'Television drama and the Troubles', by Lance Pettitt
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The following chapter has been contributed by the author Lance Pettitt, with the permission of Manchester University Press. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
The following extract is taken from the book:
This chapter is copyright Lance Pettitt (© 2000) and is included
on the CAIN site by permission of the author and the publishers. You may not edit, adapt,
or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use
without the express written permission of the author or the publisher, Manchester University Press. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.
From the back cover:
'A fascinating and wide-ranging study, full of thought-provoking insights, that will be essential reading far students of the media and Ireland.’
‘A model of comprehensive research and lucid writing, Screening Ireland divides a large mass of material into a clear set of historical, theoretical and disciplinary narratives and manages to keep these in balance throughout. This is no small achievement.’
‘This authoritative study provides a comprehensive history of the moving image in Ireland from the turn of the century to the present day. Screening Ireland will undoubtedly become a landmark reference book for all serious students of Irish film and broadcasting.’
‘Screening Ireland is a major contribution to both Irish Studies and Film Studies. Pettitt’s book provides a lucid narrative that is both original and comprehensive ... it will quickly become an essential tool for anybody interested in exploring the representation of Ireland on film and television.
Screening Ireland examines a century of screen representations of Ireland from a cultural studies perspective. Skilfully exploring historical and contemporary examples - from Irish Destiny to Father Ted - this book provides an innovative, theoretically informed analysis of both film and television that is comprehensively researched and clearly written.
The book succinctly synthesises current debates about Irish history and cultural criticism, as well as providing concise histories of cinema and television in Ireland. Screening Ireland offers a wide-ranging discussion of Hollywood, British, indigenous Irish and independent diaspora films and a selection of different TV genres. It argues that Ireland’s case exemplifies and complicates conventional models of national cinema, television history and postcolonial theories of culture.
Richly illustrated with over fifty images. Screening Ireland is a stimulating critical study aimed at students of Irish studies and film and cultural studies.
Lance Pettitt is Senior Lecturer in Irish Studies at St Mary’s College, Strawberry Hill. London and Co-Director of the Centre for Irish Studies.
Front cover: Korea (Cathal Black, 995). By kind permission.
Television is no subversive demon . . . [its] . . . function has been to reinforce the central value system of the society it serves and the dominant mode it has used has been primarily dramatic.
The TV news coverage of the civil rights march attacked by the RUC on s October 1968 was filmed by RTÉ and UTV camera teams. Overnight Northern Ireland became an international media story. News editors at the BBC opted to buy the RTÉ footage for that evening’s programme because it was ‘much more dramatic film’. Even for ostensibly factual programmes, the political conflict in Northern Ireland presented itself to broadcasters as requiring dramatic treatment. Since then, television drama departments have produced a considerable volume of material on the Troubles, creating a sub-genre whose significance has yet to be fully evaluated. The aims of this chapter are to make an argument for the significance of drama, to provide a concise history of Troubles drama production by the BBC and British independent companies, and to present selective analyses of the key productions in different formats ranging from the single play (both as adaptation and original screenplays), series drama and prime-time drama-documentary.
Much of this fictional exposition has, however, struggled in an institutional environment circumscribed by periodic direct censorship, restrictive codes of practice and a deeper cultural myopia. Unsurprisingly, television drama about Northern Ireland has tended to endorse the political status quo. On occasion the hegemonic views of political and cultural élites have been challenged, but effective interventions using drama from within influential cultural institutions such as the BBC have been intermittent, not an organised campaign by 'the Brits Out of Telly Centre’. Nor have individual programmes ‘glorified the IRA’ at the expense of the RUC. Nor has there been, as McIlroy has claimed, a ‘masked posture’ against the British presence in Northern Ireland.  However, the creative dissidence of many writers and directors tends to lead them away from received ideas and formal political ideologies, to the possibility of imagining situations and emotions beyond mere verisimilitude, historical fact or autobiographical experience. Many of the writers discussed in this chapter have offered qualified questioning if not radical revisions of their cultural inheritances and political ideologies. This chapter argues that in some cases TV drama has pre-empted political events of the future, allowed fresh insights into the past and displayed the capacity to make people interrogate received ideas. Moreover, drama can be a means where by 'you can vicariously live the lives of people that you wouldn’t normally expect to know or understand. That’s why drama is important - it’s a journey of the imagination'.
