- About Helena Sheehan
- Latest Publications
- Lectures & Presentations
From IRISH TELEVISION DRAMA: A SOCIETY AND ITS STORIES by Dr Helena Sheehan
This is essentially a story about storytelling. It is, first of all, an account of why people tell stories. It is an exploration of what has been at stake in the whole, long and complex history of storytelling, stretching from the voices of the ancient bards to the signals of space age satellites. It is, in the second instance, a story about why particular people have told particular stories at a particular time in the history of a particular society. The Irish people have always been renowned as storytellers. This is the story of Irish storytelling in the television era.
Although storytelling would seem to be a universal activity, fundamental to the human condition, it has by no means been a static one. It has not been the same for all times. It is an activity that has undergone enormous transformations. Perhaps the most striking change is the extent to which tales told face to face in direct human contact have given way to tales electronically transmitted from increasingly remote sources. Dinner table conversation, school lessons, pub craic, bedtime rituals and fireside chats still survive. So do newspapers, books, theatre, radio and cinema. Nevertheless, television has become the predominant medium of contemporary storytelling.
This makes it ever more imperative to subject its stories and its modes of storytelling to critical scrutiny; to ask what sort of stories are being told and what sort of criteria are appropriate in assessing them; to see if there are any patterns discernible in this vast output; to find out if there are any explanations for its shapes and changes of shape. To get to the heart of the matter it is necessary to raise such preliminary issues as:
· the role of storytelling in human experience
· the role of drama as a mode of storytelling
· the role of television as a medium of drama
and to do so in a way that is up front about fundamental assumptions, terms of reference, methods of research and alternative approaches.
It is then in order to analyse particular stories in terms of their deep structures and to place these within the context of the total flow of television and the larger tapestry of social experience. This means an analysis of Irish television drama in terms of the underlying meaning of the stories being told and the emerging patterns of meaning, within the larger patterns of indigenous and imported television and within the development of Irish social history. Finally, there are the problems and prospects for the future. Much is at stake, both for Ireland and for the world, in the emergent scenarios of global flows in the satellite era.
The aim of this book is to pursue these larger and deeper questions about television drama, and to do so in a systematic manner and on a comprehensive scale, as an antidote both to the passive and unreflective nature of much television viewing and to the shallow and fragmented character of most television criticism. It is a somewhat daunting task to seek to synthesise such a vast and variable flow of programming across decades and across continents, to try to find a coherent pattern in the seemingly random chaos that others let be as a babel of incommensurable discourses, to look for deeper meaning in what others insist is simple entertainment or pure escapism, with no other rhyme or reason. Nevertheless there is reason to believe that television drama is shaped and being shaped by contemporary consciousness, in ways that are crying out to be understood. Paralysis in the face of the difficulties of doing so would be acquiescence in the laziness, cowardice and confusion that prevail.
It is my belief that there is a deeper logic to most things than is at first apparent and that it is important to take on panoramic projects. I have tried to give due attention to detail, without losing sight of the wood for the trees, concentrating on achieving as much of an overall perspective and sense of historical sweep as possible. My orientation in sorting out such a huge mass of data has been to adopt a holistic and historicist approach, which has aimed:
· to look at television drama in terms of the stories a society tells about itself and others to itself and others
· to draw as comprehensive and as vivid a picture as possible of Irish television drama in the various stages of its development, decade by decade
· to trace the networks of assumptions underlying these stories through the recurring images, plots, settings, themes, genres and modes of characterisation and through the patterns of change emerging in these over the years
· to articulate the implicit world view, or clash of world views, underlying the productions of each period
· to analyse the shifts which have occurred from the earliest days of Irish television to the present in relation to the socio-historical context in which they have occurred
· to reflect on the relationship between such shifts in the shape of television drama and the larger pattern of social change.
