story line of Strumpet City was a complex narrative. Opening on the young Mary leaving her country home and going into domestic service in the city, it followed her in coming to terms with the duties and restrictions imposed by the Bradshaws, through falling in love with Fitz, a Dublin worker, and subsequently marrying and bearing children in a Dublin tenement. In an intricate weave of plots and subplots, the mounting tension between capital and labour featured prominently, not only in terms of exploitative wages and conditions, but in terms of the elemental struggle for the right of trade union organisation, culminating in the lockout of 1913, which reduced the Dublin working class to starvation and brought the immediate objectives of the labour movement to defeat. Along the way, there was the fanfare of the royal visit; the abandonment of Miss Gilchrist to the workhouse; the imprisonment of Rashers, Mulhall, Bannister and Larkin; the blacklisting of Farrell; the scabbing of Hennessy; the use of confraternity food parcels to break the strike; the confrontation at the docks as starving children were put on the boat to working class homes in protestant England; the accident at the foundry in which Mulhall lost his legs; the tragic deaths of Miss Gilchrist, Mulhall and Rashers; the final enlistment of Fitz in the British Army.

The narrative was full of ideologically charged discourse. There were overt declarations of political allegiances:

Fr. O’Connor: “We condemn Marx.”
Mr. Yearling: “You broke Parnell.”

Pat Bannister: “Royalty will go. So will the exploiters.”

Speaker at mass meeting: “The employers, the police and the clergy are our enemies.”

There were expressions of fundamental values:
Larkin: “An injury to one is the concern of all.”
Fr. O’Connor: “Surely sin is the only thing worth being concerned about”.

Such discourse was rich in resonance, each such statement carrying the force of a pattern of historical flow and a philosophical positioning in relation to it. All characters, including Big Jim Larkin, spoke for something larger than themselves and so their utterances were weighted with socio-historical significance. It was not simply speech, however, which was the vehicle of socio-historical meaning. The very structure of the narrative was the primary device for conveying what was at stake. The constant juxtaposition of contrasting milieux, contrasting ideas and values, contrasting emotional responses, contrasting material conditions both within and between scenes, gave the story its focused historical sweep and sharp cutting edge.
It was a story of brave struggle and bitter defeat, leaving Dublin as prostituted in the end as in the beginning, thus the significance of the title. Opening on the strumpet hailing royalty on the occasion of the king’s visit and closing on it being forced to prostitute itself to the power of capital, Dublin was Strumpet City. Like Lily Maxwell, it had its endearing features and it had ties of loyalty transcending both feudal bonds and market forces but it had succumbed to contagious disease. Coming to the ideological bottom line of Strumpet City’s significance in RTE’s history, McLoone’s analysis made very strong claims, regarding it not only as a turning point for Irish television drama, but as a consummation of the ideological project of Irish television over two decades:

The real significance of the serial lies in the way in which it inserts itself into Irish culture in a specific way and at a specific historical moment… despite the rather hard-nosed practicality of its conception, Strumpet City stands as a paradigm of the ruptures and contradictions of contemporary Irish society… Strumpet City can be seen to analyse how the Church eventually overcame the oppositional forces of socialism and liberalism at a crucial moment in the formation of the modern Irish state. The victory that this represents does not, however, re-affirm a consensus, or a status quo…as Upstairs, Downstairs and Edward the Seventh does for constitutional monarchy and social democracy in contemporary Britain. On the contrary…the contemporary resonances are not re-affirmation of this victory, but a confirmation of the values of defeated forces and an implicit acknowledgement that the struggle continues. Strumpet City attempts to open out hidden, disguised or temporarily defeated ideologies… The thrust of the narrative was towards social democracy, but the combination of its formal devices and the fissures in contemporary Ireland gives equal weighting to other oppositional elements.18

Such conclusions were well warranted.

In Tony Barry’s view, historical drama could be a cop-out from the present. Strumpet City, he argued, proved that it need not be. Unlike Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown, which lingered on the problems of the privileged and glossed over the cultures they robbed, Strumpet City was honest and pulled no punches on difficult questions. Historical drama, in his opinion, should only be done if it was honest. If not, it should not be done.19

RTE proceeded to produce more historical drama, some of it equally large-scale, at least in terms of the resources put into such productions, but whether any were as rigorously honest or as challengingly resonant in contemporary significance was another matter.

Co-Productions *

* Regarding co-productions, the degree of RTE involvement varied considerably from one production to another. The Year of the French, Caught in a Free State, Love Stories of Ireland, Night in Tunisia, A Life, Summer Lightning and Spring Cleaning were RTE-initiated projects, in which RTE had full editorial control and foreign input was limited mainly to financial investment. In the case of The Year of the French, there was script consultation, casting and subtitling involvement from the French side. At the other extreme were productions initiated elsewhere, with the editorial control residing elsewhere with minimal RTE input, such as The Irish RM and Roses from Dublin. In the same category too were Good Behaviour, Langrishe, Go Down, Ballroom of Romance and One of Ourselves, which were essentially BBC productions, although the latter two had an RTE director. In a middle category, there was The Price which was initiated and directed by Astramead, but had an RTE executive producer. In an altogether different category was When Reason Sleeps initiated by Strongbow, with three out of the four films being made by Strongbow and one being made by RTE.

Like Strumpet City, all of the subsequent historical mini-series were literary adaptations. Unlike Strumpet City, all made after 1980 were co-productions, due to changing conditions on the world market. Always the most expensive type of television to make, rising costs and the high technical standards set by imported drama had upped the ante as far as drama production was concerned, even more so in the case of elaborately mounted costume drama in a period setting.

The Year of the French was a six part adaptation of the novel of the same name by Thomas Flanagan. It was an RTE co-production with Channel 4 in Britain and FR3 in France. Despite the huge resources put into its production, including five months filming and a £2 million budget (more than twice that of Strumpet City), it was nowhere nearly so successful. Set in 1798, it concerned the influence of the principles of the French revolution in Ireland, resulting in a French invasion of Ireland in an alliance with Irish forces in rebellion against British rule. It showed the positions taken up by such historical figures as Theobald Wolfe Tone, George Moore, John Moore, Owen McCarthy, Fr. Murphy, Lord Cornwallis and General Humbert. It showed how the United Irishmen, the whiteboys and the impoverished and oppressed peasantry put their hopes in the arrival of the forces of republican France, to free them from the tyranny of British monarchy and its agents, including the castle catholics, in Ireland. It showed, more than anything, soldiers to-ing and fro-ing, marching here and marching there, generals planning battles and soldiers fighting battles.

The enduring impression left by it was of large-scale action adventure battle scenes, of in-between discussions of politics (in the most superficial sense of the term) and of the poet McCarthy speaking in the most high-flown poetic language at the drop of a hat and with a straight face. The injection of some romance into the scenario did not add much in the way of penetration into the human dimensions of it all. It certainly added nothing to the credibility of the McCarthy character. In addition to spouting instant poetry for every occasion, he made love with his trousers and boots on. There was little to take it too far from the level of pre-adolescent boys, mad on battle scenes and not yet interested in sex. But then if that were the intended audience, they could have done without the politics, the poetry and the romance altogether.

Although it was beautifully filmed in parts and the music of the Chieftains gave it a certain style, as did some of the dialogue by Eugene McCabe, it was a very flawed production. Even on the simplest level, the subtitles were full of mis-spelling and incorrect punctuation. (It was a tri-lingual production, made in English, Irish and French). More serious, however, was the fact that it lacked any deeper penetration into the socio-historical context. Criticising it from this angle, Eoghan Harris described The Year of the French as an Ivanhoe-type of production, which evaded such important questions as class conflict among the peasantry and imposed a simple cowboys-and-indians formula on the complex historical landscape of late 18th century Ireland.20 Michael Garvey, who directed it, said in retrospect that the production had a frantic quality and admitted that it was difficult to believe in McCarthy. He observed that they went to great lengths to avoid paddywackery, but perhaps they went to the opposite extreme and made the production too reverential to work.21

The same could not be said of the next major historical miniseries made in a RTE-initiated co-production. Caught in a Free State was a four part dramatisation of the activities of German intelligence in Ireland during World War II. The original idea came from director Peter Ormrod and the script was written by Brian Lynch, based on such historical accounts as Enno Stephens’ Spies in Ireland. Given the German angle, RTE made a strenuous effort, through its director of sales and co-productions John Baragwanath, to interest German television services in investing in the project as a co-production. Despite various changes offered in relation to their objections to the script, German television not only declined to invest in it, but refused to show it once it was made as a co-production with Channel 4. The Germans did not feel their agents were treated in a suitably respectful manner. They objected to suggestions of sexual ambivalence and generally found the images presented not teutonic enough.22 Not that anyone was treated in a particularly respectful manner. From foreign diplomats to the indigenous plain people of Ireland, nearly all were figures of fun. There was certainly a fair bit of paddy-wackery about it, even if the paddys were only one species in a generally wacky menagerie.

It was meant to tell a serious, and even tragic, story and to reverse the traditional view of Irish history during ‘the emergency’, the Irish euphemism for World War II. Far from underplaying, or even denying, Irish flirtation with the forces of fascism, Caught in a Free State put the highly ambiguous nature of Irish neutrality to the fore. It not only showed such diverse dissident forces as the IRA and the blueshirts to have been anxious to have their lines of connection to Nazi Germany, but also indicated a certain sympathy among the more official representatives of the free state. It was also meant to show how history had its farcical, and even ludicrous, elements. Indeed, it gave the farcical and ludicrous elements the upper hand. Some of it was in the nature of political irony. There were such moments as the IRA chief of staff revealing that even thought his title as “de jure head of the Irish government” a bit of a joke. There were such utterances as the IRA woman’s comment: “Violence, I know, is a sacred thing ” Some of it was simple slapstick, like a German agent scurrying about in drag. Some of it was stage Irish clowning, with most Irish characters having a silly music hall sort of song-and-dance shading to them.

The whole thing had an oddly disorienting effect. At times, the insightful treatment of the serious pressures on the Irish government during the war or some reference sparking memories of the enormous suffering the war meant for so much of the world, in juxtaposition with cheeky music or knockabout carry-on, had a jarring effect. When asked if it was supposed to be funny or serious, those behind it answered “both”. There are, of course, very different ways of combining the comic with the tragic, of juxtaposing the humourous with the serious side of things. For some, this particular way of doing it worked supremely well. For others, it did not. The clowning seemed gratuitously added on to the succession of events, rather than organically flowing through them.

However, for stage Irish clowning and knockabout paddy wackery. it would have been hard to beat The Irish RM, another co-production of the same period. One of Channel 4’s first commissions, the first series of six episodes was made by a consortium which included RTE. It was enormously popular, not only in Britain and Ireland, but in more than 30 other countries including the USA. A second and third series were subsequently made. An adaptation of the Somerville and Ross stories, it was set in Skebawn at the turn of the century. It opened with the arrival of an English resident magistrate in Ireland and followed him through a whole gamut of farcical experiences of revelation and adjustment, as he attempted to come to terms with the quaint and comic ways of the native peasantry. Setting up Peter Bowles as the stage Englishman, as foil to a whole range of stage Irishmen, it pitted English common sense, sobriety, responsibility and fair play against Irish superstition, drunkenness, fecklessness, charm and deviousness.

Like the literary works of Somerville and Ross in their own time, the television production confirmed all the English caricatures of the Irish. It moreover got the Irish to conspire in the caricaturing of themselves, once more playing the paddy and tugging the forelock and being grateful to be noticed by the rest of the world at all. Even the bit of bite to the portrayal of colonial attitudes in both colonisers and colonised in the literary source were lost to the clowning of the television production. It was escapist farce, painting a “good old days” big house picture of the past: full of foxhunts, horseflesh, eccentric old ladies, educated gentlemen and pig ignorant peasants, made attractive by stylish camera work, lush landscapes and Chieftains music.

The first series of The Irish RM was immediately followed by a six part mini-series Roses from Dublin, as if an Anglo-Irish co-production, parading English stereotypes of 19th century Ireland, should be complemented by a Franco-Irish co-production, parading French stereotypes of 20th century Ireland. Using a parallel device to the coming of an Englishman to Ireland, this variation had a Frenchman coming to Ireland. This French photographer proceeded to fall in love with a comely colleen from County Kerry by the name of Spring Kavanagh (!). Also featured were the said colleen’s five formidable Finn McCool brothers, all gigantic veterans of Irish Rugby Union, along with a Greek poet and a chic Parisienne married to a Dingle publican. It was a whimsical “all their wars are merry” view of Ireland, which might have been amusing to the sort of circussy crowd that gathered at Beaubourg on a sunny day, but it was ridiculous to an Irish audience. Reviewing Roses from Dublin in The Irish Press, Tom O’Dea envisioned its inception in a crowd of television executives in an airport hotel deciding to buy all the film footage left over from the Sally O’Brien Harp advertisements, along with the Cadbury Milk Tray advertisements, and to intercut these with film footage from The Quiet Man and Darby O ‘Gill and the Little People and videos of Triple Crown matches. He called it a ‘gigantic hoax’ that kept all the secrets of the real Ireland firmly hidden.23

The next co-produced mini-series was Good Behaviour, a three part adaptation by Hugh Leonard of the Molly Keane novel. It was back in the territory of the Anglo-lrish big house. Unlike Somerville and Ross, writing in the heyday of the ascendancy, Molly Keane wrote of it within its decline and her work was a series of laments for its passing. It was been more perceptive regarding the manners and mores of the gentry , but also more inward looking. Good Behaviour was an ironic commentary on the codes of behaviour prevailing in the big house, but it was also an insider’s indulgence of their claustrophobic world. An RTE-BBC co-production, it was very much in the tradition of BBC costume drama. Set on a country estate with the fairy tale name of Temple Alice, the head of the household was dying amidst the shabby elegance of a house full of champagne tastes and unpaid bills, full of emotionless decorum on the outside and emotional conflict on the inside. Whatever happened, the codes of ‘good behaviour’ had to be maintained. So narrowly focused was the drama on the domestic sphere that the outside world was all but invisible. It was not even all that recognisably set in Ireland and did not cast Irish actors. It seemed like any other English country house drama, except for the presence of an Irish maid who kept the major happy with forbidden whiskey and her hand under the bedclothes. It carried no real Irish resonance. It was the odd Irish character who looked somehow out of place. It treated the Anglo-Irish as English. It showed a class facing extinction from forces which it could not comprehend or confront, but it shed no light on those forces and left the impression that the author herself could not comprehend or confront the wider socio-historical forces shaping her characters in their claustrophobic world.

The remaining co-productions of this period (with the exception of The Price) were not mini-series, but once-off dramas, no longer called single plays, but more appropriately called television films, and reflecting the shift from theatrical to cinematic) styles and structures. Most were literary adaptations set in the past.

The most successful was the award-winning RTE-BBC co-production The Ballroom of Romance. Based on William Trevor’s short story, originally set in 1971, this production pushed it back into the 1950s. In the same vein as Teresa’s Wedding, Trevor was taking up the exploration of dead-end lives, lack of meaningful human contact, especially between the sexes, and marriages of convenience. In the same mood of resignation, the central female character considered her lot and went on to face her bleak and inevitable fate in a loveless marriage. In this story, the no longer-young (36) Bridie had been living a typical life of quiet desperation, looking after an aged parent and watching life pass her by. The drudgery of her work on the farm and the banality of her evenings with her father by the fire were relieved only by her weekly trip to a tawdry dance hall in the middle of nowhere. The ballroom scenes gave a vivid picture of the lives of those left behind in a rural community depleted and desolated by the ravages of emigration and by the legacy of underdevelopment. In a ritualistic speech, the owner of the dance hall related the latest news of those who had emigrated, banns, marriages, and babies, and struggled to strike a note of reassurance:

“Old values are falling away from us, but they are still here in this ballroom of romance.”
And indeed they were. In the ballroom, the females were all stiffly pasted up against one wall and the males against the other. When they came together, they shuffled awkwardly around the dance floor. There was little dialogue, but when they spoke, it was extremely awkward and roundabout. The talk between members of the same sex was a bit easier and more direct. ‘The boys’ were at their easiest in a hidden place with their smokes and ‘hard stuff’ and bawdy talk of sex. The females commented on the males of the species, looking for suitable partners and finding most of them hopelessly wanting, even if “their mothers think they’re lovely”. As for Bridie, it was her night of coming to terms with the fact that she had been coming here for a long time and that it had “no dignity”: “You don’t need it when you’re young”. Facing up to her lost youth and declining options, she decided that this phase of her life was over and that she had danced her last dance in this ‘ballroom of romance’. Having lost her first love through emigration and having just had another hope dashed upon learning the drummer in the band was to be paired off with his landlady, she weakened in her resistance to Bowser Egan, even though she hated the way he had a swig of the bottle before ‘having a go’ at her. After all, his mother was about to die and he had land to sell and her farm needed another pair of hands. Even though an even more desperate woman was beckoning Bowser, Bridie knew she had the edge and identified her value with her dowry. Others shared in such identification:
Madge: “What’s she got that I haven’t?”
Bowser: “Land.”
The tie of sexuality to property was asserted very strongly indeed. Bridie accepted the admonition of her friend: “You can’t change the way things are, Bridie” and went again into the field with Bowser. It was a poignant and perceptive evocation of a particular cultural milieu. It was a small-scale, but sharp-edged, critique of Irish rural society, very much at variance with glossy Hollywood or Bord Failte images of it. It was, in fact, highly pessimistic, reflecting William Trevor’s characteristic sense of doom. It was an intricately textured picture of Ireland, as a place where dark and inextricable forces overcame decent and helpless people, who could do nothing but suffer with as much dignity as they could muster. It was extremely well received, both by those who understood it and by those who did not. Oddly enough, it set off a wave of soft-centred nostalgia for 1950s Ireland and its dance hall culture. One heard endless “those were the days, my friend” reminiscences about the bicycle clips, the bands, and the whole ambience, accompanied by a sentimental longing for the simplicity of bygone days. There was also a surge of revivals of ballrooms of romance. This was more a comment on its audience than on the production. The nostalgia reflected a fear of social change and a wish to escape into rose tinted memories of safer times.
The direction given to the production by Pat O’Connor was true to the story and did not bask in nostalgia. The visual style was sophisticated, but not at all showy. The camera held on the stillness, instead of cutting back and forth. It gave a static sort of picture of static men and women sitting against the solid wall to capture the way in which people were trapped in their circumstances, knowing they were going nowhere and had no way out. It followed the cyclists at night through the spaces between the rural homes and showed the small lights against a vast darkness to convey the remoteness and isolation of rural life. It showed the garishness of the brightly lit ballroom amidst it all and the tackiness of the milieu and did not attempt to give a false glossiness to it.

There were various sorts of criticism laid against it, however. Barbara O’Connor’s audience research indicated that urban youth found it alienating, because it was rural, and that working class women found it too slow-moving and lacking in storyline and dramatic suspense. While her extrapolation from limited data, to the general conclusion that the female audience for this type of one-off play was confined to middle class women, was unwarranted and based on questionable criteria for determining class, some of her other observations of the film were more substantial. She particularly called attention to the way in which the film was narratively closed in the recurrent motif of resignation to fate. She also noted that the setting in time and place tended to distance it from the contemporary female audience.24 Another critical angle on the story, remarked upon by Kevin McHugh,
concerned the fact that its dominant point of view was from outside the milieu it scrutinised. It was one culture looking at another in a way that sometimes seemed patronising. 25

The same production team followed The Ballroom of Romance with One of Ourselves, another RTE-BBC co-production. It was an adaptation of another William Trevor story, originally entitled An Evening with John Joe Dempsey. It was a coming-of-age story, featuring John Joe Dempsey on the occasion of his fifteenth birthday. At his happiest when alone with his fantasies or when keeping company with the town eccentric, John Joe was at a turning point in his life and under pressure to give up both fantasies and friend to become “one of ourselves” in the town. At the point of leaving the christian brothers school and going to work in the sawmills, John Joe was preoccupied with his imaginary encounters with the middle aged women of the town in suggestive or seductive situations or with listening to Quigley tell tales of looking through windows and seeing virtually every married couple in the town in their most intimate moments. Given the day that was in it, John Joe was diverted in his messages to the shop-cum-pub by Mr. Lynch, who introduced him to his first bottles of stout and smokes and told him a certain story he took it upon himself to tell to boys who had no fathers. It concerned the ‘Piccadilly glory girls’ he had encountered when he left West Cork to join the British Army during the war. When intoxicated with his mates, an arrangement was made for the six of them to ‘satisfy themselves’ on one of the glory girls. While waiting to get ‘down to business’, he had a vision of the statue of the holy virgin mother that his mother had given him for his first communion. On that very night, he later discovered, his mother had a dream of him with his legs on fire. As he interpreted it, his mother saw him being licked by the flames of hell and sent out a message that he was to have a visit from the little statue in his bedroom. The moral of the story was:

“The facts of life is one thing, John Joe, but keep away from dirty women.”
Like his mother and the rest who were telling him how lucky he was to get work in the town, Mr. Lynch told him to leave thoughts of emigration alone and stay away from the heathen crowd over in England. In the cinema with his mother that evening, the atmosphere of the small town of the 1950s was effectively evoked in minute detail: the ritual greetings and polite conversation, the discomfort of priest and married woman at the amorous scenes, the rebuffs of the town eccentric by its ‘respectable’ people. John Joe was acutely aware of the artifice of the town. He knew that married men went off dancing with girls and came home and told their wives they were playing cards. He saw through Mr. Lynch’s explanation of why he joined the British Army, why he returned to Ireland, why he never married. He knew that he went to get away from his mother and that he came back and never married, because of her hold on him. He thought that only Quigley told the truth. But it was put to him by Brother Leahy, Mr. Lynch and his mother that he had to choose between being ‘two of a kind’ with Quigley or ‘one of ourselves’, with the rest of the town. They excluded Quigley, because he was without pretence. John Joe would give in, because it was the easiest thing to do. He would be like the rest of them on the outside, He would conspire in the pretence. He would leave Quigley to go his own way muttering ‘one of ourselves’, He would however, keep his fantasies. He would take refuge in an interior world which no one could touch. Alone in his bed in the darkness, he could make of the town anything he wished to make of it and be more alive in his fantasies than he ever would be in any of his other activities or encounters. He both would and would not be ‘one of ourselves’,
Like The Ballroom of Romance, it was a bleak picture of the dead-end, numbing hopelessness of provincial life. It also was, nevertheless, filtered through a soft-focused, rose-tinged nostalgia for 1950s Ireland on the part of some of its audience. It was seen by Pat O’Connor as an opportunity to satirise, with as much kindness and subtlety as possible the emptiness and oppressiveness of an environment cut off from healthy debate and lacking in openness, enlightenment and generosity. It was, it would seem, too kind and too subtle for those still most locked into such an environment to see the satire. Perhaps it was just as well. Those who had eyes to see, saw, and the rest were spared having to write letters of protest or to pass resolutions of condemnation.

