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'You can only push like that so far, eventually something cracks'

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Stuart Carolan. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Stuart Carolan. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Love/Hate Series 5 Episode 6
Charlie Murphy as Siobhan
RT? One
Sunday November 9th

Love/Hate Series 5 Episode 6 Charlie Murphy as Siobhan RT? One Sunday November 9th

Tom Vaughan Lawlor as Nidge in the last episode of Love/Hate.

Tom Vaughan Lawlor as Nidge in the last episode of Love/Hate.

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Stuart Carolan. Photo: Gerry Mooney

To sit across the table from Stuart Carolan, even in the very ordinary setting of a city centre cafe on a Friday morning, is to feel at times that one is in the presence of a sort of a mythical being, out of whose head all these other mythical beings have emerged - John Boy, Fran, Lizzie, Git, Elmo, Janet, Tommy, Trish, Moynihan, Patrick, Nidge.

It's nothing in his manner, which is free of affectation, it's more the reputation that he has earned, the way that his name is invariably mentioned by Love/Hate actors in tones of the deepest admiration -which is perhaps partly due to the fact that when it comes to mentioning the writer of Love/Hate, there is indeed just one name.

If the stars of an equivalent series in America or Britain were to praise the writing that got them there, there would be so many names to remember they might not bother with it.

It is just one part of the miracle that has been Love/Hate, and Carolan himself waves it away as no big deal, wishing instead to draw attention to the intensely collaborative nature of the work, the fact that so many others have also given their best energies to it - whether they will do it any more is something that he addresses straight away.

"To go again is tough. It's as tough as people imagine it to be. The story line for series four and series five was planned, it's a massive thing with the end of Nidge, because he became the show. So we're talking about it, we're having conversations with RTE, we're having conversations amongst ourselves . . . I look at all those actors and I'd love to keep writing for them in different ways, but the current incarnation of Love/Hate, I think, is over. It's the end of something, for sure.

"In terms of next year, normally what would happen is about now, I would start writing, December, January, February, start filming at the end of March, and . . . I've nothing left in the tank, you know?

"In one sense I never want to be too precious about it, in the sense of making some classic TV programme that is there in the vaults forever. I don't care about making a mistake, I don't care about it going wrong.

"I think the most important thing in what we're doing is to be brave creatively all the time . . . So if we looked at Love/Hate again, how to do it, we'd have to do it in a very different way. You wouldn't be able to sustain the pace that we've done so far . . . a key thing is the team that have been together for the last five years you know? There's David Caffrey, Steve Matthews, Suzanne McAuley, the crew have been magnificent . . . so we're making this show for €600,000 an episode and it looks or feels like one of those shows that are made in America for €4 million an episode . . . but to do that we're really straining . . . every single person, if you go on set for those three months, is almost working to the point of collapse. And they do that because they believe in it, and everyone knows we're trying to get this as best it can be. But you can only push like that so far, you know ? Eventually something cracks.

"So I think we've got it to this place, and it's not simply that it's Tom who's an amazing actor, that that storyline is over, it's the whole thing. So all of us felt this, just, exhaustion after it. And we're really proud we've brought it to this place. But for loads of reasons you just take some time out, think about it, not get rushed into anything, look at where should it go . . . you get haunted by a story, and you just need to get away from all this madness for the moment to look at it again. And maybe it does come back or maybe it doesn't. And you have to be not afraid of walking away from it, but equally not afraid of coming back . . . and saying, you know what? We might come back and we might lose the audience . . ."

In pursuit of that ideal of being "brave creatively", he cites the support of RTE's head of drama Jane Gogan, who would be aware from the highly detailed 15-minute breakdowns of viewing figures that in the second series, for example, "when we had scenes of Fran, and dog-fighting and savage violence, that there was a big dip. A lot of women left at that point."

From that they might have extrapolated that viewers wanted more levity, something a bit softer perhaps. Instead, the third series opened with a savage rape in the back of a bar and brought dissident republicans into it, reflecting Carolan's awareness that domestic violence of the most horrible kind was common in gangland, and that you just couldn't give a truthful portrayal of the underworld of the city without these deeply weird IRA elements.

Accuracy on this level tends to be absent in many works of fiction, but Carolan is devoted to it, perhaps a reflection of his earlier work as a journalist and a producer of The Last Word with Eamon Dunphy. He even suggests that he might do more journalism in the future, a documentary perhaps, whatever catches his enthusiasm. He sees no great distinction between the various forms, and rather than seeing it all as ephemeral, he rejoices in it. He loves what he calls the disposability of television, the fact that you can have these moments of communication with a large audience without thinking about posterity, without worrying too much about what they'll think of you when you're dead. At present he is finishing the screenplay of Paul Murray's novel Skippy Dies.

