Friday 20 April 2018

Begorrah, it would never have happened in Ballykissangel - will British viewers baulk at Red Rock's far from quaint vision of Ireland?

2016: From the ‘Irish RM’ to ‘Father Ted’, via ‘Ballykissangel’, Ireland is often portrayed as a backwater where everyone has a kind word for the padre. ‘Red Rock’ will challenge that
2016: From the ‘Irish RM’ to ‘Father Ted’, via ‘Ballykissangel’, Ireland is often portrayed as a backwater where everyone has a kind word for the padre. ‘Red Rock’ will challenge that
1990s: Fr Ted.
1980s: The Irish RM.
1990s/2000s: Ballykissangel.
Ed Power

Ed Power

With its urban grit, steamy liaisons and murky morality, TV3's Red Rock is about as far removed as possible from stereotypically quaint portrayals of Ireland on the small screen.

But this is an aspect of the country viewers in the UK are going to see up close following news that the spiky soap opera has been snapped up by the BBC for €500,000 and is to become a centre-piece of the broadcaster's daytime schedules. Those in the UK who continue to perceive Ireland as a land of priests, sheep and holy stones in need of blessing are to receive the rudest of awakenings.

What will British audiences make of such a hard-hitting portrait of modern Ireland you wonder? After all, Red Rock's gritty, warts 'n' all depiction of the country is in sharp contrast to age-old presentations of the "four green fields" audiences across the water are so used to. Even today, Ireland has tended to be painted as rural, remote and religious - a place far removed from the rough and tumble of modernity (see the recent BBC travelogue Ireland With Simon Reeve). Red Rock pushes against everything Ireland has stood for on British TV.

The curse of cliché has haunted even productions at least part-originating in this country. From the Irish R.M. to Father Ted, via Ballykissangel, in the popular overseas imagination Ireland is a boggy backwater where time trickles by and everyone has a kind word for the local padre. There are exceptions, but these either tend to be set in the North (recent serial killer drama The Fall) or entirely ignored by non-Irish audiences (Amber, Love/Hate).

Thus Red Rock faces a two-part challenge: it must carve out space in a market far more competitive than Ireland while at the same time demolishing deeply ingrained perceptions.

Before gnashing our teeth too loudly it should be remembered that, to a degree, we have only ourselves to blame. When Ireland is painted as a twee otherworld, an Irishman is invariably the one wielding the brush. For all its comedic punch, there is an argument that Father Ted for instance contributed to the cliché of Ireland as wacky alternate universe.

Then there was Ballykissangel, a cult BBC show created by Kieran Prendeville, born in the UK to an Irish family and educated at exclusive Clongowes Wood in Kildare. Here again, whimsy was never far from the surface. Though ostensibly set in the nineties, it gave us rural Wicklow as cousin once removed from the Connemara of John Forde's The Quiet Man. There were toothless old men, feisty peasant girls, a priest who commanded universal respect. To British viewers it may have felt like a scenic detour across the Irish Sea but to those watching here, Ballykissangel was more like a tumble 30 years back in time.

Red Rock is very different. Set in a fictional seaside Dublin suburb loosely based on Dun Laoghaire and Malahide, it captures modern Ireland at its messiest and murkiest. It is grim and gritty - and, with over 100,000 tuning in to each episode this is a formula Irish audiences evidently find irresistible.

The show's success represents a considerable vindication for TV3. When, in early 2014, it became clear it would lose the rights to the ratings juggernaut that is Coronation Street to newcomer UTV Ireland, the broadcaster decided the smartest strategy was to come out fighting. It would treat the departure of Corrie as an opportunity, rather than a fatal blow. To that end, Gareth Philips, a veteran of British soaps (including, ironically, Coronation Street), was hired to create a series that was plausibly dark and melodramatic - a soap with teeth.

"Red Rock is pitched as a mainstream show that still feels perhaps edgier and set more in the [real] world," he told this writer when I visited the set last year. "The problem with contemporary soaps is that they feel slightly removed from reality perhaps."

When Red Rock was unveiled, the general assumption was that TV3 was in part responding to the success of RTÉ's scorched earth gangster romp Love/Hate. The new show had cops, robbers and a moody visual language that owed more to Scandinavian noir than Fair City.

"Red Rock is pitched as a mainstream show that perhaps feels a bit edgier," Philips said at the time. "Love/Hate was very true to life. And what we are doing is true to life in the context of our audience. The time slot dictates what kind of show you are going to make. We're aiming for a soap audience.Red Rock has to be its own beast."

If Red Rock does find an audience in the UK, the tremendous irony will be that it will have at last eclipsed Love/Hate. That series was bought by Britain's Channel 5 but proved a flop with viewers who had little interest in watching inner-city gangsters with pungent Dublin accents put bullet holes in one another.

As it happens, there have been several recent attempts to introduce British audiences to television more reflective of the real Ireland. None has fared well. Missing kid mystery Amber was screened on BBC4 to thundering indifference (those who did watch all the way through were as frustrated as Irish viewers with the ambivalent end).

In many other cases, the UK has simply no interest at all in Irish drama. There were, for instance, no British takers for RTÉ's big-budget Haughey biopic or this year's Rebellion, its sweeping, albeit deeply flawed, Easter Rising retelling.

Red Rock is different in so far as little of the show's charms are culturally specific. It is about warring families, good people doing bad things and the degree to which we are willing to ignore evil in our midst if it means a quiet life. These are experiences anyone can empathise with - whether they live in Ballydehob or Bolton.

If Red Rock succeeds in bringing a down-tempo vision of Ireland to the UK it may be for the very reason that it sets Irishness to one side and focuses on telling a cracking yarn.

Irish Independent

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