The Weekly Read: RTE's Rebellion script-writer - 'I wanted to give a sense of what it was like to live through tumultuous times'
Ryan McBride speaks to Colin Teevan, who wrote the script for the commemorative 1916 programme Rebellion. Here they talk about negative responses, over dramatizing, and the chance of a sequel emerging
Irish television, cinemas, theatres and a host of other places are seeing a flood of commemorative 1916 programming.
Rebellion was (almost) the first of those rolled out. During its run, it had a range of emotional responses; some positive, some negative (national anthem in English, anyone?) Now that it’s done though, we can look back on it properly.
Rebellion writer Colin Teevan told Campus.ie that people were all too eager to cut down what he was trying to do. But that didn’t bother him in the slightest.
“I’ve been very heartened by when people say ‘It’s outrageous whenever they would never have sang the national anthem in English in the GPO’ whereas actually the Irish version hadn’t been written until the 1920s.
"And when there were complaints of the shooting of Constable O’Brien when we actually got that historically exactly accurate.”
It wasn’t just the humble twitteratti that had their differences with Colin Teevan’s telling – Artist Robert Ballagh called it a “horrible farrago” on the Late Late show, and said he “spent a better hour watching paint dry”.
Colin said he hadn’t heard the comments, but wondered about the source.
“I only know Robert Ballagh as an artist from the 1970s, I have no idea what expertise he has.
“I do find that there’s a lot of people with an emotional version of the history of the time and they don’t really want to let facts get in the way of that version. The world is full of them, and I can’t change that.”
Teevan wanted to tell the story without the usual sense of “historical inevitability” as he put it.
“I’m bored of the usual grand heroic and rather teleological nationalist version of history that somehow national independence was some sort of historical inevitability, which it really wasn’t.
"We all live through times, we don’t know how history is going to fall; and I wanted to see a version of history which gave a sense of that. No one knew what was actually going to befall for the next 8 or 10 years.
"I wanted to give a sense of what it was like to live through these times of, really, quite tumultuous times.
"I was very struck by the fact that the Dublin crowd really en masse almost rejected the nationalists and rebels, initially. It’s really only after the executions that the popular opinions began to change.
"I wanted to sort of reflect that journey, and that’s not normally the story that’s taken. It’s a real danger writing a historical drama with knowing the results.”
"But of course, not everything can be spot on. As Mark Twain said, 'you can’t let the truth get in the way of a good story'."
In Colin’s case, he always strives to tell the truth but in drips and drabs whenever the drama needs to be spiced up. To make it watchable.
“It is a necessity of drama to compress,” said Teevan. “You can’t dramatise every character in history because then in dramatic terms it looks like a mess.”
He made a few changes to the canon in other historical adaptations. He wrote the RTE drama on the life of former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey, ‘Charlie’ for example.
This featured quite a phenomenal scene of a punch up in the Dail, culminating in Des O’Malley grabbing a sword from the wall and waving it around. When asked about its accuracy, Colin replied that “It… sort of happened”.
“Now, Des O’Malley did not wave a scimitar. However, I read that when a group of TD’s were punching Jim Gibbons to the ground. Jim actually had a ceremonial samurai sword that he had taken in to hang on his office wall…and he drew it!
“Des O’Malley said in the papers last year, It wasn’t true, but in spirit it was true.”
“The truth of the matter was that a TD in opposition to Haughey did wave a ceremonial sword in Leinster House and people backed off.
“In dramatic terms, Des O’Malley was the voice of the opposition and therefore it was correct he should do that and then make the speech.”
Now that the series ‘Rebellion’ is over, people are wondering if it will be more of the usual treatment, the Nationalistic version of Irish history that Colin loves, or if it will be his own Teevan brand.
“Rebellion 2 is in development. That doesn’t mean it’s been green lit yet, but the writer has to do the work before everyone else. I have to carry on like it is happening.”
When pressed on what the next series could bring Colin wouldn’t be drawn.
“Ahh,” he needled. “You’ll have to wait for that”.