Sunday 21 October 2018

1916 documentary on RTE One review: 'A big, lavishly produced slab of prestige television'

Pat Stacey

The three-part documentary series 1916 could easily be subtitled A Beginner’s Guide to the Easter Rising. That’s not for a moment intended to belittle it.


It’s a big, lavishly produced slab of prestige television, expansive and expensive-looking. The archive material — photographs, documents, film clips, artworks and illustrations, old newspapers, vintage radio and television interviews — is first-rate and expertly employed.

Judging by the lengthy list of attributions in the end credits, just hunting down and collating it all must have been a mammoth undertaking in itself.

The collection of talking heads is every bit as impressive. British and American historians are given as much screen time as the Irish ones.

It’s saying something that Diarmaid Ferriter, who sometimes seems to be the only authority on Irish history whose number RTE has on speed dial, doesn’t make his first appearance until 32 minutes in. That must be some kind of record for a programme about the Rising.

The original score is performed by the RTE Concert Orchestra, and the series boasts a fittingly A-list narration by Liam Neeson, whose distinctive velvety voice can’t have come cheap.

If the first episode has the strong flavour of the kind of sturdy, stately, scrupulous documentaries PBS specialises in, there’s a reason for it. 1916 may be produced by COCO Television (better known for the likes of Room to Improve and Don’t Tell the Bride) for RTE, but it’s very much the brainchild of Briona Nic Dhiarmada, a professor linked to the Keogh-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

She conceived, wrote and co-produced the series, and her gaze is plainly focused on the global audience. 1916 is due to be broadcast all over the world, including on BBC4 and on some 120 PBS affiliate stations in America.

The world could probably do with a good lesson in the fundamentals of Irish history. The first episode of 1916, directed by Ruan Magan and Pat Collins, does such an exceptionally crisp, skilful job of condensing the 700-year run-up to the Rising into a little under an hour of television that no viewer from India to Indiana will be left in any doubt as to why it happened.

The programme is particularly good on tracing the ideological bloodline of the Rising back to the French and American revolutions, as well as it putting it into the wider context of rampant British imperialism.

There’s nothing at all wrong with a history series trying to reach a broad audience. For Irish viewers, however, our familiarity with the material meant this first episode felt ever so slightly bland, like seeing one of your old secondary school history books animated on screen.

Nonetheless, it’s worth sticking with to find out if the two remaining episodes can deliver on the promise to explore how the Rising’s ripple effect spread further afield, to India and Africa, ultimately leading to the dissolution of the British Empire.

7 things we learned from 1916 documentary narrated by Liam Neeson on RTE One  


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