Monday 9 December 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Muiris knew that what RTE needed most was creative producers'

Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Muiris Mac Conghail, who died last week, was one of the few people I knew in RTE who had the faintest notion of what public service broadcasting could be at its best.

Certainly it has nothing to do with the crabbed agenda which caused RTE not to call on me for my memories of Muiris - although I am one of the last surviving producers of his 7 Days team.

Had they done so you might have heard why Muiris's golden generation has much to say to the rising generation represented by TCD student Harry Higgins.

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Last week, Higgins rightly accused RTE of not having the same relevance to his generation as it had to his parents'. Naturally, he could not be expected to expose the reasons for this lack of energy.

But I can suggest some if Higgins will follow me in a trip into the past to show him how Muiris's beliefs contain the clue to better broadcasting.

Let me start by saying my relations with Muiris were spiky and fell into three acts. The first act starts in 1966 in the dawn of RTE current affairs.

Recently recruited to RTE, I walked nervously through his area looking for Lelia Doolan's new 7 Days in regulation radical uniform: black leather jacket, black polo, jeans.

Muiris, crisply attired in bow-tie, striped shirt and braces, giving him the look of a Gaelic Gordon Gekko, puffing his pipe, gave me gruff directions in Irish.

We did not get on: me a republican and Marxist from the Cork lower middle class; Muiris close to what is now called a revisionist, coming from a posh bourgeois Free State family of proven artistic ability.

His producer peers in 1966 were no less creative: James Plunkett Kelly, Sean Mac Reamoinn, Andreas O Gallchoir, Donall Farmer and Lelia Doolan, a theatre director and later trouble-maker in the eyes of a lazy establishment.

Muiris invented modern television political programmes with his show Division, based on the doings of Dail Eireann. Lelia Doolan invented modern current affairs with a new show called 7 Days, which I produced.

Both shows differed fundamentally on what constituted current affairs. For Division, it meant probing ministers on topical issues of policy. For 7 Days it meant digging deep into structural stories of social and cultural importance.

This set Muiris and myself on a collision course when he took over from Lelia Doolan in 1967, merging the two teams.

Producers and reporters like Sean Egan, Paddy Gallagher and myself wanted to get out on the streets and were bored by the Dail and the studio theatrics of David Thornley.

Within a few months, three of our films in preparation brought Muiris under pressure from the RTE Authority, the Catholic Church and the political establishment.

Paddy Gallagher had a film on a planning permission scandal in Mount Pleasant Square; Sean Egan was filming the radical Jesuit Fr Michael Sweetman; I was finishing a probe on the Special Branch which featured photos of Noel Browne being savaged by police dogs.

Without any warning, the RTE Authority tried to neuter the programme by transferring it to the News Division. Like most of my colleagues, I blamed Muiris for colluding with the change. I refused to transfer and took part in a short strike sorted out by the late James Larkin Jnr.

Even after he later made amends by getting into trouble over a money lending programme, we still did not fully trust him.

So in 1973, he left RTE to work as Government press officer for the new Cosgrave-Corish coalition, and we simply shrugged and said smugly "poacher turned gamekeeper".

Three years later, in 1976, he returned to RTE. As chairman of the producers' trade union, I could have made life hard for him but did not do so, because I was starting to share his scepticism about Irish nationalism - and I also wanted to see what he could do as controller of programmes.

He overcame opposition by reviving the golden age of Irish television under Michael Garvey. His formula was simple: he believed in only recruiting creative people as producers. His interview boards were legendary.

Gerry Gregg, later an Emmy Award member, still remembers his terrifying induction interview where Muiris was flanked by the painter and producer Tony Barry, director of Strumpet City, and Colm O Briain, later energetic chairperson of the Arts Council.

Muiris knew Gerry was a brilliant UCD history graduate from a working-class Ringsend background, did not patronise him by soft questions, and his final query was designed to test Gerry's wits to the limit.

What, he asked Gerry blandly, pipe puffing, was the Ringsend reaction to the aesthetics of the Pigeon House, newly painted in striped red and white?

Gerry told him the locals responded well to the red and white because it represented the colours of Liverpool, Manchester United and Shelbourne.

Tony Barry later told Gerry his game reply helped get him the job in a group which also contained David Blake Knox, who came up with the legendary Nighthawks show, whose equal we haven't seen since.

Like the famous Fowler Commission on Canadian broadcasting, Muiris believed that "broadcasting is about content, the rest is housekeeping".

Today in RTE, managing editors and commissioning editors whose desks are their domain, take the place of the creative producers cherished by Muiris.

For Muiris, public service broadcasting did not just mean making programmes the public needed to see but also programmes the public wanted to see because they were so brilliantly made.

He knew that making riveting television shows meant recruiting producers of creativity who could make a worthy topic a hot topic, not just wag PC fingers for their political peer group.

Muiris also accepted that creative people could be awkward, troublesome and disruptive of the "'twill do" culture that dominates RTE.

The last act of his life left a more enduring legacy - two books on the life and literature of the Blaskets and his film, Oilean Eile.

Finally, I doubt Muiris would have missed - as RTE current affairs did - the significance of the debate in the Dail last week on a Sinn Fein motion supporting the Ireland's Future letter looking for an assembly to discuss a united Ireland.

Contrary to the false impression given by The Irish Times report, the Taoiseach did not immediately give this nonsense - incredibly endorsed by Brendan Howlin - the dusty reply it deserved until after Micheal Martin had eviscerated the motion.

As Stephen Collins correctly reported in his column: "The Taoiseach initially tried to side step the issue, but the Fianna Fail leader came to his aid with an empathic and clearly argued case".

Clearly "emboldened by the Fianna Fail leader's approach", the Taoiseach felt able to speak his true mind in opposing a pan-nationalist assembly with these welcome words: "Deputy Martin and I disagree on a lot and clash on a lot, but I very much agree with his analysis and comments on the matter".

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