Finally, a new breed of Irish drama is thriving both at home and abroad
Paul Whitington reports on how our TV talent clawed its way out of recession to enjoy a golden era
Last Sunday night, as one high-quality, internationally renowned Irish drama ended on RTE1, another immediately followed it. The fifth series of Love/Hate has attracted nearly a million viewers an episode, and Sunday's spectacular finale was watched by an incredible 1,005,400 people. It has also been sold all over the world, and is currently a sleeper hit on British station Channel 5.
The BBC Northern Ireland co-production The Fall has received similarly high acclaim, winning awards for both writing and acting and rave reviews in the international press. RTE's psychological thriller Amber enthralled - and infuriated - up to half a million viewers an episode when shown over successive nights last summer. And TG4 has followed up the recent success of Corp agus Anam with a new drug thriller, An Bronntanas.
Ten or 15 years ago it would have been impossible to imagine a gritty, high-quality Irish crime drama getting made, let alone being resold and acclaimed across the world. So what's going on, and are we witnessing a golden age for Irish TV drama?
Jane Gogan, RTE's commissioning editor of drama, is perhaps the person best placed to answer that question. It was she who originally commissioned Stuart Carolan's Love/Hate, and in recent years she has helped to nurture quality dramas like Raw, Single-handed, Amber and the Storyland series. She believes that "we've reached this really interesting point for Irish TV drama".
Over the past five years or so, Gogan says, "there's been a huge leap in ambition about what you can do in Irish TV drama. That's partly to do with how viewing patterns have changed.
The availability of quality international dramas on DVD, broadcast TV, and the internet has created this whole new generation of consumers that are no longer being controlled by the conservatism of traditional terrestrial broadcasting."
Advances in technology have also made a big difference, she says. "Literally anyone can shoot a drama: you can buy a very good camera for €3,000, you can edit your work on a laptop, you can go a hell of a long way to making something if you have the story."
This changed atmosphere has allowed a new generation of writers and directors to find homes for their big ideas on Irish and - crucially - international television. Beginning, of course, with Stuart Carolan and Love/Hate.
"I'd worked with Stuart before," Jane Gogan explains, "but when he came in and pitched Love/Hate to me, it just jumped up at you - it was incredible."
Over five series, Love/Hate has broken the mould for Irish TV dramas (see panel), but other impressive shows have quickly followed it. Back in 2010, RTE Drama set up Storyland, a commissioning platform aimed at nurturing new talent.
"The guys who made Amber produced two Storylands for us," Gogan says, "and we had a really good relationship with them after that, so when they came in to talk about Amber, we put that into development, and it turned out to be a big success."
It's since been sold in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and across the EU.
Hardy Bucks might have little in common with a sombre thriller like Amber, but the anarchic comic drama was also debuted on Storyland. The series has since spawned a feature film, and a new season of Storyland is currently in production.
The global recession may have made things tough for RTE and other broadcasters, but has also presented unexpected opportunities.
"The crash meant that everyone was commissioning less and, when you're commissioning less, you have to fill those spaces elsewhere, so everybody's on the lookout for original titles to buy.
"For example, BBC4 used to commission drama, but they don't any more, so to fill those gaps they began buying in Scandinavian and French and Italian dramas. They broke down the subtitle barrier, and Channel 4 followed suit. There's absolutely no reason why TG4 dramas shouldn't be able to capitalise on that new space."
While Gogan thinks that talk of a golden age may be premature, she does believe that "we're at the beginning of something very interesting, though we will need to grow our output.
"We were heading in this direction a while back and then the recession hit. But we're in a really good place now, that I hope we can build on."