Pat Stacey: RTE's Dublin Murders crime drama looks set to be one of must-see series of autumn
Series based on Tana French novels set to air on RTE in the autumn
Way, way back in the grim Ireland of 1978, when most families had finally got around to having colour television sets but real life often felt like it was unfolding in dreary black-and-white, RTÉ unveiled a major new five-part drama series.
The Burke Enigma, written by Michael Feeney Callan, who would become a prolific scriptwriter, novelist, biographer, artist and poet, was a big deal and a genuine landmark: RTÉ’s first ever crime thriller.
The plot was prescient, to say the least. Two dedicated detectives, played by Ray McAnally and John Kavanagh, tried to bring down a major Dublin criminal family.
The cast, virtually a who’s who of contemporary Irish acting talent, included Donal McCann, Barbara Brennan, Peter Caffrey and, far down the list, a soon-to-be-very-famous-indeed Gabriel Byrne.
I remember watching The Burke Enigma and can recall the buzz of excitement surrounding its broadcast. Sadly, I don’t remember a whole lot else. I was in my teens at the time and the details of what the series was like are hazy at best.
I’m sure it sits in the RTE archives, but to the best of my knowledge it’s never been digitally restored or released on DVD. There are no clips on YouTube, either.
The most you’ll find online is a handful of archive photos, which is a shame, really.
It would be nice to see The Burke Enigma again, particularly since this year is its 40th anniversary. RTÉ wouldn’t try its hand at crime drama again until the 21st century with Single-Handed (2007-10) and Love/Hate (2010-14).
Even though Stuart Carolan’s gangland saga had run out of ideas after the end of its third and best season, these two series remain the high-water marks of Irish crime dramas.
The hope is we’ll be looking at a hat-trick of hits when the much-anticipated Dublin Murders, based on Vermont-born Tana French’s bestselling Dublin Murder Squad novels, hits RTÉ1 and BBC1 in the autumn.
The eight-part series was commissioned by the BBC, with RTÉ and US cable outfit Starz coming on board later. The talent behind and front of camera is top-drawer.
Sarah Phelps, whose Agatha Christie adaptations for the BBC breathed vibrant new life into an old corpse, has adapted the first two novels in the series, In the Woods, which won an Edgar award, and The Likeness.
The all-Irish cast is headed by Killian Scott and Sarah Greene as detectives Rob Reilly and Cassie Maddox, and Scott’s old Love/Hate mucker Tom Vaughan-Lawlor plays their colleague Frank Mackey.
The series was shot on location in Dublin and Belfast. The trailer released this week is impressively creepy and atmospheric, and positions Dublin Murders as one of the must-see drama series of the autumn.
Frankly, it would be nice to have another Irish-based thriller with RTÉ involvement that doesn’t make you want to throw a shoe at the screen in exasperation.
The road from The Burke Enigma to this point has been a long, rocky one paved with many duds. Clean Break (2014), written by Billy Roche and starring Aidan McArdle and Damien Molony, started out promisingly and seemed to be aiming for a Wexford-set Fargo; instead, it ended up as a farrago.
The murder/conspiracy thriller Acceptable Risk (2017), a lumpy Irish-Canadian co-production, was vapid and tedious. Dispiritingly, a second season is in the pipeline.
By far the biggest let-down of all, because the expectations were so high and the hype so hopped-up, was last year’s Taken Down. A murder mystery set against the topical backdrop of direct provision and the exploitation of immigrants should have made for gripping TV.
What writers Stuart Carolan and crime novelist Jo Spain turned out, though, was a preachy, meandering, unfocused mess that only sparked into life in the final episode, by which time it was too late.
Dublin Murders has a significant advantage even before it’s broadcast: it can’t possibly be as awful as any of these.