Friday 18 January 2019

My pint in the Fair City local ...

For some it's just a TV show, but for others 'Fair City' is a realistic slice of Dublin life. Paul Melia spends a day as an extra in Dublin's most popular bar

It's 2.30 on a Tuesday afternoon and I'm sitting in McCoy's, a suburban pub like any other in Dublin city.

At the bar in front of me, Barry O'Hanlon - whom I've known for the last 15 years - is having a double whiskey despite the time of day, but poor old Barry has had a rough time of it lately and seems to be going through a nervous breakdown at the moment.

Behind the bar, tough-but-fair landlady Kay is telling teenage grandson Stephen that he can forget about going to a party on a school night, while pals Paul and Dermot are just having a quick pint before football training (as you do).

Behind me, Baz and Bullets are chatting quietly among themselves about the events of the day. A couple of months ago, they were involved in a drive-by shooting, which they have so far got away with.

An extraordinary clientele for an ordinary pub, you could say, but this is anything but your average local boozer.

For a start, the patrons' actions are being filmed and recorded, which makes you very careful about what you say, and every now and again a moustached man who I've never seen before starts complaining that what people are saying is "not in the script".

It's all very unreal. Although the pints taste real, the bar counter is very flimsy and seems to be made from plywood. There are no walls in this very unusual pub and you can see people working in the local coffee shop and bistro, despite the fact that they're separate businesses.

Far stranger and unusual things happen in this supposedly average Dublin suburb of Carrigstown than happen in most major cities.

And they happen to people known to 500,000 of us. During the course of the last 15 years locals have seen, among other things, drive-by shootings, beatings, murders committed by sane people and at the hands of psychotics, weddings, straight women almost marrying gay men, incestuous relationships and affairs too numerous to mention.

But why all the action in this supposedly average suburb? Because this is part of Dublin's Fair City, where not all the girls are pretty, and four nights a week one in eight of us sit down and let the vivid imaginations of RTE's scriptwriters entertain us.

Indeed, some of us take the whole thing so seriously that we're prone to throwing pints over hapless actors such as Tony Tormey, who's fictional character Paul just happened to kill his fictitious wife that imaginary week.

The death of Billy Meehan, the most evil man to step foot in McCoy's, was watched by a staggering one million people. That's one million people who stopped what they were doing to sit in front of the box and see what happened his character.

In fact, there's a number-one Fair City fan out there who regularly mails actors and staff at Ireland's most-watched soap to tell them what a good job they're doing. He includes helpful comments on plot, characters and developments that happen two hours a week on prime-time TV.

Like it, love it, or absolutely hate it as so many do, RTE - and the 500,000 people who regularly tune in - don't care. The station makes millions from the show every year from advertising and the soap has never been more popular.

The cast and crew of Fair City work six days a week to make the programme the most realistic interpretation possible of what happens in the real world. Last year, RTE spent almost ?6m producing it. This is a very big machine.

So what goes into making one of the most-watched television programmes in the country?

There are more than 100 actors contracted to the soap, with the most popular characters working around 20 weeks a year. Twenty scriptwriters work up to six months in advance preparing scripts, and episodes are shot six weeks before being aired.

The actors and director start work on Saturday with rehearsals, which also take place on Monday. Shooting starts on Tuesday, running through to Friday. It's a long, six-day week for the main characters.

"It's always a challenge," says actor Pat Nolan, who plays Barry. "You try to make it exciting for yourself. You could start at 7am and could be there until 7pm on a studio day, but then you could do the exteriors and that can go on until all hours, 12 or one o'clock in the morning.

"There's a whole scripting department upstairs, the coordination department, the producers, storyline and script editors trying to keep everything together and working weeks in advance. There's a whole other team that you don't see, about 30-40 people doing research on the storylines. It's quite a big machine."

The interiors are shot at Studios A and C on RTE's Montrose campus, a huge stage which houses all the businesses and houses where the action happens. Outside there's a street with a restaurant, pub, garage, shop, health centre and various businesses, the same kind of street that you'd see in any town or village in the country.