There was a rash of coming-of-age films set in the recent past around this time. Some of them were considerably less incisive than One of Ourselves and lent themselves much more obviously to a flabby and meandering nostalgia for adolescent adventures and past decades. It was hard to see the point of Night in Tunisia, other than evoking the atmosphere of summers in Laytown in the early 1960s and detailing the particular memory images deriving from the author’s own adolescence. An RTE-Channel 4 co-production, it was an adaptation by Neil Jordan of his own short story of the same name. It was given an attractive visual style by Pat O’Connor’s direction and it was rich in the atmospheric detail of Neil Jordan’s fiction. It was full of beaches, sand dunes, waves, seaside huts, chalets, dance halls, saxophones, radios, photographs, records. It had people talking, walking, waiting, dancing, kissing, quarrelling, making music, playing tennis, getting through puberty and beginning to come to terms with the opposite sex. It seemed, however, indulgent of all this particular detail to no apparent purpose. It all seemed ill digested. It never came together into anything coherent. It was quite lacking in narrative drive or dramatic tension. It never said anything significant or profound, although it had an aura of significance and a kind of pseudo-profundity about it, which made it extremely irritating to someone who knew the difference. It was not really enough to have a teenage would-be tragic heroine talking of walking into the sea and committing suicide. Even when the dialogue seemed to be at its most probing, it went nowhere:

“They tell me you were nearly drowned.”
“I wanted to know what it would feel like.”
“Like going to another place ”
“Where’s that?”
It all led nowhere, except to personal memories of adolescence in Laytown in the summer seasons of the 1960s.
In an effort by RTE to promote more effectively its film versions of literary works, the next stories were chosen to be packaged together into an anthology series under the title Love Stories of Ireland. Four films were made under this title as RTE-Channel 4 co-productions and the four were shown on successive weeks on RTE and in the Film on Four slot on Channel 4. (For external sales, there were six films packaged under the anthology title, with Ballroom of Romance and Night in Tunisia added to the package). According to John Lynch, the executive producer of the series, it was very difficult to find Irish love stories. There were actually very few and they were all sad.26

The most memorable and the most successful (in that it won several international awards) was Sean O Faolain’s Lovers of the Lake. It concerned a middle aged, middle class, married woman, who had been involved for six years in an extra-marital affair. Full of mental contradictions and moral confusions, she decided to make a pilgrimage to Lough Derg and asked her lover to drive her there and back to Dublin. When he tried to fathom her reasons for ‘all this penitential stuff’, it all made little sense. Not only had she no rational explanation, but she had scant regard for rationality, which she, like many women, considered a male domain. In turn, he, like many men, had learned to expect anything but rationality from a woman. Her conflict was presented on one level as a conflict between the flesh and the spirit, as a situation in which the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. For six years, she confessed her sins of the flesh and her spirit repented and promised to give up her affair. She insisted that she always meant it and yet she always weakened and succumbed again to the flesh. Following her on to the island, her lover continued to probe the meaning of her pilgrimage. Trying to bring both rationality and reality to bear upon her scrambled account of things, he confronted her with his reading of the situation:

“I know you feel you ought to get rid of me, but you haven’t the guts to do it on your own, so you run for the mountains and get your druids to do your dirty work for you by magic.”
After listening to her declare according to the ritual,
“I renounce the world, the flesh and the devil”
he confronted her with the antithesis:
“I believe in the flesh, Jenny, and in the world. I don’t believe that your body and my body are evil. You are not going to renounce the world. You’re tied to it hand and foot”.
And so she was. She was, in any case, more in a “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet” mood. She would complete the penitential exercises, break the fast at midnight with a sumptuous candlelit dinner with her lover in Galway, sleep for the first night in separate rooms and then go back to her normal life again. There would be no resolution of the mind or the will. Life would carry on, as before, unresolved.
Filmed on location on Lough Derg, with real pilgrims as extras, the RTE production was a richly atmospheric representation of the sense of the place and its strange effect, as described in O Faolain’s text. It evoked the way in which the brief harsh utopia worked its magic: how the incantations and passionate exchange of energy drew one in, how exhaustion worked on the mind, how objects began to disconnect, how hallucination and ecstasy set in, how the flesh was used to produce an extraordinary spiritual experience. The haunting music on the soundtrack, composed for the production by Jim Lockhart, underscored the blending of druidic, medieval and modern elements in a most effective way. The film showed Ireland both at its most primitive and its most urbane. The co-existence of the most superstitious and the most sophisticated elements, often in uneasy and illogical juxtaposition with each other, not only in the same culture, but even in the same person, left a thinking person with much food for thought.

The saddest of the sad stories was perhaps A Painful Case from James Joyce’s Dubliners. It also concerned an extra-marital love affair involving a married woman, although in this case it did not extend to expressing itself fully in the realm of the flesh. Both Mr. Duffy, a clerk in a merchant bank, and Mrs.Sinico, the wife of a sea captain, led somewhat dull and lonely lives, each taking solitary comfort in music and literature. When they met a deep bond developed between them, each opening up and coming alive as never before in walking and talking and sharing their deepest selves with each other. Mr. Duffy saw himself as a social rebel, at least in the realm of theory, scorning the social conventions of the middle classes in turn-of-the-century Dublin, and yet holding himself aloof from the radical currents of the day, never quite fitting into the Irish Socialist Party and only commenting from a distance on the suffragette movement. Above all, he was an admirer of Ibsen and believed his plays pointed to the right way to live. Once he had introduced Mrs. Sinico to A Doll’s House, she seemed to identify and find courage in Ibsen’s Nora, who left her husband to be true to herself. He, however, proved less than courageous in the face of the concrete challenge to follow through and act out his beliefs. Retreating from the bond between them to the ‘incurable loneliness of the soul’, he decided it was best for them not to meet again. He then resumed his methodical daily routines, aloof and alone, on the surface little different from before, expressing his reflections in his solitary writings. For him, the bottom line of the affair was:

“Love between man and man is impossible, because there mustn’t be sexual intercourse. Friendship between man and woman is impossible, because there must be sexual intercourse.”
She, however, was not able to carry on as before, even on the surface. For her, life had lost its purpose and she took to the drink to get through the loneliness. After two years with no contact, Mr. Duffy only learned what had become of her in the evening paper:
Death of a Lady at Sydney Parade A Painful Case
At first,he tried to justify himself. He could not have carried on in a life of deception with her and he could not live openly with her. What else could he have done? And yet, when he was honest, he knew that he had not done it. He had withheld life from her.
A gentler and more sardonic story was James Plunkett’s The Eagles and the Trumpets. It spotlighted the lives of three lonely and unhappy people, each of whom momentarily allowed themselves to raise their hopes and wish for romance and happiness. Cutting between Dublin and a small provincial town, it showed something of the depressed economic and cultural condition of Ireland in the late 1940s. In Dublin, a young office clerk had finally saved the money to get back to the provincial town to resume the budding romance begun with the town librarian when on holiday the year before. A friend prevailed upon him to lend him the money, promising to pay it back in time for him to take the later bus. Failing to get the money and therefore the bus, he decided that romance was on the side of the rich and proceeded through the various stages of the pub crawl with his mates. His mates went on about how it was worth having holidays abroad, where the girls were easier, making their motto: “Sin is worth saving for.” But money, whatever way it expanded life’s options, was what he did not have. So, with one drink after another, he resigned himself to the narrowness of life without it. Meanwhile, the young woman in the country town watched the early and late buses come and go in sad disappointment. Approached by a commercial traveller, whose life had its sad disappointments, she consented to keep him company and each filled at least a little of the emptiness of the other. The bottom line of it all seemed to be that it was bad to want anything too much, because one would probably never get it. There was no indemnity against life’s petty tyrannies. One’s emotional possibilities were, and always would be, restricted by economic conditions.

The story most stretched to fit into the series was William Trevor’s Access to the Children, in that the setting had to be changed from London to Dublin. (It had originally been made in a London setting in a BBC production twelve years earlier). It was the story of the disintegration of a man, who left his wife and children for another woman, who subsequently left him. Living alone in a flat, out of a job and drinking more and more, even his days of access to the children were becoming more difficult, going round and round the same routine of zoos and cinemas and museums and back to his flat. He talked of all of ” them getting back together and being a happy family again”. Unable to come to terms with the fact that his wife had picked up the pieces of her life, gone back to work and formed a relationship with another man, he became more and more pathetic. It was a straightforward enough story in one sense, but in the context of Irish society at the time of its production and transmission, it came across as a cautionary tale against any straying from the straight and narrow path of the institution of marriage. It was perhaps a bit unusual, in showing the man as suffering most from the breakdown of marriage. It was more of a simple, sad story than anything else, without the same sort of sharp edge as some of Trevor’s other stories.

Another RTE-Channel 4 co-production took a literary piece, this time of the long-ago-and-far-away variety, and set it in Ireland. Based on Ivan Turgenev’s First Love, originally set in 19th century Russia, Summer Lightning was set in mid 19th century Ireland and arguably lost considerably in the translation. Adapted by Paul Joyce and Derek Mahon, Joyce described his intention as wanting “to take a pre-freudian story and to treat it in a post-Freudian way”.27 It was a story of a young lad’s first experience of love, as told by his mature self, with Paul Scofield doing the honours as the latter, and presumably boosting its sales potential on international markets, in topping and tailing the production and narrating the story in voice-over. It was a coming-of-age story in which an adolescent ‘in love with life’ discovered, through a traumatic experience, ‘the deviousness and complexity of the adult world’. Captivated by a 19-year old girl with a circle of ardent suitors, a 14-year old boy observed them in their drawing room machinations and resolved to kill her leading suitor, once he discovered who he was. The trauma came when his investigation revealed his father’s face in the summer lightning. Despite the fact that heartbreak, suicide and death in childbirth ensued, one did not feel the force of the tragedy. Despite the emphasis on internal states and the articulation of such reflections as “First love is like revolution…” one did not feel the penetration of psychological depth. Despite the talk of the failure of the 1798 rebellion, the hopes for Irish nationhood, the fears of clerical interference, the suffering inflicted by the famine, one never felt convinced of the credibility of its Irish setting. Certainly touches such as the transformation of an impoverished Russian princess into a tipsy Ringsend social climber added nothing to its authenticity. Despite the considerable resources channelled into its production, it left the impression of a shallow and glossy period piece, done to no particular purpose.

By way of theatrical, rather than literary, adaptation was the RTE-Channel 4 co-production of Hugh Leonard’s stage play A Life. It was the story of Desmond Drumm, a minor civil servant, who had discovered he was about to die and set about preparing an audit of his life. A pompous and pedantic man, his acerbic tongue and condescending presence had a way of creating acute discomfort in those around him. Refusing to accept the evasions and inexactitudes that others promoted, or at least let pass for the sake of peace, he constantly called others to account by his own standards and found them wanting. Now it was time to call himself to account. Finding that he had standards instead of friends and that what he called principle was vanity, his unravelling of the complexities of his life began to break down his defences. His review of his life brought him far more anxiety than satisfaction when the balance sheet was totalled. His career in the civil service he regarded as

“work of doubtful value for a government of doubtful morality.”
But it was his most immediate personal relationships which were most under scrutiny, namely with his loyal and self-effacing wife, Dolly, his amiable first love, Mary, and her good natured wastrel of a husband, Lar. The other characters effectively counterpointed the character of Drumm. Where he was hard, they were soft. Where he was meticulous, they were messy. Where he was rigid and unyielding, they were compliant and flexible. In flashbacks to the past and in talk of the present, they weighed each other up. The crisp, taut dialogue ranged from gentle chiding to harsh accusation. Between Desmond and Mary, it was gentlest: she remembering him as having “a face like a plateful of mortal sins” and he telling her she had “a mind like a mayfly… a head full of film stars and their divorces”. Between Desmond and Lar it was harshest, the ne’er-do-well Lar never having been forgiven for taking Mary from him. Whereas Lar was inclined to bend over backwards to smooth everything over, the instant a hint of conflict arose, Desmond was inclined to go for the jugular and to thrive on conflict.
In the reviews, the play itself was much admired, while the style of the RTE production was more controversial. Louis Lentin’s direction was deliberately theatrical. It not only put the emphasis on dialogue and performance, but actually staged the play in studio as if it were being done in theatre. A number of critics felt that there was an incongruity between the staginess of the production and the naturalistic and intimate character of the television medium. Charles Hunter, reviewing it in Theatre Ireland, concluded:

“RTE has still to discover that special arena between the proscenium arch and the film location where television drama can hold its own.”28
Perhaps this was not fair to RTE drama as a whole, but it did give sharp expression to the terms of a spectrum on which A Life was near enough to the one end.
At the other end of the spectrum was the beautifully filmed on-location Spring Cleaning, which was far more cinematic than theatrical, with its moody attention to visual detail and its spare dialogue. An RTE-Channel 4 co-production, it was a short story turned into a television script by Ann Barrett, making it the only co-production to be based on an unsolicited script by an unknown writer. It was also exceptional in that it was set in the present rather than in the past. The story concerned the reactions of a young woman, who had been working in London and travelling abroad, to the whole culture of rural Ireland upon returning home. Through flashbacks and dream sequences, as well as through her present encounters, various aspects of the world in which she had grown up, but had now outgrown, came before Nancy’s consciousness. She beheld the physical neglect of the womanless house inhabited by her father and brother and set about ‘spring cleaning’. She responded to their unadventurous eating habits and banal conversation by trying gently to introduce new dishes and new subjects. Moving through the wider community, she came across various people she once knew. The mother and daughter who ran the shop-cum-post office fussed over her with a barbed and devious bitchiness that she let pass. Her friend Brid told her she would be afraid to travel abroad, which brought Nancy to reply that people were too safe. Her old crowd was still enjoying the pub craic and country and western music, which made her ask how they could listen to such ‘crap’. The mating habits of the Irish male provoked her strongest comments. In the midst of Tadhg’s swaying and slurring and alcoholic groping in the car park, she pushed him off and asked:

“How do you put up with it? This is no life. There are whole chunks missing.
What about the poor bugger who can’t stomach craic ?”
There were several vague references to her brother Peter who “smelled something rotten and got out”, but there was nothing further to explain.
RTE featured in the story in bringing the larger society into the rural community. In the morning, Nancy was shown listening to Gay Byrne on radio, while tidying up. Some of the talk was typically frivolous: Was it better to have beauty or brains? Beauty was better “because most men can see better than they can think.” Some of it was typically semi-serious to serious. There was a letter from a Donegal woman with a sexually demanding husband. There was a letter from a separated woman co-habiting with a separated man, both with children, in a country that did not allow divorce. Nancy’s response to it all was to go on about women not knowing what Gay Byrne was doing to their minds and about the whole country lacking privacy. When the television news came on in the evening with a report of a bomb in Belfast, Nancy’s comment was: “Like the wild west, isn’t it?” Nancy could not fit back into the old life, or even, she eventually decided, some new version of it. She argued she would be a hypocrite if she went to mass, though she admitted it was a great place for meeting people. She refused her father’s suggestion that she take a job at the builders’ suppliers, because she “would be like a caged beast”. Her father understood no more than the rest of them. He asked:

“What the hell has got into you, Nancy? I don’t know what you want.”
It was not only her father. The problem was that the viewer did not know either, nor even have a sense that Nancy knew. The basic problem was that the script was too slight and too superficial to bear the weight of the expectations it aroused. It never delivered anything approaching a coherent critique of the society being sized up or even credible criteria for making specific criticisms of it. It never indicated any positive values, in terms of which this culture was judged negatively. It never articulated any new beliefs which undermined any of the old beliefs. It never came to terms with any substantial question it raised: What were the whole chunks of life that were missing? How was country and western music written off as ‘crap’ ? Why did she not go to mass? When it came down to it, Nancy did not really stand for much, except casseroles as an alternative to fries, brown rice as a variation on spuds, travelling instead of staying home, wearing see-through blouses instead of being ashamed of the body, and keeping sex out of car parks and off radio. While most of these were positive, or at least harmless, they were not exactly substantial.
Regarding the last proposition, however, it was arguably neither positive nor harmless. Nor was it insubstantial. As an analysis of Irish society, this judgement of the country lacking privacy in this context was wide of the mark. One of the most moving experiences of radio which many people will ever have, came one day when Gay Byrne’s entire programme was devoted to reading listeners’ letters sparked off by the death of young Ann Lovett, giving birth by a dark grotto, cold and alone. Letter after letter related vivid details of deeply traumatic experiences that had never been recounted before. Secrets harboured for years and never confided to those nearest were revealed via radio waves to the society as a whole. Listening left an overwhelming sense of there being too much of a shameful sort of privacy in the country and an enduring memory of the liberating effect of breaking it. The role of RTE in general, and the Gay Byrne Shown particular, in breaking it, has been one a progressive person might be expected to acknowledge and appreciate rather than knock or deprecate.

Ann Barrett obviously intended her own contribution to be progressive, but the limitations of her conception of what was considered progress reduced her script to a rather insubstantial assertion of a vague individualism. The fundamental point for her was ‘the individual’s search for identity’ which was, to be sure, progressive in a society that still put such weight on conformity to tradition. Discussing Spring Cleaning in a magazine interview, Ann Barrett stressed:

“The important thing to realise is that life can be shaped in any way you want it.”29
This psycho-social naiveté made it impossible for it to penetrate either psyche or society in a mature way. It was obviously not perceived to be particularly penetrating, as it passed nearly unnoticed. The general reaction seemed to be to see it as recycled Edna O’Brien and to ask what was the point. One reviewer, after chiding Nancy’s efforts to bring brown rice to an uncaring community, conceded that the picture of rural Ireland in Spring Cleaning was accurate enough in a factual sort of way. The problem, he argued, was that it was a tedious half-truth and that this sort of meandering melancholy seemed to be the only sort of drama of interest to RTE-Channel 4 co-productions. It was art, he conceded, but it was pointless and deadly. 30 It was, in fact, a very artistic production in many respects. There was a very sophisticated visual style given to it by Tony Barry’s direction. The enduring impression left by it was of richly-textured and well-framed scenes of rooms and landscapes, dominated by Tara McGowran’s beautifully expressive face on which the camera lovingly lingered, often in close up, and seemed to allude to deeper emotions than any that were written for Nancy. The whole style of the production made it seem to be promising a significance that it did not fulfill.
The most controversial of the co-productions was the six part mini-series The Price. An RTE-Channel 4 co-production, this time initiated from the other side of the water, the original idea came from the British actor, Peter Barkworth. Inspired by a newspaper photograph of the industrialist, Rolf Schild, whose wife and daughter were kidnapped in Sardinia, he was fascinated by the psychological pressures and moral ambiguities arising out of such a crisis. The production company with which he was associated, Astramead, was in the driving seat throughout the production. Although the story was set in Ireland, it was scripted by Peter Ransley, who had never before set foot in Ireland. Much of the criticism of the series centred around the representation of Irish life by a writer, who was accused of knowing nothing about it beyond the cliches of Fleet Street tabloids, with the backing of RTE and with the expertise of Irish cast and crew.

The first episode opened in London on the relationship between Geoffrey Carr, a wealthy computer businessman, and his wife, Frances, a pampered and parasitic woman, who married him for his money and manipulated him into giving her whatever she wanted. Her daughter by her first marriage was a younger version of herself. An incident in which they hid Geoffrey’s briefcase was indicative of their spoiled and selfish lifestyle, in which they grabbed everything which the wealth from the business he had built up could give them, while expressing contempt for him and even obstructing his work. What Frances now wanted was for Geoffrey to buy her the ancestral family home in Ireland. Her flirtation with the Irish side of her Anglo-Irish identity and possession of the big house of Kilnameath in County Wicklow brought her under the scrutiny of an IRA breakaway group, hatching a scheme to redeem their standing in the Provisional IRA. The episode ended with a powerfully staged kidnapping scene, in which Frances Carr and her daughter were dragged from their car and their driver killed, admidst the lush green hills of Wicklow. .

Subsequent episodes traced the build-up of tension in the aftermath of the kidnap. The consequences were explored from a number of different angles: the raw nerves and changing relationships of kidnappers and kidnapped; the emotional shock and financial arrangements of the next-of-kin faced with the ransom demand; the reactions of friends and relations; the machinations of business associates; the advice of the insurance agent; the investigations of the gardai; the role of the media; the pressures on the boy who witnessed the act; and the wailing recitation of the woes of the gael and the brave deeds of Irish heroes by his republican granny. Episode four ended with a cliffhanger, as the three kidnappers put on their hoods and decided to ‘do it’.

Episode five was preceded on RTE by a warning about violent scenes not suitable for children. In this episode, Geoffrey received the severed finger of Frances. A rendezvous for delivery of ransom money was arranged and Andrew, a former lover of Frances, was shot dead by the inept gardai in the confusion. Meanwhile, Frank became another of Frances’ lovers, as a sick sexual relationship developed between kidnapper and kidnapped, between mutilator and mutilated, between the soldier of the army of national liberation and the lady of the big house. Nearly in one breath, he spoke of watching her, filling that house with junk ”as if there had been no Bloody Sunday” and then asked if he could touch her breasts. The episode ended on a quite shocking scene with the camera first on Frank and Frances engaged in sexual intercourse, almost as if animals in heat, and then cutting to the distressed face of her daughter in the same room, registering her terror as Frank reached orgasm.

In the final episode, Frank and Frances continued in their sexual liaison to the distress not only of her daughter Clare but also of his comrade Kate. Meanwhile, the gardai, induced to try using Carr’s computerised methods, began to close in on them. In due course, the gardai arrived, bargained, killed the kidnappers and rescued the kidnapped. Frances, as manipulative and cruel as ever, found ways to punish Geoffrey, accusing him of having ‘a price’ he would pay for her, beyond which he would not go. She told him that sex with him felt dirty, whereas with Frank it felt clean. She told him that Frank was more honest than him. This after lying to him about her being raped. It ended with her news of her pregnancy and insistence that he take her word that it was his child, while taking spiteful pleasure in the fact he would always be in doubt.

Although The Price was generally acclaimed in Britain, it met with a great deal of adverse reaction in Ireland. Viewers who wrote into RTE’s Mailbag programme were extremely negative about it:

“I wish I hadn’t looked at it.”
“I never thought I would see such filth on Irish television.”
“How has RTE sunk so low?”
“I switched off, as I wouldn’t subject my children to such filth.”
“It was unfit for any decent person to see.”
“Such co-productions depict the Irish as war-mongering and inferior”
There were particular objections to “foul language”, the presence of the slop bucket and the sex scene in episode five. Critics too, both in the national and provincial press, were quite negative. Aodhan Madden in Hibernia called it ‘godawful’, ‘abysmal’ ‘a nasty exercise in moronic paddy wackery’,31 Joe Ambrose in In Dublin condemned it as ‘offensive rubbish’ , ‘a vicious fable’ and ‘the latest example of national self-abasement’.32 The Sunday Tribune carried a sneering review by Eamonn Dunphy in his regular column,33 followed by a full feature a fortnight later, which was an extended and well-reasoned analysis by Fintan O’Toole.
Putting it in the context of a historical relationship, whereby Ireland has come to be seen as a place which fills the gaps in English experience, a place full of exuberant violence, quaint religiosity, demonic boozing and wild fantastic language, O’Toole perceived The Price as fitting into this pattern. England, seen in well ordered orchards, dining rooms and computerised offices, was depicted as a highly civilised, if very dull, place. Ireland, in contrast, was full of wild scenery, wild passions and wild, if rather stupid, people. Irish violence, he contended, was packaged as a theatre of thrills for an English audience to provide an exotic sensation for the tired English palate. This was embodied particularly in the relationship between Frank and Frances in which violence was the trigger for erotic excitement. O’Toole also took strong exception to the reduction of the motivation of the kidnappers from the political to the personal and the interpretation of the mysterious political turbulence of the Irish in terms of the categories of sexual jealousy and envy of the big house. In reducing Frank’s politics to the desire of the surly farmhand for the fine lady, the political terror of Northern Ireland was transformed into a down-at-heel version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. O’Toole also raised the question of stereotyping, particularly in respect of the representation of the granny and the gardai, which supported a general picture of the Irish as a people so inexplicably sunk in the mire of past wrongs that they could not cope with modern living. It was a picture that exempted Britain from any responsibility for Ireland’s current problems. O’Toole argued strongly that RTE’s involvement in The Price was a major abdication of its responsibilities, in putting the scarce resources of a national public service broadcasting organisation in the service of the creation of images of Ireland over which the station had no editorial control. It was, he argued, the logical outcome of the whole co-production policy, which produced images of Ireland, which were either nostalgic or distorted.34

Other critics took issue with its pace, which was regarded as too slow, at least by the standards of US action-adventure series. Some criticised it for various false notes or factual errors, ranging from the gardai shooting an innocent unarmed man or the taoiseach guaranteeing there would be no extradition or a sharpshooter using a submachine gun to someone actually finding three public phones which worked within one minute. Many others had their say about it. The Price was at least a talking point and stimulated many people to discuss many questions it raised. Within RTE, there were different reactions from those responsible to the criticisms made of it. The controller, Muiris MacConghail, admitted that RTE was not as careful as it should have been in identifying problems of caricature.35 The head of drama, Niall McCarthy, in contrast, stood over every line. He compared the criticism to the reviling of Synge for defaming the Irish people in Playboy of the Western World, seeing both as pressure for censorship that stemmed from an inability of the Irish people to see negative aspects of their lives.36 Many of the critics of The Price, however, would have been the first to see the negative aspects of Irish life. It was a question of how finite resources were channelled into the creation of a finite number of images among a multitude of possibilities. Many of the particular criticisms of The Price were well founded. Certainly an analysis such as O’Toole’s was hard to fault.

That said, however, it must also be said that was not as bad as those who dismissed it as ‘abysmal’ or ‘moronic’ claimed, especially against the history of chronic, and often moronic, stereotyping in film and television representations of Ireland. While it was a deeply flawed production, it had its good points. It was well made in the sense of having a strong narrative drive, a sophisticated visual style and some excellent performances. It was also full of interesting and intelligent characterisation even if no character was explored as fully as the interest they aroused seemed to warrant. Perhaps the biggest problem was that The Price failed to deal satisfactorily with any issue it raised, whether psychological or political. This was, to some degree, because it separated the one from the other in a way that distorted both. Those who made it concentrated on the psychological at the expense of the political and therefore missed all that was psychologically interesting in the interconnections. A more insightful exploration of the political motivation of Frank and Kate would have made all the difference in establishing the credibility of their characters. The very belief that the two dimensions could be detached cut off a certain level of perception. This belief was clearly stated in the promotion of The Price:

“Detaching itself from the political ramifications of such a story, The Price examines the human cost of kidnapping…” RTE Guide
“If we delved into politics, it would have dominated the series, so it was necessary to be apolitical.” TV Times

But it was not possible to be apolitical. Attempting to deal with political matters in an apolitical manner led inevitably to distortion. The distortion was far from deliberate. Much of it stemmed from a subconscious reflex of the post-imperial English mind, which could not penetrate Irish culture, but only perceive it through a glass darkly.
In-House Drama

During this period, in which the making of drama came to be increasingly consigned to co-production, RTE in-house production of drama ground nearly to a halt. In 1986 and 1987, RTE’s drama output, including both co-production and in-house production, was the lowest in its entire history. In 1984, the only in-house one-off drama made by RTE was the Irish language film Raic. In 1985, there was none.