On this particular day he is most engaged with the treatment of John Connors, or Patrick the traveller in Love/Hate, who has made the front pages for remarks he made to Sean O'Rourke about bare-knuckle fighting being "a great way to settle an argument". Connors became a friend of Carolan's during the making of the series, as indeed have others whom he encountered during his researches, and it infuriates him to see the way that Connors is being disparaged.

"In Ireland there's two ways of approaching the traveller story. There's either the sanitised version or the tabloid version. But it's complex. What I've found a lot, is that there's absolute racism to travellers in Ireland."

And you just scratch the surface . . . for example, you read this story about this woman, she loses her [teenage] boy, a terrible illness, the undertaker won't let her wake her child, because she's a traveller. Could you imagine if that was a black child, or a gay child ?

"So when all this stuff is blown up now about John, talking about bare knuckle fighting, no-one comes back to this other story and says, where is the outrage? I was talking to people about it and I said, did you see that story, and I remember this taxi- driver goes yeah, yeah it was terrible, terrible . . . pause . . . I suppose though, he says, you can understand the undertaker. He'd be worried about getting paid . . . And I say, travellers are extremely religious, funerals are very important for them, there's no way that they don't pay those bills because it would be hugely bad luck and disrespectful to the dead relative . . . is putting himself in the mind of the undertaker, not the traveller.

"So I'd love if people writing about it met real travellers and talked to them about it. What's it like if you're a mother and you're going to the shop to buy clothes and you're followed around by shop security? What does that do to you? Now when it comes to writing a traveller's story, I'm not doing a sanitised version. No more than showing the cops the way they are - showing a bent cop, a cop who's a bureaucrat, or Moynihan beating up Nidge - no more than that you try to show a truthful picture of the travellers. And within that, different characters have different reactions.

"You look at Patrick's relationship with his son, what it's like to be bullied in school. And if you talk to traveller people about their experience in school, one woman said the phrase used in school wasn't just smelly knacker it was knacker c**t. Imagine what it's like to be called knacker c**t . . . by your teacher?

"In this debate no-one imagines what it's like to get that day in, day out, day in, day out. So if you look at this (the tabloid story about John Connors) John's a young guy, he's 24, he's an amazing actor, he's highly intelligent, and he's asked a question about the bare-knuckle boxing, he answers it truthfully. He's one person, he's not the sole representative of the travelling community because he's on Love/Hate. If that's what he thinks . . . can we only have the sanitised version? Travellers are like the rest of Ireland, there's a multitude of opinions, there's all sorts of complexities."

Perhaps the reason that so many of us could connect with the series, was this insistence of Carolan's that there be no "us and them", that characters such as Patrick or Janet in their difficult lives have had struggles which demand our empathy, that even the most disgraceful gangsters may occasionally have some underlying reason for their rage.

"Grief and rage", Carolan says, are the fundamental elements of Love/Hate. And these great unifying themes were perhaps missed by those who carped about plot-lines or about characters they felt were undeveloped, while audiences instinctively knew that it was about the creation of moments, that they were always moving towards some brilliant flash of creative energy, a magical burst of music, some outrageous atrocity that had never been seen before on Irish television or on any other television at prime time, an actor's glance that said it all.

In the actual filming of the series there was "a lot of good will out there. The people who live in Nidge's house, every year they let us film there. Jennings undertakers were hugely helpful. The Zoo weren't, so we had to change with the Zoo."

The bookies with their "hilarious" markets on the show were a constant source of grief and rage, "a tide of shit and there's nothing you can do about it."

The killing of Nidge in the end did not have the same sense of tragedy as the killing of Darren, who had been a "fallen angel" - Nidge by contrast had fallen from a pretty low perch - so the tragic character in the scene was Warren, his son, watching it happen.

The filming of that scene was itself a story of logistical intricacy to rival The Day of The Jackal. "Nidge had moved house", Carolan recalls. "So we had to find a house. A house that was believable, where you could have a drive-by . . . had to have a gate, had to not be overlooked, not too many neighbours nearby.

"We had to be able to close off the roads, it was very, very complicated to get right, and if it had been raining on the day . . . we filmed on a Saturday with a minimal crew . . . it's not that we shot different endings but we shot lots of different things so that even amongst the crew there'd be confusion as to what we were doing - people who were there who saw Nidge being shot didn't know that Siobhan was shot, because we tried to box it off.

"And it was just to try to keep it as tight as possible so that we wouldn't end up with this betting scenario. So when we got it, it was a relief that we got it. It's kinda sad because it's the end of this journey, but it felt like the right ending."

Sunday Independent