My argument is that a detailed and disciplined study of both texts and contexts reveals certain recurring modes of representation. These patterns are rooted in a larger process, a process forging its way through the work of writers, producers, directors and executives, most often below the threshold of consciousness. Time and time again, I was told by those who made policy, who wrote and edited scripts, who produced or directed the drama I was investigating, that there was no pattern in it. Most believed that what was produced or not produced was a matter of fortuitous circumstance, personal whim or some sort of individual non-contextual creative process. I was told all sorts of details about practical contingencies, personal tastes, differential talents and many other things, which were important for understanding the intricate processes on the ground and the particular reasons for particular productions being as they were. However, it would have been easy to get lost in these details and not see the wood for the trees. The fact that there were more particular processes and reasons involved does not invalidate the thesis that there were larger processes and reasons working their way through them. The fact that the writers, producers, directors and executives are not always aware of the forces shaping their consciousness and their situation makes those forces no less real.
Although this is a work of social history, making very large and strong theoretical claims, I have tried to devise methods of research which would ensure that my general analysis was properly grounded in particular knowledge of programmes and the concrete conditions of their production and reception. This meant, first of all, watching a lot of television. Several years of taking copious notes from intensive off-air viewing were supplemented both by drawing on memories of years of past viewing and by making the most of access to television archives. I had total access to RTE archives and was limited only by how much material had been lost when videotapes were wiped in the earlier period.
I must acknowledge here my enormous debt to Radio Telefis Eireann, as my relationship to RTE was crucial in making many aspects of my research possible. RTE not only gave financial support to my work, but gave me the run of the institution over a period of several years. I became a familiar face in the drama department, in studio, on location, in the library, in editing suites, in viewing facilities, in numerous offices and in the restaurant. I received considerable co-operation wherever my probing took me, without restrictions of access and without pressure to inhibit my critical assessments of what I might encounter. Indeed, most people I dealt with were remarkably critical and self-critical and expected the same from me. The whole experience gave me an understanding of the inside workings of a broadcasting organisation and the production side of television drama that I would not have otherwise. I observed the making of whatever drama was in production during the period of my research: Glenroe, Inside, Leave It to Mrs. O’Brien, Spring Cleaning. I conducted a number of formal interviews with executives, producers, directors, authors, actors, which have been cited where relevant in the text. Perhaps I learned most, however, in the less formal situations, from the offhand remarks, anecdotes and reactions that arose spontaneously in the course of work in progress, comings and goings and lunch breaks. I have respected whatever was said to me in confidence, although such knowledge shaped what I wrote, implicitly if not explicitly. This experience of things at the source has immeasurably enhanced my understanding of how television comes to be as it is and I can never watch television in the same way again.
I have also pursued more orthodox methods of research. My reading encompassed the entire range of academic work in television studies and related fields, as well as scripts, production manuals, previews, reviews, memoirs, reports, memos, files and miscellaneous archival material. Over the years I attended numerous conferences, seminars and lectures where relevant to add to my sense of the existing terms of discussion and debate. The 1st International Television Studies Conference in London in 1984, the 7th Celtic Film and Television Festival in Newcastle in 1986 and the RTE/IFI summer schools from 1983 to 1986 were important, as were various events organised by the Media Association of Ireland and the Society for Irish Playwrights.
My transition from university philosophy departments to a national television station was mediated by my early years of lecturing in communications in the National Institute of Higher Education, which has since become Dublin City University, which brought a reorientation of my research into the area of media studies, without leaving behind my interest in philosophy, specifically in epistemology, political theory and sociology of knowledge
Whereas my original outline for this book included one chapter on Irish television drama within a more comprehensive book on trends in television drama worldwide, this material mushroomed to become an entire book in itself. I would not have done so, had I not believed it merited such extensive attention. I have, however, taken great care to see it within the perspective of global developments in international television. Irish television drama has, from the very beginning, not only developed under the influence of its own native drama traditions, but also in an environment of intensive exposure to British and American television. It has neither been produced nor perceived in isolation from what was being produced elsewhere. It presents interesting points of comparison and contrast with both British and American television, as well as with the television of other small nations. Amidst its various influences and under many pressures, it has achieved an impressive record of indigenous television drama production. I have put particular emphasis on American television drama, not only because of the Irish audience’s long and large exposure to it, but because of its pioneering role in the creation of the genres and conventions of television drama production and because of its long-standing and ever-increasing domination of the world’s airwaves. I have also taken considerable note of British television, again not only because of the amount of time the Irish audience has spent in viewing it, but because it has developed under such a different ethos from that of the US and has pioneered a tradition so strikingly different in its themes, settings, storylines, characterisation and range of viewpoints. Ireland is probably the best place in the world for seeing the best of international television, at least in multi-channel land. Certainly better than America, where the US audience sees very little from elsewhere, even in cities with upward of 70 channels. Better than Britain, as we see all of their channels, terrestrial and satellite, with both indigenous and additional imported material, which is increasingly coming from a wider and wider range of international sources.