Raic, by Antoine O Flaharta, was about as far as television could get from the US action-adventure series. It was a picture of Connemara in 1942 in which there was so little happening as to be almost a still life. It was deliberately slow-paced and uneventful, so as to convey the static and remote character of Irish life, especially Irish rural life, during ‘the emergency’. It was a portrait of a community at peace listening on the wireless to the world at war. It was a community in which nothing much was happening, except in reaction to what was washed in from elsewhere. The only milestones in the history of the place came from outside: a bomb found in the sea in 1917, which exploded and killed those who went to roll it ashore; the body of a German soldier whom they buried in 1942; along with the odd dud mine washed ashore during World War II. All of these were raic, flotsam and wreckage, as were some of the people, like the old doctor who came back there to die and his daughter who lost her job as a teacher.

Otherwise the only in-house drama production in RTE in the mid-eighties were a running rural serial, a clerical sit-com, a short prison serial and an experimental series in community dramas which turned out to be a controversial platform for amateur drama groups.

The Rural Serial

The rural serial has been perhaps the area in which RTE can claim the most solid and long standing record of achievement. It has developed in a nearly unbroken line of continuity, beginning with the fifteen year run of TAM-topping The Riordans through two mini-series of the stylish Bracken to the eighteen year run of TAM-topping Glenroe.

Bracken first appeared as a six part mini-series in January 1980 and reappeared in a second six part mini-series two years later in January 1982. It centred around the brooding figure of Pat Barry, who had become a regular character in The Riordans in its last days, when he came to work as an agricultural labourer on the Riordan farm after Benjy Riordan went away. Called ‘the cowboy’ in The Riordans, he had an air of the rugged individualism and dour masculinity of the wild west about him. Played by Gabriel Byrne, who went on to achieve international star status, he was the only male character in the whole run of The Riordans to have developed as such an obvious sex symbol. Indeed, he soon replaced Benjy, not only in the work of the farm, but also in Maggie’s affections in the most noteworthy adulterous affair in the history of Irish television drama to that time. In the new series, Pat Barry had passed over the mountain of Slieve Bracken separating Leestown from the townland of Bracken from whence he had come. Made on location in the Wicklow mountains, Bracken was set in sheep farming territory. It was written by Wesley Burrowes who, with characteristic concern for verisimilitude, immersed himself in the economics of sheep farming. It used real sheep farmers as extras.

Returning for his father’s funeral, Pat Barry then set about taking over the small and run-down farm left to him and his emigrant brother. Facing problems on all sides, his determination to push past all obstacles had to contend with formidable odds. The land was poor. The ewes had been left up on the mountain. His brother Christy returned with his grasping wife Lily, demanding half the value of the farm in an immediate lump sum. The agricultural advisor informed him he would not be able to get a mortgage to buy them out. His rich neighbour Ned Daly, a self-made land baron, owning 500 acres adjacent to Barry’s 35 acres, applied numerous pressures to force Barry to sell out to him, including framing him for a spate of sheep stealing in the area. His affair with the daughter of the big house, Louise Daly, complicated matters and provided Pat with both an alibi and a weapon against her father. By the end of the second series, she also provided him with a way out of his difficulties with his brother and sister-in-Iaw, when they married and she came through with the money to buy them out.

Meanwhile, Pat Barry’s only real friend, Miley Byrne, was shattered by the discovery that his father Dinny had been Daly’s accomplice in framing Pat. Much of the second series followed Miley’s adventures after he emigrated, working on a building site in England, lodging with Christy and Lily Barry in Manchester and coming to terms with Dinny, who followed him across the water to beg him to return. The second series saw both Dinny Byrne and Ned Daly as broken men, each of them fleeing to England pursuing something they had lost in Ireland. Meanwhile, back in Bracken, Pat Barry was still struggling against the earth and the bitterness of generations” (as the promotional material put it), while finding passing comfort and a bit of winter warmth with Jill Daly, wife of Ned and mother of Louise, and Eve, the fiancee of the agricultural advisor, when Louise was also abroad. However, all of the wandering celts eventually returned to home soil in time for the wedding of Pat and Louise. Bracken ended with Pat and Louise going off on their honeymoon, Ned and Jill selling up and moving away, Peter and Eve breaking off their engagement, Christy and Lily getting their money, and Miley and Dinny settling back to their old life.

While connected to The Riordans, even bringing Delia Maher from Leestown to visit Pat Barry in Bracken to underline the connection, Bracken was a new departure in many respects. It certainly brought a new style to the rural serial, employing production techniques which strikingly marked it off from The Riordans. The credit sequence, combining panoramic overhead shots of the wild landscape of the Wicklow mountains with medium shots of the leading characters, emphasising the star casting of Niall Toibin, Dana Wynter, etcetera, immediately signalled a stylish production, well able to hold its own in the sphere of international sales. It also adopted a narrative style characterised by heightened drama, tighter plotting, accelerated pace and clearer resolution. It would not be true to say, however, as Luke Gibbons has, that the transition from The Riordans to Bracken involved a narrative shift from a naturalistic to a melodramatic genre.37 It did involve the drama-enhancing use of music on the sound track and a stronger narrative drive, complete with cliff-hangers. It did pit the heroic figure against enormous odds. But it did not go in for exaggerated incident, inflated sentiment or manichean contrast between good and evil. The characterisation was complex. The plot was basically plausible. The acting was not noticeably less naturalistic than in The Riordans.

The most important difference perhaps was in the undercurrent of values, deriving more from the entrepreneurial spirit of early capitalism, bourgeois individualism and the protestant ethic than from traditional catholicism. It pitted the lone individual against both nature and neighbours. Pat Barry became more like The Virginian than one of many characters in The Riordans. This affected the picture of the rural community it projected. Far from being the basically cohesive and co-operative force that it was in Leestown, it appeared as a disparate and disquieting presence in Bracken. In fact, the community in Bracken was far more like that in King of the Castle than in The Riordans. It was a menacing and malevolent presence, permeated by social inequality, land hunger, poverty, peasant cunning, avarice, exploitation, vengeance and dog-eat-dog deviousness. Co-incidentally, both Niall Toibin and Joe Lynch played parallel roles in the two productions, Toibin as the self-made gombeen now occupying the big house, but without the breeding that traditionally went with it, and Lynch as the devious small holder and occasional hired hand to the big house.38

Bracken set itself apart from The Riordans in foregrounding the lone individual over against both community and family. The family also was no longer the cohesive and co-operative force it was in The Riordans. It too was more of a disparate and disquieting phenomenon in Bracken, when it came into play at all. Pat Barry was essentially alone. Those human bonds that came to mean anything to him, with Miley, Delia or Louise, were not ties of blood. His family ties were the source of trouble. He had fallen out with his father and never made it up before he died. His brother was threatening his very livelihood, claiming an equal share in the land in which he had invested his labour and his brother had not. The other families too were in disarray. It was not only for the Barrys that family ties were a source of threat, but it was true for the Byrnes and Dalys as well. There was no father figure at all comparable to the patriarchal Tom Riordan. Neither Ned Daly nor Dinny Byrne were in any position to exercise such moral authority or to command such filial loyalty. There was most certainly no mother figure even remotely parallel to the nurturing Mary Riordan. Indeed, it was the absence of any sort of mother figure at all in the Barry and Byrne households that was most striking. The only mother figure at all was the high-born and self-absorbed Jill Daly, whose maternal instinct did not keep her from a flirtation with her daughter’s lover, making her as far from Mary Riordan as it was possible to be in rural Ireland. The younger women in Bracken were a breed far removed from the dutiful Maggie Riordan and the earthy Delia Maher, although Louise Daly was not altogether unlike Collette Comerford. The women in The Riordans, old and young, were, for the most part, rooted, responsible and very hard working. The women in Bracken were all up-market, pampered and non-productive. They were not part of the world of work. They moved only in the sphere of leisure.

Its representation of women was one area in which Bracken did perhaps strain credibility and deserve what criticism came its way. Carolyn Swift, who believed that the representation of women in RTE drama has been generally bad, has singled out Bracken as particularly bad, in that all the women were nothing but male fantasies.39 Barbara O’Connor has made Bracken the lync pin in an argument reaching the generalised conclusion that what changes there were in the representation of women in RTE drama were regressive rather than progressive. In her view, The Riordans gave a high visibility to women and gave a public airing to women’s issues. In so doing, it challenged the patriarchal status quo, whereas Bracken marginalised women, portraying them either as sex objects for men or as pawns in a male power struggle. The women in The Riordans were not so overtly sexual as in Bracken, but they were productive, most of them engaging in some sort of work. The women in Bracken seemed to represent the move to a more secular, ostensibly more liberated, view of sexuality, but ladies of leisure, more concerned with their own sexual needs and doing no work, were not necessarily more progressive.40

While the more generalised argument about the overall development of the representation of women in RTE drama being in a regressive direction, might not have been sustainable, because it was an over-generalisation based on an under-representative sample, the criticism of Bracken was fair enough. The women did seem to be derived more from male fantasy than from concern for sociological verisimilitude. That all the women featuring in a portrait of an impoverished rural sheep farming community should be posh, pampered, idle and sexy really was stretching sustainable probability beyond the limits. Eve, above all, (even her name signifying her role as temptress) had a snake-like seductiveness about her that was over the top. She was certainly never plausible as the fiancee of the naive Peter, whose own character became increasingly implausible, once engaged to her, and went completely off the rails, in taking at face value her story about deciding not to get married but to become a nun. With regard to the other female characters, while they were individually credible on a certain level, the fact that they were not counter-balanced by other female characters made the overall picture of women one of questionable credibility. There were no traditional rural women. There were no genuinely liberated women either. The fact that all the women were parasitic, from the queenly take-it-all-for-granted Louise to the vixenly scratching and clawing Lily, was very problematic indeed.

Another problem was that the script was soft on women in a way that it was not on men. There was never any real edge of exposure in scrutinising their behaviour. The script was constantly questioning Pat Barry’s actions and his motives, but not Louise’s. When Pat declared he was ‘taking nothing’ , ‘no handouts’, he was told he was ‘coddin himself’. When Louise spoke of being ‘equal partners’, there was no counterpointing comment or implicit query. Pat, whatever about marrying for social mobility and material avarice, did bring his labour to bear upon the land and had worked very hard indeed for whatever he had. But the emphasis was on what he was taking from Louise, who had never done a tap to earn what she had to give. Throughout the series, Louise was shrouded in royalist imagery:

Eve (to Pat): “So princess marries the shepherd boy and lives happily ever after?”
Christy (to Pat): “She’s a queen, you know that? ”

That the beautiful and poshly-bred daughter of the big house be referred to thus was understandable enough, but that such honorific use of royalist imagery in a republic and positive reference to parasitic creations be taken at face value was something else.
In other respects, however, the script was much sharper and more honest. It gave a complex picture of the unequal odds in the struggle between the small man and the big house, without making it a black and white contest with all good on one side and all evil on the other. Pat Barry may have been a bit of a cowboy, but he did not wear a white hat and ride off on a white horse into the sunset. He was both hero and anti-hero, with very ambiguous motives. He could hold his head high with the dignity of labour, but he could be cunning enough to make even the innocent and trusting Miley cynical. In a very telling exchange in which Pat seemed to be championing the cause of social justice, Miley proved uncannily astute. When Pat began giving out about the fact that 70% of the land of Ireland was owned by 5% of the people, Miley commented:

“Do you know all this thing about the 5%… you don’t want all that money and wealth shared out. You just want them to move over to make more room for yourself.”
There was an acute sense at times of how unjust the whole distribution of resources was. It was not just the enormous gap between the 5% and the rest either. Even between those at the bottom, there were all sorts of intricate injustices. That Pat should have to listen to his brother say “I’m only tryin’ to protect what’s my own” and to put up with the pressure from his sister-in-Iaw, at even a further remove, declaring “We’ve come for our share”, was not fair. That he should work so hard and have to give an equal share to his brother grated on him, especially when the brother not only did not labour on the land, but “never even asked me how the lambing went.” Sometimes the point was made by juxtaposition of scenes and the disparity of wealth on the ground was made vivid by showing Dinny and Miley and their Iambs in a tiny congested cottage and then cutting to Louise and Jill sitting in idle and spacious comfort in the huge sitting room of their luxurious mansion.
It had it humourous side as well, not unlike that of The Riordans. There was the visual humour of all the sophisticated people, principals and all, at the Daly-Barry wedding in simple dress and Dinny and Miley arriving in top hats and tails in their old banger. There was the wry verbal humour of the Byrne household: “pull up a sheep and sit down” {which was evidently heard all over Wicklow for ages afterwards). There was the irony of Pat Barry coming up to his wedding, remarking wistfully: “I’m going to miss my virginity.” The sexual explicitness was a bit different. It was the way The Riordans had been developing, but Bracken definitely upped the ante and brought it into a realm nearer that of Dallas and Dynasty than the early days of The Riordans. It was a far more open and confident break with old taboos that seemed to draw strength from what had been made acceptable by foreign television. It did so, unfortunately, with fantasy figures, which were more akin to those of foreign television than to real people drawn from real Irish life. Its similarity to Dallas and Dynasty was, in fact, another source of criticism laid against it. Eoghan Harris felt that this made it a production more in the tradition of Mills and Boon romance than a social and agricultural tract for the times.41 This was perhaps too harsh. The romance was both too cynical and too soft in the manner of Dallas and Dynasty, but it did draw its strength from a sociological insight and agricultural verisimilitude that made it far more honest than Falcon Crest .

In 1983 Glenroe took up the tradition of the rural serial and preserved the thread of narrative continuity by taking the characters of Miley and Dinny Byrne from Bracken as the starting point for a new scenario constructed by Wesley Burrowes. The first episode opened in Bracken, revealing that Dinny and Miley Byrne had just sold their farm to Pat Barry. Still at odds, Miley was keen to find a new place, while Dinny was content to have the money from the sale to flash in the local pub. Insisting that he would emigrate again rather than sit around and watch his father drink away everything they had, Miley forced a decision to buy a new farm in Glenroe. Glenroe marked the movement of the rural serial into closer geographical and cultural proximity to the urban environment, parallel to the drift of social development, which was narrowing the gap between city and country. Glenroe was a fictional village down the mountain from the fictional Bracken. It was that part of Wicklow bordering on Dublin, where the rural village like Kilcoole (where the village scenes are shot) was nearly a Dublin suburb. It was an environment Brian MacLochlainn, its original producer and director, called ‘rurban’ (a buzzword that never quite buzzed), where rural life was nearer to urban life.42

Glenroe not only took characters from Bracken, but aspects of its narrative pace and visual style as well. In other respects, it was closer to The Riordans than Bracken. Its format was a 24 episode-per-year serial. It therefore had more interwoven storylines, strung out over a longer period, meaning looser plotting and a lower degree of resolution. Although it seemed slow in comparison to Bracken, it was by no means a reversion to the pace of The Riordans. The average half-hour episode of The Riordans consisted of six scenes, whereas for Glenroe the average was twelve, reflecting both the accelerated pace of modern life and the acclimatisation of the television audience to fast-paced American productions. Glenroe was somewhere in between The Riordans and Bracken in its picture of the rural community. The community of Glenroe came across as a more congenial and co-operative force than that of Bracken, especially in the first year of the serial, when the role of the growers association was a running storyline. Yet, even in its moments of greatest communal solidarity, it never seemed as centred or as cozy as Leestown. Most of the time, the community was a vague, diffuse, background presence, with more particular social relationships in the foreground. Family ties loomed larger in Glenroe than in Bracken. Although family relationships were shown to be more important to individual characters than in Bracken, they were by no means so locked into them as in The Riordans. The family unit came across as a much less conventional and less stable institution than in The Riordans. In the first year, the majority of characters were single, widowed, separated or divorced. The only conventional household anyway resembling that of the Riordans was that of the Brennans, who were more in the background of things anyway. The Byme household was father and son. The Moran household was father and sons. The McDermott household seemed to be, and soon was, mother and daughters. The Maher household was brother and sister.

In its earliest episodes, Glenroe was preoccupied with the dynamics of ‘blow-ins’ coming into an established community and striving to establish their own niche in it. Most scenes were constructed to explore the adjustments made by Dinny and Miley in finding their way about Glenroe and to introduce the inhabitants of Glenroe in terms of their reactions to Dinny and Miley. In agricultural terms, the move from Bracken to Glenroe meant a shift from sheep farming to vegetable farming. For the Byrnes, the transition involved, not only missing the sound of the sheep, but mastering the techniques of horticulture. While Dinny was preoccupied with ingratiating himself in the household of their nearest neighbours, the McDermotts, and in the local pub, the Molly Malone, Miley was anxious to get down to business.

The instrument of his introduction to the latest in horticultural techniques, if not the latest in mating rituals, was Biddy McDermott. Biddy, the central female character, was a far cry from the women in either The Riordans or Bracken. Technically competent and extremely industrious, she held a diploma in horticulture and seemed to do a hard day’s work and then more again. As Dinny saw her, she was

“Doing a man’s job …wearing men’s trousers”.
Indeed, the unmistakable impression was that she could run circles around most men, even men who came much nearer to doing a day’s work than Dinny Byrne ever seemed to do. Miley was quick to respect her as a farmer and to defer to her agricultural expertise, even if slow to see her in any other light. After her father died, she assured her mother that they were not helplessly alone in the house and that she was pretty good with a shotgun. In the world beyond her farm, she seemed equally liberated. In the pub, she bought her round and spoke her mind. At the meetings of the growers’ association, she was not only strong-minded and articulate, but quite the rabble-rouser, inciting others to organise and do something about the scandal of the Dublin market and imported vegetables. At one point, she showed such leadership as to be elected chairperson of the growers’ association. As able as she was to match any man in the world of work, she was by no means butch. She was a very sexual young woman, even if she was not so confident and assertive in this sphere as in the other. She was liberated enough to reject the coquettish and manipulative ways of her self-centred sister Carol, who had all the men, including Miley, in a hopeless whirl. She was traditional enough, however, to wait to be asked, and wait she surely did, for Miley to take notice and eventually to pop the question. She was a fairly conventional bride and changed her name to Biddy Byrne. By the fourth year, she was still strong-minded and hard working, but some of the edge had gone off her. She was a bit more the settled rural bourgeois, preoccupied with real estate transactions, than the new breed of militant small farmer, challenging the operation of market forces and committed to co-operative principles and collective solidarity. She was still, however, one of the best female characters on television, certainly one who captured the imagination of the Irish audience. In a song sung by Brendan Grace on The Late, Late Show, Biddy, with her blue jeans and wellies and tractor, was compared with the women in the imported soaps, with their Paris fashions and high heeled boots and fast sports cars. In the words of the chorus:
“You can have your Pam from Dallas , I love Biddy of Glenroe.”
Although Dallas and Glenroe were constantly vying for top place in the TAMs and the audience seemed to want both, there was no contest as to which elicited more affection, identification and respect for authenticity, in relation to their female characters, as to other aspects of their respective portrayals of contemporary life.
The characterisation of women as a whole was more credible than in Bracken, Dallas, Dynasty or Falcon Crest, as well as less traditional than in The Riordans. Mary McDermott, the most prominent mother figure, was no Mary Riordan. Very chic in attire and still sexually attractive she was engaged in an adulterous affair with the wheeler-dealer estate agent Dick Moran, even when her elderly husband was still alive. She was also still a quite traditional catholic, which at times made her characterisation questionable. Her refusal to marry Dick, who was divorced in England, because she considered him still married, while sleeping with him and acting as if he wasn’t married, did not always ring true. However, given the number of seemingly sensible women, who have been schizoid in this sort of way, it could pass. The only really inauthentic note regarding Mary was in the third year, when she walked right into an instant highflying career as a PR executive, in much the same way as Pam Ewing or Alexis Colby became instant oil executives or Sue Ellen became a top notch fund-raiser for medical research at the flick of a scriptwriter’s whim at the word-processor. But then it has since come to light that Sue Ellen’s career at Grayson Research was only Pam’s dream, in the most audacious stroke of arbitrary script-writing yet, which made the occasional excess from Irish scriptwriters seem very small indeed.

Other females reflected the changing times in their various ways. The middle-aged women of Mary’s generation were even less willing than she was to stay in the old ruts. Ruth Moran and Molly Malone both left their husbands and went off to make new lives for themselves, seemingly with less angst than Jude Riordan. It was hard to know, all the same, as neither were very fully explored. Nor was the up-market businesswoman, Barbara Downes. Neither was the alcoholic wife of a high flying businessman, the Sue Ellen-like Theresa Marshall. Nancy Brennan, on the other hand, was more like the various older women, who were more traditional rural types. Madge O’Regan and Daisy Hefferon, who were played off against each other as rivals for Dinny’s favours and for the job of priest’s housekeeper, both seemed to disappear without trace. The actress May Ollis, who played Daisy, died quite suddenly, but her lines in the episodes then in production were simply given to another character and nothing in the script ever explained what happened to Daisy. Mary’s Auntie Florrie, who came to fill the older woman slot, smacked of a stage Irish-geriatric cuteness that made her a bit hard to take as a serious character. The next to fill the slot, Teasy McDaid, also represented more the same kind of scriptwriting silliness than anything else, but eventually settled in to become a long running character.

The younger women were of various sorts. Some of them were yuppie types, not unlike the younger women in Bracken or Falcon Crest. Their characters were never really convincingly drawn. Carol McDermott worked or didn’t work, where and when it suited her. After her aspirations to the big house were disappointed, she went off travelling around the world. Her one-sided romance with George never rang true. Mandy, who succeeded her as secretary in the Moran office, never took believable form. She came across mostly as an eighties amoral upwardly mobile clothes-horse, who would hardly have been likely to slap Matt’s face after Miley told her the story of the good fun all around when Des broke in on Nuala giving Matt a massage after the aerobics class. The punky Nuala was a much better and more believable character. She was also one who pushed at the borders of traditional male-female roles and challenged those whose minds were stuck in the traditional grooves. Like Biddy, she was one to do a day’s work. At first, she did the vegetable round with her brother and later reverted to it in an arrangement with Biddy and Miley. In the second year, she worked in the garage as a mechanic, side by side with Des Brennan, with whom she eloped. When Miley came looking for Des to do a job on his van, David Brennan assured him that he could entrust it to Nuala:

“She could strip an engine and put it back together blindfolded. She’s great with cars.”
To which the reaction was an admiring “tough nut.” In general, the representation of women in Glenroe built on the better side of what it was in The Riordans and Bracken, in that the women tended to be productive and rooted and, at the same time, assertive and sexual. The spunkier young women tended to be more nuanced characters, both better written and better acted than the rest.
As a whole, the male characters were perceptively written. The character of Miley Byrne evolved considerably, from the time of his first appearance in Bracken, where he functioned essentially as a foil for Pat Barry on the one hand and Dinny Byrne on the other. In Glenroe, as he came into his own, there was a new strength to his character. After long years, he knew what to expect from his chancer of a father and had decided to take so much and no more. He had learned where to draw the line, how to put his foot down and be firm. With others, he was far less suspicious, in fact far too trusting in the face of fairly obvious deviousness. On several occasions, he took Dick Moran’s self-serving scheming to be beneficent generosity. So reticent was he to admit the bad side to people or to be vindictive, when the bad was too plain for anyone to miss, that his father said of him:

“If someone stole that lad’s jacket, he’d thank them for leavin’ his trousers.”
He could certainly be very dense as far as women were concerned. He was totally offside in dealing with Carol. When even the dogs in the street knew about Mary’s affair with Dick, Miley hadn’t a clue. When it could scarcely have been clearer how Biddy felt about him, he believed his proposal would come as a complete bolt from the blue. He had no idea what her answer would be. His behaviour was often full of endearing irony. After telling Matt Moran that he didn’t know how to handle women, he turned to George Manning, the ever-single squire, who was perhaps even more hopeless where women were concerned, for man-of-the-world advice on how to go about making a proposal of marriage. The blind-leading-the-blind male camaraderie of the scene was very funny and indicative of the characteristic humour of Glenroe. The character of Miles Finbarr Aquinas Byrne, more than that of any other character, was played with a touch of the tease that had worked only because of the style and skill brought to the part by Mick Lally. Wesley Burrowes, in speaking of the feedback process between actors and characters, admitted that Miley in particular has evolved in relation to what Mick Lally has made of him, which, in fact, has turned out to be far from what was originally intended.43
In contrast to the honest and high-minded Miley, who was quite without guile, Dinny was the quintessential rural rogue, who was overflowingly full of guile. When not spoofing in the pub, he would be scheming and prying into everybody else’s business with all the peasant cunning he could muster. While not always as clever or as successful at it as he wanted to think, he did manage occasionally to pull the wool over somebody’s eyes, even if the like of Dick Moran usually saw right through him. The only sorts of things he ever did resembling work usually involved some manner of pretence or double dealing, like buying supermarket eggs and dirtying them up to sell as farm fresh free-range eggs. Still, most of his transgressions were minor on the scale of things. None was as nasty as the plot to steal sheep and frame Pat Barry in Bracken. His character was considerably softened, indicating a pattern playing itself out across a number of productions, whereby it has seemed difficult to impossible to maintain a central character as a blaggard in a long-running serial.44

Relations between the sexes were still quite traditional, although some storylines did ring the changes. The first and second years were thick with romantic quagmires, particularly involving the younger single characters. Biddy, Carol, Nuala, Bernie, Mandy, Miley, Paul, Matt, Des, Paddy and David seemed constantly to be combining and recombining in pairs and triangles. Not that the older characters were exempt from all the pairing and triangulating. Unlike in The Riordans, sexuality in Glenroe was not just for the young, corresponding to a trend in international television, gradually coming to terms with the fact that older people, even women with grown up offspring, were still sexual beings. The like of Mary McDermott, Sheila Grant or Angie Watts, however, were much nearer the mark than Alexis Morrell Carrington Colby Dexter. Older characters tended to be more traditional in their manners and mores than the younger ones, but by no means inflexibly or humourlessly so. They were more comfortable with the traditional division of labour between the sexes, for example, but recognised that it was no longer taken for granted. Even when Stephen asked:

“Why would I be interferin’ in the woman’s side of the business?”
it was a bit tongue-in-cheek. Even though he lived by the old lines of demarcation, he knew his sons would not. He sympathised with Nuala in her difficulties with Des, who was trying to force her into the old moulds, and knew that the traditional mothering given his son was creating problems for his daughter-in-law, which she did not deserve.
Even the oldest and most traditional characters bowed to new ways with an endearing graciousness and showed they irnplicitly respected a wisdom in new ways that was not their own. When the elderly Michael McDermott was putting his affairs in order, there was a rather fine scene between himself and the priest:

Michael McDermott: “It’s hard sharin’ out between women. If you have a son, it’s easy.”
Fr. Devereux: “Now, Michael, I wouldn’t let the feminist women hear you talkin’ like that.”
Michael went on to speak of his marriage at the age of 50 to Mary when she was 18. He regretted taking her youth. The priest replied that he had given her a home, comfort and security. To which Michael in turn replied:
Michael: ” And do you think that was a fair exchange?”
Fr. Devereux: “You’d want one of the new breed of priests to answer you that one, Michael. I have a list in my head of all the things a man shouldn’t do to his wife. When it comes to what he should be doin’, I’d be only guessin’.”