However, television drama is not made in a creative free space but is shaped by the economic, cultural and ideological forces within broadcasting’s institutions and routines of production that have developed historically. British television has been funded by a mixture of public money in the form of a licence fee and commercial investment, deeply imbued with a public service ethos that remains but is being forced to reinvent itself in circumstances over which it has lessening control. Since the neo-liberal economic changes of the 1980s, television has become more commercialised. In particular, the BBC operates in an international audio-visual market but remains a national institution. One of the cornerstones of public service television has been its avowed commitment to the cultural value of drama within a mixed schedule of programmes. However, national institutions like the BBC contain both conservative and progressive currents, which are reflected in tensions between programme-makers and managerial executives, and on another level between the institution and the state. Television drama is no less prone to such tensions. A residual, patrician strain conservatively argues for drama on TV, stressing the educative benefits of high cultural traditions that are brought to a large audience. Another broadly progressive current tends to see the role of TV drama - particularly in contemporary work - to challenge as well as entertain millions of viewers in their own homes. Within commercial television companies, the market-driven production of inoffensive, popular drama series compete with writing that seeks to engage broad audiences with controversial topics. A progressive view, epitomised by, for example, Granada TV, advocating both single drama and series/serials is set against a degree of conservative, institutional inertia and commercial imperatives, which work to absorb, incorporate and contain radical ideas and new ways of making drama. These tensions are particularly highlighted in TV drama related to Northern Ireland.
Aesthetically, TV drama has evolved from its origins in radio and influences from theatre to a much closer set of links with the medium of film and the institution of cinema. This has had consequences for the visual look or aesthetics of drama on television. TV drama from the 1950s and 1960s tended to be studio hound by cumbersome equipment, featured ponderous long-takes and was broadcast live. This tele-theatre retained the sense that it was a one-off theatrical performance on a small screen for quite some time after videotape became available for use in Britain in the late 1950s. The relatively new medium of television employed technical and creative personnel from radio and the theatre, in particular, bringing their habits and prejudices with them. But television also gave opportunities for rank beginners to experiment with and shape the medium. Studio scenes were sometimes mixed with telecine inserts of sequences shot on film but it was not until the 1970s that TV drama was being routinely shot on i6mm film, usually for prestige productions, such as the BBC ‘Play for Today’ series (1970-84), making full use of locations. The idea of an absolute distinction between television drama and cinema film was further complicated after 1982 with Channel Four’s pioneering ‘Film on Four’ initiative, which accelerated television’s involvement in financing, commissioning and showing film. The economic and political contexts for TV production altered during the 1980s and, in a decisive initiative to make the corporation a leading producer of films, the BBC appointed Mark Shivas as head of drama in 1988, indicating that 'there was indeed a period of revolutionary change in the two or three years around 1990’. Under legislation of that year, the BBC was forced to engage in commissioning programme material from sources outside the corporation. It set itself targets for programme production from the BBC’s regional centres and under the ethos of ‘Extending Choice’ (1993), changed its budgeting arrangements to create an internal market within the institution. One of the BBC’s most successful drama departments in the 1990s was that based in Northern Ireland under the leadership of Robert Cooper. In the relationship between British television and film, which has undergone a series of difficult negotiations since the 1960s, it maybe argued that ‘film opened out the televisual experience and that it rescued television drama from its theatrical influences.
At moments of extreme crisis, politicians resistant to change have questioned the BBC and ITV companies for making exploratory TV dramas about Northern Ireland. But a variety of counter-arguments have been set out over the years by television executives, producers and TV commentators about the importance of drama in television schedules. To some, the production of television drama from within Northern Ireland itself demonstrates that not all the forces in the province are destructive. Drama becomes ‘a way of representing the creative vitality of two communities [and this is] one way in which the BBC may play a constructive role in Northern Ireland’s divided society’ Others again, perhaps mindful of the censorship of news, current affairs and documentary programmes, are alert to the idea that fiction may potentially provide more engaging forms of television, arguing that ‘drama can paint a more accurate picture of the situation in Northern Ireland’. Drama is not required to be balanced or impartial like news and may engage a wider audience through its dramatic rather than documentary conventions to afford ‘imaginative insights into the complexity of the situation'. It would be a mistake, however, to believe that television drama is inherently challenging. Much of it may in fact reinforce received ways of seeing a situation and ‘defining "normality" - that most powerful of concepts in a frightened society’. The specific conditions at the heart of political difference and social conflict maybe dissolved or transformed into narratives and images that appeal to so-called universal, human qualities or individual character traits, especially when produced for audiences outside Northern Ireland in Britain, Ireland and international TV markets.
