'Bravo Lenny! - Abrahamson's critique of RTÉ hits the nail on the head' - Pat Stacey
Talking Point: Room director's savaging of the broadcaster is totally justified
It’s all Lenny Abrahamson’s doing. You can credit the Oscar-nominated director of Room, Frank, What Richard Did, Garage and Adam & Paul with drawing this column back to a subject it touched on earlier in the week and didn’t expect to return to so soon.
If Mr Abrahamson hadn’t made some witheringly scornful remarks about RTÉ’s so-called drama policy in a Sunday Independent interview at the weekend, maybe I wouldn’t be revisiting the topic.
Maybe I’d be writing about something else, something more upbeat; the new series of Better Call Saul, perhaps, or this week’s BAFTA nominations, which are a reminder that there’s an awful lot of superb drama being made right now — just not in this country.
But he did, so I am, and do you know what? I’m glad. I’m delighted, in fact. Abrahamson described current RTÉ dramas as “depressing” and “mediocre” — a word that popped up many times during the interview.
He accused the national broadcaster of refusing to take risks or develop young talent. He was scathing about the way it treats creative people in comparison with the standard procedure of broadcasters in other countries.
“I would be asked all the time by the BBC or Channel 4 or other people to come in and have a chat,” he said. “There is a cultivation of relationships with talent.
“That absolutely does not happen here. At all. Because RTÉ for so long has been the only game in town, there is a strange perception within what is an extremely mediocre drama department that people need to knock on their door, or that they’re great, but actually that’s not how it works anywhere.”
RTÉ, he said, is denigrating local talent, particularly directors, in favour of bringing in “mediocre people” from outside, on the assumption that if they’re not Irish, they must automatically be better.
“The only place that seems to operate any more, in far as I can see, is RTÉ,” he said. “I have stories that would pin your eyelids back, you would be so amazed. In how people are treated, in terms of the lack of vision, in the dysfunctional mediocrity of it.”
Bravo, Lenny! It’s about time someone who’s not a TV critic but a successful, respected industry professional operating at the very top of the game called RTÉ out on this. Because whenever a TV critic does it, we’re told we’re begrudgers, or that we have an axe to grind, or that we all hate RTÉ and never have a good word to say about it.
Not true. I don’t even own an axe. I don’t hate RTÉ, either. What I hate are half-baked, badly-written, unconvincing drama series which seem to be given the green light without any consideration for quality or editorial rigour.
We’ve seen plenty of them in recent years: the risible Charlie, the dreary Clean Break, the dud Rebellion — which was shockingly awful in every conceivable way and, even more shockingly, has been granted a sequel — and most recently Striking Out, which was just a bit of sex and a few swear words away from being afternoon soap opera. Predictably, it’s already been recommissioned.
Despite what RTÉ thinks, give TV critics a good drama and we’ll sing its praises till our throats hurt. But the reality is that RTÉ hasn’t produced a drama worthy of praise since Love/Hate — a series whose success the broadcaster has been coasting on for the last three years.
I’m enough of a realist to know that I could write critical articles about RTÉ till my face turns blue and it wouldn’t make an ounce of difference. RTÉ doesn’t pay any attention to what critics write. Most of the time it barely seems to be paying any attention to what viewers as a whole think.
New(ish) director-general Dee Forbes still seems genuinely baffled as to why not everyone considers the €160 annual TV licence fee terrific value for money.
Ideally, the criticism should carry a different weight coming from Lenny Abrahamson. Apart from anything else, he directed one of the finest dramas ever made for RTÉ, the superb 2007 four-parter Prosperity, written by his former collaborator Mark O’Halloran.
But RTÉ responded to Abrahamson’s comments with its usual blame-shirking civil service robo-speak: “RTÉ has experienced a decline in revenue of close to €100m which has resulted in RTÉ having less money to invest in independent TV and the drama sector.”
Business as usual, then.