Actors go from stage Irish to screen internationalists
Irish actors in the UK no longer have to play violent drunks and kindly nannies, says Anne Marie Scanlon
Published 24/05/2009 | 00:00
When I was growing up, our entire household was addicted to the ITV soap Coronation Street. It always struck me as slightly odd that while minorities in general were often represented on screen in Corrie, the Irish, a sizeable community in Britain, never got much airtime.
British television at the time had a number of respected Irish broadcasters in its ranks -- Eamonn Andrews, Terry Wogan and Henry Kelly were all staples of prime-time television but in the dramas and soaps Irish accents were few and far between. If an Irish character did make an appearance, you could place a sure bet that the ensuing plot would involve terrorism, copious amounts of alcohol, violence (domestic and public) or a mixture of all three. And that was just the men. If the women weren't nice nurses or nannies they were generally terrorists of insane scariness.
Jim McDonald, arguably the most memorable Irish character to grace the streets of Weatherfield, certainly fitted the stereotype when it came to boozing, brawling and battering. Then there was Carmel Finnan played by Catherine Cusack, who became the nice nanny to the children of Gail Platt. It wasn't long before Carmel began to exhibit signs of being less than well in the head -- an obsession with Martin Platt (in itself grounds for sectioning) being one of the symptoms, followed by an attempt to kidnap baby David -- which could well explain a lot about that particular character's subsequent behaviour.
The year 1982 saw the launch of Channel 4 and with it a new soap, Brookside, which set out to explore new territories. And while it's true that the soap broke new ground with its storylines, the Irish stereotype was kept alive and well in Brookside Close. One of Brookside's most controversial storylines involved Trevor Jordache, played by Bryan Murray. Trevor was Irish, had a fondness for whiskey, beating his wife Mandy and sexually assaulting their two daughters. There was no way that Trevor was ever going to become a long-serving and much loved character and, in the end, Mandy and daughter Beth, played by Anna Friel, murdered him and hid his body under the patio.
The Trevor plot typifies the difficulty facing most Irish actors working in British television during the Eighties and Nineties. If you were lucky enough to get a part at all, the nature of the plot usually meant that your tenure was going to be fairly short. It took a long time for television writers to realise that most Irish people living in Britain were ordinary citizens doing ordinary jobs, but they seem to have cottoned on.
The diversity of the characters that Irish actors are now playing on British television is testament to this change. Take a quick glance at the TV schedules for the past 12 months and you'll see a plethora of Irish actors in roles that have nothing to do with their nationality. Crime fans are well used to hearing the Irish accent of Dubliner Victoria Smurfit who plays DCI Roisin Connor in the popular ITV series Trial & Retribution as well as that of Paul Hickey who had a recurring role as pathologist Stuart Lafferty in the BBC's Inspector Lynley Mysteries. Paul's co-star in Inspector Lynley, Sharon Small, is also one of the stars of the extremely popular drama Mistresses which features Irish actor Orla Brady as lawyer Siobhan Dillon, who is a far cry from all those nice nannies and nurses of old.
Nowadays accent does not dictate plot, the characters played by Irish actors are simply that: characters. This trend is just as apparent in comedy as in drama. The BBC show Pulling has been a huge hit for writer and actor Sharon Horgan who also plays talent agent Helen Ryan in Free Agents on Channel 4. Channel 4 is also home to the massively funny hit The IT Crowd which stars Roscommon-born Chris O'Dowd as Roy.
Over on ITV's Moving Wallpaper the role of dippy assistant Kelly is played, with brilliant comic timing, by former Fair City cast member Sinead Keenan. "The character of Kelly was not specifically written as Irish, it was just that Sinead did an absolutely brilliant read and the role was fitted around her," casting director Victor Jenkins said, proving that the television industry is finally recognising Irish actors for their worth, rather than their accents. Sean Power, another Fair City alumnus, also appeared in an episode of Moving Wallpaper but may be better known to viewers for his role as Marty, Jack Dee's writing partner in the extremely funny ensemble Lead Balloon (a show that is not that dissimilar to Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm). Ironically, Sean played both roles with a north American accent rather than his Irish one.
Cork actress Elaine Symons, currently tearing up the small screen as Rose Kelly on BBC school drama Waterloo Road, says that keeping all other accents in good working order is still extremely important for Irish actors working in the UK. At first glance, the character of Rose may seem like a throwback to the bad old days. Rose is a single mother of five (most of whom have different fathers) and behaves more like their irresponsible sibling than their parent. Rose is fond of the drop, is loud, likes a good spat -- verbal and physical -- and is generally the neighbour from hell. But, as Elaine told me, the part wasn't written as Irish; when she initially auditioned, Rose was supposed to have a south London accent. It was only after Elaine was cast that producers took the decision to let her use her natural voice. "Rose could be from anywhere," said Elaine. "Teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, those things could affect anyone."
We've come a long way from big Jim McDonald and Trevor Jordache -- the current crop of Irish actors on the British small screen play cops, lawyers, talent agents, IT technicians, writers and even vampires. Yes, vampires. Aidan Turner aka Ruairi McGowan in RTE's The Clinic is returning to BBC3 for a second series of the supernatural hit Being Human in which he plays sexy vampire Mitchell. And to think I used to be scared of vampires.