Traditionally, the credibility of TV drama has been underpinned by the idea that it allows individual authors to express their personal convictions, rather than in cinema, which tends to prioritise the creative influence of the film’s director. This privileging of the TV dramatist is due in part to the particular antecedents of television, the initial need felt in the 1950s and 1960s to justify television as a worthwhile medium by its attachment to the high cultural values of theatre. Whereas much of the non-fiction output of television is explicitly conditioned by guidelines and institutionalised discourse, drama is valued not only for its entertainment but its ability to ‘say the unsayable, think the unthinkable’, as Ann Devlin has put it. The BBC and commercial television alike have nurtured the idea of creative authorship in drama for commercial reasons but also importantly for cultural kudos. The BBC, Channel Four and some long-standing ITV companies actively court particular writers and commission innovative, controversial or new writing talent to prove their critical independence, demonstrate their role as cultural leaders in new ideas and maintain ratings or serve niche audiences. However, if a drama does challenge a consensual view, it is usually carefully tagged by pre-publicity and continuity announcements as personal; that is, distanced from the institution itself. There are, then, three different kinds of tensions at play in drama production. First, writers insist on their right to creative expression, facilitated and defended by commissioning editors, progressive directors and producers. But executive controllers, senior management and governors tend to be more conservative and cautious. Second, it is important to realise that the institutions - BBC, ITV and, since the early 1980s, other independent producers - exist in competition with each other to produce the most popular and critically-acclaimed drama. Third, these institutions are also in a dynamic relationship with governments, their ministers and authorities representing the state, such as the police and the armed forces. All these parties seek to manage the media representation of Northern Ireland through overt and covert means, and, while ‘the media operate within a set of constraints in which power is clearly skewed towards the state’, the state does not enjoy an absolute monopoly that is invincible to challenge, particularly if it is internally divided at moments of crisis. TV drama then, is intrinsically political, through each of the commissioning, writing, production, transmission and reception phases. The task of cultural analysis of television drama about Northern Ireland is to assess the extent to which particular productions confirm, revise or seriously challenge consensus views. This chapter argues that not only does the political history of the Troubles need drama, but that dramatic representation needs to be criticised politically. ‘What follows is a selective analysis of Troubles television drama, starting in the early 1960s, showing that significant fictional images predated the dramatic news actuality that hit the screens at the end of the decade. Basically chronological, this selection has been made to emphasise the point that a discernible line of drama exists, which represents the deeply problematic relations between loyalism and the British state, that goes to the heart of a postcolonial understanding of Northern Ireland. Indeed, it might now be argued that it is more important to find ways of exploring this relationship than that between the state and Irish republicanism. Secondly, we can define a series of plays which probe the nature, limits and potential of liberal democratic ideals in Britain and Northern Ireland. In the narratives of single plays and popular series (often in a thriller format) that are concerned with Northern Ireland, agents and institutions of the British state, such as the security forces and the judicial system, are exposed as corrupt or falling short of traditional ideals.