To acknowledge by name everyone who helped me, especially at RTE, would be a long list. There have been so many producers, directors, floor managers, stage managers, production assistants, vision mixers, cameramen, sound and lighting technicians, film and video editors, secretaries, librarians, executives, authors and actors, who not only put up with my presence, but went out of their way to assist me. I did occasionally come up against vague stirrings of anti-intellectual undercurrents, though only rarely did they erupt into the open and even more rarely were they aimed particularly at me. Most, however, were at least curious and courteous and some were most interested, encouraging and generous. I am particularly indebted to Muiris MacConghail and Bob Collins for facilitating my modus operandi within RTE and for their intellectual commitment to the project. I am also grateful to those who consented to interviews: Muiris MacConghail, Bob Collins, Ted Nealon, Niall McCarthy, Tony Barry, Louis Lentin, Michael Garvey, Donall Farmer, Jim Fitzgerald, Noel O Briain, Chloe Gibson, Brian MacLochlainn, John Lynch, Gerard Stembridge, Paul Cusack, Eugene Murray, Eoghan Harris, Wesley Burrowes, Michael Judge, Carolyn Swift, James Plunkett, Martin Duffy, Kevin Grattan, Mannix Flynn, Tony Fahy, John Baragwanath, Kieran Hickey, Kevin McHugh, Fintan O’Toole and Niall Toibin. Other discussions, not set up as interviews, with these as well as others, such as Mick Lally and Liam O’Leary were illuminating. Kevin McHugh gave an insightful critical response to my work in progress. Others who assisted me were Catherine Hughes, Rita Foran, Eilis Pearce, Barbara Durack and Richard Pine. Finally, I must acknowledge the forbearance and assistance of Sam Nolan whose everyday life was so affected by my comings and goings, my viewing priorities and all the practical exigencies of my work.
In the end, however, it has been up to me to put the pieces of the puzzle together and to make something of value out of all that has come my way in what was in the end inevitably a solitary task. As to whether I have succeeded, it is for the reader to judge.
Dr. Helena Sheehan
Author’s note to new edition of
Irish Television Drama: A Society and Its Stories (2002)
Irish Television Drama: A Society and Its Stories was published in 1987. It dealt with the trajectory of Irish television drama over a period of 25 years. In 2001 I was asked to produce a new edition that would cover a period of 40 years.
I revised all existing chapters. For chapters 1 to 3, theoretical chapters, I used more contemporary examples to make my arguments and took account of subsequent developments and more recent research. For chapters 5 and 6 on the 1960s and 1970s, not so much change was required. However, some generalisations, valid at the time, such as The Riordans being the longest running serial in the history of RTE, were no longer valid. For chapter 6 on the 1980s, this was written in a 1980s voice, which was fine in the 1980s, but no longer. As well as shifting from present perfect to past tense, there was also too much detail in places where proportions needed to be adjusted.
After that came the big task of writing the new chapter bringing the story forward another 15 years. Subsequently it was decided to publish that as a separate title. It is being published now as Tracking the Tiger: The Continuing Story of Irish Television Drama in the series Broadcasting and Irish Society.
Dr Helena Sheehan