Fr. Devereux, although he was of the old breed, tried his best to cope with new realities that did not or would not fit into the old categories. He had words with Matt Moran, when Matt and Michelle decided to live together and have their baby without marrying. Nevertheless, when it came to the crunch and Michelle was in an accident, he included in his prayers ‘her husband Matt’.
Yet, most of the time, he was as bewildered as anybody else .by all the anomalies of post-referendum Ireland. In the prolonged irresolution of the relationship between Dick Moran and Mary McDermott, they were awaiting an annulment from Rome. Meanwhile, Matt Moran and Michelle Malone brought their baby for christening, with still no word of a wedding. In a moment when at a loss as to what to make of it all, he remarked on what a confused world it was:

“You have the ones who can get married and won’t, and you have the ones who want to get married and can’t”.
The new and the old popped up again and again in uneasy coexistence or in ironic confrontation with each other. The script was at its best when highlighting the tensions and ironies in the interface between old and new. Old habits of thought built up over generations did not die easily, whatever the new challenges undermining them in present experience. Dinny Byrne, in particular, embodied the old peasant psyche rooted in the centuries of experience of those who were landless, or near landless, and yet trapped on the land. Dinny might have moved down from the mountain, where he and Miley cut each other’s hair twice a year along with shearing the sheep, into a world of unisex hair salons, but to take the man from the mountain was not to take the mountain from the man. Certain things, like the tie of sex to land and livestock, were etched in his brain and ran in his blood, no matter what anyone said. At one point, Mary tried to tell Dinny that he was defeating his own purposes in pushing Biddy and Miley together, while contriving to determine her exact assets. She warned him to
“stop going around like some mountainy matchmaker, reducing everything to money and land and livestock”.
Miley, unlike Dinny, was put off by her assets and his lack of them. When he finally overcame his inhibitions, he stood in the cottage, pleased as punch, talking of what a pearl of a woman she was:
“If I had a choice of all the women of Ireland, I couldn’t have done better.”

Dinny, while he distractedly nodded and agreed, was sitting at the table, busy with paper and pencil, calculating the acres. When he got to the pub, there was light-hearted talk of the nerve of the blow-ins taking the best of their women. To which Dinny responded in terms of the need to bring new blood into their breeding lines. The parallels between human pair-bonding and barnyard breeding was more than once the occasion of humourous double entendre. There was, for example, a sequence in which Mary got herself into a state over a conversation between runny and Fr.Devereux about a greyhound’s pregnancy, which she took to be about Biddy.

Glenroe was full of rich and well-rooted humour. There were light laughs based on simple malapropisms (about ‘agrophobic dancing’) or simple mix-ups (like Miley automatically taking off his boots and getting ready for bed in the old cottage on his first day back from the honeymoon). There were more penetrating ironies (like George’s insight into his own character and situation, realising that he made contact across the gap between the big house and the rest by playing up to being a figure of fun).

Although it has been kept generally light, Glenroe has had its serious aspects. Occasionally, it took up social issues, like the economic plight of small growers, the dumping of industrial waste and the failure of lumpers to pay tax and PRSI. Although it has since backed away from this sort of congruence with current affairs issues, the story about the Dublin market was first investigated by the Today Tonight programme. What had proven impossible to do as a factual report, because people wouldn’t talk, could be pursued in fictional format. It was the only time Glenroe showed such a sense of a crusading mission or approached any issue with such resolution or with such strong words as spoken by Stephen at a meeting of the growers association in the first year:

“As we know from our own shattered history, there are very nice people with nice clothes and hairdos who would be the very ones to squash growers right back into the ground.”
In the third year, the storylines involving Oliver and Theresa Marshall illustrated several instances of particular exploitation on the ground of the plain people of Glenroe by those sort of ‘nice people with nice clothes and hairdos’. When Theresa Marshall in an alcoholic haze in her big fancy car ran into the vegetable van driven by the pregnant Nuala, it was she who was at fault, but it was Biddy, Miley and Nuala who had to suffer the consequences, including loss of earnings, while the insurance got sorted out. It subsequently became clear that the Marshall empire was built on smuggling operations, but only after he had skipped the country with all the money Mary had been left by Michael, who had denied himself all the comforts it could have brought him for years.
However, such attention as there was to social injustices and class differences tended to be so isolated and particularistic as not to bring into clear focus the systemic character of such injustices and the structural inequality of class. There were odd instances of snobbery, like Nancy Brennan calling Paddy and Nuala Maher “only tinkers from the side of the road” and laying down the law about “bringing the like of that into the house”. Yet they were so successfully upwardly mobile as to cut off any disturbance about class oppression. Paddy became quite the man of property, inheriting a pub, and Nuala was not long in being accepted into the family and inheriting in her turn. At the other end of the spectrum, the character of the squire was constructed as being so benevolent and so helpless that the most impoverished and oppressed would want only to mother him. The character of George Manning seemed to be derived more from English theatrical farce than anything typical of Irish life.

There was an indulgence of the big house that had the effect of smothering any sort of reflection on how the ascendancy acquired their big houses or how incongruous it was for one man, however nice, to occupy such a vast residence, when whole families were cramped into one room. In fact, the big house was made to seem highly accessible, in that the humblest resident of Glenroe would be welcome there and in that it was twice within the grasp of Mary, who as a simple girl of 18 married an elderly small farmer, to become its mistress. Not only did George Manning propose to her, but Dick Moran was at one point on the verge of buying it, if she would marry him and live there.

Glenroe has drifted more and more into a preoccupation with the problems of people of property and a soft-centred indulgence of the minor joys and sorrows of their lives. In a period of recession, when more and more sections of the population have been threatened with marginalisation and impoverishment, it was not really telling the truth of the times to construct a scenario where sudden unearned wealth and/ or entrepreneurial skill allowed virtually every character to be upwardly mobile and prosperous. It gave a very easy ride to the spirit of the entrepreneurial eighties. Michael’s secret long-ago investments that had turned up trumps, Dinny’s long lost brother, incommunicado for 50 years, turning out to be a wealthy monsignor, Paddy being left a pub in England out of the blue and barmaid Bernie returning as a rich widow to buy a business in Glenroe, Teasy inheriting a fortune won on the stock market: all these were plots bearing more resemblance to plots in Dallas, Dynasty or Falcon Crest than to the reality of life in 1980s Ireland. Indeed, the characters themselves seemed conscious of it. On the telephone when Bernie came into his office, Dick Moran assured her:

“Oh, we’ve more heavy deals going than Dallas”. (Looking at her) “More glamour too.”
This too was in line with a trend in international television, whereby television had become increasingly reflexive. In the beginning, television tended not to refer to television. Television drama certainly did not refer to television drama. By the 1980s television had become very self-referential and television drama everywhere was tending to refer to other television drama, particularly the American variety. From the beginning, the characters in Glenroe seemed to draw more on imagery derived from American television serials than from anything in Irish culture (high or low / traditional or modern) to give shape to their own experiences. When Biddy and Miley came into the pub, Paddy remarked:
“Here comes Mork and Mindy.”
When the up-and-coming young lawyer Paul Moran came into company, Nuala inquired:
“How are things on Flamingo Road ?”
When Miley was out on his vegetable round and asked if he had grapes, he replied:
“What do you think this is Falcon Crest ?
When the culprits who robbed the McDermotts were caught, Matt was thrilled by it as “real Hill Street Blues stuff”
When asked about Oliver and Theresa Marshall, Michelle described her as a “Sue Ellen type” and him as “like Miss Ellie’s husband”.
Except for this link to the rest of the world through television itself, Glenroe seemed curiously cut off from anything outside itself. This was undoubtedly to the liking of many of the audience, who wanted their own lives cut off from all but an amiable reflection of the more manageable problems of everyday life or the faraway fantasy problems of imported television. However, when even the smallest approximation to the violence on US serials made its presence felt on Glenroe, they did not like it at all. That the McDermott home, as cozy as their own and as real to them as those of their actual neighbours, should be violated was too threatening. It brought echoes of the very real violence of contemporary Ireland and the very frightening breakdown of social discipline all too near. Its transmission, as it happened, coincided with a spate of attacks on the elderly. Even though it was all tidied up and no real harm was done, unlike most real robberies where the robbers nearly always did get away with it, there was a great deal of negative audience reaction to the episode. Mailbag brought Wesley Burrowes on to answer his critics. He argued that the same audience was watching TJ Hooker, Miami Vice and Rambo, where violence was presented in a way that really was corrupt, but they only gave out in relation to Glenroe, where it was not. He maintained that such violence was part of Ireland as it really was and that it was important to face up to the black spots of Irish society. The fact that The Riordans did so, he claimed, was why it lasted so long. The role of the programme was to stimulate, not to sedate.

Except for this mild and marginal incident, Glenroe did not do much to face up to the black spots in Irish society. It did not generate anything like the sort of controversy that The Riordans did. Indeed, some connected with The Riordans along the way felt that Glenroe was on the whole functioning more as a sedative than a stimulant. When answering the critics on Mailbag, one felt Wesley Burrowes was back on the tightrope he had walked in writing The Riordans and was struggling to find the right balance between entertaining and grasping nettles, but for long stretches of Glenroe’s first five years, he seemed to have come off the tightrope and to be standing decisively on the entertainment side. In the initial promotion of the serial, Burrowes stated on the Day by Day programme that he had ‘no social motivation’ in writing Glenroe and that he felt it was unnatural to see a small community as a microcosm of the social problems of the nation. In other public statements, he asserted firmly that Glenroe was not about issues, but about people and their relationships and that the primary motivation behind it was to entertain.45 His hands were sometimes raw from grasping nettles in The Riordans, he said. The balance in Glenroe was deliberately to comic relief over against social issues. If Glenroe ran up against social issues, it wouldn’t dodge them. The scandal of the Dublin vegetable market was given as an example of an issue not dodged.46

However, a dramatic serial is a construction and it can be constructed in such a way as to be either perceptive or myopic in relation to the social order in which a small group of characters in a small community live out their lives. It can look outwards at the world in tune with the relevant ryhthms of their lives or be turned in on the details of their lives in cozy isolation. Interestingly, Burrowes wrote a most perceptive critique of Coronation Street for the insulation of Weatherfield from contact with the real social and economic problems of the times:

“There is hardly any crime in Weatherfield, no vandalism, no drug problem, not even any real drunkenness, no wife-beating. There is no unemployment, or if there is, it is not mentioned. No one feels the pinch and, if they do, there is always a pint of ale and a bacon butty to ease the pain. It seems to me that there is something contradictory in a policy of seeking to convey images of reality without ever touching on these real issues. It is surely unreal, for instance, that the sporting affiliations of the lads never surface in the Rovers. Even more unreal that a bitter year-long miners’ strike, in which the Lancashire pits played a prominent part, never merited a mention There was one story in which a new lodger in Hilda Ogden’s house was discovered to have been a strike-breaker and hounded from the Street but unaccountably, since that one brief but successful experiment in exposing the Street to some cold areas from outside, there has been a lurch back towards the kind of safe triviality which could one day make the Street irrelevant.”47

In the same spirit as Burrowes was so sharply critical of a programme for which he had genuine admiration, it was appropriate to lay the same critique at the door of Glenroe. There was hardly any crime in Glenroe. There was no unemployment. There was no poverty. No one seemed to feel the pinch. If they did, there was always a pint of Guinness or a pan of rashers, sausages and black pudding to ease the pain. There was never a hint of anything like the bitter year-long VEHA strike, which tore asunder families, neighbours and co-workers in Wicklow, or like the Kerry babies tribunal which revealed a great deal about the darker side of rural Ireland. There was never a mention of either of the two constitutional referenda, both of which involved the whole nation, except for the fictional citizens of Glenroe, and divided the whole population into two bitterly opposing camps.

Glenroe did not even push very hard at the boundaries of accepted sexual morality, which was the forte of The Riordans. The affair of Mary and Dick was stretched out in a paralysis of prolonged indecision and never really took on the issues it raised. The refusal of Michelle to marry, even while living with Matt and after having a baby, was more of a whimsical wilfulness than a matter of firm principle. Biddy and Miley, for all viewers could tell, were virginal to their wedding night. Biddy, unlike Maggie a decade earlier, stuck to church approved methods of family planning. In the most old-fashioned way of deaing with the matter without having to discuss it, she marked the calendar for Miley to see. When there was a news item, followed by an interview with Mick Lally, on Morning Ireland about Mick Lally leaving the show, because he refused to do a nude scene in which Biddy and Miley would make love before their wedding day, there was a massive reaction. Even though it was done as an April fools joke, there were thousands of phone calls and letters to RTE taking it at face value and praising Mick Lally for taking his stand against nudity and pre-marital sex and for keeping Glenroe ‘wholesome’. It showed how little had changed since The Spike. Glenroe did little to disturb that section of the audience which would have been up in arms if it had attempted to push back the borders by challenging the assumption that nudity was sordid and by exposing the unwholesome attitudes to the human body prevailing in Ireland. It only pushed very timidly at attitudes to pre-marital sex in the Matt and Michelle story. It hedged its bets on the divorce issue in the Dick and Mary story. Whenever queried about it, Burrowes gave the state of legal uncertainty surrounding divorce in the country as the reason. Nevertheless, in a country where so many were acting decisively outside the law, this did not constitute an altogether adequate reason. The final resolution could scarcely have been safer, with Dick’s church annulment coming through and Dick and Mary having a respectable catholic wedding in Rome and settling into a respectable bourgeois marriage back in Glenroe.

The production schedule of Glenroe, which necessitated setting of story-lines nine months prior to transmission, set limits to its topicality, as far as unpredictable news items might be concerned. All the same, it constituted no obstacle to taking on many ongoing and deeply rooted social problems, which it did not take on. Going into its fifth year with a production schedule closer to East Enders or Brookside, it raised hopes that it could not only produce its Christmas episodes for Christmas, but be truer to its times in deeper ways as well.

Although Glenroe threw up attractive characters and set them in amusing interaction with each other, it tended to skate across the surface of the human condition, rather than to engage in a more penetrating scrutiny of the human psyche. There was not one single character articulating an advanced idea or expressing a really deep emotion. There was no intellectual or emotional edge to it, no great thirst for truth or justice, no deep searching of the soul. There was no questioning of catholic doctrine in principle, whatever the falling off in practice. There was little to challenge the status quo, whether of church or state, in any sort of fundamental way. While was not deep or daring, it was clever and charming. Nevertheless there were still hopes that it would open out in new directions, even if it had yet to fulfill its potential to probe the human psyche or to lay bare the true social fabric of the times. Wesley Burrowes, addressing himself to some of the points raised in this critique, both in conversation and in an In Dublin article, admitted that the fourth year of the series had a problem of focus. He also admitted that he was a bit ‘conscience-stricken’ over the fact that everyone was so comfortable. Once he realised that nobody even worked for a wage, that everybody was an entrepreneur, he took it to heart and introduced a working class kid (Chuck) coming to work for Biddy and Miley. He intriguingly promised a ‘major social upheaval’ involving the three main characters in the fifth year48, but it did not happen and Chuck too ended up in the rags-to-riches cliché.

Whatever its faults, it carried on the tradition begun in The Riordans and taken up in Bracken. It regularly recycled and updated themes from The Riordans in new storylines, with recurring motifs, ranging from relationships between priests and greyhounds through honeymoon preoccupation with crops and livestock to the “maybe there’re not doing it right” reaction to babies not coming nine months after wedding. It also regularly re-affirmed its narrative continuity with Bracken, with a chance meeting and subsequent visit from a woman they knew in Bracken, the presence of Bracken guests and a telegram from Pat and Louise Barry at Biddy and Miley’s wedding and a trip back to Bracken where Biddy met Pat Barry. Most importantly, however, it continued the process of weaving a rich tapestry of rural life, giving RTE perhaps the most impressive track record of any television service in the category of the rural serial.

Urban Drama

The same could not be said of its record in the category of the urban serial. Its portrayal of urban life over the years was, it was generally agreed, patchy and inadequate. Since Tolka Row, there was an enormous gap that was never adequately bridged by subsequent productions such as Southside, Partners in Practice, The Spike orThe Burke Enigma. This was the source of a great deal of dissatisfaction with RTE. Although everyone in RTE saw the problem, there was difficulty in generating an effective response to it. Both inside and outside RTE, it was asked: Why, in a time of rising unemployment, was there no Irish Boys from the Blackstuff ? Why, in a period of mounting crime and social indiscipline, was there no Irish Hill Street Blues ? Why, with all the interesting storylines inherent in earning a living, raising a family, understanding the world and coming to terms with the complexities of urban life, could RTE generate no Irish equivalent to East Enders or Brookside ?

Inside was specifically designed as a response to this demand for an urban serial, which would come to grips with the problems of contemporary life. It was made in 1985 and ran for thirteen half-hour episodes. Another thirteen episodes were in pre-production in 1986, when the decision to carry on with Inside was reversed. There was general agreement, even among those who worked hard to make it succeed, that it had failed to meet the need for contemporary urban drama. Perhaps the most fundamental problem was the setting. Three scenarios for an urban serial were originally considered. One was to be built around a Cork trade union official and his family, along with another family hit hard by unemployment. Another involved a middle class doctor working in an inner city medical practice. The third was a prison.

The reason given for the choice of the prison setting was that it had to be studio-based, because of lack of finance, and that the prison environment was the most claustrophobic of the possible settings.49 However, to make a prison serial in a situation in which there was a lot of urban drama being generated was one thing, but to do so in the face of virtually nothing else was another. It revealed a disorientation, in which there was no scale of priorities, no sense of proportion about what was central and what was peripheral, no coherent picture of the overall shape of contemporary urban life. It was too narrowly conceived. It once again put a disproportionate emphasis on lumpen life. It reinforced the tendency to equate urban life with drugs, violence and vulgarity. It made criminality the norm. It suggested that RTE still had problems dealing with normal urban life, a point made very strongly by Fintan O’Toole on a Slants programme featuring an analysis of the state of RTE drama. The exposition of what Inside was all about in the RTE Guide feature introducing it actually equated the prison environment with urban life. Joe Dunlop, the main writer and script editor, went so far as to call prison life “a microcosm of the world going about its business”:

“We wanted an urban series and Kilderry prison is a mirror image of inner city life. Sex, family life, work, trade unions, politics, violence, drugs are all found in prisons – in shadow and in substance.”50
It was not possible, however, for the prison environment to bear so much weight, without drastically misconceiving the relation of the prison experience to the whole of urban life.
Nevertheless, even given the limitations of the prison setting, there was still some potential for opening some areas of contemporary urban life of social importance and of dramatic interest. It was potential never fulfilled, because the scriptwriting was utterly lacking in direction or penetration. Despite the enormous talents of directors, designers, cast and crew that were channelled into Inside, they could never compensate for the inadequacies of the script. The various scriptwriters never jelled into a team working to a common purpose. The script editor, who had no apparent qualification for the job and no particular knowledge of either prison life or Irish society, never handled the material with any authority or made the various bits and pieces into anything coherent. Even while it was still in production, Mannix Flynn, the one scriptwriter with prison experience, complained about the guidelines given to him for writing the script. He claimed that he was told not to deal with politics. He argued that there was a reactionary mentality in Ireland that RTE had never really challenged and that Inside whitewashed everything it touched, right, left and centre.51 However, what Mannix Flynn considered whitewashing and others considered necessary editing, left much scope for debate. His scripts, even more than the rest, made criminality the norm and put prison at the centre of urban society.

Throughout the serial the scripts were flat, fragmented and unfocused. The plots were not only thin and forced, but they were riddled with implausibilities and non sequiturs. The fifth episode, for example, ended with a cliffhanger, with the prison governor receiving a kidnap note with what looked like the severed finger left over from The Price. Yet, amidst all the nail-biting concern about the governor’s kidnapped son in the sixth episode, it was never mentioned again. At the end of the episode came the announcement that the governor’s son was released unharmed, with no explanation of the finger.

Characterisation was extremely weak. There was not a single moment of real insight into the inner life of any character. There was not a single line of memorable dialogue. Some of the more experienced actors, like John Cowley, Kevin McHugh and Jim Bartley, were able to invest their characters with a kind of presence beyond what was written for them. Other characters either fell flat or went leaping over the top. Most of the prisoners were created in the mould of what Eoghan Harris called the ‘funny nose factor’.52 In a Slants discussion of Inside, Brendan Kennelly saw the civil servant from the department of justice as a ‘mix of Clark Gable and Dracula’. The prisoners brought into the Slants discussion commented that the screws were too wide awake, that the chaplain lacked all conviction, that the social worker would not have worked so closely with the governor. No one seemed to find the prison governor plausible. The characters of the governor, Frank Walker, and the social worker, Cara Blair, showed signs of having been conceived as Frank Furillo-Joyce Davenport figures as part of a strategy for making Inside Ireland’s answer to Hill Street Blues. However, it lacked the complexity, the grounding and the authenticity of Hill Street Blues. There was no way in which the surface resemblance of certain television characters to other television characters could make up for the lack. Nor could the overtly reflexive references in the dialogue. It was not enough to have Duffy say to Devlin “Let’s be careful out there” for it to summon the same resonances as such a penetrating serial as Hill Street Blues, which probed the crosscurrents of the particular social history in which it was so firmly rooted.

Inside was not firmly rooted. It penetrated no crosscurrents of social history. It tended to float above its material. Storylines involving drug addiction, prostitution, rape, fraud, robbery, mental illness, suicide, professional rivalry and extra-marital sex all had a second-hand, hear-say feel about them. There was no immediacy. There was no sense of an experiential grounding. There was no firm point of view. So anxious were those involved not to privilege anyone particular point of view that what they ended up with was, not many points of view, but no point of view. Rather than showing prison from the points of view of citizens, prisoners, relations, prison officers, prison governors, social workers and civil servants, prison never seemed real from any point of view at all.

Attempts to inject a bit of grittiness through vulgar language and bawdy humour did not really work. The street-wise dialogue always seemed strained and second-hand. Very occasionally, there was a joke worthy of a laugh:

“And she says ‘I think you’re a rotten lover!’ And he says ‘How can you tell in a minute and a half?’ ”
However, most of the attempts at humour fell flat:
Fr. Rowan: (Introducing two Legion of Mary singers at a prison concert) “These are the best. They’ve played for the Pope”
Joker: “Is that the fella that lives in the Vatican?”

