Entertainment Television

Monday 22 July 2019

Charlie: Show's writer Colin Teevan on why the series will rekindle nation's curiosity

Power couple: Aidan Gillen (right) as Charlie Haughey and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as his adviser PJ Mara in Charlie.
Power couple: Aidan Gillen (right) as Charlie Haughey and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as his adviser PJ Mara in Charlie.

Colin Teevan - the writer of a new three-part TV drama about Charlie Haughey - on why the series is sure to rekindle the nation's endless curiosity about the shamed political leader we to loved to hate

In a memorable moment from his documentary Charles Haughey's Ireland, our host, then leader of the opposition, encounters the actor Larry Hagman at the Curragh races. Hagman, who played the legendary baddie JR Ewing in smash-hit soap Dallas presents Charlie with a hundred dollar bill. Both men start to laugh as Charlie and the camera discover that it has Hagman's, rather than Franklin's,  face on it.

It seems to sum it all up; the race meeting, the disinterested cash donation from a leading businessman, the emblazoning of one's own features upon the institutions of the state, the laughing off of, if not downright pleasure in, offending middle-class sensibilities. All in a scene played out by allegedly the most scheming, back-stabbing, womanising anti-hero of the age, and an actor playing the part of a lifetime.

Was Charlie, auteur of this documentary (possibly the closest we will get to an autobiography), oblivious to the ironies of the parallel? Or was he hiding in plain sight, flaunting his misdeeds and ambitions for all to see? Or was it all a part he, like Hagman, played because a great many people, lest we forget, loved him in the role of loveable rogue; and because it reflected who we were and who we wanted to be?

Most people born after 1960 will have grown up with a soap opera playing in the background of their childhood. For those who grew up in Ireland in the late seventies or early eighties, it may well have been the Riordans, Bracken or Glenroe. But the Irish soap that I found most compelling was the Charlie Haughey soap; Charlie against Good King Jack, Charlie against Garret the Good, Charlie against Poor George and Dessie the Just. (The story lines were a bit predictable, admittedly.)

But it was our own Shakespearean History cycle with all its plots and subplots and heaves and rumours and knives in the back. It also had some glamour - Charlie made sure of that, with the palatial dwellings, slap-up feasts and handmade French shirts. True, it was politics, it should have been a serious matter, but in my innocence I could not see that Irish politics were a particularly serious affair. Aside of course from 'Our Friends in the North', who at the time were the great unmentionables, Irish parties were not encumbered by political thought or ideologies or beliefs, except the overriding caveat not to offend the Church.

So, it was all about the personalities, and Charlie was the biggest, baddest personality of them all.

Indeed, such a long-runner was this soap, 20 years later, in the late nineties, it was still offering up compelling storylines; the discovery of millions received from businessmen by Charlie, the tribunals, the thrilling exposure and betrayal of his 30-year affair live on TV by Terry Keane.

Show man: CJ Haughey
Show man: CJ Haughey

So why return to it as a drama if we'd already lived it as a soap? Yes, Charlie was a bad boy. Even his friends admit as much - one described him as a cross between the two St Francises; St Francis of Assisi and St Francis of Sinatra. But so much hand-wringing moralising has been written already, there is no need to add more to the acreage of outrage.

Nor should one ever write drama because one has a message to send, a moral to deliver or an axe to grind. As Sam Goldwyn, the legendary Hollywood producer, said: "If you've got a message, send a telegram."

I write drama to take me into places I don't know or thought I knew but didn't, and discover perhaps only through the very contradictions of the exploration, what I do think of something.

So to return to this story 35 years on from when it first aired for me, with Charlie's astonishing return from the wilderness that followed the Arms Trial to the leadership of Fianna Fail and the country in 1979, was not just an exercise in political story telling, it was a personal journey back to the time to understand the Ireland in which I grew up, and to understand the Ireland Charlie created in his own likeness.

Just as Hagman jokingly put his face upon the very face of American capitalism, I was intrigued by how, every time I returned to Ireland in the Celtic Tiger era of the 1990s and early 2000s, it echoed more and more the ambitions, values and aspirations of its chief architect, Charles Haughey.

The liberalisation of economic legislation led to an explosion in credit, which in turn led to much of the nation being able to live beyond their means for longer than normal economic gravity seemed to dictate. Indeed, the aspiration to live like Charlie was even echoed in the architecture; mock-Georgian being the style of choice, like the lords who had once lorded it over us. Even the political alignment of the EU was partly a result of Charlie's determination to support and drive through, as EU President, the unification of Germany and the single currency.

Power couple: Aidan Gillen (right) as Charlie Haughey and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as his adviser PJ Mara in Charlie.
Power couple: Aidan Gillen (right) as Charlie Haughey and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as his adviser PJ Mara in Charlie.

Yet, at the very time when more and more of the Irish aspired to live like Charlie, Haughey himself, through the revelations of the various Tribunals, was excoriated for instituting the wholescale corruption of public life.

While the question of whether Charlie was the serpent in the garden or just a handy receptacle into which to pour our personal and the State's communal failings is one which opinion formers will continue to form and reform opinions about. As a dramatist, my interest is in character. What it's like to see the world from the character's point of view, to come from where they do and do what they do. Drama explores through action what drives a character, the action revealing character layer by layer. Whether a character is good or bad is irrelevant - though moralists and opinion formers would sometimes have us digest our drama as moral muesli - what's key to drama is whether a character is compelling. Walter White (Breaking Bad), Michael Corleone (The Godfather), Francis Underwood/Francis Urquhart (House of Cards) are all compelling and morally complex and contradictory characters. What makes them so? The trajectory of their journey, the scale of their ambition, their ruthlessness, their guile and their wit. And this is what makes Charlie's character so compelling for drama.

But to live as a dramatic character he must be more than the cartoon baddie of my memory and the El Diablo of his press officer PJ Mara's creation. So, what more was he? Well, if it was that easy I'd have sent a telegram; it would have been much easier than writing four-and-a-half hours of drama. The truth is that the drama is the message, in all its contradictions.

But, if I had to offer something, I'd recall an aside in Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom about Joyce Emerson, the heroine's mother, and fictional Democrat Congresswoman: "Like so many people who become politicians," Franzen writes, "Joyce was not a whole person... She needed to feel extraordinary... so as to make up for what was lacking at her center."

Charlie, the drama, explores that lack and the craving for power that the former Taoiseach was filled it with. And perhaps, since for good or for ill he did so much to shape the society we live in now, it might tell us something about that society. To misquote Marx, perhaps all great events and personalities in history appear first as soap opera, second time as drama.

The first part of Charlie broadcasts on RTE One at 9.30 tomorrow night

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