Some of the most significant images of Northern Ireland on British television, which pre-date the heavy news coverage of 1968-72, were provided by the drama of John D. Stewart and Sam Thompson. Both were brought up within Protestant communities but Stewart came to term himself an ‘independent socialist [and] ill-constructed Presbyterian humanist’, while Thompson was a shipyard socialist and Labour Party candidate in Belfast. In Stewart’s Danger, Men Working (1961) and Thompson’s Over the Bridge (1961) and Cemented with Love (1965), changes in industrial labour conditions and Ulster politics are clearly differentiated from other social-realist British drama of this kind in the 1960s. Both writers unequivocally expose sectarianism, Over the Bridge being a powerful indictment of the failure of labour politics against religious fundamentalism in a Belfast shipyard. But Stewart’s plays are equally percipient in their emphasis on the fractious relations between Britain and Northern Ireland’s unionist population. Set on a Belfast building site,ATV’s Danger, Men Working (1961),  dramatises the process of how British postwar modernisation affected Northern Ireland. The central conflict of the play is between Protestant building workers and a newly arrived English manager, Major Trumball, ‘a tough, go-getting managing director (the perfect Irishmen’s view of an English boss)’. The unsympathetic characterisation of Trumball can be read as symptomatic of the resistance in some quarters at attempts to apply welfare capitalism, to make Northern Ireland more like the rest of the United Kingdom. While the nationalist minority would focus on this as commitment to equal civil rights from the mid-1960s, popular Protestant reaction was to reject the old-style, patrician Unionist Party and take up a more populist, fundamentalist politics and paramilitary organisation, which involved both the reformation of the UVF in 1966 and Ian Paisley founding the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in 1971. In Boatman do not Tarry (1968), the tensions brought about by a reformist unionist government’s plans to develop Northern Ireland cause resentment and violent protest. Set on a fictional peninsular (actually shot in Bannfoot, County Armagh), John Corby’s ferry links an isolated rural communityto the larger world. In response to government plans to develop the area, he goes on strike, suppoRTÉd by the local community who are shown in a location-shot telecine sequence marching on Stormont’s government buildings. Corby’s claim for compensation eventually results in a fatuous title (‘Royal Boatman’) and a cash payment. To the metropolitan disdain of a reviewer in London, it seemed ‘an amateurish drama of parish-pump politics’, but the play’s contemporary parallels would have carried an important local political charge. Here was a playbroadcast on the ITV national network that portrayed the growing sense of dissatisfaction among grassroots unionists with their own leadership and interference from London. While many commentators have justifiably focused on the impact and significance of newsreel images of aggrieved civil rights marchers, three months earlier this drama had presaged events that would take place in the near future, including the suspension of Stormont and the imposition of Direct Rule in 1972 and the spread of popular reactionary organisation like the Ulster Workers’ Council, which brought the province to a standstill in 1974.
There was an institutional reluctance to address the issue of Northern Ireland during this period indicating a sense of war-weariness but also war-wariness. There were several instances of direct censorship intervention by executives under political pressure or a paranoid self-censorship of the kind discussed in chapter 10. Apart from occasional individual plays or episodes of series featured on commercial television in Britain, the bulk of the TV drama about Northern Ireland came from the BBC, particularly in the single drama strand called ‘Play for Today’ (1970-84). Even though the BBC’s output did not amount to much in the 1970s, it did provide a few opportunities for writers to address a national television audience on the topic of Northern Ireland, which to a TV news agenda by mid-decade ‘had become a routine story. Tragic certainly, but now somewhat boring.’ Two productions stand out: Colin Welland’s Your Man from Six Counties (1976) and Derek Mahon’s adaptation of the Jennifer Johnston novel, Shadows on Our Skin (1980). They were typical in that they focused on the impact that street violence, bombings and militarisation had on children in Northern Ireland. Both were shot on film rather than videotape but were different in that Welland’s screenplay featured a boy sent away over the border to the Republic to recover from the trauma of Belfast, whereas Mahon’s film captured the oppressive, grim and claustrophobic atmosphere of Derry city at the height of the street war between the IRA and the British Army in the early 1970s. Welland’s film was significant for its exploration of Irish nationalist attitudes south of the border, whose differences might have surprised some English viewers. While Shadows is essentially a humanist presentation of a young Catholic boy’s upbringing, it did strike a chord with a populist sentiment, supported in The Daily Mirror at that time, that the army should withdraw from Ireland.
