Are the Irish still a punchline for British television shows?
With a new Irish-set 'EastEnders' on the way, it remains to be seen whether British television has weaned itself off insultingly clichéd portrayals of Ireland
Published 12/04/2015 | 02:30
Irish fans of EastEnders could be forgiven a sickening tingle of déjà vu as the BBC last week announced an Ireland-set spin-off for its top-rating soap.
It is, after all, a relatively brief 18 years since EastEnders' last, notorious visit to Ireland, in which Britain's Celtic neighbours were depicted as crude, sweaty and, of course, ruinously boozy.
In one infamous scene, a character emptied a pint over another's head, then demanded payment; later there were lingering shots of donkeys and horse-drawn carts. Viewers in Ireland wondered whether EastEnders had crossed the Irish sea or taken a time machine back to the 19th century.
Nearly two decades on, the BBC is said to have issued instructions to EastEnders that Ireland is to be accurately reflected on screen - no horses, no drunks (or at least no more than in the average soap) and no less-than-subtle implications the locals are only lately arrived from the bogs.
As anyone who has grown up with UK channels can attest, the portrayal of Irish people on BBC and ITV has not always been positive. Across the decades it was condescending at best, frequently tipping into outright racism.
In that regard, of course, television merely reflected widely-held British attitudes toward the Irish as a semi-civilised 'other': coarse, shifty and, worst of all Catholic (that coarsest, shiftiest of faiths). In a notorious episode of Fawlty Towers, the respectable Irish theatre actor David Kelly was dragooned into playing a stereotypical untrustworthy 'Paddy' builder - the mischievous twinkle in his eye attesting to a desire to pull the wool over the nearest upstanding Englishman (he had played an equally toe-curling one-eyed dishwasher in the earlier Robin's Nest).
"I've been 52 to 53 years on stage and yet Fawlty Towers, those full nine minutes, make me recognised anywhere in the world," he later commented.
This was also the high watermark of the racist stand-up, when TV comedians could freely wisecrack about the Irish backwardness. Tune into any variety show on a Saturday night and there was an inevitable downpour of Irish jokes, though, with the conflict in the North turning long and embittered, the mirth was tempered with the understanding that, along with lazy and dim, the Irish also had a darkly dangerous side.
Indeed, as the low-level sectarian war continues to be flash-lit with atrocities, so the new genre of the Troubles drama arrived on British TV, as exemplified by Yorkshire television's 1982 mini-series Harry's Game. While accurately gritty in its evocation of early eighties Belfast, Harry's Game nonetheless reinforced the stereotype of the Irish as perpetual troublemakers - the begging bowl out one moment, a Kalashnikov cocked the next.
In the soap realm the Irish were typically violent and not to be trusted. On Coronation Street, Northern Irish native Jim McDonald was Weatherfield's resident hot-head, losing his cool on a weekly basis, particularly on his first stretch on the show, from 1989 to 2000.
And in Brookside, Bryan Murray achieved infamy as Trevor Jordache, a violent husband and sexually abusive father. When he was stabbed by his daughter, then buried beneath the family patio, the viewer was given to understand that he had got what was coming to him. Likewise on The Bill, the Irish served as a steady stream of drunks, brawlers, homeless and terrorists - the whole spectrum of low-rent villainy.
"Due to our very recent colonial status within the UK, we have always had a tense and rather complex relationship with Britain and this would naturally pertain also to TV and cinematic portrayals of the Irish by the British," says Dr Finola Doyle O'Neill of the school of history at UCC.
"Soap opera is a good example. Many Irish characters in UK soaps are stereotyped either as the violent Irish or the innocuous philanderer. [Coronation Street's] Keith Duffy springs to mind.
"When it came to British depictions of the Irish cinematically, in particular films pertaining to The Troubles, Irish characters tended to be single-dimensional, intrinsically violent and the political origins of the conflict wholly decontextualised. Compare this to the natural synergy shared, due to the diaspora, with the US. As a consequence of our conciliatory, rather than fractious political relationship with America, their cinematic portrayal of the Irish tends to be far more positive and less condemnatory."
If not painted as thuggish and two-faced, the Irish were presented as endlessly twee. British audiences couldn't get enough of Ballykissangel, about an English priest washed up in wildest Wicklow. Earlier, The Irish RM, based on the novels of Somerville and Ross, had depicted early 20th century Ireland as pre-industrially quaint, naïve natives presided over by wise and kindly Britons.
There is, it is true, a case to be made that, of late, the portrayal of Irish people on British television has improved immeasurably. Sky's greatly hyped new medical drama Critical features a Dublin medic; Sharon Horgan's Irishness was barely commented upon in the rush to praise her recent relationship drama Catastrophe.
"They often say it took the series Father Ted, shown first in the UK, to fully help us acknowledge our truly Irish peccadilloes and unique characteristics," says Doyle O'Neill. "Examples include Ireland's ambivalent relationship with the Eurovision song contest , wonderfully articulated in the episode [featuring] My Lovely Horse."
However, such progress only goes so far. Is it a coincidence that the underclass families at the centre of hit comedy Shameless were the 'Gallaghers' and the 'Maguires'? Consider too the widespread bafflement in the UK over the notion that a planned Channel 4 sitcom set during the Famine might be deemed insensitive in Ireland. "It's not unusual for sitcoms to exist against backdrops that are full of adversity and hardship," said the broadcaster, pointing out that the series was to be written by an Irishman.
That isn't to suggest British television is forever plotting to undermine 'the Irish'. Terry Wogan's Irishness was never an issue, regardless of the fact that his career was taking off at the height of the Troubles.
Similarly, Graham Norton has stated that coming from Cork may have been to his advantage - not only did it render him exotic, it also meant he did not easily fit into the British class system, thus making him harder to pigeonhole. With such a confused, contradictory history, there are thus grounds for approaching a rebooted Irish EastEnders with a mixture of caution and optimism. It would not be exactly unthinkable were EastEnders to serve up another helping of pig-in-a-poke cliché.