Although the script note called for ‘lots of laughter’ at this point, it was simply more than even the most eager-to-please among actors and extras could manage. This was a serious defect, since in the absence of any other binding element, there was a tendency to rely on the wit to carry the whole thing. A lot of the so-called humour was of the ‘Hey, Mary, let’s have a look at your g-string’ variety’. The female characters and the representation of female sexuality bore all the marks of male locker room fantasy.
Following upon the decision to give the serial a prison setting, questions were raised about how to provide a female presence in an all male environment, both to give the drama romantic interest and to provide work for actresses. The somewhat glib attempts to solve this problem led, first of all, to distortion of the role of the female social worker within the prison. Cara Blair was portrayed as working all hours at a desk inside the governor’s own office, for no other reason than to inject a bit of romantic interest into the everyday business of running the prison and to spice up certain scenes with sparks of sexual tension. The other main vehicle for introducing a female presence was in the prison visiting scenes. The helpless and naive Sorcha Joyce or the elderly and elegant Lady Jane talking about what she wanted to do in bed with her husband of many years might have stretched the power to suspend disbelief just a bit, but they could perhaps pass. But Helen Carey, who kept coming back to the prison out of a need to discuss her rape with the rapist, was stretching it too far. Even less believable was Rose, who came to visit her pimp-turned-prison-inmate and told him of how she got onto an AnCO writing course by wearing a tight sweater and cut-away bra and creating a situation where “Yer man didn’t know whether he was comin’ or goin’ “. It was similar in form to a story told by a character called the Archdeacon of a scam he did on a bank manager who was a ‘knicker freak’ , while a certain model crossed and uncrossed her legs, and prisoners salivated even at second remove.

There was much sexual innuendo in the dialogue, particularly in the later episodes, much of it reflecting male voyeuristic anxiety about what other men were like in bed and male bewilderment over the real nature of female sexuality. The talk of one of them, while on parole, getting himself a ‘man eater’, who was back looking for more, was typically male wishful thinking, as was the bravado about Rose making ‘plenty of racket’ when she was ‘getting what she wanted’. The interjection of doubt about whether she really meant it, with the woman taking perverse pleasure in the area of doubt, was a reflection not only of male sexual insecurity, but of the alienation of sexuality from emotional intimacy. If such themes were going to be raised, it would have been better to give them more enlightened and extended treatment, rather than consigning them to the throwaway jocularity stemming from prison visits.

Another function of the prison visiting scenes was to show the connection of the prison to the outside world. However, these scenes were as bitty and as narrowly conceived as the rest and they never really fulfilled the function of opening the prison out to a larger social context. The only effective storylines in this category were ones that showed criminals being affected by crime on the outside while they were inside. These stories, particularly those involving the burglary of Joyce’s house and the death of De Vere Gorman’s wife had a table-turning irony to them, as victimisers became victims. But they also had the effect of portraying the outside world as being like the prison writ large.

None of the other devices for bringing the outside world into view did anything to change this picture of it. RTE news bulletins, in scenes where prisoners were listening to radio or watching television, were about gangs of youths in stolen cars ramming garda vehicles or heroin smuggling operations, all adding to the picture of the city as inherently violent and sordid. The politics of Inside tended to be vague and superficial, manifested in ill-digested, vague news items about ‘the government’ coming under fire from ‘the opposition’ over its economic policy; Kelly referring to ‘the mafia up in Leinster House’; Cagney claiming that money could buy judges. Most references to structures of power reflected a kind of lumpen anarchism and contributed to the picture of the society as a whole being the prison magnified, with people on the outside being even more bent than those on the inside.

Inside never came to terms with any of the particular issues it raised, nor with the social roots of crime, nor with the structures of power defining the role of the prison in the larger social order. There was a considerable defensiveness about social issues on the part of those shaping Inside. Even though it had its origins in an instruction from the controller, Muiris MacConghail, to meet the case made by those who were criticising RTE drama for not dealing with contemporary social issues, there was a negative attitude about issues, ideologies, political systems and social contexts in the prevailing view of what drama was all about among those responsible for Inside. The script editor and writer, Joe Dunlop, emphasised that it was “not a series with a mission – it’s drama” and that it was “not a crusade, it waves no banners”.53 The senior producer/director, Noel O Briain, did not want to be involved in socially committed drama, because, in his opinion, it made people into two-dimensional ciphers for socio-political points of view. He believed that there was too much emphasis on social systems and that the real causes of problems were in people’s hearts and not in social systems. 54 In the same spirit, the other producer / director, Gerry Stembridge, even in the course of giving a most incisive critique of Inside upon its denouement, emphasised that neither of them were ‘ideological directors’. Both tended to bend over backwards to insist that they were not interested in issues or ideologies, but in ‘people as people’.55

However, dealing with people as people both raises issues and makes ideological assumptions, which even those who erect barriers of resistance can be more than ready to face in practice. All the same, to penetrate people’s lives most effectively, it might be best to give explicit attention to the social systems shaping their hearts and minds and their options in life. To construct drama which was really consequential and gripping in illuminating human experience, it might be best to be conscious of sorting out issues, which after all arise out of human experience and reflect its needs and priorities. Indeed, characters embodying strong socio-political points of view, like Bobby Grant in Brookside or Joyce Davenport in Hill Street Blues, could be far from two dimensional, unlike characters in Inside. Indeed, their social commitment can often make for much stronger drama than anything happening on Inside.

Another source of defensiveness possibly having a bearing on the shaping of Inside would be even harder to assess. That was the shadow of The Spike. In the early stages of development of Inside, Sean Cotter, the executive producer gave an interview to Hot Press for a feature article on soap opera as social documentary. Although the article centred on Glenroe, Cotter mentioned the new urban serial, which, he promised, would be “dealing with current issues of urban society”. In answer to direct questions about The Spike, he answered that they would be aware of The Spike in making Inside and “gird our loins a bit”56. For his part, Noel O Briain, producer and director of both The Spike and Inside, often made the point that RTE drama had never recovered from The Spike. It had erected barriers of self-censorship that had yet to be breached.57 For their part, reviewers panned Inside. When relaying the news that it would not be back Gene Kerrigan in the Sunday Tribune approvingly pronounced it as having “gone to the land of The Spike”.58 It did so, however, without stirring up even a fraction of what The Spike revealed about Irish society, either directly or indirectly. It simply fell flat.

It was, however, one dead-end explored and eliminated on the way to creating another urban serial, which, it was hoped, would surpass Tolka Row, avoid the pitfalls of The Spike and Inside, and fill the need for a contemporary dramatic coming-to-terms with Irish urban life in the 1990s.

There was another series with a contemporary urban setting during the same period, although no one made any great claims for it as meeting the need for contemporary urban drama. Leave It to Mrs. O’Brien, a situation comedy revolving around a priest’s housekeeper, was set in the Liberties area of working class Dublin. Originally to be called The Good, the Bad and the Clergy, the first series was written by Dublin housewife Angela McFadden with Joe Dunlop as script editor. The second and third series were handed over to Joe Dunlop altogether. The first series was simply twee. It was full of exaggerated stage Dublin accents, awkward attempts to make the normal carry-on between priests and housekeepers look inherently cute and strained efforts to get badly-written inanities to sound like jokes. The second series was presented as “going for more character depth and less caricature …more reality …stronger stories”.59 What distinguished the second series, however, was even less character depth, more caricature and less reality. The stories were not stronger, but they were more inflated. Instead of plots hinging on a bold boy spiking the gravy and getting a very stuffy nun drunk, they instead hung on Mrs. O’Brien arriving back from Spain with a holdall stuffed with money or Fr. Michael meeting an English producer named Lulu in a Greystones hotel room to audition for an ‘all priests show’.

It was more slapstick than satire. There was no evidence that it gave a single decent laugh to the adult Dublin audience. There were vague stories told around RTE about remote places where the locals gathered around the pub televsion and nearly split their sides laughing. Indeed, somebody must have liked it, as it topped the RTE2 TAMs. Whoever did or didn’t like it, it wasn’t the critics. Reviews were generally scathing. For example, Gene Kerrigan’s column in the Sunday Tribune read:

“Heads should roll over Leave It to Mrs. O’Brien. People should be sacked, thrown on the dole and given lousy references… The strained, illogical plots are devoid of jokes. Mrs. O’Brien says “Janey!” and the camera holds on her like she’s just done a Dorothy Parker. The thing is, in every sense of the word, witless…The existence of this show means that other things must be left undone. Even if RTE was dripping with resources, it would be a shame to squander them so ineptly.”60
Another review, actually quoted in the RTE Guide, was equally caustic:
“Sometimes things can be so bad that you can laugh at them for that reason, but this series doesn’t even succeed on that dubious level. There were no characters remotely resembling any real person in the whole thing.”61
On various occasions, director Brian MacLochlainn defended the series. One line of defence was that it was made for a target audience of those between 7 and 14 and over 50. They were, he argued, not a very demanding audience, but one that deserved to be catered for in RTE schedules.62 Another strategy was to go more aggressively on the defensive and put the criticism down to “Baggot Street pseuds whose parameters of vision do not stretch beyond Stephen’s Green to Morehampton Road”.63 This was in the context of an interview criticising RTE for having ‘lost its nerve’ and calling for hard hitting programmes like some of the more courageous and adventurous efforts of the sixties and seventies.
Others, however, were arguing that precisely what RTE needed to turn itself around was to stop leaving it to Mrs. O’Brien. Questions were being asked about why, in such a farcical country, RTE could generate no decent comedy and why, in the current social climate, RTE could produce no social satire. An In Dublin article posed those questions quite sharply, comparing Britain and Ireland in the sphere of television comedy:

“The Brits are a stodgy lot. Their pubs are for guzzling plough man’s lunches, while discussing football results. Dull, mild-mannered and respecters of persons, they have Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson, Billy Connolly, John Cleese and Spitting Image. We, of course, are wits to a wiseacre. Pubs full of naturals only waiting to be discovered, a sidesplitting political set-up, an instinctive sense of the absurd and a delight in vicious abuse. We leave it to Mrs. O’Brien, pay Derek Davis and tolerate Twink. The poverty and paucity of social and political satire on RTE since the heyday of Hall’s Pictorial Weekly …is a failure of nerve, of imagination, of elementary competence. We’ve never produced anything as vicious as Spitting Image …Is it prudery or a failure of courage or political pressure?”64
Indeed, stories were told indicating one or all of the above. Whatever the reasons, Irish audiences were watching Yes, Prime Minister, A Very Peculiar Practice, Hot Metal, In Sickness and In Health, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, and Spitting Image, from across the water, while seeing nothing comparable at home, rooted in areas of Irish life crying out for the purging that bold satirical treatment could bring. In 1985, for example, RTE gave fairly straight-faced news coverage of the ‘moving statue’ phenomenon throughout Ireland and staged discussions of it in which the credulous made all the running.65 At the same time, it stopped a spot on TV GaGa, which was to be an interview with the Virgin Mary, suggesting that Immaculate Conception Clinics be set up around Ireland. Yet, over on Channel 4, Who Dares Wins did a skit reporting that, since the miracle of the weeping Madonna of Mourne, there had been similar phenomena allover Ireland: the dribbling Madonna of Drogheda, the jumping St.Joseph of Jordanstown and the Christ in Cork seen to be doing aerobics.
Access Community Drama

Other than Glenroe and Leave It to Mrs. O’Brien, the only home produced drama about contemporary Ireland made and transmitted in 1986 was an experiment in community drama by the Access team outside the aegis of the drama department. After two previous series of Access Community Television, in which RTE technical expertise was put at the service of various community groups to convey their aims and activities, it was decided to apply the Access method to drama. Claiming that some community groups had been experimenting with drama as a means of describing their experience, the Access team approached the Amateur Drama League, seemingly making the assumption that community drama and amateur drama were synonymous.

RTE invited sixteen amateur drama groups to a seminar and asked them to submit scenarios for scripts reflecting contemporary Irish life. Seven plays were chosen and shot on location on video tape with an outside broadcast unit in local houses, pubs, supermarkets and streets. They dealt with such themes as adolescence, education, unemployment, moving house, emigration, suicide and attacks on the elderly.

Fresh Salmon by the Dublin Olivian Players concerned a dinner party given by a young advertising executive, putting wife and lifestyle on show to impress his bosses. The scenario, except for an unemployed brother-in-law with punky gear, seemed somewhat passé. It was meant to contrast middle class pretensions with working class earthiness. The farce, however, was too facile, with the script going over the top, with strangers engaging in grossly insulting behaviour at first meeting and with hosts fawning and cringing, despite every conceivable insult.

The Changeling by Relay Productions, Ballinasloe, was a simple slice of everyday life for a young school girl, whose mother’s hospitalisation was interfering with her swimming practice. Despite a bit of imaginative direction, it was a somewhat insubstantial piece.

Win Some, Lose Some by the Rush Dramatic Society concerned the pressures upon a young unemployed man, with a working, pregnant wife and in-laws accusing him of being a waster. After losing money on the horses and robbing an old man of his savings, a crisis developed in which everybody had an instant change of heart and all ended happily ever after. The play was overwritten and the lines were delivered at breakneck speed, without a pause in sight. It was somewhat dishonest in showing the problem of unemployment giving way to instant solution and in circumstances that might have been expected to have accentuated, rather than solved, the problem, with the crime being the catalyst for bringing the son-in-law into the father-in-law’s business.

There Has To Be a Reason by the Leixlip Theatre Group concerned a young lad’s suicide and the reactions and reflections of those who knew him. It bore an uncanny resemblance to Death of a Schoolboy, a German television series shown on RTE not long before, although it seemed a pale imitation of a really excellent production. Unlike Death of a Schoolboy, There Has To Be a Reason did not really penetrate its subject and brought no insight to bear upon any reason for the awful tragedy of suicide.

Emigrants by the Charlestown Little Theatre Group put a spotlight on factors in present day life in a rural community, which brought young people to the belief that they had no option but to emigrate. It showed the rural gombeen alive and well in times of recession, operating a ‘Dallas Disco’ to provide expensive entertainment for the enforced leisure of the unemployed. It also indicated the hazards of illegal immigration to the US, with the departure of the young emigrants coinciding with the news that their whole support network had collapsed. RTE producer, Michael T. Murphy, considered this play to have come nearest to meeting the aims Access had set for this series.

Moving On by the Moat Club, Naas, was the story of the relationship between a young lad and a tramp, against the background of the family’s impending move from Naas to Galway. It had touches of One of Ourselves, though it lacked the irony of the Trevor story. It also struck false notes based on simple factual errors. For example, when the father was trying to convince the daughter at university that she should transfer to UCG, she replied “You can’t study social sciences in Galway.” which must not have impressed staff and students in the social science faculty at UCG.

Vandals by Everyman Productions, Sligo showed the sentencing of a deprived youth to community service in a city dump by a judge calling him a blaggard and a vandal. Meanwhile, the judge’s daughter, a student, began work on an archaeological dig adjacent to the dump. When the plans of the local senator to build a pub on the site came to light, a demonstration was organised. Both deprived delinquent and privileged daughter had come into confrontation with authority and raised questions about who were the real vandals in Irish society.

Reviewers tended to subject the Access dramas to favourable comparison with Inside and Leave It to Mrs. O’Brien and to welcome them as filling the vacuum that had opened in RTE drama of contemporary life. Gene Kerrigan’s review of Emigrants was typical:

“What we saw was recognisable, something that doesn’t happen too often in RTE drama. We saw the insides of modem working class homes, for instance, something RTE seldom shows and usually gets wrong when it does.”66
However, it was argued that both reviewers and RTE itself had put the work of professionals in an unfair light in a situation in which greater freedom and scope was given to the work of amateurs in creating contemporary drama. The professionals took strong issue with the fact that RTE was giving such an opportunity to amateurs, many of whom had other jobs, in a situation in which there was a dearth of drama and professionals were on the dole queues. Both Equity and the Society of Irish Playwrights, the unions representing actors and writers, protested over RTE filling television time with amateur drama, in the context of cutbacks in professional drama production and high unemployment among actors and writers. Kevin McHugh also objected on two further grounds: that there was a huge gap between community drama and amateur drama groups and that professional standards and artistic values were perceived to be implicitly under attack.67 Following a meeting of the RTE trade union group with the RTE management and a union instruction to the producer not to proceed with the project, plans for a second series of Access dramas were discontinued.
The Access dramas were nevertheless grappling with contemporary Irish life in away in which no other drama productions emanating from RTE at the time were, which made them popular with the Irish audience and won them recognition in the Jacob’s Award given to their producer, Michael T. Murphy.

RTE and Independent Drama Production

With the trend toward commissioning drama from independent production sources and away from exclusive reliance on in-house production, RTE would be entering into all sorts of unprecedented relationships with outside groups, for which rules had yet to be established. The 1980s have seen a burgeoning of the independent sector in film and video production. RTE had involved itself with independent drama production in various ways already. In the case of films such as Maeve, Attracta, Anne Devlin, Our Boys, A Second of June and It’s Handy When People Don’t Die, RTE co-financed their production. In the case of other films, such as Angel, Ascendancy, Desecration, Outcasts, Pigs, The Country Girls, The Best Man, John, Love and The Schooner, which received finance from such sources as the Irish Film Board, the Arts Council, the British Film Institute, Channel 4 or just managed on a shoestring, RTE promoted them at least by buying them in for transmission.

The stories told in these productions were diverse in style, in setting and in theme. Some went back to shed new light on older folk ways. Attempting to come at Irish history from some new angle were: It’s Handy When People Don’t Die by John and Tom McArdle, which gave a ‘fool on the hill’ view of the 1798 uprising and the whole process of historical mythmaking; The Outcasts by Robert Wynne-Simmons, which cast a certain light on the social roots of magic and witch-hunting in the conditions of 19th century rural Ireland through the process by which a young girl became a scapegoat for the ills of her village; Anne Devlin by Pat Murphy, which saw the 1803 insurrection from the point of view of the female patriot; Ascendancy by Edward Bennett, which filtered the events of World War 1 local sectarian strife and industrial conflict in Belfast in 1929 through the experience of the disturbed daughter of a unionist politician and wealthy ship builder.

Others were set in the more recent past. Some showed signs of being Irish reflections of the worldwide wave of 1950s nostalgia. John, Love was John Davis’ National Film School (London) diploma film. It was a simple cameo of a boy’s first communion day in Dublin in the 1950s, with no particular heightening, tension or climax. The Schooner was an Aisling Films production of a Michael McLaverty short story of a Belfast boy, who was sent to spend his summer with elderly relatives on a remote island off the north coast of Ireland. It was similarly impressionistic in mood and pace, with no strong dramatic drive. Our Boys by Cathal Black was set in a christian brothers school in the 1950s and brought more of a critical edge to its material. It intercut naturalistic drama with archival footage, striving to come to terms with the influence of the religious order in Irish society. The Country Girls, Desmond Davis’ film of the Edna O’Brien novel, also looked at the role of religious orders in Irish society. In the context of two Clare girls coming of age and rushing headlong into sexual awakening, it dwelled on all of the religious iconography of Irish catholicism and the stultifying social climate of rural Ireland in the 1950s. Whatever the shock effect of the novel in the 1950s, there was only a nostalgia effect in the film in the 1980s. It was more of a superficial ‘Isn’t it great how awful it all was’ Irish obsession with Irishness, lingered upon and good for a laugh, but done to no deeper purpose.

Others dealt with various contemporary themes in Irish life, both rural and urban, both north and south. Two by Forsyth was a Tara Productions adaptation of two stories by Frederick Forsyth, set in Dublin. Both A Careful Man and Privilege were modern parables on the discrepancy between law and justice. Desecration, which won the Arts Council script award for Neville Presho in 1980, provided the scenario for a clash of cultural values. When a surveying team found evidence of potentially valuable deposits on an archaeological site about to be designated a national monument on an island off the west coast of Ireland, a conflict was set in motion between those who simply wanted the immediate material benefits of industrial development and those who wanted to preserve the national heritage. The best lines went to the latter, especially to Muiris, the main spokesman preaching against ‘the gospel of the gombeen,’ which proclaimed it was a simple matter of poverty versus progress. At the end of the film, when the preservation order arrived just after the publican-incited locals had destroyed what was to be preserved, his considered judgement on it all was:

“The forces of darkness are just one step ahead of the forces of enlightenment.”
Another film that set the forces of darkness against the forces of enlightenment, at least in the background, was A Second of June. Francis Stapleton’s film was set on Bloomsday 1984 and foregrounded a supposedly ulyssean fiction of two youths moving through Dublin, against the background of President Reagan’s visit to Dublin in June 1984. However, the background actuality footage of the street protests of the anti-Reagan demonstrators was arguably of greater interest (especially if you could see yourself in it) (and I could) than the foreground fiction, which seemed trivial and insubstantial, however hard one strained to find the joycean significance in it all. It did, however, give a sympathetic picture of Dublin, showing the city in some its more congenial aspects in one of its prouder moments. Cathal Black’s Pigs, also set in Dublin, did the opposite. Featuring Jimmy Brennan, who wrote the script and played the central character, it wallowed in the squalor at the margins of inner city tenement life. It was one more effort featuring lumpen low life as if it were the essence of urban life. It seemed to glory in the decay of Dublin. It indulged the degraded and degrading culture of its parasitic underclass, but it offered no insight into the phenomenon. It had some cinematic qualities signalling significance, but never delivered the significance.
Bringing more insight as well as more humour to bear upon its corner of contemporary society, The Best Man showed the culture of its own Derry as both full of congenial camaraderie and in need of critical reflection. By spotlighting the life style of a free-wheeling, hard-drinking, wise-cracking bachelor, it cast an analytical eye on the subculture of the Irish male and on men’s attitudes to women and to marriage. As Billy Maguire, ageing and anti-marriage bachelor, prepared to do ‘best man’ for yet another of his friends soon to be lost to his world of pubs, clubs and betting shops to the threatening world of women and home, it sparked reflections on basic assumptions. Written and directed by Joe Mahon and cast from the local community in the tribal spirit of Derry City, it was made by Northlands Productions on a shoestring budget of £5000, with some technical input from RTE. Most importantly, it asked questions of some psycho-social significance. Did a familiar Irish character like Billy talk so much because he was afraid of the quiet, because he was afraid to hear himself ? Did he drink so much because there was nobody who needed him to be sober, because the mother needed him to be drunk, as nagging him was her sole purpose in life ? Why was Jamesie a bore, except when on the drink, even to his wife, who wanted him off it ? It was a refreshing and well regarded production, which won two awards at the Celtic Film and Television Festival in 1986.

There were a number of other independent productions set in the north. Not surprisingly, the troubles loomed large as a catalyst of dramatic conflict. Some of these were much more illuminating than others. Angel, Neil Jordan’s first film, was anything but illuminating. It was the extreme example of a tendency to use the politics of northern violence without really dealing with it. In fact, in its way of giving stylised, fatalistic film noir treatment to political violence, abstracted from the political context which brought it forth and sustained it, it did more to obscure than to explain it. Its dark, doom-ridden, de-contextualised approach to its material actually made the political forces involved seem opaque and inexplicable. It took the politics out of politics and left only images of a saxophone player, a dance hall, a murder, a beach and a trail of vengeance, all to no apparent purpose. It belonged to the whole cultural trend, encompassing pop videos, hyping dark, discordant, romanticised images, as if their very production and juxtaposition necessarily constituted deeper meaning. It also harmonised well with the British establishment’s view of the north, which saw the Irish soul as inextricably implicated in some kind of primordial blood lust.

Attracta, Kieran Hickey’s film based on William Trevor’s short story, also centred on the political violence of the north. Although it came at the politics of the troubles from an oblique angle, it embodied a drive towards lucidity, which was altogether absent in Angel. It examined the effect of a particular newspaper report on an ageing provincial schoolteacher. It looked back on the violence of previous generations and queried the role of the education system in accepting and perpetuating violence. It dealt with social conscience and sins of omission. It showed the shattering effect of a teacher’s realisation that:

“I had a story to tell and I did not tell it.”
Maeve, Pat Murphy’s film about a London student coming to terms with her Belfast roots, confronted political forces and their ideological assumptions with a refreshing directness that set it apart from many other productions. Much of it centred on the tension between republicanism and feminism, as filtered through Maeve Sweeney’s efforts to tie together the various strands of her experience of life. It effectively captured the texture of a culture on the ground. It was rich with the concrete imagery of orange parades, Paisley speeches, the Virgin Mary, Sunday mass, British soldiers having sexual intercourse with bored looking women up against the walls, traditional Irish music, country and western music, guns, gelignite, barricades, prisons, protests, Connolly posters and women’s meetings. It dealt with very advanced ideas. It took on such issues as: the interpretation of the past in understanding the present; the role of story-telling and myth-making; the differences between male and female perceptions; even the nature of reality. The dialogue was full of intellectually provocative statements, such as:
“The past is a way of reading the present.”
“The past has its own reality.”
“The past has its own power.”
“We need to appropriate myth and move forward and not be used by it like our fathers.”
“We fit our fantasies to our circumstances.”
“Reality isn’t given. You have to take it.”
“You think there is only one form of knowledge.”
“What you’re proposing is no story at all.”
“Men’s relationship to women is just like men’s relationship to Ireland.”
“You don’t want to win. You just want to be world-weary.”
“What is there to win?”
These highly philosophical, probing words were woven through the narrative and dialectically juxtaposed with such antithetical words as:
“Do you want your head full of lead, Mrs.?”
In pulling the whole rich mixture together, Maeve could have been more coherent. It did, however, take on the striving for meaning and coherence and it did so in a most creative exploration of the possibilities of narrative form.
Of course, most television attention to the north was in the form of news and documentary rather than drama. Two productions, however, used drama to examine the codes and conventions of news and documentary coverage of northern violence. Giro City and Acceptable Levels both stripped away the taken-for-granted quality of media treatment of current affairs and revealed the problematic character of its hidden processes. Acceptable Levels, made by the Belfast Film Workshop and Frontroom Productions, raised the whole question of the responsibility of the media in the events it reported, as well as giving a vivid picture of the contrast between an expense account sojourn in the Europa Hotel and life in the Divis Flats.

