Sunday 18 February 2018

Obituary: Wesley Burrowes had his finger on the pulse of Ireland's life and times

The late Wesley Burrowes
The late Wesley Burrowes

Emer O'Kelly

Wesley Burrowes was a bit of an outsider despite his geniality. And it was deliberate: he liked to keep himself a little detached. "I like to watch," he once said, quite simply. And it was probably that carefully quiet detachment which made him master of what became his chosen writing medium: the simple stories of human realism, albeit slightly enlarged for dramatic effect, that were and are soap opera.

RTE Director General Noel Curran said of Wesley after his death was announced last Friday that his was the "defining contribution" to television serial drama. He added that Wesley was also respected and loved by all those who worked with him. Love is not often mentioned about people in the world of television and drama, and even less often is it merited. But Wesley was indeed loved as a colleague, indeed as an inspiration by the people who worked with him.

When his most famous creations of Biddy and Miley with the older generation of Dick and Mary first hit the screens in Glenroe in 1983, Wesley Burrowes had already been a veteran of TV drama for more than 20 years. He began in 1964, when he took over the writing of Tolka Row from its creator Maura Laverty. Laverty was a cookery writer with a "sideline" in playwriting. And her plays Liffey Lane and Tolka Row enjoyed enormous success with Dubliners at the Gate Theatre in the 1950s. So when Radio Telefis Eireann came squalling into the world in 1961, it was to her that the station looked for its first drama serial (in those stern days the term 'soap' was not used. RTE was above such commonality.)

But Laverty, although born in Co Kildare, was soaked in the true blue of the Dubs, so it was an enormous leap when the Presbyterian from Bangor took on the mantle as chief scriptwriter and editor a couple of years later.

It was a far cry from being a "man from the Pru". Burrowes attended school in Belfast, then took his degree at Queens in 1952. Almost immediately he migrated south, where he began working in insurance. In 1959 he joined Coras Trachtala Teo, the Irish Export Board. But he was already writing on the side, and soon went fulltime. His first success was a musical Carrie which he co-wrote with Michael Coffey and James Douglas. It starred Milo O'Shea, Ray McAnally and David Kelly, three of the heavy hitters of Irish theatre, with music by Jim Doherty. Tales of the success may have been exaggerated, because it was said afterwards that Ireland didn't "do" musicals. . . and shouldn't try.

But there was more genuine success with his play The Becauseway, which won the Irish Life Drama Competition in 1969, and was staged at the Peacock. A year later came further success with All the People Rejoiced, while in between Wesley had become a household name in the wider entertainment world as the lyricist of If I Could Choose, sung by the late Sean Dunphy as our entry in Eurovision in 1967.

Tolka Row had been given the chop in favour of rural drama, and The Riordans had its inception in 1966, making household names of actors like the great Tom Hickey, and Biddy White-Lennon, who would desert acting for cookery writing in subsequent years.

But the nation held its breath when naughty Mr Burrowes wrote a scene in which the possibility of "artificial contraception" for the young (married) couple was discussed: Shock! Horror!

But Wesley Burrowes had his finger on the button of the times.

The long-running soap also had the advantage of providing more or less permanent employment for numerous actors already in middle or even old age, who had always lived very close to the breadline.

But Wesley's crowning achievement was Glenroe, linked back to The Riordans through Bracken, the fairly short-lived soap which starred Gabriel Byrne. Glenroe ran for 18 years from 1983, and had the kind of impact that a generation earlier had been the privilege of live-broadcast Sunday Night Play on Radio Eireann.

When he put the lid on his typewriter with the end of Glenroe, he had achieved more than any other writer for TV in Ireland, and probably more than most in our neighbouring island.

He had been ill for several years, but his life was supremely contented in his home outside Bray in Co Wicklow, with his wife, the craft designer Helena Ruuth, whom he married in 1969, after divorce from his first wife Liz.

The first marriage had been stormy, but the break-up was amicable, and Wesley settled into family life with relish.

I met him on the RTE campus one day, and he announced he was rushing home where "my lovely Helena will have my perfect lunch of a delicate omelette and a glass of good sherry waiting for me".

It was not difficult to believe he had found his idyll, which ended last Friday at the age of 85.

On April 21, 2001, in the week when Glenroe’s last scenes were shot, Wesley Burrowes looked nostalgically back at a programme that, whatever the critics say, did reflect the Ireland of its time

GLENROE is gone. Many reasons have been given, but what’s the use of talking? We’re history.

I have heard it said that in the days of the Tiger, there is no longer a rural/urban divide. That everyone in the country is a bus-ride from a vibrant

town, that Navan is only an hour from Dublin and a couple of hours more from the bare bums of Ibiza. And that we of Glenroe failed to keep pace with those new and changing realities.

