Saturday 16 February 2019

Love him, hate him, Charlie's back again

RTE had to wait 23 years, but they've finally brought the old scoundrel to the small screen, writes Gene Kerrigan

Tom Vaughan Lawlor and Aiden Gillen in 'Charlie'
Tom Vaughan Lawlor and Aiden Gillen in 'Charlie'
Charlie Haughey
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Tonight, on RTE1, we have a chance to see the second major production staged in commemoration of the life of Charles Haughey. Charlie, the first episode in a three-part epic, is on at 9.30pm, in the Love/Hate slot. With Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Aidan Gillen in the cast, it may even pull in some of the Love/Hate audience.

There was a time when you could be sure of a big audience for anything featuring Haughey, but that was then. It's 23 years since Haughey was kicked out of office.

There were lots of reasons along the way to make a TV drama of his misadventures. And lots of material. But it would have taken a little courage.

RTE has grown very cautious, and understandably so. The hatchets are always out, whatever the station does or doesn't do. But, waiting 23 years - well, that might be taking prudence just a bit far. In the meantime, many who would make up a natural audience for such a drama will have cashed in their chips.

No one today under the age of 40 would have reached voting age when Haughey got the bum's rush.

When he became Minister for Justice in 1961, Haughey and his type took over from a generation that stayed in office too long. The young Haughey brought needed reforms - he was an agent of change, for a while.

By 1979, when he became leader of Fianna Fail, he had nothing to offer. From then on, it was all about grudges, greed and expensive goodies, holding onto office and taking cash from the golden circles.

He was an intelligent man, and perhaps shopping in Paris somehow made up for what he must have known had become a piddling little political career.

And, despite the alleged glamour of the French shirts and the expensive wines, the overwhelming impression, even then, was not one of glamour but of tacky pretension.

So much of the victories was petty - so many of his enemies were mediocrities. The alleged "heaves" against his leadership were ill-judged stumbles into failure, by timorous chaps who hadn't the guts to question the source of his wealth.

On the word of a known liar, Sean Doherty - and nothing else - they chose to believe Haughey was involved in phone-tapping, and got rid of him. Having got away with corruption, he was felled for misdeeds of which he was probably innocent.

No doubt he appreciated the irony.

Charlie will cover the period from 1979 until his downfall. It will be interesting to see how the makers treat the drift to the disastrous neoliberal economics, via the PD alliance, and the shift of power from Merrion Street to Frankfurt.

Haughey may have ended up a political dud, but he retained a sense of humour, and potentially, there's much fun to be had watching him dance around his bumbling enemies.

Ben Dunne's name appears on the IMDb cast list, also Ray Burke and Jim Gibbons - so the drama may be less formulaic than the trailer suggests.

The first major drama featuring Haughey was, of course, his State funeral. It was a Fianna Fail production, aimed at re-casting the old scoundrel as some kind of national father figure - with a view to giving the party a boost in the general election of the following year.

The funeral itself cost €32,000, a pricey enough send-off, and guess who got to pay the bill? A few sandwiches back at the house weren't good enough, we citizens had to pay another €35,000 so the assembled cast of connected persons could enjoy wine and brandy at a Ballsbridge hotel.

What's more relevant from that production is the public response. The Fianna Fail/PD government splashed out €100,000 of our money on huge outdoor TV screens at the church, and €125,000 for crush barriers along the funeral route, plus almost €200,000 in garda overtime - all to shepherd the thousands of weeping citizens.

However, the crowds didn't turn up. A few hundred gathered outside the church, but those sturdy crush barriers on the Malahide Road remained untested. That production, costing more than half a million, was over-budgeted and the ratings didn't match expectations.

RTE, of course, broadcast it live, and about 220,000 people tuned in, a respectable enough audience, but substantially down on the 275,000 who watched Jack Lynch's funeral in 1999.

The Charlie trailer, suggesting old-fashioned melodrama, trumpets Haughey as "The Black Prince of Irish Politics". Maybe, in terms of audience-grabbing, it might have been better to promise "The Nidge of Irish Politics".

Sunday Independent

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