Indeed, several plays in this period dealt with the predicament of British soldiers stationed in Northern Ireland. Unlike the political establishment’s endorsement of their role as peace-keepers and the public’s support for their welfare, writers drawn to this topic tended to be critical of the military presence and the security forces in general. A Belfast writer like W. J. Haire, a socialist keen to show the alternative possibilities, produced for the BBC Letter from a Soldier (1975). Writers of the British Left like Howard Brenton and David Leland produced one-off dramas such as The Paradise Run (1976) and Psy-Warriors (1981). The first examined despondency and desertion among the troops, while Leland’s play indicted the training techniques of the army anti-terrorist units. Brian Phelan wrote Article 5, which dealt uncompromisingly with the brutal interrogation techniques employed by the security forces on suspected terrorists, and, although produced, it has never been transmitted nor allowed to be viewed by researchers. Some anti-establishment feeling could be tolerantly absorbed and even in the mid-1980s a degree of freedom still remained for the individual, established writer or director on British television. Alan Clarke’s Contact (1985) was a gripping BBC film that featured the lives of soldiers on undercover night surveillance duties in rural south Armagh. As a production it is virtually without dialogue, its sound recording quality eerily heightens natural noises, there is little narrative direction and it features long sequences of soldiers’ point of view, sometimes through a green filter to imitate their infra-red night sights. Clarke’s dogged and dispassionate camera captures the alternating monotony and tension of patrols, its bleakness and beauty, and we often get the sense that the soldiers are being spied on too. The lasting impression of the film was a compelling insight into soldiers’ lives, their vulnerability and exhaustion and frustration and the platoon leader’s (Sean Chapman) disillusionment back at barracks is communicated with great economy.
By contrast Mike Leigh’s Four Days in July (1985), again made for the BBC, portrayed the parallel lives of two couples expecting their first babies in urban Belfast between the tenth and thirteenth of July. Leigh’s characteristically improvised rendition of two parallel lives in Belfast is full of meandering natural talk and several wonderful set-piece speeches and exchanges. Eugene (Des McAleer) and Colette (Brid Brennan) are the Catholic couple, while Billy (Charles Lawson) and Lorraine (Paula Hamilton) are Protestant. They seem to be materially a bit more well-off and Billy is a part-time soldier in the UDR, while the Catholic couple seem warmer together and are surrounded by supportive neighbours (including a cameo performance by Stephen Rea as Dixie). Critics have differed on whether or not Leigh’s film invites a viewer to favour the Catholic couple over the Protestant one, but we are meant to realise that despite some similarities in their ordinariness, there are a host of specific cultural and political differences between them. Leigh cuts back and forth between the couples as each day follows (signalled by date intertitles) and the understated domestic details accumulate, interspersed with conversations that define the profoundly different views of history, which each couple articulates. The onset of labour suggests a sense of the couples converging as they go to the non-sectarian institutional space of the hospital. But neither fathers in the waiting room nor mothers in the post-delivery ward meet on the common human ground of parenthood. In the concluding scene, an exchange of looks between the women accompanies their discussion of the babies’ names: ‘Billy, after his daddy’, Lorraine informs Colette; Lorraine herself has just learned that Colette’s baby is to be called Maireád, ‘coz Maireád is the Irish for Margaret'. Leigh switches at this point from the close-up reverse angles of conversation to a wide, two-shot at a distance in which mothers and babies are separated at the edges of the frame. Unlike much of the analgesic drama that stresses a common humanity at the expense of material, political differences, Leigh deliberately refuses any easy reconciliation in the final scene. Four Days in July presents us with ordinary people who rhetorically or actually support political violence; in Billy’s case the UDR on behalf of the state, and in the case of the Catholic community surrounding Eugene and Colette, the republican movement in opposition to the state.
In fact, most Troubles drama skirted round the representation of paramilitaries in all but a few productions during this period. Notably, the best attempts came from writers within Northern Ireland itself. Martin Dillon, journalist with the BBC who went on to write important studies of loyalist paramilitary activity, wrote a half-hour studio play, Squad (1976), significant as the first BBCNI television drama production in Belfast. Dillon’s tense play followed a paramilitary hit squad on the night of an operation, delineating the different personalities and motivations for their involvement. It was a subject close to the concerns of people’s everyday lives in Northern Ireland. Without the same budget, it anticipated Resurrection Man (1998) and was a brave opening for a station that went on to develop a prestigious fiction output over the following decades. Harry Barton’s Fire at Magilligan (1984) is significant in a post-hunger strike (1980-1981) context since it featured the sympathetic portrayal of a republican prisoner. It featured flashbacks of HM Magilligan Prison - a hut and barbed wire prison for paramilitaries in the 1970s - which showed prisoners (loyalist and republican) in free association, with status as political prisoners not criminals (a situation that changed after 1976). Inmates are seen watching television clips of Colditz (a popular drama series about a German World War II prisoner-of-war camp), which also analogously inferred the paramilitaries’ political status. Far from being a republican sympathiser, Barton was an ex-British navy officer of Ulster Protestant background, who was intent on articulating that undertow of dissidence that was to surface more forcibly in the decade after the Hillsborough Agreement.
