Meet the local soap actors who are virtually famous
Joe O'Shea reports on 'Covies' -- a new internet drama filmed in Westport
A west of Ireland town hoping to attract TV and movie makers is putting itself in the shop window with Ireland's first online soap.
Westport in Co Mayo is the location for Covies, an eight-part drama backed by the local Chamber of Commerce and Urban District Council.
All of the talent involved, from actors to scriptwriters, technicians and cameramen, is local and almost entirely amateur. And the entire series was shot for less than €25,000, a figure that would just about cover the catering bill on a network TV drama shoot.
With the final series of the hit RTE drama The Clinic costing a rumoured €1m per episode, the budget for Covies barely even qualifies as shoestring.
The main cinematographer on the Westport soap was moonlighting from his day job shooting wedding videos.
And the one professional on the shoot, experienced scriptwriter and actor Len Collins, had to call on some home help to keep the cast and crew fed.
"We didn't have a catering budget; my wife was making meals for 30 or 40 people at a time," says Len.
Collins relocated to his West of Ireland roots eight years ago after many years working on British TV, where he was an actor on dramas such as A Touch of Frost and The Bill and wrote scripts for East Enders, Soldier Soldier and Casualty.
The ongoing recession, which has seen a major slow-down in TV production both here and abroad, saw his work dry up and got him thinking about a new approach to making drama.
"The recession was getting harder and harder and I found myself signing on for the first time in 20 years," he says.
A chance conversation with the president of the Westport Chamber of Commerce, Danny McLaughlin, led to the initial idea for Covies.
Len and Danny had seen how the people behind a major film project, who had been looking at locations in the West of Ireland, had just decided on Galway for their shoot.
'Last year was a tough one for tourism in Westport and we wanted to find some way to put the town in the shop window," says Len.
"There was frustration in the town, the recession was hitting everybody hard.
"But there is a lot of talent around as well, the scenery is incredible and we wanted to find a way to do something positive, to channel the energy and the creativity and do something for ourselves."
With the backing of local politicians and bus- inessmen, Len and his team set about raising the money for a DIY TV drama.
"We decided on an online soap, because the internet is now a viable alternative to the TV in the corner of your room.
"But even with the backing of the UDC and business people in the town, we soon realised that our initial budget of 60 grand just wasn't going to happen".
The budget was fixed at €25,000 and the call went out for actors, camera men, prop-shifters, drivers, extras and locals who were willing to lend their homes or businesses as sets.
The eight 15-minute episodes were shot over three weeks during last September, during the only sustained spell of good weather enjoyed on the West coast last year.
"We were blessed with the weather but it was real guerrilla film-making, we would ring around and see who had a morning or afternoon off, get everybody together and just shoot it wherever was handy and with whoever was available."
The drama itself is a kind of modern fable that starts with a naked man emerging out of the sea on Silver Strand and the themes include domestic violence, religion and the problems facing young people in rural Ireland.
The soap got a proper, red-carpet premier in the Castlecourt Hotel in Westport last weekend and the first two episodes went up on the website www.tvwestport.com shortly afterwards -- subsequent episodes will go online over the next four weeks.
Covies is following in the DIY TV trend that has already delivered the West of Ireland internet comedy-drama Hardy Bucks, the winner of last year's RTE's Storyland competition for new, online drama.
With the advances in camera technology (that has now put even High Definition cameras within reach of amateur filmmakers) and professional-level editing software available for home computers, DIY TV looks to be the wave of the future.
Len Collins says his two cinematographers, wedding video makers Dave Sneddon and Brian Durcan, have been bitten by the drama bug and could make their full-time careers in TV or film.
Several of the actors involved are now looking to break into professional acting.
Scriptwriter Len Collins says the show has already been seen online by people as far from Westport as Thailand, Australia and Canada.
Len believes the project has empowered and energised a lot of people in his town and says that if even one TV or film producer in London, Berlin or Los Angeles comes across Covies online, it could bring huge downstream benefits for Westport.
"I think Westport looks fantastic and if we can make it look like that with our resources, imagine what you could do with a Hollywood budget."
The first two episodes of Covies are now online at www.tvwestport.com