But this street isn't built to last, being made of plywood and MDF. If you approach the solid-looking houses and knock on the exterior wall, you get a hollow sound much like that you get when you hit a partition wall in a new house.

Cars drive up and down a street measuring no more than a couple of hundred metres long when outside filming is going on to add authenticity. But like the characters and storylines, it's just a facade.

Actor Tony Tormey, who has played Paul Brennan since the show began 15 years ago, says that despite today's hectic work schedule, when the show first started things were a lot harder.

"It's such a well-oiled machine now," he says. "At the start everything was new and the actors didn't know each other. You were given a biography of your character but you had to figure them out. I had never done film work before, we were on a learning curve.

"The first series aired in September, and we had done 16 episodes. We were shooting from 7am and everyone had to stay sometime between 10pm and 1am, and then you were up again to be back out here for 7am the following day. You get to know how the others work so it's second nature to you now."

But do the public realise that Tony Tormey the actor didn't really cheat on his wife and make his lover pregnant, before killing that lover in a car accident and stealing his best friend's girlfriend?

"People do mix up you with the character, basically because you're in people's living rooms every week. When my wife Helen died - I killed her in a car accident - I was getting pints thrown over me and everything, mostly by women."

And what about Pat Nolan? Given the solid and dependable nature of his character (prior to going off the rails), not too many pints get thrown in his direction.

"People call me Barry. Some actors get very pissed off with that but what do you expect when you're going into people's homes four nights a week?

"I'm big with grannies and old ladies," he laughs. "I think he [Barry] has that kind of 'quality', can we say, that old ladies like. I think up until this point he was safe, the type you wouldn't mind your daughter taking home but I think that's going to change.

"He's heading towards a breakdown, but there's other stuff along the way as well." Some 500,000 of us will watch with interest.

The real Carrigstown crowd

More than 100 actors are contracted to work on Fair City, with some on 15- or 20-week arrangements or "floaters", i.e. actors who work for RTE when they have no other commitments.

Actors can work 12-hour days when their character is central to proceedings, but the days can stretch longer if technical hitches or other problems occur. Each episode of Fair City is watched by up to 500,000 people, although this number falls slightly during the summer.

Up to 40 people in the form of producers, directors, administration staff, publicity, script editors, wardrobe, make-up and storyline editors get the show running smoothly, making sure that actors have their scripts and know when they're supposed to be on set.

Some 20 scriptwriters work up to six months in advance, and episodes are shot six weeks before being aired. Shooting takes place six days a week with no time for holidays.

The slow soap process

According to actors, filming for television is a much quicker process than working on feature films. Even so, they must spend most of their working days on the RTE set bored out of their minds because shooting Fair City is a slow process.

One scene - where Paul, Dermot and Paschal have a drink and, literally, a 30-second chat - needs six 'takes' before it's done. Why? An actor forgets his lines. The camera angle isn't right and must be fixed. When the camera's right an actor forgets the line again. Some other technical hitches occur.

During this time the actors have had six or seven swigs from their (real) pints. After a funeral, wedding, or some other long scene set in the pub, the cast must be sozzled going home.

Even so, within about 40 minutes there are two scenes 'in the can', which will probably amount to about one minute of screen time. At this rate, it's no wonder the cast and crew work a six-day week.

And it's a cluttered set. Between cameras, actors, sound technicians, stage hands and floor manager there's an awful lot of people lounging around in a very small space. And they're not all being quiet either.

At the beginning of the shoot I'm standing very still, taking care not to breathe too loudly, until I notice that behind the cameras the crew are sitting on chairs from McCoy's pub talking about the events of the day.

Behind them the sets for the bistro and café can be clearly seen. Although they look like the real thing on TV, they're very much part of a make-believe world when seen up close. But I wonder, if an actor was served a bad cup of coffee would they be entitled to send it back?

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section