By the mid-1980s two Northern Irish writers, Graham Reid and Stewart Parker, had begun, through their radio, stage and television work, to define the contours of a middle-ground of Troubles representations in drama. Graham Reid established his reputation with Billy: Three Plays for Television (1982-84), with a young Kenneth Branagh playing the lead role, supported by the stalwart James Ellis as his father, Norman Martin, and Bríd Brennan as Lorna, Billy’s long-suffering sister. Set in fictional Coolderry Street in loyalist Belfast, Reid’s script and the BBCNI treatment combined to produce a kind of working-class realism familiar to viewers in Britain. Accents aside, much of the specificity of Belfast was effaced, it ‘could equally have been located, with variations, in a working class ghetto anywhere in Britain’.  The plays are strong on delineating the generalised socioeconomic conditions that produce filial conflict, wife beating, male street violence and unemployment, but few links are made between character and the wider community or the political contexts of their environment. Given the prominence of republicanism following the Hunger Strikes, interest in and exploration of Ulster loyalism was not to the fore in the minds of viewers and critics in the early 1980s. But, by the mid-1980s, reviewers’ remarks about A Coming to Terms for Billy (1984) betray a discernible change in perceptions: ‘How authentic the production was to the street values of Protestant Belfast: how like the rest of Ireland the North really is’ Suddenly, Reid’s Belfast is not similar but different to the ‘mainland’. At the end of the trilogy, some kind of peaceful resolution has been achieved between Billy and his father. Norman and Mavis (his second wife) depart for her native Manchester in a taxi. In a final, slow crane shot looking down across the rooftops, Coolderry Street is filled with an Orange marching band ‘really banging out Derry’s Walls by this stage’ The camera lingers to frame an image of what amounts to a defiant emergence of a loyalist identity that was submersed in earlier episodes. The Hillsborough Agreement signed a year later angered loyalists who saw it as a deal done between London and Dublin, a sell-out to nationalism. Lorna (1987) focused on the future for Brid Brennan’s character, a young woman left behind in the old family home, eager for independence and change. She chooses to join the RUC and sell the house (it is unable to sustain change) much to the dismay of Billy and Norman. But her bid for a new start away from ‘home and the responsibilities that have imprisoned her’ is coloured by 'the sadness of the men that the house is abandoned’. Powerful memories and sense of irrevocable change closed this drama - beautifully conveyed by James Ellis’s voice-over during the credits - and it struck an emotional chord with an Ulster loyalist sense of abandonment post-Hillsborough.
Stewart Parker’s work is characterised by a humane openness to change and accommodation, the reinvention of inherited cultural histories, particularly those of his native Northern Ireland. His single most ambitious television project was a six-part thriller, Lost Belongings (1987), set in 1980 between Belfast and London, made for Euston Films and Channel Four. It was made with a considerable budget as a prime-time television film for the ITV network (with repeat broadcast on Channel Four). Lost Belongings featured two main plot lines suggested by the title. The first concerns Deirdre Connell’s (Catherine Brennan) past. A product of a mixed marriage she is orphaned and is brought up by her evil Uncle Connell (Harry Towb). Her family history - her lost belongings - repeats itself as she becomes emotionally involved with Niall Usher (Gerard O’Hare), a Catholic lad in a band struggling to make it. Alongside this love across the sectarian divide narrative, a more interesting line contrasts the lives of two boys, neighbours from Protestant Belfast, Craig Connell (Colum Convey) and Alec Ferguson (Oengus Macnamara), whose lives have diverged. Flashing back to the 1960s, Craig and Alec became involved in the UVF, but Alec is whisked away to a music academy in London before he is interned like Craig. Back in the present, Alec returns to Belfast to give a concert but is confronted by his memories. In Craig and Alec, Parker dramatises the conflicts within a loyalist history of Northern Ireland. Past loyalties -Alec’s ‘lost belongings’ - like the UVF tattoo on his arm, remain to trouble the returned migrant. Aiming this drama first and foremost at ‘my own people of Northern Ireland’, Parker intends the audience to understand his series as a modern reworking of 'Deirdre of the Sorrows’ and embrace the idea that Ulster’s (pre-Christian) past reveals a shared heritage, more complicated than contemporary political ideologies allow. In an assessment of Troubles drama on television, the representation of loyalist paramilitaries, evangelist churches and Orange Order meetings is important to Parker, who observes of previous drama that ‘not only do you not see Protestant paramilitaries and their ideologies but you only see the IRA in stereotyped versions'.  Relishing the popular medium, Parker’s television plays engaged in rewriting contemporary Ulster protestantism from a humanist standpoint inflected with the traces of a Christian ethos. The posthumous television production of Pentecost (1990), set in the unrest and mayhem of the 1974 UWC strike, epitomises this stance. The play’s message of personal redemption was carried in its dramatic intensity. Under more forensic analysis, the increased activity of loyalist paramilitaries in the early 1990s tended to indicate that Christian individuals would still a generation later tacitly support paramilitary groups in their midst.
