Flagship GAA drama that doesn't tell it like it is


THE COUCH IT'S a pity that it's not working, RTE's 'flagship' Sunday night drama On Home Ground. A lot of time and money has gone into it but the end product, sadly, has been disappointing.

The concept was full of promise: take a gah club in a small town, focus on the people involved with the club and ... bingo, you've got a drama set in the heart of a community because the club is effectively the community. The team manager is the town auctioneer, the club chairman is a local publican, one of the star players is a barman in the chairman's pub, everyone knows everyone we're in like Flynn. The town is still rural but it's inside Dublin's commuter belt so we also get an urban dimension. And people have money, they live in nice houses and drive good cars so we've got a drama set in the here-and-now of postmodern, post-Mícheál O'Hehir Ireland. Grand.

But after five episodes this is one viewer who has stuck with it more out of duty than enthusiasm. Because after five episodes I still don't care if Kildoran win their first senior championship since 1962, or if Fergal Collins the team manager finally succeeds, or if the chairman's wife continues her affair with the club secretary, or if Cathal sorts out his marital problems with Geraldine, or or whatever.

The series has no emotional impact at all. It just doesn't connect. And that's a fairly fundamental flaw in any work of fiction. After more than 250 minutes of action it is still hard to feel sympathetic with even one of the main characters. No storyline feels as if it really matters. The dialogue is dull, the acting stilted, the soundtrack soporific. It is boring and slow-moving a drama without any drama. Sorry. But it looks well.

We might develop some sympathy for the characters if we were allowed spend some time with them, but there are so many sub-plots and "issues" getting crammed in every week that characters keep appearing and disappearing, sometimes for entire episodes. For example Cora, Fergal's feisty daughter, is a key figure in the first episode and seems to have lots of dramatic potential she is hardly seen in the next two episodes. Michael O'Farrell and Helen King, the chairman's wife? Their affair is coyly introduced in episode one and it has only been touched upon in the four since.

These characters have strong possibilities but instead we get new storylines appearing out of the woodwork almost every week most of them very unconvincing. The third episode, for example, has Kildoran in danger of being thrown out of the championship because they might have fielded an illegal player. It is the main story in that episode but it has zero tension, it is lamely dramatised and is resolved with a facile twist at the end.

In the same episode we also discover that Fergal has a brother, Gerry, who happens to be an Irish soccer international, home on his holidays from England. But there's a bit of bad blood between them because Gerry didn't stay at home to play, as he calls it, "the sacred game." Ridiculous. As if any brother, or indeed GAA club, would somehow resent one of their own becoming a wealthy, international soccer star. It is a crude device, lacking any dramatic credibility, used to introduce a GAA antipathy to soccer which in reality doesn't exist at grassroots level at all.

But it does make you wonder if the people who conceived and wrote this series actually know much at all about the world they have tried to re-create. Every episode comes with dialogue and scenes which set your alarm bells ringing. For example, "Can I have a word?" We hear this line on a number of occasions from different people. It is soap-speak, not small town-speak. People who know each other for a lifetime don't go up to each other on the street and say, "Can I have a word?"

There was a line in the first episode which would have been funny if it wasn't so sad. Ruane and a teammate are in the local night club. They spot two chicks at another table. They eye them up: "Let's go over and tell them a bit about the club," says Ruane. What? Let's go over and tell them "a bit" about the club. Mmmmm. That would have got them the ride alright.

As for the on-field action, it's pretty unconvincing too. At the heart of the series is this team's quest for a county title, the holy grail. We get no sense of the obsession it is supposed to be among the players. The writers tell us it is an obsession but they don't show us.

And quite frankly, if this is how they kick the ball and pass it, they haven't a hope anyway. They are actors of course, not footballers, but surely some level of competence should have been required a bit of Method in their method, so to speak. Some of these actors look like they never kicked a ball in their lives before. We don't mind pretending, but it would help if the action sequences were choreographed with some degree of authenticity.

There is none of the crash-bang-wallop of championship football which would have energised this somnambulating series. None of the badness and madness and pure macho crack to be found in your average gah dressing room either.

"Sometimes they're just a bunch of thick young fellas," says Collins, played by a lost-looking Seán McGinley, in episode five. It's a decent line but there are far too few of them. One of the best comes in the first episode when Pádraig O'Farrell, a Kildoran legend, sits listening to an old commentary of O'Hehir's. "Listen to the way he says the names of the players," says O'Farrell, "making gods out of country lads." A poignant, evocative moment.

In the next episode O'Farrell recalls his late brother Eamonn, a small-town rebel in his day. Again, it has the ring of truth about it: "To hell with the Church, to hell with de Valera ... Eamonn hated the GAA and everything that it stood for." He wasn't alone, a lot of people grew up hating the GAA and everything that it stood for it was a truth worth reiterating.

But it was a small return on five hours of primetime television.