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Film-maker Carr's journey from John Peel to sean-nós

Múscraí based director reels out a fascinating cast of characters he's met in half a century of work


Peter Carr

Peter Carr

Peter Carr

A journey in media which started with a stint as producer for BBC music legend John Peel has included many highlights for film-maker Peter Carr who is looking forward to the rebroadcast on TG4 of his landmark series on Irish sean nós singing in the Autumn.

That's not the only journey made by the film director as he's now living with his wife, Marie Foley the sculptor, on a hilltop in Gort an Acra in the Múscraí Gaeltacht having started life at the bottom of the Pennines in Yorkshire.

His first adventure in Ireland saw him direct Bringing It All Back Home, a documentary series produced by Philip King on Irish music which featured a host of stars including U2, the Everly Brothers, Emmy Lou Harris and a host of others.

It was through this programme he met Peadar Ó Riada as the show featured Cór Chúil Aodha singing 'Im Long Mé Measaim', a poem by Dónal Ó Liatháin set to music by Ó Riada. That led to an invitation to film a series called Ceol na Talún and shortly after that was concluded he moved to his current abode in Spring 1998.

A native of Scarborough, a market town on the North Yorkshire Coast, Peter was born during the Second World War and has recollections of those days.

"I have dim memories of air raid sirens in the night as the bombers returning from the industrial north of England dropped any left over ordnance on the coastal towns.

"Happily for us the incendiary bomb that came through the roof and landed on my granddad's bed as we huddled below in the Anderson shelter failed to ignite."

An aspiring accountant at one stage, his head was turned by Elvis Presley, he set aside his ledgers to head to London where he became a trainee radio technician at the BBC. This would do him, he thought, until he established himself as a singer/songwriter of world renown.

He did release one single which got some radio plays but the company he was signed to let him go to focus on another emerging talent, Reg Dwight. Reg was then in the process of changing his name to Elton John.

Undaunted by this setback, Peter was offered a stint as a trainee radio producer and spent what he terms a ' very agreeable time watching over John Peel as he whispered and mumbled his way through midnight on the Radio One 'Nightride' programme'.

"Then in 1968 I was given a production attachment to BBC 2 on the arts magazine show 'Late Night Line-Up' where I looked after the music inserts.

"American musicians were all keen to get UK television coverage and we spent our afternoons recording for the evening programme.

"Frank Zappa, Janis Joplin, Canned Heat, Tim Hardin, Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, Ritchie Havens, Willie Nelson, Little Richard and Leonard Cohen all passed through our tiny little presentation studio."

His introduction to film came via a period working on a short about magic in his home town. His experience pulling rabbits out a hat and talking about the unfortunate accidents which occur during the 'catch the bullet' trick were enough to convince him to apply for a course as a film maker with the BBC and fifty years later he's still in the business of telling stories on celluloid - or, as techmology advanced, whatever the latest digital format happened to be.

Having learned the basics at the BBC - which is always a good start in the film-making craft - he made a few films for the broadcaster before jumping ship to Granada TV.

His last assignment for the BBC led to his first visit to Cork to direct a film about Red Hurley and the showbands of the 70s. His interest had been piqued while playing 'mournful country music' in pubs only to see the crowd drift next door to dance the night away in the Hibernian Ballroom in Fulham where the Irish showbands were the main attractions.

His early visit to Cork introduced him to the magical art of stout pouring and a new insight into the Irish sense of 'now'. He had sailed into the Imperial Hotel to be greeted by a helpful receptionist

"'I would like to call the BBC to let them know I have arrived safely.' She looked at a book and said 'would half past four be alright' and I said 'not really, I'd like to call them now.' I

"I remember she was very kindly as she explained to me about booking calls and I went off to climb Patrick's Hill and have my first pint of Irish Guinness, more cultural confusion!

"I couldn't understand why the barman poured half of my pint and walked away.

"I thought he didn't like me. He was also quite kindly as he explained how it had to settle before he sort of paddled the top off it with a stick."

The Cork trip, where he attended a hop at the Stardust Ballroom, was in the way of a recce for the film which he started soon afterwards in Dublin. "The big gig that we filmed was in the Royal Dance Hall in Castlebar.

"Up until midnight, when the band was due on, the hall was empty but the car park was full of tractors, cars and trailers doing whatever people do in tractors, cars and trailers, which I think included drinking alcohol.

"As they all piled inside for the slow waltz and fizzy orange drinks, the manager of the band counted them, 'just in case the management gets the numbers wrong.'

"The place was packed and the gig was a great success."

Another music film he directed in Ireland during the 1970s involved a trip to Belfast at a time when the city was ravaged by conflict.

"'The Realistics in Belfast' was about a group of worldly black American soul musicians.

