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Saturday 30 August 2014

John Boland: RTE could use Sopranos as model for Haughey series

John Boland

Published 13/10/2012 | 17:00

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When Charles J Haughey stepped down from leadership of Fianna Fail in January 1992, "the atmosphere was that of Shakespearean tragedy".

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Such, anyway, was the exalted view of former party adviser Martin Mansergh when interviewed for RTE1's 2005 four-part documentary series, 'Haughey', and his late boss would no doubt have agreed.

Indeed, he got all Shakespearean himself when he made his final speech as Taoiseach in February 1992, quoting directly from Othello as he told a captive Dail audience that he had "done the state some service, and they know it".

However, news that RTE is involved in a three-part, €3m drama about his flamboyant life and controversial times will cause many people to reflect that while the former colossus of Fianna Fail may have shared the paranoid distrust of Shakespeare's tragic Moor, his story would be better depicted in the less-ennobling style of ' The Sopranos'.

Indeed, James Gandolfini, although physically too imposing for the part, would be a dab hand at reproducing those traits that Tony Soprano had in common with the late Taoiseach: the naked ambition and ruthless lust for power that no one (least of all his subordinates) dared question; the bling lifestyle; the sense of entitlement; the baleful stare that could wither anyone in his presence; the brooding suspicion that everyone was out to get him; and the betraying of intimates who stood in his way.

Then there are the loyal footmen. Padraig Flynn and Sean Doherty were never in the same scary league as Paulie, Christopher and other hitmen among Tony's lethal inner circle, but their vehement loyalty to their boss terrified a lot of disgruntled party members into toeing the line.

And let's not forget Des O'Malley, Seamus Brennan, David Andrews and other dissidents who incurred Haughey's wrath. Theirs, though, was a largely tame and ineffectual revolt and so their roles can safely be relegated to actors from Central Casting or 'Fair City', whichever is more convenient.

Portraying the women in his life may prove problematic, with the role of dutiful spouse -- occasionally seen but seldom heard -- probably seeming an underwritten and thankless prospect for most ambitious actresses. But Susan Sarandon or Debra Winger could have some fun as a volatile mistress, while casting for Margaret Thatcher should be a shoo-in, with Meryl Streep only having to reprise her performance in 'The Iron Lady'.

What's being suggested here is that Element Pictures and Touchpaper, the two production companies involved in this drama, should view the project as a serio-comic soap and get writer Colin Teevan to shape and script it accordingly.

And just as Neil Jordan played fast and loose with some aspects of Michael Collins's story in his 1996 biopic, the people behind the Haughey project should adopt the same freewheeling spirit.

After all, it's not as if enough words and enough film footage haven't already been expended on this fascinating figure over the past decade and more.

In television terms alone, that four-part RTE series was so detailed and exhaustive that viewers don't require another history lesson.

So let's have lots of skullduggery, sex and sybaritic living; indeed, let's have something with a gleefully satiric edge.

And if the makers can't get James Gandolfini for the lead role, there's always Anthony Hopkins, who proved in Oliver Stone's 'Nixon' movie that he knows how to conjure up men who are tainted by the poisonous allure of power.

Irish Independent

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