As you would expect, I could never accept that. More than anything else, Glenroe has been a chronicle, not just of changing

times, but changing lives.

At the beginning, Miley and Dinny came down from Slievebracken, high in the Wicklow Mountains, where they had been a part of the age-old tradition of hill-sheep farming, and arrived in Glenroe, within a bus-ride of Dublin. The move was 10 miles in distance, but 100 years in time.

They had lived their lives to date in a remote cottage on the side of a mountain, socialising with sheep. Now they were in a village community between Bray and Greystones, surrounded by new and curious neighbours. They had to learn how to run a modern tillage farm, growing vegetables for the Dublin market, spuds for the supermarkets, barley for the brewery and coping with this strange new animal, the EEC.

They had the great luck to have the tutelage of their neighbour, Biddy MacDermott, who was a graduate of the agricultural college. It was Miley’s first experience of an educated woman, though it was her sister Carol at whom he first set his dung-stained cap. Carol worked in a bank. Imagine, thought Miley, courting a woman who worked in a bank.

It was, of course, still a village, as Leestown had been in The Riordans. But much in the Irish village had changed since The Riordans began, 20 years earlier. The place of the church, for instance. In The Riordans, every episode had a scene outside the church, after Mass. It was the scene for rounding up all the stray gossip from locations which, for logistical reasons, we couldn’t get to that week.

We had those scenes in the early days of Glenroe, but as Mass attendances fell off in the world outside, they fell off in Glenroe too, and soon the Church was there for little more than deaths and marriages, and for use as an occasional backdrop.

The priest, too, lost much of his influence. The handsome, young Fr Sheehy in The Riordans had been a beacon of liberalism, but he could still keep his parishioners in place.

In Glenroe, Fr Devereux, just as good a man, not only left the priesthood, but is now (barring accidents) heading for the altar with his new bride Gracie. I can imagine the bloodcurdling letters and blasts from the altar if Fr Sheehy, a dangerous radical in his time, had done the same.

On the farm too, all was changing utterly. From Europe came warnings of overproduction, and a thing called setaside, through which you’d be paid money to let your fields lie fallow. Not that the old crops were worth growing, the way prices were. So yet another new gospel was being preached. Agri-tourism.

Stephen Brennan, who grew fruits and vegetables on his land and sold them in his farm shop, threw his hat at it and turned his farm into a golf course.

And Miley, spurred on by his wee wife Biddy, started an open farm, with busloads of tourists and schoolchildren coming to look at the lambs and the kid goats, the ducks and the deer.

It helped, of course, that at the time, the Toners of Ballygannon, whose farm Miley has been pretending to own all these years, were doing the same thing, and that the Glenroe Open Farm became a great success not only on screen but in reality. And that down the road, Michael Kunz, whose farm Stephen Brennan was laying claim to, was making it into a golf course. And even in the last weeks, we have seen Miley’s plans for walking tours ruined by the foot-and-mouth scare. How much closer could we get to the realities of today?

Ah, but it’s very slow... Was it? Well, it depends what you’re used to. I looked at a few old Riordans tapes lately. Now if you want to see slow...

But I have looked at episodes of Glenroe and compared their content with episodes of Coronation Street and found that the amount of action and actual events is about the same in each. The difference is that Coronation Street has four programmes a week and Glenroe has one.

Which means that in any week, Coronation Street has four times as much action as Glenroe. Is it any wonder it seems slow?

The truth is, the day of the once-weekly soap is over, and Glenroe is the last survivor.

If I seem over-defensive, let me admit to one mistake we made on Glenroe. Some time (don’t ask me when, about 10 years ago) audience research showed that while we had a huge audience in the over 30s, drawn by, in my view, the best ensemble acting on television, there was a significantly lower figure for younger viewers. And though we were riding high in the ratings, this finding was ominous.

We had slipped up. Here we were, chronicling life in a virtual commuter belt, and no baby-boom. True, we had some children. Miley and Biddy had two young daughters, Michelle had two young sons, but it would be years before they could have stories of their own.

So for the army of young viewers hooked on EastEnders and Brookside, not a teenager in sight.

What to do? We could, of course, make every female in the cast pregnant and wait for the harvest, but that would take too long. Or we could introduce new characters with school-going children. Which is what we did. Better late than never.

I was all in favour of this, though in a way, it signalled the beginning of my own disengagement from the programme.

Writing about the generation of video games and vodka jellies was a frightening prospect for someone brought up on marbles and Monopoly.

It took the viewers some time to get used to them, but the young actors have become a new and vital dimension in the Glenroe community.

It’s just a shame that we will not see them growing up, breaking hearts, going to the bad....(Author’s Note: Stop whinging!).

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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