British Television and Irish Drama

Channel 4’s policy of commissioning independent films opened up new space for productions falling between the cinema and television categories. Angel, Maeve, Attracta, Anne Devlin, Ascendancy, Acceptable Levels, Giro City, The Outcasts and The Country Girls, all received both cinema exhibition and television transmission nearly simultaneously, as did other films such as Moonlighting, Another Time, Another Place and The Ploughman’s Lunch.

Channel 4 was also responsible for the adaptation of John Banville’s novel The Newton Letter in a television film entitled Reflections. It was on the territory of the big house gone to seed. The scarcely perceptible plot concerned the gap between the inhabitants of the big house and the mistaken assumptions that a stranger made about them. The stranger, a scholar up against writer’s block in a book on Newton, concocted stories to fit the facts, as he observed them, until new observations forced him to revise his stories. He first took them to be Anglo-Irish protestant ascendancy, until one of their relations began speaking approvingly of the IRA and it became apparent that they were catholics. The loose, impressionistic, filmic treatment failed, however, to convey the flavour of what Banville was about in his tetralogy on the scientific mind.

Channel 4 in Wales (S4C), in recognition of its Irish audience (stretching from Wicklow to Cork), produced a trilingual drama made in Dublin, Derry, Cork and North Wales. Troubled Love concerned Trish, a Welsh-language student at UCC, who fell in love with Gareth, a secret agent for the SAS. When she returned to her native Derry after Bloody Sunday, he followed her, in another variation of a Romeo and Juliet plot.

Channel 4’s It’s our World series, devoted to drama by and about young people, gave the opportunity to Dublin Youth Theatre to make Debs about a debs’ ball in Dublin, recording the details of a modern rite of passage. Even Channel 4’s experimental four minutes slot had a four minute drama with an Irish theme. Uncle Bob, made by Picture Palace Productions, showed a man being taken hostage and shot by an IRA man on the run.

The ITV network also produced drama with Irish themes, though very little compared with the BBC. A stylish production dealing with Ireland was Yorkshire Television’s three part thriller Harry’s Game, later edited into a television movie. Written by Gerald Seymour for a British audience, it had the feel of a certain type of British production about it, at times carrying echoes of other British thrillers like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, or The Professionals. The plot centred around the hunt for the IRA man who assassinated a cabinet minister. Following the London murder, agent Harry Brown was sent under deep cover into the streets of Belfast to find Billy Downes, the murderer. The haunting theme music by Clannad conveyed a sense of primordial striving and elemental tragedy, both in Harry’s game, which was a game of death, and, by extension, in the whole process by which an ancient culture had become caught in a cycle of relentless blood lust.

In a critique of Harry’s Game from a Northern Irish point of view, Brid Keenan honed in on its portrayal of women and its representation of Irish culture. 68 The women, according to her analysis, were all types, wives, mothers and the like, whose presence in the text was only in relation to men. The female characters were essentially foils for the male characters. They were forceful at home, while weak in the public sphere. They were inarticulate. They lacked solidarity with each other and competed for men. They used sex to get what they wanted. They exploited innocent children by hiding guns in prams. She particularly objected to the absence of positive images of republican women. Irish culture, she argued, was always presented in visual ugliness. Irish culture was presented as a lack of culture. It was a picture of inarticlate people leading incoherent lives. It was a British view of Ireland, which made London the norm. It saw violence as the problem, rather than as the result of the problem.

Its whole way of selecting and underscoring events was given the aura of objectivity, with the verite use of camera and the appearance of real newscasters and appearance of reallocations. Although it was far from ideologically neutral, it was made to look as if it was. It was ideologically ambivalent, however. Although aspects of the narrative played on the parallel between IRA and mafia activities, other aspects steered away from it. Billy Downes was portrayed neither as a criminal acting for personal gain, nor as a psychopath in the grip of primal blood lust. Many scenes, showing him at home and within his own community, challenged the conventional British stereotypes of the Irish terrorist and placed his actions within a humanising and political context. In their book Televising Terrorism, Schlesinger, Murdock and Elliott noted the ideological ambivalence of Harry’s Game:

“Consequently, there is a tension in the narrative between depiction of the IRA as a ruthless mafia-like organisation and the exploration of its social and political roots… unlike the world of The Professionals, we are not invited to forget about the political and just concentrate on the force. Billy’s violence is not portrayed as indiscriminate and meaningless …the deconstruction of conventional stereotypes is also evident in the portrayal of Harry. He is not presented as a straightforward positive hero and his actions are shown to be questionable rather than admirable … Harry’s unauthorised use of force against an unarmed man puts him morally and politically on a level with his terrorist opponents … At the same time, because he is acting against orders, as a freelance vigilante, his action appears as a personal lapse, due perhaps to strain …rather than as part of a deliberate counter-terrorist strategy sanctioned by the secret state.”69

Another Gerald Seymour script, The Glory Boys, was in the same genre as Harry’s Game, but without its redeeming features. The plot revolved around an Arab- IRA conspiracy to kill an Israeli scientist. In its portrayal of both the manic provo and the terrorist arab, it was all cliche. There was little more to either of them than flashing eyes, foul language and blood lust.

In a lighter vein, there was LWT’s production of Stewart Parker’s Blue Money. It featured an Irish cabbie in London trying to break into showbiz, whose life was changed by finding a huge amount of money in the back of his taxi. It also featured stylish shots of O’Connell Street, the Larkin statue, Hanlon’s Corner etcetera, once he took flight to Dublin. As things began to close in on him, he was offered the chance to escape extradition by giving the money over to the IRA. It ended with his interrogation back in London. It was a bit of a lark and it was an opportunity to see drama against a Dublin background, but it didn’t exactly leave the viewer pondering the meaning of life.

A more serious drama was UTV’s first major drama production in many years. Originally a stage play premiered in Dublin, Graham Reid re-wrote Hidden Curriculum for television and shifted the weight of emphasis to the rundown comprehensive school featuring in the story, giving greater impact to the meaning of its title. There was much interesting dialogue about education and the education system built around the conflict between the school’s two most committed teachers. Cairns, the well-born and well-meaning head of english, attempted to change attitudes through the system, but found his efforts thwarted and began to see the inadequacies of the system. Dunn, his protégé from the same social background as his students, was cynical about the system and bucked it at every turn, but began to realise that his education had distanced him from his own class. Meanwhile, in the domestic sphere under siege from paramilitary elements, there was the father of their star ex-pupil, who had turned out to be a UDA commander. His father, who betrayed the son to the police, lived in terror as a born-again christian with a common law wife. Bridging the two worlds, there were Boyd and Allen, two unemployed ex-pupils, talking to the one and terrorising the other and in between aimlessly roving the streets. There was a sense of youth drifting into paramilitary activity by default, as if it were the only thing available to fill the emptiness, standing as a most serious indictment of both Irish and British society.

Other ITV productions with an Irish setting or dealing with Irish subject matter included: The Christmas Tree, a Jennifer Johnston story about an Anglo-Irish woman coming to terms with her impending death, and Rat in the Skull, a Ron Hutchinson play about an IRA man undergoing police interrogation.

Perhaps the most important British independent production taking on the troubled story of contemporary Northern Ireland was the six part mini-series Lost Belongings. Written by Stewart Parker as a modern version of the ancient story of Deirdre of the sorrows, it was an intricate and incisive narrative, capturing both the deep resonance of enduring myth and the vivid particularity of contemporary reality. In its basic storyline, it paralleled the inherited myth quite precisely and was, on one level, a story for all time. In its detailed texture, it conveyed the specificity of its context with a richness and precision that made it, on another level, very much a story of its own times. It was a most masterful re-appropriation of myth within every layer of its multi-layered text. The myth, variously called ‘The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu’ or ‘Deirdre of the Sorrows’, functioned within the narrative on a number of levels. From its deep structure to its surface naming, the old story resonated powerfully within the new one. It was also imaginatively incorporated into a scene in the Maze prison education hut in which an English liberal studies lecturer was replaced in mid-lecture by an IRA prisoner as part of his escape plan. As the one voice took over from the other, the story of the evolution of the Deirdre myth was traced from the eighth century tale in old Irish to the Yeats and Synge versions in twentieth century Anglo-Irish literature. The provo escapee, wearing the academic’s clothes and imitating his voice, took up reading the ancient text:

“What was it that brought about the exile of the sons of Ooshna?
It is a tale quickly told… At the girl’s birth, the prophet warned: O Deirdre, your fair face and fortune
Will bring terrible harm upon us. Ulster torn apart in your time… “
Cruel and terrible acts committed
Out of fury at Ulster’s King,
Your small graves will be everywhere. A story for all time, Deirdre.”
Other elements from the past were also stitched into the fabric of the present events, as old stories were interwoven with new ones in a complex tapestry, in which references to Orpheus and Eurydice, Jonathan and David, Jesus, Nero, Hadrian’s wall, the barbarians at the gates of Rome, the red hand of Ulster, the battle of Hastings, the penal laws, the famine, the Irish literary revival, Easter 1916, Pearse, Connolly, Collins, de Valera, the black and tans, the 2nd Dail, the Somme, the launching of the Titanic and other such persons and events from the past, whether factual or fictional, reverberated into the present with the powerful force of myth. Significantly, the locus of rendezvous, where the young Deirdre met with her lover Niall, was the Ulster Museum. In the iconography of the series, relics of the celtic bronze age mingled with the latest computer technology , encompassing celtic high crosses, sheela-na-gigs, dolmens, burial chambers, ogham script, mummies, looney victoriana, dadaist bric-a-brac, photos of Ian Paisley and William Windsor, churches, coffins, flags, dolls, guns, guinness, silver teapots, filofax, fire engines, fruit machines, space invaders, cameras, clarinets, books, newspapers, newsletters, radios, televisions, transit vans and jet planes. Its sound track moved from the music of Mozart and Elgar, through loyalist and republican ballads to bitter, funny, illuminating, painful dialogue, to gunfire, sirens, screams and sobs. In a speech full of both anger and irony, a researcher broke up the making of a BBC documentary on Northern Ireland (going for a superficial Heinz 57 view of the various forces involved) during a scene in which catholic and protestant businessmen were sitting together and stuffing themselves and arguing over hunger strikes:
“What we have here, your highness, is thirty bloated bourgeois bastards, stuffed to the eyeballs with grub and booze, arguing the pros and cons of a hunger strike. Hunger! That’s your Irish history lesson, but you don’t want to know, do you? The poor, bloody, demented folk heroes up the road deliberately dying of hunger… while our captains of industry and commerce down here choke over their profiteroles, arguing the toss. As if it mattered a damn to them… ‘cos they run the show…come what may, republic or union, orange or green, these are the boys in charge! While those deluded skeletons up in the maze stagger on behind the same old flag and drum, along with the demonstrators and the rioters and the dole queues and the whole damn stupid circus. That’s what we have here by the way of history. It doesn’t fit your nice, neat English picture book programme, does it? No, no, you didn’t come here to see this…I quit. Make up your own myth.”
The production (unlike that of the BBC documentary) combined epochal sweep with credible and careful characterisation and sensitive and vivid setting of scene. Its characters embodied every conceivable religious, political, national, generational, sexual, occupational and class position in relation to Northern Ireland. They were catholic and protestant, republican and loyalist, and every shade thereof. They were British Army, RUC, UVF, Orange Order, provos and stickies. They were Irish, British and American. They were academics, journalists, broadcasters, musicians, policemen, prisoners, preachers, propagandists, fund raisers, businessmen, teachers, students, gunmen (both legal and illegal armies), musicians (both high culture and low culture). They were lumpen, proletarian and bourgeois (with allegiances to aristocracy). Not one of them was a mere cipher for an ideological position. Every one of them was a full-blooded character, whose charaterisation was all the richer for ideological specificity. It was a matter of conscious construction. Articulating his intentions in the writing of it, Stewart Parker put it:
“As a playwright, my overriding concern is to keep faith with the individual lives and aspirations of all my characters, and yet do equal justice to the big public events and historical forces which have been crucial in shaping their destinies.”70
The same complexity of construction was evident in its settings, which ranged from the cosmopolitan streets of London to the embattled streets of Belfast to the unapproved country roads of the Irish border, from working class estates to the corridors of power, from universities, concert halls and museums to prisons, hospitals and pubs, from Sinn Fein HQ to an orange lodge. Its plot held together such diverse events as sectarian killings, orange parades, IRA funerals, media productions, undercover intelligence operations, archaeological field work, musical careers, domestic conflicts, garden parties, soccer matches, love affairs and tragic deaths, never simply juxtaposed, but integrated in a deep dramatic logic.
Although Lost Belongings took up enduring mythical themes, such as exile, revenge and tragic death, and echoed the familiar themes of contemporary northern drama, such as sectarian strife, love across the orange-green divide, even the young boy and the older female music teacher, it was nevertheless a fresh and original synthesis. It gathered so much into itself and did so in a way that was so unique in expression and yet so rooted in common experience as to constitute a real work of art, something that the medium of television can most surely produce, despite all claims to the contrary. It was a production that both RTE and BBC had let slip through their hands. It was finally made by Euston Films in association with Primetime Television and Channel 4. It was transmitted on the ITV network over six weeks, with each episode repeated on Channel 4 the same week.

It was the BBC, however, which produced most in the way of television drama dealing with Ireland. Most of it was set in the north and took on various aspects of the troubles within the texture of everyday life. Some came at the politics of the situation quite directly, whereas others did so more obliquely.

My Dear Palestrina, an adaptation of a short story by Bernard McLaverty, took sideward glances at the political tensions of 1957 Derry, while putting the main focus on a boy growing up and learning the power of music. It showed his consciousness taking its own distinctive shape under the influence of his mentors. His piano teacher spoke to him of the importance of having heart, because, without it, technique was nothing. The blacksmith, opening his horizons in another direction, spoke to him of the hope of the future being in the unity of the working class.

Shadows On Our Skin, an adaptation of the Jennifer Johnston novel by Derek Mahon, also looked at life through the eyes of a young boy in Derry trying to sort it all out in relation to the various views of his elders. Untouched by the lessons of his teachers, the nationalist sloganising of his father, and the paramilitary sympathies of his older brother, he gravitated towards a young female school teacher and considered how the world looked from her point of view. Amidst an atmosphere full of menace, constantly passing barricades, army patrols and paramilitary presences, he found that a small indiscretion had betrayed the person who mattered most to him.

A Night of the Campaign by Robin Glendenning also used the device of a youth’s experience of political realities vis-a-vis the influence of a mentor. In this play, a 16 year old schoolgirl, because of a crush on a student teacher from Queens University, went out to campaign for the Alliance Party in a republican stronghold in West Belfast. Against the opposition of her parents, whom she considered to be political eunuchs, complacent in their suburban comfort, she discovered a hitherto unknown world. As she went from door to door, she met with madness, abuse, squalor, unruliness and harrassment. It presented a fairly farcical picture of Alliance Party activity by a former full-time Alliance Party organiser. It brought a letter of protest from the vice chairman of the Alliance Party in Radio Times, complaining of the picture of the party as full of cranks and misfits and canvassers parroting slogans.71

Another device running through several productions was that of the son or daughter of the family coming home from England and coming to terms both with their parents and with their Irish roots. The Cry, an adaptation of a John Montague short story by Derek Mahon, was set in a small country town in Northern Ireland in 1959. The son of a republican family, working as a journalist in London, found himself immediately at cross purposes with his father. In response to an incident, in which a young lad out too late with a girl was beaten up by the B-specials, father and son argued over violent versus non-violent methods, the gun versus the pen, in resisting injustice. Taking up the challenge, the son set out to prove the power of the pen by bringing his journalistic trade to bear upon the incident. What he did prove, pushing up against a stone wall, was the power of those in power to intimidate those who were not.

The Mourning Thief, Desmond Hogan’s first television play, also featured a returning son in conflict with both father and republican heritage. The son, still carrying the psychological scars of a brutal childhood, considered his father to be a man of another age and was highly critical of his continuing adherence to the ideals of 1916. The father, on his death bed, was consumed with anger at his son’s betrayal of his heritage. The dialogue, in a claustrophobic domestic setting, was full of fierce exchanges, in which the intimacies of family life were interlaced with questions of Irish political history.

The Long March by Anne Devlin, with structural similarities to Maeve, featured the returning daughter. The family home, in a recurrent pattern in these stories, was one with a political father and an apolitical mother. Her father, a trade union activist and socialist politician, existed on a completely different plane from her mother, who was pre-occupied with details of her sister’s wedding and could never see anything larger than the effects of events on her domestic details. Helen was a disappointment to both her parents. Her father, who believed she had responsibilities to the trade union movement and socialist cause, because the Labour government had won her the right to her education, disapproved of her politics, from her previous days in Peoples Democracy to her current flirtation with Provisional IRA and INLA elements. Her mother, on the other hand, was unhappy with her having any sort of political involvement at all and with her leaving her husband. When Helen went to visit her former teacher, preoccupied with writing a book on political terrorism and having problems with his wife, there was a parallel situation to that of her parents. It was set against the background of such actual current events as the hunger strikes and the death of Airey Neave in 1978. Amidst it all, Helen became involved with an INLA man, ten years younger than herself and found herself involved in another such parallel situation. Colm, her lover-on the-run, put it to her:

“You women are all alike. There is a war going on and all you can think about is being together.”
Helen later reappeared in her home environment, like Maeve, with her hair shorn and into painting and art college now. Helen’s point of view, possibly the author’s own, like that of Maeve and Pat Murphy, came across as a confused confrontation of republicanism, feminism and socialism. Her father’s point of view, presumably based on that of her own father, Paddy Devlin, seemed both clearer and more credible in her play.
A number of productions gave strong expression to women’s experience of Northern Ireland in one way or another. In addition to plays by female writers, such as Pat Murphy’s Maeve and Anne Devlin’s A Long March and Naming the Names, it was also notable in some plays by male writers. Foregrounding female lives against the background of the class structure and sectarian divisions of Northern Ireland, there were some quite interesting leaps of the male imagination in empathy with female experience. Stewart Parker’s visually innovative play, Iris in the Traffic, Ruby in the Rain followed two women, preoccupied with small problems, going their seemingly separate ways. As one struggled with a broken shoe strap and the other with a streaming cold, there was the constant background presence of Belfast under siege, with armoured cars, shattered buildings and political slogans everywhere in evidence. Amidst it all, Ruby, a social worker, was reluctantly sucked into a complex situation related to the troubles at fifth remove. It left one thinking of all the ripples that could spread out from the splash of a single stone. Bernard McLaverty’s The Daily Woman showed a young mother, severely oppressed in terms of class, sex and sectarian divisions. Going out to work to clean the house of a comfortable protestant politician to support her children and lay-about, insensitive husband, she gave way to an impulse to break out of her rut. The consequences of her mystery tour proved full of simple surprises, sensitively explored, without a hint of cliché. Michael McLaverty’s short story, Aunt Suzanne, adapted for television, was a sad, sensitively told tale of an old woman, isolated by her spinster status, old age, alcoholism, poverty, intolerance and religious taboo.

Mike Leigh’s Four Days in July honed in on two couples, one republican and one loyalist, having their first babies against the background of Belfast 12th of July rituals. Following the two pairs on parallel tracks, until they converged in hospital, both the similarities and the differences in their lives became apparent. Using improvisational methods, which may have made for over-indulgent dialogue, it had a gritty and earthy feel to it and many moments of truth. Some such moments foregrounded the distinctly female experience of childbearing, sometimes with a touch of disarming humour. Describing the earthier side of the glorious experience of childbirth, one woman admitted:

“I felt like a burst balloon, as a matter of fact.”
Much of the talk was highly political, about emigration, about UDR duty on the border and IRA activities in Long Kesh. Catholics talked of what it was like raising twelve children in tiny houses. Protestants talked of catholics breeding like rabbits and scrounging on the dole. It was acknowledged by its makers as a highly political production and it was unapologetically republican in its sympathies, without caricaturing the loyalist side. While some scenes hit against the barriers of prejudice, others broke through to the affinities. A scene in which the republican couple were singing songs to get themselves to sleep combined orange songs with green songs, ranging from The Sash My Father Wore to The Patriot Game. It was the vehicle for Leigh’s view of myth:
“Myths are comforting, they anaesthetise rationality …
Both sides stand for ideals that don’t exist any longer.”72
Whatever about such statements as a definitive overview of the nature and role of myth, it did say something about the function of particular myths in a particular context.
The really outstanding drama foregrounding the trials and tribulations of contemporary domestic life, against the background of the political turmoil of Northern Ireland, was Graham Reid’s Billy trilogy. The first play Too Late to Talk to Billy, set in 1977 in the Donegall Road area of Belfast, where the author grew up, introduced the Martin family. The Martins were a working class protestant family living in a bleak council house and caught in such a web of poverty, violence, alcoholism, disease and disillusionment that sheer survival required a constant struggle. It opened on the family living under the shadow of the mother’s imminent death in hospital. The father, coming and going in drunken rage, refused to visit her, in bitterness stemming from an extra-marital affair years before.

The second play, A Matter of Choice for Billy, set in 1978, traced the shifting relationships within the Martin family after the death of their mother and the emigration of their father. It fell to the two oldest, Billy and Lorna, to become father and mother to their two young sisters, Ann and Maureen. It centred on the tensions arising for Billy and Lorna in reconciling their prematurely parental responsibilities with the choices surrounding mating and the more normal activities of people their age. Both Billy and Lorna had it put to them by their respective partners. Billy had to decide about the nature of his commitment to Pauline, his ‘fenian nurse-friend’, once she had a job offer from Canada. Once she then decided that she would rather live in sin than Toronto, Billy moved in with her. Lorna was confronted with an old-fashioned proposal-cum-engagement-ring from John Fletcher, ex-UDA hard man. Although she tried to explain some of the feelings of a modern woman, he walked out in a huff and became the hard man on the street once again.

The third play, A Coming to Terms for Billy, set in 1980, showed the fragile stability that Billy and Lorna had achieved for the family thrown out of balance once again by the return of the errant patriarch with his new English wife. Norman, now dried out, and Mavis, a no-nonsense ex-schoolteacher, planned to make a home for the two younger daughters in England, setting the family at odds and provoking a new crisis. Like many another play, much hinged on the coming and going between Ireland and Britain, raising all sorts of questions of identity. Between the two youngest daughters, with one wanting to go and other wanting to stay, the dialogue came up against it:

Maureen: “I don’t want to go. They hate the Irish over there.”

Ann: “But we’re not Irish. We’re protestant.”

It was the classic contradiction for Ulster protestants. Were they Irish or British? It was left for the audience to ponder. There were other storylines, interwoven through the trilogy as subtexts, raising many penetrating questions. One recurring theme was the construction of masculinity vis-à-vis the hard-man ethos of the paramilitary subculture. Even in the claustrophobic domestic scenes, full of the details of pots of tea, tins of beans, bottles of beer and Uncle Andy spitting into the fire, there was always the palpable presence of menacing paramilitary activity. Although neither Norman nor Billy ever joined the UDA, they lived within a network of tribal ties in which they were inextricably enmeshed. Billy was seen in strong contrast to his friend Ian, who was in the UDA and into its macho posturing, but was pathetically weak, easily manipulated and thoroughly henpecked. Billy’s fighting spirit was not the result of frivolous daring-do or false pride. He was abrasive, but there were reasons for his abrasiveness. When confronted by his would-be stepmother, he knew his anger was grounded in hard experience:

Mavis: “You’re very defensive.”
Billy: “I’ve had to do a lot of defending.”
Mavis: “It takes a big man to admit he’s in the wrong.”
Billy: “It takes an even bigger man not to be in the wrong.”
At the end of the third play, the quasi-oedipal tension between father and son climaxed in a bitter verbal row in the domestic sphere. It came to resolution in a physical confrontation in the public sphere, as they jointly confronted UDA heavies and proved themselves harder men than the hard men. It was more than an adolescent, macho ritual of male bonding, however. Their reconciliation was not achieved in an isolated bout of bravado, but in the hard-won humanity each had precariously achieved, as each had matured and mellowed in and through the events of the three plays.
Also interesting was the construction of femininity, amidst a subculture so full of stress and strain and macho men. The women came through as stronger, clearer, more competent, more hard working and more worldly wise than the men, all the more so for doing what needed to be done, without all the pomp and strut. There was an edgy, electric, but well-earthed, humour running through it. There were no hilarious one-liners, but there was an ironic edge and an emotional charge in the tense, taut dialogue that often brought a feeling of wanting to laugh and cry at the same time. It aroused a raw recognition and empathic involvement that challenged the viewer to come face to face with a gritty truthfulness that eschewed the easy answers. It never degenerated into slushy sentimentality. The Billy trilogy had an exploratory edge to it that was far from exhausted by the end of the third play. Many a viewer wanted the trilogy to become a tetralogy and they were given their way, in a fourth play entitled Lorna. It centered on the struggle of Lorna to find her own place in the sun, in a situation in which she was no longer dependent nor depended upon.

