Pat Stacey: Historical howlers are the least of the things wrong with RTE's Rebellion drama
Published 15/01/2016 | 08:29
Rebellion is facing an uprising. After the opening episode received a reasonably positive, if hardly ecstatic, response from some viewers and some critics, last Sunday night’s second instalment has been taking quite a battering on social media.
The majority of the criticism focuses on the perceived historical inaccuracies in the script. I say “perceived” because I’d be no expert on the detailed events of the 1916 Easter Rising.
What seemed to get up many viewers’ noses, however, was a scene showing one of the volunteers shooting an unarmed RIC constable at the unlocked gates of Dublin Castle, which are unlocked anyway, when he refuses to step aside and let them enter.
In reality, it seems, the gates were wide open when the volunteers arrived. A constable tried to close and lock them, and was shot when he made a grab for one of a volunteer’s guns.
Other gripes focused on everything from scenes of volunteers shooting dead ordinary Dubliners who were looting shops, to alleged misrepresentations of certain real-life characters’ ideologies, to volunteers openly walking round Dublin in uniform with their rifles slung over their shoulders, to the colour of said uniforms, which some claimed were the wrong shade of green.
Even Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams jumped into the fray, tweeting: “Whoever wrote Rebellion shudda read Pearse’s writings”. Maybe Gerry “shudda” read the credits.
The person who wrote Rebellion is Colin Teevan, who also wrote last year’s risible Charlie Haughey drama.
That series was itself riddled with historical inaccuracies – including having Des O’Malley wield a ceremonial sword during a row outside the Dail chamber.
A fracas like that did take place, apparently, but as O’Malley pointed out, he wasn’t the one waving the sword around. He wasn’t even in Leinster House at the time.
So perhaps we shouldn’t expect scrupulous factual accuracy from Rebellion. For that matter, maybe we shouldn’t expect it from any historical drama.
Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins was littered with lapses of truth – an armoured car in Croke Park when there was none; a car bomb where there was no car bomb; Eamon de Valera fighting in the GPO during the Rising when in fact he was actually defending Boland’s Mill.
Another high-profile Irish historical film, Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father, was also full of fictionalised scenes.
But dramatists aren’t historians. They’re fully entitled to exercise dramatic licence, or else there would be little point in calling them dramatists, would there?
Rebellion is a drama, not a dramatised documentary. If you look at it from that perspective, then the only yardstick by which it should be judged is whether or not it works as a drama.
Whatever about the first episode – which I thought was competent enough, although no more than that – the second certainly didn’t.
It was awful: dreary, leaden, stodgy, verbose, and with all the pace and vitality of a dying spider trying to make its way uphill through a river of sludge.
Whatever small amount of momentum that had built up in the first episode – which ended with May (Sarah Greene) being ominously summoned to Dublin Castle in the middle of the night and fearing her theft of a secret document had been discovered – just fizzled out.
It turned out she’d been hauled out of her warm bed simply to take some dictation – and for the opportunity to hop into an even warmer bed for a dirty weekend with her British lover Charles (Tom Turner), whose porcelain-faced wife was out of town.
Meanwhile, upper-crust Elizabeth (Charlie Murphy), whose head belongs to the rebel cause and heart belongs to sub-O’Casey cardboard cut-out Jimmy (Brian Gleeson), made like Katharine Ross in The Graduate and did a runner on her wedding day.
Frankly, the sight of Elizabeth joining the fight while still wearing her wedding dress, Jimmy’s hat perched atop her head, was unintentionally funny.
But away from these soapy shenanigans, we still had the first shot in anger of the Rising itself to look forward to, so surely there would be some explosive drama to come? Not really.
Despite the €6million budget – the largest yet spent on an Irish drama – the battle scenes looked distinctly cut-price, as volunteers and British soldiers ran around strangely deserted Dublin streets taking potshots at one another.
The looting scenes were equally penny-pinching. Who would have imagined that an armed uprising could be made to look this cheap and dull?
Two problems that afflicted the first episode, but not to a ruinous degree, were horribly magnified here.
First, the unconvincing depiction of tenement life, which was made to look positively comfortable compared to the reality – that Dublin at the time had the worst slums in Europe.
Second, the ropey dialogue. The first episode got away with a few dodgy lines (the use of the 1950s term brainwashed, for instance); the second wasn’t so lucky.
The characters didn’t so much converse as chuck out egregiously stilted slabs of text which hung in the air for a moment, before crashing to the floor.
“If we don’t have a revolution in this life, at least we can dream of one in the next.”
“Why should we have to dream?”
I somehow doubt, too, that a Dublin father in 1916 would tell his son, in a distinctly 21st-century tone: “You look after your mother, yeah?”
Characters in dramas never talk like real people. In Rebellion, they don’t even talk like characters in other dramas.
It’s not historical accuracy the Rebellion has to worry about; it’s plain, old-fashioned bad writing, allied with dismally flat direction.
Aku Louhimies was supposedly hired because, as a Finn, he can cast a dispassionate eye over the material.
But there’s a big difference between dispassionate and lacking passion.
Rebellion continues on RTE 1 this Sunday at 9.30pm