"One of them had served in Vietnam, another worked with Martin Luther King, the lead singer had been shot and was partially blind, and TC, the young joker of the pack was simply 'the finest bass singer in the whole damn world'.

"They were playing the Abercorn, which had recently re-opened after a fatal bombing. They were wide eyed and very bright as they wandered the streets and visited and singing 'Sweet Low Sweet Chariot' as guests in the Hibernian Hall in the Falls Road and a Loyalist drinking club near the Short Strand."

After the musical 1970s came the more environmental 1980s.

"In the 1980's I started to move into making environmental and anthropological films for Disappearing World on ITV and Fragile Earth on Channel Four.

"I followed transhumant cattle herders across the Iberian Peninsula and reindeer herders north of the Arctic Circle in the aftermath of Chernobyl and made films about proliferating harp seals in the Barents Sea, collapsing stocks of wild salmon in Scottish rivers, fish farming and coastal erosion."

That was followed by a sequence of films focusing on social issues. "I made a series of films about heroin abuse in Edinburgh, another about social workers and child protection in Hull and a series of films called 'Living in Styal' about women in prison, which won the gold medal in the New York Documentary Film Festival.

"Another film that won the same competition a couple of years later was 'The High Life' about the Scottish cyclist Robert Millar who had been crowned King of the Mountains in the Tour de France the previous year, but was struggling to keep his head up the year I was filming."

Two series of music programme 'So It Goes' followed when he met world famous singer songwriter Elvis Costello and that led to a film which made the music world sit up and take notice.

"I then made a The South Bank Show, 'Elvis Costello in Nashville' about our hero making a country music album with the legendary producer Billy Sherrill, in the course of which he went abruptly from taciturn to voluble and gave his first ever long interview."

This brought him to the attention of Philip King who was interested in the connection between Irish music and contemporary music, including country, rock and soul music, in the US.

This was Bringing It All Back Home, widely acknowledged as a landmark series about traditional music and it was this which brought him to the Múscraí Gaeltacht.

With the success of Bringing It All Back Home still resounding, he took on a major project which Peadar Ó Riada had been working on for some time.

'Ceol na Talún' followed the life of the Múscraí Gaeltacht over a year, with one hour long film devoted to each month.

All aspects of human life were captured in the documentary series - a wedding, funerals, farming, the comings and goings of everyday life - which was a lyrical exploration of life in a rural community with its own unique culture at that time.

"They were for Teilifís na Gaeilge (now TG4) the infant Irish language channel, launched in The Abbey Hotel Ballyvourney by Charles J. Haughey.

"They were dedicated that day to the memory of the editor Fiachra Ó hAodha, who had become a firm friend and tragically died a couple of months previously."

This led to the 'Sean Nós' documentary series for TnaG/TG4, a round Ireland trip on which he was accompanied by Cormac Ó hAodha, a sean nós singer himself and a brother to Fiachra.

"In the twenty years since then I have managed to work continuously, making films for TG4 and RTÉ. Directly out of the Sean Nós series, there was a film about sean nós singer Éamonn Mac Ruaidhrí and his cousin Joe re-living their youthful experience travelling from Tory Island in Donegal to the Scottish borders. That led to 'Tomás an Amhrán' about veteran Conamara songwriter Tom a t'Seoighe."

There were a host of other films for TG4, including a travel film charting the journey of Maidhc Dainín Ó Sé (father of Dáithí) from West Kerry to America's Deep South along with his friend, Mícheál de Mórdha, a documentary about the closing of Scoil Dhún Chaoin in west Kerry and the campaign to reopen it and a one hour film to mark the 20th anniversary of the death in a car accident of sean nós singer and broadcaster Diarmuid Ó Suilleabháin.

"The first of them and perhaps my favourite was 'Vincent' about the picturesque Vincent Keaney, who won the Lotto and opened the Titanic bar and restaurant in Cobh.

"There were also two documentaries about Marymount hospice in Cork and a series of three programmes in the series 'Black Sheep?' about ordinary people tracing ordinary ancestors caught up in extraordinary events."

Fifty years of film-making - and he's still working away on different projects though he says that pays more attention to his runner beans than his film projects these days.

It's clear that he enjoys telling stories and who knows he may find the time to write a book about his life and different careers.

I did ask him to help me if I forgot to ask a questin that he would like to answer - and he obliged most helpfully.

"if you were to ask me what the best thing is about being a documentary film maker, I think I would reply going to places I might never otherwise gone and meeting people I would never otherwise meet"

And a moment he would like to relive? "I would reply sweeping down a mountain in northern Norway on a dark moonlight arctic evening, hanging desperately onto the back of a reindeer herder heading home for his supper."