In the meantime, Graham Reid wrote six plays for the BBC under the title Ties of Blood. The separate plays were unified by a common theme, with each addressing in its own way the relationship between the security forces and the citizens of Northern Ireland. In doing so, he sought to move away from the stereotypical images of brits, paddies and prods and to probe the complexities and ironies in real people and their relationships. Certainly characters such as a black catholic soldier from Liverpool, a catholic RUC officer and a Welsh army chef wanting only a peaceful life listening to records of Welsh choirs, broke with the standard stereotypes. He had his own three year stint in the British Army to draw on in portraying what different sorts of people it encompassed.

McCabe’s Wall dealt with the social pressures upon a delicate relationship developing between a lonely Welsh chef in the British Army and a lonely spinster toiling on the small holding of her die-hard republican father. During the visit of her brother and sister-in-law from England, the barriers and tensions of the McCabe household surfaced. Her father, whose laboriously built wall had been destroyed by an army patrol, was determined to keep out all alien influences and intrusions. Going Home concerned a West Belfast catholic woman, who married a British soldier and lived with him and her two children in married quarters in England, alienated from her family and community. With her father dying, she came home to effect a reconciliation. Meanwhile, in another part of Belfast, a young protestant woman fell in love with a catholic soldier from Bradford. Out of Tune featured a bandsman, who requested a transfer into the infantry, so as to be a ‘real soldier’ in the context of the Northern Ireland conflict. It also revealed something of the hostility between the British Army and the RUC. There were strong words on the nature of the conflict, with an older sergeant insisting that it not be dignified by calling it a war as it was only a series of murders. He depicted it as a ludicrous scenario, with soldiers playing at being policemen and policemen playing at being soldiers.

Invitation to a Party underlined certain features of the social life of a divided community, which made it imperative to beware of taking any invitation at face value. A young army pay clerk, with his wife and family in Scotland, joined his colleagues for a night out, which ended in tragedy. Attachments followed three soldiers leaving Liverpool for their first posting in Belfast and traced the gap between their expectations and their experiences. It showed the tie of images of militaristic exploits to images of masculine sexuality. It also featured a ranting loyalist granny inciting aggression and an indulgent republican granny meeting with treachery, when an IRA unit burnt her house and blamed it on the British Army to provide a story for Saoirse. The Military Wing looked at the small tensions and large traumas besetting both staff and patients in the military wing of a Northern Ireland hospital. It took on situations, ranging from a triangle between three army nurses, with lesbian undertones, to a malingering soldier, a drugs overdose and a mortar attack on the camp.

Reid insisted that the plays were written without any sense of mission, even without interest in the grand political issues. He claimed that there were no plays about Northern Ireland. There were only plays about people as people, who happened to be in the security forces or in contact with them.73 The distinction, however, was unreal. The inclination to make it, arguably, led to a failure to explore, as fully as he might have, the ways in which people as people were what they were and did what they did, because the grand political issues were what they were in the context of the complex culture of Northern Ireland. Much of the problem was with a restrictive definition of politics, which tended to limit awareness of the intricacies of the political dimension of personal lives. Ties of Blood was full of intelligent and highly nuanced characterisation, revealing dialogue, and authentic set pieces, but never added up to anything more coherent. It showed something of the full-blooded complexity of the situation on the ground, but it did not illuminate its socio-historical context in a way that raised consciousness above the level of an increased awareness of the detailed texture of the situation in close-up. Ties of Blood enhanced understanding in terms of detail, but not in terms of depth.

Also setting its sights on the security forces, albeit in narrower focus, was Contact. It was a detailed, close-up picture of an SAS border patrol on duty in South Armagh, with almost no dialogue and with very little drama. It was based on a book by AFN Clarke, a former para regiment officer, and it was very definitely Northern Ireland from a British Army point of view. Des Cranston analysed its techniques as similar to those of the western. The use of the high-image-intensifier lens effectively dehumanised and depersonalised the land and its people, together with the problems that caused such operations to be mounted. It left the audience, he argued, with sympathy for the patrol, whose lives were as bleak as those they were patrolling. He felt it implicitly explained much about the archaic infantry campaign in the Falklands and the psychology of daring-do soldiering.74

Falklands fever, as it affected the Irish living in Britain, was given disturbing treatment in The Queen’s Arms. A meek, hardworking Irish barman found himself suddenly caught between two terrors, simply by being Irish in a certain time in a certain place. In an English pub, overflowing with union jacks, jingoistic songs and bellicose talk, the drunken landlord and locals turned on him for not being British and falsely accused him of being in league with the local provos. Leaving the pub, having been given his marching orders, with the crowd inside turning nastier, the menacing approach of the provos awaited him on the outside.

The events in We’ll Support You Ever More by Douglas Livingstone related to ripples from the Falklands war at further remove. David Hollins, a second lieutenant in the British Army, only returned to Northern Ireland because numbers were down due to deployment of troops in the Falklands. As a result, he died. In a plot structure similar to Missing, his father, haunted by his son’s death and disturbed by the army’s silence on the nature of his secret mission, went to Northern Ireland to investigate. He saw and heard many things. Much of it was difficult to understand from a British point of view. What he learned, perhaps more than anything else, was how elusive Ireland was to the British mind. When he returned, the conversation between husband and wife was:

“Was it worth it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you find anything out?”
“I don’t know.”
It was a good yarn, not only full of who-did-what suspense, but also implicit questions about why.
The number of BBC plays dealing with aspects of the armed campaign was quite remarkable, even given its undoubted potential for dramatic conflict. There were not only all these plays, and still others, such as Fire at Magilligan by Harry Barton and Shergar by Bill Morrison, coming at it from various angles and putting it at the centre of focus. There were also other plays which brought it in as a secondary theme, such as The Blue Dress by William Trevor, in which the main character did a journalistic stint covering the situation in Belfast in the middle of the main story.

There were also series and serials, which brought Ireland and its troubles into play in various ways. Least impressive of BBC’s efforts in this field was Foreign Bodies, a six part situation comedy series around the cliche scenario of the protestant Romeo and the catholic Juliet, which settled for a series of weak jokes playing on the most caricatured of misconceptions across the orange-green divide. It not only did not add to the reputations of joint-playwrights Graham Reid and Bernard Farrell, but subtracted from them that they could possibly write such pathetic material.

More impressive was a series which was surer in its aim in dealing with many matters including the troubles. Black Silk was a most interesting series, centering on the public and private life of a black barrister in Britain. The second episode, written by Shane Connaughton, revolved around the victimisation of an Irish family, living in England for twenty years. It effectively made the point that, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, a person was presumed guilty until proven otherwise. Despite the fact that a hearing was held to determine whether habeas copus was abrogated by the Prevention of Terrorism Act and that the man was released without charge, it ended in tragedy all the same. After interrogation, the man was no longer certain whether he had done anything or not. He was no longer certain of anything, except that he couldn’t go on living in England. In the end, he put on a Batman costume and threw himself under the train.

Blood Money was a serial about a kidnap of the son of a United Nations administrator general from a posh English boarding school. Although some members of the underground group carrying out the kidnapping were portrayed as cold, fanatical and cruel, the Irish member of the group was not. He came across more as a decent man driven by a sense of injustice, stemming from the suffering of the Irish people, going back to the famine. His actions were depicted as wayward and wrong headed, but his motives were treated with a certain respect.

Crossfire, a serial about an informer inside the Provisional IRA, was made but withdrawn from the schedules. Its transmission was suspended due to objections from BBC Northern Ireland to the effect that it glorified the IRA and made the RUC look like the keystone kops.

In an effort to break from the stereotyped treatment of Ireland, the BBC commissioned a series of plays about Ireland from Irish writers such as Frank McGuinness, Anne Devlin and John McGahern, making two stipulations: that they were not to be about either the armed conflict or love affairs across the orange-green divide. Scout, The Venus de Milo Instead and The Rockingham Shoot dealt with sport, art and education, with notions of masculinity, the inevitability of emigration and the tensions of inflexible nationalism.

British historical series and serials also brought Irish history to bear, especially as it affected the mentality of the Irish living in Britain. Jim Allen’s serial The Gathering Seed showed the influence of Irish connections and catholic traditions on working class life in Britain in the period before and after the 1st world war. Set in the same period was BBC’s production of How Many Miles to Babylon ?, Jennifer Johnston’s novel adapted by Derek Mahon. It traced the relationship between the son of the Anglo-Irish big house and an Irish agricultural labourer from boyhood into the trenches of the world war, raising questions of class, sex, nationality, politics and war. It featured diverging attitudes to class division, national independence, militarism and masculinity.

Another BBC big house drama was the adaptation of the Molly Keane novel, Time After Time. In it, the Anglo-Irish ascendancy was well into decline in an era long past that of How Many Miles to Babylon? or even Good Behaviour. The elderly inhabitants of this County Wicklow country estate lived their childish, sexless, petty lives, in a crumbling house, with no money and no prospects. In their hermetic habits and feudal mentality, they were obsessed with the past, unable to cope with the present and fearful of the future. Even though their meanness, incompetence, spitefulness and self-indulgence were clearly exposed, they were still oddly indulged. It came across as a myopic picture of myopic people.

Away from both the Anglo-Irish big house and the civil strife of northern streets, another BBC drama with an Irish theme was Tuesday’s Child by Terry Johnson and Kate Lock. It was set in and around the confessional of a catholic church in Britain. It explored, in a simple but striking fashion, the attitudes of three characters, two priests and one young woman, all Irish, to faith, miracles, science and sexuality. It particularly probed the play of the imagery of annunciation and virgin birth on the mind of a simple and sheltered girl. Transmitted during the summer of the moving statues in 1985, it highlighted the role of religious fantasy in minds without coherent criteria of credibility and in lives thrown off their bearings. It gave expression to a fundamental contradiction in catholic teaching and practice. On the one hand, it taught the possibility of miracles, such as virgin birth. On the other hand, it backed away from it, preaching the singularity of the event, when people followed through with its logic and believed they experienced miracles in their own lives. There was a scene where the symbolism of the conflict between faith and reason and the irony of the odd juxtapositions between science and religion were very striking indeed. The priest, a doubting Thomas (named Thomas), who had doubts about marian doctrine when young and had a strong interest in science, stepped out of the confessional and accidentally smashed a statue of the Virgin Mary with a rolled up copy of Scientific American in his hand. He then stooped to scoop up the pieces, wrapping them in the magazine, with another statue of the Virgin Mary looking down as he did so. It was provocative and yet gentle, in that it was stimulating to the sceptic without being overtly offensive to the believer. It was the sort of motif, exploring the edges of religious experience, essential in coming to terms with the Irish mind, that arguably should have been taken up by RTE and not left to the BBC, especially at a time when it was so relevant to events and attitudes in Ireland.

Other Sources of Irish Drama

Although Ireland and Britain were the main sources of Irish drama on television, there were occasional productions else where touching on Irish experience in one way or another. Often television productions in the US, Canada or Australia followed emigrants from their lives in Ireland to their new lives on foreign soil. Series such as The Captains and the Kings, The Mannions of America and Ellis Island showed Irish immigrants making their way in America in the mode of the American rags-to-riches myth. Other series, such as Against the Wind and Eureka Stockade, showed Irish rebels transported to Australia in British attempts to suppress unrest in Ireland, only to persist in rebellion and play a leading role in fermenting unrest in Australia. Waterfront, an Australian production which looked as if it might have been influenced by Strumpet City, referred to Irish political history and showed Irish immigrants as playing their role in the class struggle on the industrial front. The Thorn Birds, in a different key, saw Irish-Australians at the far end of the rags-to-riches scenario, although touches like the repeated mispronunciation of Drogheda detracted considerably from its credibility.

Characters in US action-adventure series, sit-coms, soap operas and films constantly referred to their Irish roots or justified what they did by caricatured ‘Irish temper’. Ryan’s Hope, a daytime soap opera, revolved around a bar owned by Irish immigrants in New York and constantly played on the standard Irish-American cliches about Ireland and the Irish. Hill Street Blues regularly featured a street gang called the Shamrocks. Its leader dressed like a leprechaun and carried a shillelagh. Spencer for Hire constantly dropped references to Easter 1916, Sinn Fein and IRA gunrunners. Briefing sessions on international terrorism in the spy genre, such as in Scarecrow and Mrs. King, automatically included the IRA in the catalogue.

Choices of the Heart, an American television movie about Jean Donovan, the US lay missionary killed in El Salvador, had scenes of Irish university life in the 1970s, in which everyone spoke with leprechaunish accents and seemed to look at the world through Legion of Mary eyes. Two episodes of Remington Steele made in Ireland went the length as far as over-the-top caricatures of Ireland were concerned. Even given the general style of the series as a botched attempt at spoof, the Irish episodes were ludicrous, without being funny. Both employed Irish actors to play the paddies, while keeping the stars playing Remington and Laura to the forefront of the childishly contrived excuses for plots. Given the rather fine record of MTM in producing higher quality drama and the future involvement of MTM in Ireland in taking over Ardmore studios, the series in general, and these episodes in particular, could not but be a disappointment. Not to be outdone on pseudo-Irish whimsy, Moonlighting, which was a rip-off of Remington Steele anyway, also had an Irish episode, in which a red-haired, brogue-speaking colleen named Kathleen Kilpatrick came into the office, claiming that she was a leprechaun, and hired David and Maddie to protect her against a man trying to steal her pot of gold.

All in all, there was nothing to match British productions for Irish drama made outside Ireland. In the 1980s, British productions in some respects outreached Irish ones in coming to terms with the cutting edge of contemporary Irish life. Certainly in relation to the north, it was British television structures employing Irish talent, and not RTE, which made the running. Most of it was extremely fair and fair in a way that was not altogether reducible to the “there’s bad bastards on both sides” formula. The better end of it showed how the complexity of the cycle, whereby all were injured and injuring, was such that no simple prescription about forgiving and forgetting would begin to cover it. The best illuminated the socio-historical roots of the conflict and the socio-historical conditions sustaining the cycle, even if it could see no way out or offer no definite solution. Kenith Trodd, who produced a number of British dramas of Irish life, shed light on the ‘delicate thuggish balance’ operating in British television that has made it difficult but possible for radical drama to be made and for television to take risks that it would not take elsewhere in the world.75

The RTE Television Drama Debate

No such dynamic was operating in RTE by the mid-1980s. Whatever else about the drama of the period, it was certainly not radical (in the sense of getting at the roots of things). Whatever else it was doing, it was not taking risks and it was not coming to terms with the cutting edge of contemporary Irish life. The further RTE went into the 1980s, the more its drama policy came under attack, not so much for what it was doing (as in the 1970s), but for what it was not doing. There was growing disaffection among the sections of its audience that had appreciated the more daring drama of the previous decade. There was increasing criticism in the press. There were rumblings in many quarters. The most articulate disaffection and the most biting criticism, however, came from within RTE. What Access (RTE’s in-house organ) headlined as:

erupted at the RTE / lrish Film Institute summer school in July 1984, filled the pages of Access for issue after issue through the autumn, featured in several Slants programmes the following spring and spilled over into the national press at several points along the way.
The most elaborate and eloquent critique of existing drama came from playwright and producer, Eoghan Harris. RTE, he argued, was failing to meet its responsibilities to the Irish audience that it had a duty to serve by being the public voice of a society speaking to itself. Drama was of particular importance in fulfilling this task with its power to make sense of the world, to purge the soul and to illuminate contemporary social problems through the ritualised process of public enactment. The section of the audience most alienated, he suggested, was that of urban working class youth, who were starved of contemporary drama relevant to their life experience. He advanced several reasons for this neglect. At a time when Ireland needed RTE as never before, RTE was being deliberately run down by government. At the same time, those responsible for drama policy within RTE had retreated into aestheticism and timidity. They had become tired, middle aged and comfortable, he contended, and they wished to avoid dealing with discomforting social problems. The excuses, he insisted, would not do. The problem was essentially not lack of facilities or finances or scripts. The problem was of the will to do, to face their society and its problems, the cold mornings, the hard work and the controversy. Another factor, he suggested, was that they had been seduced by the prospects of co-productions into diversion from their domestic responsibilities in favour of the buzz of rubbing shoulders in the high-flying world of international stardom. They had turned away from gritty, messy, problematic contemporary reality in favour of glossy art house films, based on safe adaptation and soft-centred nostalgia.

There was a need for drama to take up the burning issues of the times where current affairs left off, to go beyond the institutional aspects into the psychological aspects, to ask the moral questions, to provide the illuminating and purging power that only drama could bring to bear. What was most important was to have a story to tell. In RTE, Harris argued, the people with a story to tell were in current affairs and not in drama. So unbridgeable did he believe the gap to be as to propose taking drama away from the drama department and giving it to current affairs, who would ‘go in for the hard stuff’, who would chart the necessary dialogue of a democratic society about unemployment, about drug abuse, about sexual equality, about the high-tech world US investment had brought to Ireland, about many issues of social concern. He cited Hill Street Blues and Boys From the Blackstuff as models. He dismissed accusations that he was calling for agit-prop propaganda as glib and empty. All good drama, he insisted, had a point of view. The Harris strategy was to shift the emphasis in drama production from film to video, to utilise talent outside RTE, to develop new writers, to tap into the expertise of social workers, doctors, teachers, psychologists, to adopt more flexible trade union practices.77

Eoghan Harris was not the only one arguing for such a reorientation of strategy. John Sorahan, head of outside broadcasting (who was appointed director-general by the outgoing RTE authority in 1985 but not confirmed by the minister) had been highly critical of RTE’s diversion into co-production to the neglect of domestic issues. So too was Louis Lentin, producer/director and former head of drama, who put forward a very strong critique of the drift of RTE drama policy in the 1980s and also advocated a radical reorientation The whole climate had changed for the worse, he argued, with the over-reliance on co-productions, with the material chosen to suit co-producers, rather than to do its duty to the Irish audience and to use drama to speak of the problems and traumas besetting an intensely troubled society. At a time when such drama was never more necessary, the situation was never so bad.

There were large areas of both rural and urban experience being left untouched by drama. RTE was hiding its head in the sand. Glenroe was soft. It blurred reality and did not face up to social problems. Love Stories of Ireland and A Life were nice pieces, which should have a place in the schedules, but not at the expense of everything else. Like Harris, Lentin believed that the weight of emphasis should be on contemporary socially relevant drama, which took up real issues where current affairs left off. Current affairs could deal with the facts of the situation, facts which tended to be forgotten. Drama could flesh it out, present the human aspects of the situation and make it hit home. The stuff of RTE drama should be such issues as the growing hostility to party politics, the confrontations between the unemployed and travellers, the drugs problem, marital breakdown and Ann Lovett stories. He too dismissed arguments about lack of finance, lack of facilities and lack of good scripts as excuses for what he considered to be the real lack, lack of desire. The preoccupation with TAMs resulted in reducing RTE to producing pap. It had no guts. The problem was not money, but how money was allocated. There was money being spent on programmes like The Rose of Tralee to keep viewers happy and to keep the ratings up, without allowing people to have a good honest look at themselves and, above all, without making them think. Rejecting the entertainment versus social issues dichotomy, he asserted that entertainment should be something that stimulated and provoked thought. The way to turn drama around at economic cost was to shift the emphasis from occasional big film projects for expensive co-productions to more frequent smaller, lower budget dramas experimenting with the potentialities of video. He advocated the single play format, which he believed could deal with difficult issues more strongly than serials, because of its ability to get in and get out quickly. It was also the best vehicle for developing new writers for television. There had never been any sustained concentrated effort to cultivate Irish writing for television. No sooner had the door opened in the 1970s than it was slammed closed again in the 1980s.78

Martin Duffy, film editor and playwright, came into the debate at this point. Under Louis Lentin, he said, drawing on his experience as an up-and-coming television writer, at least there had been a ladder. Under Niall McCarthy, there was only a greasy pole with a platform at the top. Only the most established writers could be used in expensive co-productions. He worked on the co-productions as a film editor, which he admitted had stretched his technical expertise. At the same time, he stressed the importance of not being seduced by the glossiness. He would not write the saleable, inoffensive, technicolour yawns, which were in vogue. It was a catch-22 situation for writers. He recommended that RTE stop making costume drama and institute a policy of affirmative action for contemporary urban drama. He too felt that the problem was one of will. He feared that the television drama debate would simply fizzle out, leaving no change in its wake. Apathy, he pessimistically put it, could weather all storms.79. Kevin Grattan, who also had his career as a television writer curtailed with the change in policy, took a similar view. He agreed with Lentin about the need for a regular slot for single plays. As to financing contemporary drama, RTE should cut back 10% on everything else and do without The Rose of Tralee, Housewife of the Year and other such productions.80

The proliferation of these sort of progammes at a time of drastic fall-off in serious drama and documentary production was the basis of the trade union critique of the autumn 1985 schedule. The FWUI called for the re-deployment of existing resources away from such productions sponsored by commercial interests as undermining the integrity and independence of RTE. Equity demanded that RTE fulfill its duty as a national broadcasting station by pursuing a drama policy which would concentrate mainly on home-produced drama, written by Irish playwrights, directed by Irish directors, performed by Irish actors and designed by Irish designers, on themes relevant to the Irish audience, with full editorial control remaining in Irish hands.

Producer John Lynch, who supported the Equity motion, made the point that, in a confident society, such a motion would have no place. With regard to co-productions, he felt that it was necessary to see both the advantages and the inherent dangers. The dangers were loss of identity and a tendency to gombeenism in management, performers and crew, resulting in a drying up of the well of inspiration, imagination and truth. To see the shilling in the new world was fine, he said, but it was necessary to consider the exchange rate. Otherwise, the Irish people would be slaves in their own country. Who will respect us, he asked, if we didn’t respect ourselves ? RTE had shown that it could produce drama of a very high standard when it took control. RTE’s principal duty was to put the nation on the screen. Whether in co-productions or in-house productions, the problems, according to Lynch, were imitation and conservatism. There was a tendency to go for a safe approach. There was a need to have a clear policy, to develop scriptwriters, to take risks and to stop doing twee stories about priests and their housekeepers. It shouldn’t try to please everybody. 81

Playwright Michael Judge thought Harris’ proposals very good and should be tried. Instead of co-productions, which put Irish drama at the mercy of others, RTE should be doing Irish plays for an Irish audience about such themes as men’s attitudes to feminism, belief in catholicism as the one true faith, the effects of single sex schools and corporal punishment in the education system, violence in the home and false nationalism.82 Carolyn Swift felt that RTE needed to examine its conscience over its treatment of writers through the years, while sheltering heads of drama who were afraid to tackle plays relating to the here-and-now lives of viewers. She wanted to see RTE drama deal with contemporary themes relating to socio-political problems and women’s problems.83 Ultan Macken remarked on how much of RTE drama had been rural-based at a time when half the population lived in cities. The arrival of eng cameras meant that video drama could be made at economic cost. Drama should be a mirror of its society. There was a need to go to it and find the money somewhere.84 Michael Murphy agreed with Harris that RTE drama was not reflecting present Irish reality. It was feeding the audience a prime-time diet of Dallas, Dynasty and Falcon Crest instead of reflecting its own way of life. He believed that the Access dramas then in production would go some way to meeting this need.85

Various people came in on the debate and spoke their piece. Some occupied intermediate positions between the drama policy of the Niall McCarthy period and the full-scale Harris-Lentin critique of it. Christopher Fitzsimon didn’t like the tone of the debate with its emphasis on contemporary social issues. He wrote to Access:

Some of your commentators would seem to wish us to believe that if a play deals with ‘contemporary social issues’, concerns the ‘man in the street’ and takes the part of the lower classes against the rampaging and grasping bourgeoisie, it must therefore be a good play. This is just silliness. A good play, whether for television or the stage, can treat of any subject, and is all the better for not pointing a moral.86

On the other hand, he noted that Louis Lentin had given drama a regular slot, through which Irish authors had the opportunity to develop in a manner appropriate to television. Whether these were successful or not, there was an overall impression of commitment to Irish authors and the Irish audience. What he saw as the priority was for Ireland’s considerable literary and dramatic tradition to be given the budget and encouragement it deserved.

