Tuesday 28 March 2017

Why Amy Huberman is the face of RTÉ drama drive

Forget Nidge, the national broadcaster has found its feminine side with 'Cheaters', writes our reviewer

Chasing Amy: Huberman is set to star in new RTÉ drama Cheaters.
Chasing Amy: Huberman is set to star in new RTÉ drama Cheaters.
Ed Power

Ed Power

It's quite a distance from Nidge in a hoodie to Amy Huberman in a pant-suit. Yet, it is Huberman to which RTÉ has turned as the broadcaster seeks to end an ongoing slump in its drama output and convince viewers there is indeed life after Love/Hate.

The actress will play a solicitor fallen on difficult times in RTÉ's big new series, Cheaters. Reeling from her fiancée's infidelity, Huberman's character is inspired to start a legal practice and take on the world on her own feisty terms. The four-parter, to be shot around Dublin in coming weeks, is produced by independent Blinder Films with an undisclosed, but sure to be hefty, budget (RTÉ has been in a spendthrift mood lately, lavishing an unprecedented €6m on 1916 soap Rebellion).

If Cheaters sounds like an Irish version of The Good Wife, the hit US courtroom romp about a lady lawyer coming to terms with an unfaithful husband, that is probably as intended. The Good Wife has been in the vanguard of a trend, in Ireland and elsewhere, to place strong female protagonists front and centre.

"It's made network television executives not as afraid to put on challenging television, and to have female leads," Good Wife star Julianna Margulies said this year.

"You can see it with Scandal, with Kerry Washington. Cable right away jumped on board with female leads, with Claire Danes [Homeland] and Robin Wright [House of Cards ] and Julia Louis-Dreyfus [Veep]."

After a decade of TV shows about brooding, "difficult men", there's a sense audiences today are more interested in the woman's perspective. We've had enough of Don Draper/ Walter White types wrestling demons.

So we get Anna Friel as troubled cop Marcella in the acclaimed ITV crime drama of the same name and Gillian Anderson as a dogged police officer on the trail of a Belfast serial killer in The Fall.

Even the backwater world of Irish television has responded to the vogue. Strong women proliferate on TV3's hit soap drama Red Rock and with Rebellion, RTÉ, too, signalled a determination to tell complex stories from a female vantage - and without the traditional condescension.

"Sometimes, you get scripts and end up as somebody's girlfriend or wife, you're not doing anything in your own right," Rebellion star Ruth Bradley lamented to me when discussing her role in the historical epic.

"Also, sometimes as a female actress, you record a big speech in a scene but then when it comes to the screen, the focus is still on the man and it's just your voice you hear."

"We usually play the girlfriend or the wife, the stock characters," says Sarah Greene, another of Rebellion's stars. "I was so excited when I read the script and it was about these strong women."

British actress Anna Friel, when promoting Marcella last spring (she has just signed up for another two seasons), said: "We're in an age now when people are crying out for female protagonists.

"The world is changing, rightly so, and we're maybe having the attention and the spotlight is being put on to women. It's about time, isn't it?"

The pivot towards strong female characters is also evident in that great wellspring of TV sexism, Game of Thrones. Early on, the fantasy saga treated women as glorified eye-candy. Nudity was standard, with even leads such as Emilia Clarke required to let it all dangler out.

That has changed, with women increasingly taking control of the storyline and showing themselves as plucky and resourceful as the men (though the nudity endures).

Bashing RTÉ is a perennial pursuit, of course. True, the broadcaster doesn't always do itself any favours. Unveiled amid a fusillade of publicity, Rebellion was quickly revealed to be dull and inelegant (the reviews were unanimously dismissive when it aired on the Sundance Channel in the US in April).

And even that was an improvement on RTÉ's supposedly heavyweight drama from last year, Clean Break - a series by playwright Billy Roche that bafflingly relocated the Coen Brothers' Fargo to Wexford and made you wonder why it had gone to the trouble.

Yet it is interesting that those who work with RTÉ often report it to be open to new ideas - not at all the preserve of staid bureaucrats shuffling files behind a desk until knocking off time.

"We've only had good experiences," says Cork filmmaker Tadhg Hickey, whose surreal short (R)onanism featured on RTÉ's Storyland drama series last year, and who has gone on to produce new material for the broadcaster with his Cccahoots production company and to work with the Republic of Telly comedy series. "I remember going into Storyland and people going 'this goes nowhere - it's just a web thing'. We've gone on to do other stuff - it has been sustainable. Obviously, there are the sort of ups and downs you get with any broadcaster. But they have the experience of knowing what is commercially viable while letting you express your vision - there's a realistic middle ground between finding your voice and finding an audience and, in my experience, RTÉ is very good at identifying where that is."

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