How do you bring a mercurial, inscrutable force of nature such as Charles Haughey to the screen without cooking up a glorified Gift Grub sketch?
The answer, the first episode of RTE's lavish biopic, Charlie, suggested, is that you hand the title role to a top-rank actor such as Game of Throne's Aidan Gillen, who captured the late Taoiseach's vim and swagger while never stooping to mere impersonation.
His Charlie was dangerous and manipulative, but not without a certain back-alley nobility: he was a scrapper who would knee you in the groin when you weren't looking and tell you he was doing it for love for his country.
Gillen aside, the best thing about the opening installment of Colin Teevan's three-part dramatization was its evocation of the hopelessness and claustrophobia of late 70s/early 80s Ireland. A rumoured euro 4 million was sunk into the series and it is possible much of the budget was splurged on sickly wallpaper and horrible carpets (the rest may well have gone towards Gillen/Haughey's hypnotic fright wig).
In fact, it was hard to say which was more striking: the ripped-from-the-headlines news footage of riots in the North and tax marches in Dublin or the swirling eddies of cigarette smoke and beige furnishings which framed every scene. The newsreels were there to remind us how dysfunctional Ireland had become by the time Haughey slithered and strong-armed his way into government. However, it was the period touches – the yellow smoke and even yellower teeth practically every character possessed– that truly brought the past to life and made you grateful it was a fast-dimming memory.
The episode was a vehicle for Gillen: he was omnipresent and, as was surely the case with the real Haughey, utterly dominated those around him – to the extent that Charlie couldn't help but feel like a sort of back-handed hagiography. Teevan didn't demand that you like Charlie – the ex-Taoiseach's venality was plainly laid before us. Nevertheless, he does appear to rather admire Haughey's cunning and the apparently heart-felt conviction that only he could lead Ireland out of recession and political torpor.
The plot was relatively linear. We watched Haughey crowbar his way into power, egged on by unnervingly chipper spin-doctor PJ Mara (Love/Hate's Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, hiding behind giant anti-Nidge glasses). Once in office, and between spirited trysts with gossip columnist Terry Keane (Lucy Cohu, letting her English accent do the acting), he proceeded to make mortal enemies of rivals within Fianna Fail, shake down bankers by the dozen and seek (unsuccessfully) to put manners on Margaret Thatcher. What was surprising was the humour. Future Tanaiste Brian Lenihan (Peter O'Meara) was presented as bumbling comic relief while Haughey's well-documented love for a salty profanity yielded much laughter ("McCreevy in finance?" he exclaimed, "Jesus!").
Where Charlie fell down was in its eagerness to drag the grubby minutiae of early 80s Irish politics screaming into the daylight. Here was television terrified of leaving the viewer even slightly at a loss and so footnote details were delivered in clunky information dumps by minor characters often reduced to historical mouthpieces (RTE is hoping to flog Charlie overseas : perhaps the series was conceived with an international market partly in mind).
Still, the central performance was so mesmerizing that the occasional clumsiness was easily overlooked. With two episodes to go, it is too early to declare Charlie a triumph: for now, all we can do is proclaim Gillen's turn a tour de force, one of the finest you are likely to see on Irish TV this year.