James Plunkett also dissented from the tone of the Harris critique. He recoiled from the idea that everything had to have a ‘grim sociological message’. He was taken with O’Casey’s idea of wanting to put not only bread on the table, but also flowers as well. He felt that Harris wanted to get the flowers out of the way. On the other hand, he disapproved of the style of younger writers who never raised their heads from their own navels and were concerned with nothing outside their own individual desires. He missed the style of writing in which there was a consciousness of society and of other people having rights and suffering. He believed it important that writing be informed by the tendency to reach out, to challenge the potentialities of other people and to set up systems to look after the oppressed.87 Michael Garvey also took issue with Harris’ proposals. For him, it was a matter of taking issue with the whole aesthetic of social realism. He wished to make a plea for formalism, contending that realism had had its day. The plays of the Lentin period, with the exception of Deeply Regretted By, didn’t work. On the other hand, he had his criticisms of co-production policy, especially as it had involved doing The Irish RM, which he had refused to do when he was controller and RTE was more the master of its own house. He felt that the audience was being dulled through the sugar fantasy of imported drama, with its uninvolving infantilism and covert imperialism. There was a need to break away from broadcasting like a leaky tap. There was need for an epiphany through the sort of formalism that would make audiences aware of foundations. Ultimately, however, he asserted, the only guarantee of good drama was good people. Drama, as Garvey saw it, was essentially a moral activity, even though moral judgments had become unfashionable. 88

The reaction of those responsible for drama policy to the discontent varied from sympathetic consideration of the critique to defense of current policy and dismissal of the criticisms laid against it. The controller, Muiris MacConghail, took the criticisms quite seriously and went a long way towards conceding their validity. The move of television fiction away from radio and theatrical traditions to a more filmic grammar had affected the choice of themes and had for the time being left television drama in disarray and had brought the replacement of social realism by historical nostalgia. Moreover, the rising costs of production necessitated co-production, which meant that “we are not entirely masters in our own house.” He agreed that The Price had revealed the weaknesses of RTE’s co-production strategy, though he was proud of Caught in a Free State. It was important, he felt, that co-productions be used to bring something of the integrity of traditions of Irish writing to an international audience. There was a need, however, to find a formula balanced in favour of the contemporary. It was necessary to break from existing approaches to scheduling and to move away from hierarchical and monopolistic in-house production to provide a new atmosphere in which creativity could flourish. He felt that the problems of contemporary Ireland were being dealt with far more successfully in current affairs than in drama. There had been a failure to bring the quality of Irish writing to bear in television drama. He would like to see contemporary drama dealing with elections, the aftermath of the referenda, political morality and clerical influence in education and politics. He noted that the politician was a particularly under-represented figure in Irish drama. He wished to see the drama department meet the case made by the critics.89

Niall McCarthy, who presided as head of drama over the controversial drama policy of the 1980s, did not accept the case made by the critics and was not disposed to make any concessions to it. He defended the drama of his period as more appropriate to the majority Irish audience, who did not go to theatre and whose traditions and tastes were solidly Hollywood. For previous heads of drama, according to McCarthy, television drama meant theatre on television. Irish literary and theatrical traditions, he claimed, were not so strong as people thought. Most Irish people were much more into cinema than theatre. Home-produced television drama in the past had done well, but was never as successful as imported film drama. The mass audience looked to Dragnet and Hawaii 5 0 and not plays at the Abbey or the Gate. The way to reach the Irish audience was to make drama that was the same as the imported material in form but Irish in theme.

Theming, he admitted, had become related to what could be co-produced. RTE could no longer decide for itself what it could do. This lack of autonomy, he thought, was not too high a price to pay for the possibility of co-production. Co-production had saved RTE drama at a time of rising costs and budget cutbacks. It had made it possible for RTE to produce the high quality productions the audience wanted and to overcome the limitations of RTE’s habitual production methods, which were geared to day-to-day broadcasting, but were not up to the production standards set for drama on the international market. McCarthy stood over all the drama for which he had been responsible. He defended not only the filmed co-productions like The Year of the French, Love Stories, and The Price which had brought RTE drama up to the production standards of the international market, but also the in-house, studio based, video productions of his period, like Inside and Leave It To Mrs. O’Brien. Despite the criticisms made of it, he made no apologies for making three series of Leave It To Mrs. O’Brien, citing the TAM ratings as his justification. The last thing he wanted, he asserted, was an educated Dublin 4 view of Ireland dominating the drama department. There was another audience there, he insisted, and he had found it. There were productions, he contended, covering a broad intellectual and cultural spectrum, which he defined as spanning from Raic to Leave It To Mrs. O’Brien.

The implication of this line of argument was that the critics had not come to terms with what the Irish audience really wanted, whether high technical standards or low cultural standards. If there was an audience there for cinematic glossiness and no challenge to uneducated tastes, the argument seemed to go, they should get it. If it was expensive to produce, the money had to be raised through co-production finance, whatever compromises it required, short of gross distortion. McCarthy was critical of the Lentin policy and the productions issuing from it. It was theatrically-based, middle class, sixties drama, which he considered already old fashioned when it was transmitted. The Thursday Playdate and Sunday One plays on rape and marriage breakdown were not really successful, according to him. McCarthy dismissed the Harris proposals as an attack on professionalism. A political commissar with a bag of money could only produce propaganda. It was not possible to commission genius. If RTE was failing to produce serious drama tackling serious social issues, it was because it wasn’t being written. If Harris was making a cri de coeur for an Irish Boys From the Blackstuff, let him write it or show him where it had been written.90

John Baragwanath, head of sales and co-productions, also strongly defended what RTE had done in the way of co-production and what had been achieved by RTE being out there in the international marketplace. The finance was not there for RTE to make high quality film drama independently. It was important for drama to be made on film and to raise the money to make it through co-production investment and international sales. It was necessary for RTE to make compromises, to stop being insular and to be relevant to wider audiences. If there was a world wide shift from public service broadcasting to more commercial programming, RTE had to adapt to it. Baragwanath regarded the whole television drama debate in Access and elsewhere as utterly sterile. The controller and critics, he contended, were indulging middle class attitudes to the working class. The critics, he argued, were naive about commercial forces. In fact, the whole debate, in his opinion, was worse than sterile. It had actually been harmful, in that it had given RTE a way of walking away from the problem of finance and had given the impression that good drama could be made cheaply. Good drama cost upwards of £400,000 per hour and they had made it more difficult for the money to be found.91 Tony Barry also defended this policy. It was not possible to commission genius. Most scripts didn’t have the magic. It couldn’t be produced by edict or by an experimental video unit. Political drama could only succeed when written out of a writer’s own experiences and talents. There was also the consideration, he added, that, in a time of recession, people didn’t want to be reminded that they were poor. He did want to see scripts coming in asking questions about contemporary Ireland, but felt it was necessary to deal with the fact that the audience was conditioned to Dallas. Drama, he believed, needed to be made on film and was dependent on co-production.92

RTE’s Slants programme devoted to critical analysis of the media, which ran for two seasons, did two features on RTE’s television drama policy. The first in 1985 featured a critical commentary by Fintan O’Toole and a studio discussion with Richard Kearney, Colm O Briain and Muiris Mac Conghail, which stressed storylines and settings and aired the problems highlighted in the television drama debate in Access, with the weight of emphasis on the lack of contemporary urban drama and the unacceptable face of co-production policy. The second in 1986 concentrated on the formal and financial trends in television drama in interviews with British television producers and on the case for co-productions in a studio discussion with Colm O Briain and Tony Barry.

Meanwhile, the momentum building behind co-productions was broken, not by the debate, but by the government closing off the financial avenues that had made it possible. It was replaced, not by contemporary urban drama, but by a near standstill in drama production, with the only movement being in fits and starts, lacking in clear overall direction and strong dynamic thrust.

Despite a willingness to meet the demand for contemporary drama illuminating social experience, there was an extraordinary inability to generate an effective response. Inside failed because it was narrowly conceived and vacuously written. Access Community Drama failed because it bypassed professional writers and performers and gave creative opportunities to amateurs which were denied to professionals. Glenroe and Leave It To Mrs. O’Brien proceeded as before. The Island was essentially a South African theatrical adaptation, worthy, but not solving the central problem. The one co-production to proceed since then was an RTE / Channel 4 co-production, with Strongbow in the driver’s seat. As part of a series of four films under the title Where Reason Sleeps, RTE undertook to make the fourth, entitled Fear of the Dark, by Robert Wynne Simmons. It was one more picture of Dublin centred on lumpen elements, to which was added not any sort of insight: into the socio-historical milieu, but an obscurantist flirtation with supernaturalism. Certainly a series of four one-hour films with the common theme of an individual coming face to face with the (so-called) supernatural could be expected only to add to the darkness and the clutter of the cultural terrain rather than to bring any sort of illumination or order into the difficult task of sorting out the meaning of contemporary experience. It represented the triumph of entrepreneurial hustle above all other criteria in determining what sort of drama was made.

Since the upsurge of the television drama debate, there were various changes in RTE and hopes were raised. Bob Collins, who became director of television programmes and later director-general, considered it a priority to re-establish RTE-produced drama focusing on Irish themes for an Irish audience, although this did not rule out co-production, as long as there was a line drawn beyond which RTE would not go. International production methods and international saleability could not be allowed to determine what was done. Commenting on the terms in which the television drama debate had been conducted, he thought it had tended to throw up dichotomies that were unreal. Relevance did not equal issues. Issues did not equal propaganda. Good drama did not equal astronomically expensive drama. There could be co-productions and in-house productions, single plays and series, historical or contemporary drama, expensive or inexpensive drama, film or video drama. Drama, he believed, could bring insights not possible in other forms. Asked about themes for future drama, he replied that the muse needed to flow and that themes could not be predetermined, but would like to see drama dealing with unemployment, emigration, the changing pattern of rural/urban differences, problems of women and the issues raised by referenda. Asked if there were any no-go areas for drama, he replied emphatically there were not.93

The issues raised in the Kerry Babies and Granard cases highlighted problems seething beneath the surface of Irish society and crying out for dramatic treatment in all their ramifications, which only came to the surface in newspaper reports or judicial proceedings, which necessarily left the deeper or more subtle dimensions untouched. Commenting on this phenomenon, former RTE producer Nuala O Faolain wrote in The Irish Times:

“In societies which have flourishing movie industries and lots of home produced drama on television and lively domestic theatre and publishing opportunities, the arts illuminate society. They turn light on to corners of social experience …and make them intelligible. The arts …help countries know themselves …Here we have judicial proceedings instead of the arts. Almost everything we learn about each other we learn through the courts, as reported and amplifled by journalists …take the lives revealed by the Kerry Babies Tribunal… a world no Irish writer or dramatist I know has dealt with …people like Joanne Hayes happened long ago in real life, but they’ve yet to arrive on the stage of the Abbey or in Glenroe. What was revealed of Fr.Niall Molloy’s lifestyle was as far as one can get from the lovable priests in Leave It To Mrs. O’Brien. He was also very different from the tortured, austere priests equally acceptable in the national stereotype stakes …Investigative journalism is in touch with the way real people behave, but investigative reports are not the medium for how a day feels, the wanderings and coincidences, and eating a mixed grill… it never examines the texture of the world in which the criminal acts occur …One of the worst things about having little art about how Ireland really is now, and learning it instead from the courts and from journalism, is that our experience of Ireland is tainted with criminality. On RTE not many dramas -a few, and not many surprises in series …But there’s so much untouched and unexpressed and apparently likely to remain so.”94
While the television drama debate in the public arena continues in spurts with commentaries such as Nuala O Faolain’s, there was a quieter underground dissatisfaction that nothing so far has come anywhere near allieviating. When probing the perception of RTE drama on the part of various sections of its audience, there was invariably expressed some degree of alienation and a feeling that large areas of significant experience remained untouched. Those who might have the skill to create what could alleviate the alienation of the audience were in some cases themselves alienated from RTE. The playwright Frank McGuinness stated quite starkly on RTE’s Saturday View programme in October 1986 that, although he had written television drama for the BBC, he felt that RTE had no interest whatsoever in what he had to offer. In querying professionals about their perceptions and prescriptions, every one had a list of important topics not being treated. Niall Toibin wanted to see sharp dramatic treatment of Irish politics, of the legal system, of the catholic church.95 Kevin McHugh wanted to see drama properly investigating contemporary society by showing forth the system and dealing with ideas, to see drama policy break from anti-intellectual traditions, from lack of strategic planning and from the notion that all social problems belong to the lower orders.96 Fintan O’Toole called attention to whole areas of Irish experience were disenfranchised in drama policy: life on the suburban estates, the changing nature of the work environment, political corruption, the education system, the moving statues phenomenon and rural-urban conflicts. He wanted to see drama dealing with situations like an old christian brother coming to terms with a school turning coeducational, with city kids going to the gaeltacht, with country people coming to work in Dublin. 97
The strongest sense of what should be done in RTE drama in the future ironically emanated from various quarters outside the RTE drama department. RTE’s head of current affairs, Eugene Murray, admitted to an intense interest in the possibilities of television drama, stemming from a growing frustration with the limitations of current affairs methods of dealing with important stories. A business studies graduate with years of work in investigative journalism, he had an intimate knowledge of the world of stock brokers, bankers and PR men, a world full of stories with dimensions that current affairs coverage simply could not get at. Even on the most superficial level, there was the difficulty of getting people to talk. Particularly frustrating was the experience of hearing people talk freely of various matters in the Today-Tonight hospitality suite and then watching them go on air and deny any knowledge of such matters. On a deeper level, there was the whole area of characterisation, which could not be developed in current affairs. Again it was the concept of drama taking up issues where current affairs left off. He believed the priority should be popular drama, as opposed to the high-brow, art-house drama of co-productions, while at the same time avoiding the dangers of being too populist. It should not be inhibited by fear of offending sectional interests. It needed an ideological concept to come to terms with what forces were actually operating in the society. The starting point should be in ideas about the world, interest in some subject matter, views about society, not a mystification of form.98

Taking up the case for an experimental video unit to test the possibilities of new mobile, lightweight, single camera video techniques for drama production, he was producer of a pilot project to set such experimentation in motion. The pilot City Limits was a 25 minute drama made in 1986, written and directed by Paul Cusack and improvised with actors connected with Passion Machine. It arose out of the perceived need for an urban serial. Because it was aimed primarily at an audience of urban youth into the culture of pop videos, Cusack was looking for ‘street credibility’ and made his starting point locations which would represent this lifestyle: streets, video shops, pool halls, and launderettes, etcetera.99 It was a promising experiment in so far as it showed the potentialities of new developments in video technology for making on-location urban drama. What was not so promising was its basis in a questionable conception of street credibility, which seemed to be defined as synonymous with the activities of lumpen youth tied into the black economy and tainted with criminality. In this sense it was in the RTE tradition of urban drama after Tolka Row, stretching from A Week in the Life of Martin Cluxton and Hatchet to Inside, in identifying the city with the violence, vulgarity and criminality of lumpen culture.

However, the debate rose and fell without resolution. The issues it raised were not settled. Hard things were said on both sides. Charges of executives turning away from the traumas of their own society to move in the high-flying expense account world of glossy films and glittering prizes were met with charges of propagandists wanting to grovel in ghettos, shout on soap boxes and make do with the shoddiest and most rag-tag methods of production. Hardened caricatures, inappropriate associations and false dichotomies sometimes littered the debate. The concern for high production values, for reaching an international audience and for the financial advantages of co-productions was not altogether misplaced. Nevertheless, the concern for taking on the burning social issues of the times, for relevance to the life experience of the Irish audience and for facing up to risk, challenge and controversy should have been paramount. There was good will, social concern and hard work on both sides, although there was clearer vision, higher values and stronger passion in some quarters than in others.

My conclusion at the time of the publication of the first edition of this book in 1987 was that there was the potential to create meaningful and memorable television drama in the future, if only drama policy moved:

· to clarify its aesthetic criteria
· to come to terms with ideological considerations
· to break free of patterns of perception that were plodding and particularistic and that failed to see social phenomena socially
· to stop taking the safe path and the soft option and to take the risks of challenging the higher potentialities of its audience, instead of pandering to its lowest tastes
· to reach for the heights and to probe the depths of human experience, instead of being fixated on mediocrity and preoccupied with the trivial ups and downs of the most trivial lives
· to come to terms with life higher up the evolutionary ladder, to see the drama in people with advanced ideas, creative vitality and social commitment
· to deal with all stages of the life cycle and give dramatic expression to the value of wisdom and maturity and not put an exaggerated emphasis on youth, privileging its perceptions above all others
· to open out its representation of the city to include its professors, its politicians, its lawyers, its journalists, its doctors, its artists, its athletes, its computer programmers and its construction workers, and not to go always for the no-hopers and for liberal indulgence of lumpen life
· to break away from conceptions of the city which make criminality central or, even worse, make it cute and chic
· to open out its representation of the country to show its wage labourers, its struggling small farmers, its political activists, its teachers and students and to stop giving disproportionate attention to its gombeens and dwelling on small details of small lives within the narrowest horizons
· to harness the best writers, the best actors, the best directors, to the task of creating drama at the cutting edge of contemporary experience
· to do so with the most appropriate technology to each form, setting and storyline, without renouncing the aim of achieving the highest production standards possible
· to be far firmer and more resourceful about finding the finance for it

These were the hopes with which this author and much of the audience looked to the television drama of the next decades.

A sequel to this book, taking the story further another 15 years,
Tracking the Tiger: The Continuing Story of Irish Television Drama
will be published by 4 Courts Press in 2002.
Notes to Chapter 6

1. The Hunt committee was set up by the British conservative governnment to make recommendations on the future of cable systems in the UK. The Peacock Committee was set up to consider how broadcast and print media in the UK might develop if the BBC were to be financed through advertising revenue and other sources rather than through the licence fee.
2. Vincent Browne, at a Media Association of Ireland meeting, ‘Broadcasting Policy: Business as Usual or All Change’, 16 November 1985.
3. John A. Murphy’s “Tackling the Crisis”, Irish Broadcasting Review, Spring, 1983.
4. Muiris MacConghail, communications conference at the College of Commerce in Rathmines, Apri130, 1983.
5. Sean Mac Reamoinn “Crisis and Challenge”, Irish Broadcasting Review, Summer 1981.
6. Con Bushe, The Irish Times, June 5, 1985.
7. Interview with Ted Nealon, Apri127, 1983.
8. The MacBride Report was the report issued by the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems under the chairmanship of Sean MacBride: Many Voices, One World; Communication and Society Today and Tomorrow, Paris UNESCO, 1984.
9. Gene Kerrigan in Magill, March 21, 1985.
10. Muiris MacConghail, RTE/FI Summer School July 8, 1985.
11. Hugh Leonard Sunday Independent September 18, 1983.
12. James Plunkett, Irish Literary Supplement, Spring 1986.
13. ibid.
14. Martin McLoone, “Strumpet City -The Urban Working Class on Television” in Television and Irish Society, op. cit.
15. Interview with James Plunkett, 22 April 1985.
16. Interview with Tony Barry, 6 November, 1984.
17. McLoone later qualified his use of the term ‘ideological project’, explaining that what he meant was not a matter of intentionality and individual motivation, but a matter of deep structures in The Crane Bag, Vol.9 no 2, 1985, pp.73-74.
18. McLoone, op.cit.
19. Interview with Tony Barry, op.cit.
20. Interview with Eoghan Harris, 17 July, 1984.
21. Interview with Michael Garvey,16 July 1985.
22. Magil, 7 March 1985
23. Tom O’Dea, Irish Press, February 26, 1983.
24. Barbara O’Connor, “The Presentation of Women in Irish Television Drama”, in Television and Irish Society, op. cit. and RTE radio panel discussion On The Record, July 5, 1984.
25. Interview with Kevin McHugh, September 4, 1986.
26. Interview with John Lynch, October 30, 1984.
27. RTE Guide, April 5, 1985
28. Charles Hunter, “Not Such a Good Life”, Theatre Ireland, No.8, Winter 1984.
29. Ann Barrett, In Dublin, January 9,1986.
30. Peadar Mac Eoin, Magil/ TV Guide, January 16, 1986.
31. Aodhan Madden, Hibernia, August 1985.
32. Joe Ambrose, In Dublin, February 7,1985.
33. Eamonn Dunphy, Sunday Tribune, February 3,1985.
34. Fintan O’Toole,”The Price of Shame”, Sunday Tribune, February 17, 1985.
35. Quoted by Paddy Woodworth in “The Politics of Drama in RTE”, Magil/, March 7,1985.
36. ibid.
37. Luke Gibbons, op. cit, p.46.
38. When asked about the parallels between the two productions, Wesley Burrowes claimed that there was no conscious connection. Interview with Wesley Burrowes, November 13, 1984.
39. Interview with Carolyn Swift, December 11, 1984.
40. Barbara O’Connor in Television and Irish Society, op. cit.
41. Interview with Eoghan Harris, July 17, 1984.
42. Brian MacLochlainn, RTE Guide, September 9, 1983.
43. Wesley Burrowes, Society of Irish Playwrights Workshop, October 4,1984.
44. Michael Judge indicated that the same process had resulted in the softening of Charley Conway in Harbour Hotel. Interview November 14, 1984.
45. Wesley Burrowes, RTE Guide, September 9,1983.
46. RTE / lFI Seminar, July 1985.
47. Wesley Burowes, “Coronation Street: The Correct Use of Soap”, In Dublin, October 31.1985.
48. In Dublin, 2 October 1986.
49. Interviews with Niall McCarthy, July 17 and November 1, 1984.
50. Joe Dunlop, RTE Guide, November 8,1985.
51. Interview with Mannix Flynn, May 21,1985.
52. Interview with Eoghan Harris, March 3, 1986.
53. Joe Dunlop, op. cit.
54. Interview with Noel O Briain, June 21,1985.
55. Interview with Gerry Stembridge, March 3, 1986. Also his contribution to the RTE / IFI Seminar, July 2, 1986.
56. “A Superior Brand of Soap”, Hot Press, October 14,1984.
57. This point was made on numerous occasions in conversations with Noel O Briain.
58. Gene Kerrigan, Sunday Tribune, May 25,1986.
59. Joe Dunlop, RTE Guide, January 31,1986.
60. Gene Kerrigan, Sunday Tribune, Apri127, 1986.
61. Review quoted (with no source cited) in the RTE Guide, January 26,1986.
62. Interview with Brian MacLochlainn, February 25, 1986.
63. RTE Guide, September 12,1986.
64. Michael Murphy, “Funny Business”, In Dublin, February 6,1986.
65. This was not to say RTE gave no scope for expression of incredulity. The fact that credulity dominated in the general atmosphere surrounding these events was due more to a whole climate of reaction in the culture as a whole than to any specific intent in RTE. Those who believed were on the offensive and those who did not seemed to be lying low.
66. Gene Kerrigan, Sunday Tribune, May 25,1986.
67. Interview with Kevin McHugh, September 25,1986.
68. Brid Keenan, RTE/IFI Summer School, July 2,1986.
69. Philip Schlesinger, Graham Murdock, and Philip Elliott, Televising Terrorism, London, 1983, pp.94-96.
70. Stewart Parker, introduction to script of Lost Belongings, London, 1987.
71. Radio Times, August 31,1985.
72. Ray Comiskey interview with Mike Leigh, Irish Times, January 29, 1985.
73. Graham Reid, Radio Times, November 12,1985.
74. Des Cranston, Theatre Ireland No.11, Autumn 1985. A longer version of this article was given as a lecture at the RTE / IFl Summer School, July 11,1985.
75. Kenith Trodd, cited in Theatre Ireland, ibid, p.30.
76. Access (RTE in-house publication appearing fortnightly) through Autumn 1984.
77. Interviews with Eoghan Harris, July 17, 1984 and March 3, 1986. Also speech given by Eoghan Harris at RTE / IFl Summer School, July 6, 1984, and articles in Access, Autumn 1984.
78. Interview with Louis Lentin, January 24, 1985. Also speech given by Louis Lentin at RfE/IFl Summer School, July 6,1984, and articles in Access, Autumn 1984. Also interviews with Louis Lentin by Charles Hunter in Irish Times, November 8, 1984 and by Mary Kavanagh in In Dublin, November 7,1984.
79. Interview with Martin Duffy, April 22, 1985. Also article in Access, Autumn 1984. Also quoted by Paddy Wordworth in Magill, March 7,1985.
80. Interview with Kevin Grattan, November 8,1984.
81. Interview with John Lynch, October 30, 1984. Also article in Access, Spring 1985.
82. Interview with Michael Judge, November 11,1984.
83. Interview with Carolyn Swift, December 11, 1984. Also article in Access, Autumn 1984.
84. Ultan Macken, Access, ibid.
85. Michael Murphy, Access, ibid.
86. Christopher Fitzsimon, Access, ibid.
87. Interview with James Plunkett, April 22, 1985. Also interview in Irish Literary Supplement, Spring 1986.
88. Interview with Michael Garvey, July 16, 1985. Also RTE/IFI Summer School, July 4, 1986.
89. Interview with Muiris MacConghail, July 8, 1986. Also article in Access, Autumn 1984 and speeches at RTE/ IFI Summer Schools, July 6, 1984 and July 4, 1986.
90. Interview with Niall McCarthy, July 17, 1984. Also article in Access, Autumn 1984 and speech at RTE/IFI Summer School, July 6, 1984. Also article by Paddy Woodworth in Magill, March 7, 1985.
91. Interview with John Baragwanath, March 3, 1986. Also article in Access, Autumn 1984.
92. Interview with Tony Barry, November 6, 1984. Also on Slants programme, March 2, 1986.
93. Interview with Bob Collins, September 12, 1986. Also RTE press release, 15 July 1987.
94. Nuala O Faolain, Irish Times, July 29,1986.
95. Interview with Niall Toibin, May 8, 1985.
96. Interview with Kevin McHugh, December 5,1985.
97. Interview with Fintan O’Toole, October 28,1986.
98. Interview with Eugene Murray, October 9, 1986. Also speech at RTE / IFI Summer School, July 4, 1986
99. Interview with Paul Cusack, October 9,1986.

originally published 1987
revised 2001

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