Wednesday 16 October 2019

How Irish TV suddenly became cool

How Irish TV and cinema have shaken off their reputations for producing self-conscious stodge with hits like 'Love/Hate' and now 'Amber'.

New age: From left: Scenes from new RTÉ drama ‘Amber’ and the film ‘Last Days on Mars’ which was directed by Ruairí Robinson. RTÉ
New age: From left: Scenes from new RTÉ drama ‘Amber’ and the film ‘Last Days on Mars’ which was directed by Ruairí Robinson. RTÉ
A scene from the film 'Last Days on Mars' which was directed by Ruairí Robinson
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Nidge in 'Love/Hate
A scene from the new RTE drama 'Amber'. Photo: Patrick Redmond
A scene from the new RTE drama 'Amber'. Photo: Patrick Redmond

Ed Power

Glossy, smart, brimming with noir-ish swagger -- a few years ago it would have been unimaginable that RTÉ could bring to the screen a show such as Amber, the new kidnapping mini-series. For anyone who cares to remember, until recently Irish drama was encumbered with a muggy Celtic introspection and a singular lack of confidence -- it was taken for granted that slick, fast-moving telly was for the Americans and British.

We, on the other hand, had to put up with murky, self-conscious stodge -- woodenly acted, stiffly shot, so dreary you wondered whether sending the audience into a depressed stupor wasn't the ultimate intention.

But that's changing and, while RTÉ deserves much credit for its canny commissioning, it's hard not to think that a generational realignment is playing its part too.

The success of Love/Hate, a cool-on-the-surface crime romp that felt no embarrassment about appropriating from American critical hits such as The Wire, demonstrated that young Irish screenwriters and directors are capable of finding inspiration in the best international television, of understanding that just because something is Irish it needn't be second rate. What a huge shift in outlook that represents.

Amber (snapped up by BBC4 for its Saturday night 'quality drama' slot) and Love/Hate, exported to the UK, the Continent and, via the Hulu streaming platform, the US, have not happened in isolation.

From art-house directors Lenny Abrahamson and John Michael McDonagh, whose exquisitely composed features make Irish introspection seem unfeasibly gorgeous, to blockbuster king in the making John Moore (the lusty director of A Good Day To Die Hard) native talent is burnishing its reputation as never before.

Amber is directed by Thaddeus O'Sullivan, who collaborated with Kevin Spacey on Ordinary Decent Criminal, and worked on the forthcoming BBC World War I medical drama The Ark.

Some Irish filmmakers are even venturing where the indigenous movie industry has previously feared to tread with forays into science fiction and horror. One of the most downloaded movies on the (highly illegal) Pirate Bay website in 2013 was Last Days On Mars, an exceedingly handsome zombies-in-space splatfest overseen by Dubliner Ruairí Robinson, with special effects by Irish-based Screen Scene VFX.

"Love/Hate can stand alongside the kind of quality television which has emerged out of American cable television over the past decade," says Dr Conn Houlihan, director of the MA in Film Studies at NUIG's Huston School of Film and Digital Media.

"This is partly down to its production values and the high standard of acting and directing . . . but is primarily due to the standard of the writing.

"Whilst Love/Hate [isn't] without its problems, particularly in relation to its rather one-dimensional female characters, the development of Nidge as a complex, conflicted character over the four seasons deserves to be mentioned alongside any of the great anti-heroes to emerge from shows such as Mad Men, The Sopranos or House of Cards."

One reason Irish TV is getting smarter, suggests Dr Barry Monahan, lecturer in film studies at UCC, is that accomplished movie-makers increasingly regard the small screen as an alternative to cinema, rather than an inferior medium.

"The era when a TV star is 'discovered' -- Bruce Willis in Moonlighting, Michael J Fox in Family Ties -- is over. In the past people would have asked 'Do you remember him in the TV show . . .?' Increasingly this is being replaced by the statement 'I remember seeing him in the film. . .'

"The Irish situation has pretty much echoed this American trend. Great writing and directing teams such as Lenny Abrahamson and Mark O'Halloran ensured early on, with their series Prosperity, that the best of Irish cinematic talent was working in the smaller screen space.

"Innovative thinking and insightful creative gambles at TG4 has inspired RTÉ to follow suit and our programming quality has risen significantly," says Monahan.

The obvious precedent is Scandinavia. Five years ago, the idea of a slow-moving drama from Denmark or Sweden transfixing discerning audiences around the world would have seen absurd. Now subtle, grown-up affairs such as Borgen and The Bridge are the toast of critics and viewers alike.

This is proof that, in the age of internet streaming (and yes, illicit downloads), old boundaries no longer have any meaning. The hope must be that Irish television can benefit.

"The success of 'Modern Irish Drama' is the dropping of the word 'Irish' from the equation and focusing instead on 'Modern Drama' which happens to be set in Ireland. We have been force-fed Irish twee for too long now and thankfully something is being done about that," says Daniel O'Connell of Superego productions, which is currently completing a Victorian fantasy film, Come Away O Human Child.

"It's also a big step in the right direction for RTÉ, to give so much creative freedom to a private production without intervening too much. That can only be seen as a very positive sign of great things to come."



The credit role

Stuart Carolan

Creator of Love/Hate, Carolan's background is in theatre -- he was writer-in-association at The Abbey in 2007 and previously wrote for the restaurant drama Raw.

Lenny Abrahamson

Currently working with Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson and Maggie Gyllenhaal on Frank, about an eccentric rock musician, the 47-year-old's next feature will be an adaptation of Emma Donoghue's existential horror Room.

Eugene O'Brien

Perhaps better known as a playwright, O'Brien's big TV triumph was Pure Mule, a Celtic Tiger drama set in the world of building sites, breakfast rolls and nightclub fights. In 2008 his play Eden was made into a movie.

Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe

The creative force behind Dublin-based Element Pictures, Guiney and Lowe worked with John Michael McDonagh on The Guard and Paolo Sorrentino on This Must Be The Place. Element also collaborated with the BBC on its adaptation of John Banville's Benjamin Black crime stories, due to air this year.

Irish Independent

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