Wednesday 28 September 2016

How does Rebellion compare to RTE dramas of the 60s, 70s, 90s, noughties?

Pat Stacey

Published 26/01/2016 | 11:05

Drama: Perdita Weeks as Vanessa in the first episode of 'Rebellion' last weekend
Drama: Perdita Weeks as Vanessa in the first episode of 'Rebellion' last weekend

Youtube is an indispensable resource for the dedicated television buff. It’s an entertainment treasure trove, a kind of ramshackle archive that provides a pulsating link to TV’s past.

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Long-forgotten single plays, half-remembered mini-series, obscure cult serials — there’s a wealth of them to be found on YouTube. There are plenty of classics too.

One gem, which was last repeated during RTE’s 50th anniversary celebrations, is the 1971 drama A Week in the Life of Martin Cluxton.

When people talk about the high watermarks of RTE drama, they invariably point to the lavish 1980 adaptation of Strumpet City. But A Week in the Life of Martin Cluxton, directed and co-written by Brian MacLochlainn, is a landmark work: a striking piece of social-realist drama the equal of any of the “kitchen sink” plays being produced by the BBC at the time.

Shot on location in Dublin in evocative black-and-white, and featuring a notable score by Louis Stewart, it tells the story of a working-class teenager (Derek King) who returns to his inner-city flats complex after a spell in an industrial school and finds he faces a bleak and despairing future; in other words, no future at all.

What’s remarkable about it is how powerful it remains, and how many of the social problems it angrily addresses — not least the ostracising of large sections of the urban teenage population on the basis of an “undesirable” address — are still with us.

In a key scene, Martin looks as if he’s about to get a job as an apprentice mechanic, until his prospective employer learns where he lives and simply bins his application the moment he’s walked out the door.

Every now and then a character, such as John Kavanagh’s well-meaning but ineffectual young priest, will break the fourth wall and address the viewers. It’s a risky device, yet one that really pays off here, as does Martin’s plaintive stream-of-consciousness commentary on his own dead-end life.

A Week in the Life of Martin Cluxton, which picked up major awards at television festivals in Prague, Turin and Hollywood, was made at a time when RTE was, in terms of population, one of the biggest producers of TV drama in Europe. In its first 10 years on air, it produced 103 plays.

The variety of drama in the 1960s was astonishing. There were soaps and serials, innumerable theatre and literary adaptations, and a number of remarkably innovative original concepts. With a script by Hugh Leonard, the famous, but never repeated, Insurrection was an ambitious eight-part account of the 1916 Rising presented as a series of real-time news broadcasts.

The 70s brought us, among many others, Michael Feeney Callan’s crime drama The Burke Enigma, about two detectives trying to take down a Dublin crime family, Eugene McCabe’s controversial King of the Castle, Heno Magee’s gritty Hatchet, and even a regular single play slot called Thursday Playdate.

Not all of them were perfect and there were some outright disasters along the way, most notably the infamously awful The Spike, but the triumphs generally outweighed the failures. In all, it’s a remarkable track record for a small broadcaster.

The people running RTE these days would no doubt claim they’re carrying on that same honourable tradition. They’d be wrong.

The only major RTE drama we’ll see this year is Rebellion, a poky misfire that took a fine cast and a

€6million budget and blew the lot on a damp-squib script full of clunky, frequently anachronistic dialogue and characters that are little more — and in some cases considerably less — than cardboard cut-outs.

The Rising was, for good or ill, one of the key events in 20th century Irish history. Rebellion reduces it to the level of a sappy, silly soap opera.

In terms of quality, Rebellion is a long way down from most of the vintage dramas I mentioned above. For that matter, it’s also a long way down from more relatively recent offerings such as Family (1994), Amongst Women (1998), Making the Cut (1998), Proof (2004), Pure Mule (2005), Stardust (2006), Single-Handed (2007), Prosperity (2007), Whistleblower (2008) and Love/Hate at its peak, which it was in the superb second and third seasons, rather the flabby fourth or anticlimactic fifth.

In some ways, the phenomenal success of Love/Hate is partly to blame for Rebellion, and also for the series that previously filled the same slot, Billy Roche’s lethargic kidnap drama Clean Break.

RTE’s obsession with finding another series that will keep close on a million viewers glued to their screens every Sunday night over multiple seasons is blinding it to the essentials needed to make a good drama: a decent idea and a quality script.

The fact that there’s talk of a second and possibly third season of Rebellion, which would follow the characters into the War of Independence and Civil War years, suggests the national broadcaster has already lost the plot.

The war on mediocrity has only just begun . . . and it’s going to be one long conflict.

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