Why we'll all be taking dramatic licence in '09
Published 15/12/2008 | 00:00
There's an old Hollywood maxim that says entertainment thrives in times of depression. And RTE executives look determined to find out if it's on the money as the recession bites.
The autumn/winter schedules continue to see a roll out of new home-grown shows ranging from the fluffy to the more cutting edge.
But it's in TV's most high-cost, high-risk arena -- home- produced drama -- that many of the big plays will be made in 2009.
Drama is a risky area for even the biggest and most experienced broadcasters as ITV has found to its cost in recent years.
The UK's oldest commercial television network, the home of acclaimed, popular dramas like Cracker and Prime Suspect, has been haemorrhaging viewers and budgets when it comes to drama.
Forgettable flops such as Rock Rivals (which attempted to cash in on the X-Factor format) and The Palace have heaped the pressure on ITV director of drama Laura Mackie, who was poached from the BBC to dig ITV drama out of a hole.
Even well received new ITV dramas like The Fixer, which debuted in the spring, struggled to find an audience, losing 2.2 million viewers between its opening high of 6.6 million and its fifth episode.
ITV (and to a lesser extent, TV3 here at home) have been able to depend on cosy old nostalgia-fests such as Heartbeat and The Royal but these shows appeal to an older demographic that is not loved by the advertisers.
And both the BBC and ITV are increasingly looking to the costume dramas that always pull in the viewers with classics like Wuthering Heights and A Passage to India getting new drama treatments.
TV3 is about to test the waters with its first ever home-produced drama, the bi-lingual School Run, produced by the team behind RTE hits Spin the Bottle and Paths to Freedom.
But with advertising revenue shrinking drastically and cuts being made across the board, RTE is bucking the trend by betting big on home-produced drama.
The station currently has four major original dramas in production or post production with -- surprisingly -- not a corset or horse and carriage in sight.
And locations around Ardmore Studios in Co Wicklow are so busy, there have been tales recently of confused crew members wandering into the wrong shoots as RTE dramas are shot virtually side-by-side.
The writers involved include Edna O'Brien, Emmy award-winning Prime Suspect writer Frank Deasy and heavy-hitting duo Billy Roche and Conor McPherson.
Roche and McPherson are collaborating on a feature- length drama that will star Aidan Quinn and Ciaran Hinds (recently seen in There Will Be Blood).
Dougray Scott, Stephen Rea and Ian Hart will star in Father and Son, a four-part RTE-ITV co-production that is being billed as a "fast-paced thriller" set in Dublin and Manchester.
And young Irish actor Owen McDonnell will star in another feature-length drama, to be broadcast next autumn, titled Wild Decembers.
This dark tale of love and land set in contemporary Co Clare is based on the novel of the same name from Irish writer Edna O'Brien.
Wild Decembers did have its brush with the credit crunch, the project was originally planned as a feature film.
But a failure to secure funding from the Irish Film Board has seen the drama scaled back to a feature length drama to be screened on RTE next autumn.
A recent visit to the set in Roundwood, Co Wicklow, highlighted the cost and time factors involved in shooting dramas like Wild Decembers.
Making movies and TV dramas has been compared to making war, long hours of waiting around interspersed with brief moments of high excitement and all set against the prospect of triumph or disaster.
As extras and actors (including veteran Sean McGinley) milled about in the winter sunshine outside the local pub-turned-film-set, producer Clare Alan talked about making drama in a cold financial climate.
"Obviously, given the times we are in, people are looking more closely at budgets and spending," said Ms Alan.
"But when the Irish Film Board declined to invest, RTE stepped up and what we are getting is, I believe, an extraordinary drama."
The English-based producer says tightening budgets are encouraging film makers and the people who back them to work smarter.
"If you don't have lots of time and money, it does tend to focus you. What Ireland offers is a tight-knit pool of very skilled and versatile people who can work within tight schedules and budgets and deliver quality."
Major TV dramas like The Tudors have been successfully made here in Ireland in recent years.
And in between takes on the set in Roundwood, Wild Decembers director Anthony Byrne remained upbeat about the immediate future."It's very busy at the moment, there are a lot of productions happening and we're not just depending on The Tudors to keep everybody busy for the start of the year. I think people will always want to watch film and television, especially if the cash isn't there for holidays or big nights out.
"And this drama is going to be perfect for just when the recession is getting nice and nasty.
"It's good and dark and if you thought you had problems, well, what the characters go through in this might cheer you up."
Actor Owen McDonnell, the London based star of hit RTE drama Single Handed, has known good times and lean in his career and remained relaxed as shooting wrapped in Roundwood.
Owen, originally from Galway, has had part-time jobs managing Irish pubs in London in between acting gigs in the past. But he is not about to take the bar apron out of retirement.
Owen returns to Wicklow in January to work on a low budget Irish movie and is waiting to hear from RTE about series four of Single Handed.
"They say that entertainment does well in a recession because people need to be distracted, but time will tell," he said.
"I know RTE are cutting budgets and you do wonder. But I've had a very good year, been busy since May, and you learn to take the lean with the good times in this business."
RTE has had successes like The Clinic and Paths To Freedom to go alongside less successful dramas in recent years.
Original drama is a high risk game and takes a lot of nerve when there are easier options available. 2009 will be a big year for home-produced drama and the station will be hoping that stay-at-home viewers will judge it money well spent.