Anne Devlin’s screen work provided a moderate nationalist and female perspective on Northern Ireland during the 1980s. In A Woman Calling (1984), The Long March (1984)  and Naming the Names (1987), the effects of childhood trauma, political upheavals and violence of the 1960s are explored in young female characters, but it is in the latter two plays that Devlin focuses more specifically on the problematic relations between women, nationalism and republicanism. ‘The Long March’ refers to a march from Belfast to Derry in January 1969 led by People’s Democracy, a radical socialist group, and others involved in civil rights activism. The violent clash between marchers and counter-protesting loyalists at Burntollet Bridge is etched into Helen Walsh’s (Marcella Riordan) childhood memory as a defining moment in her life. She has returned to Belfast from England, so the play’s title also refers to her own personal journey and development. She has to negotiate both her father’s (James Ellis) labour politics and the more militant views of the Molloy family in the West Belfast community about the moral ethics and political significance of the republican hunger strikes against which the play is set. Networked on the BBC, the play creditably attempted to dramatise the internal debates and differences within a broad Irish nationalist spectrum, which the one-dimensional media view of Northern Ireland in Britain often fails to recognise. For instance, one reviewer argued that The Long March was presented entirely from a republican point of view in a crass misinterpretation of Devlin’s work. Indeed, Devlin herself is adamant that as a dramatist she is ‘interested in individual, personal dramas and personal tragedies which maybe more important than the vast political tragedies going on around them’. The play ended in reconciliation between the Molloys and Walshes, and with false neatness as Father Oliver brings news of the hunger strike’s end. Devlin thus avoids the major issue of the second hunger strike in 1981, which brought the deaths of ten male strikers and was of lasting political significance to republicanism and feminist republicans in particular. Yet, in an interview for the Radio Times (London), Devlin explained that her play 'wasn’t a refusal to take sides. It was objectivity’. Two years later, commenting more generally about Northern Ireland in The Irish Independent, she claimed, ‘I find it impossible to take sides. It’s a tragedy for all sections of the community’. Far from being republican, such remarks outline the broadly apolitical, liberal stance, of a middle-ground female writer acceptable to the BBC.
Her Naming the Names (1987) tells of how Finn’s (Sylvestra Le Touzel) life is shaped by her experience of the Protestant pogrom of 1969, in which her granny died, and the subsequent arrival of the British troops. The narrative is structured through flashbacks or dream sequences during her interrogation by an RUC officer (Ian McElhinney). She has been arrested for her part in luring Henry Kirk (Michael Malone) to a park where he has been shot by the IRA. Henry, the son of a judge and from a unionist background, was studying Irish history at Oxford, and became sexually involved with Finn after visiting the book shop in which she worked. Repeat broadcast in 1989 to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the troops’ arrival in Northern Ireland, Naming the Names gave little credible motivation for Finn’s involvement with the IRA (except the fatherly influence of James Ellis’s character) nor did it clarify the historical role of the British army. Finn’s voice-over of a sequence showing soldiers setting out barbed wire in August 1969 is typically vague: ‘They were here. They will not go until it is over.’ Under interrogation in the present, Finn recites the street names of West Belfast, very possibly a trained response. As she does so she suffers a catatonic fit. Other sequences from her past sexual encounters hint that she is mentally unstable, that she is bitter towards men or revengeful over her granny’s death. Ambiguously freeze-framed in a spider’s web image at the end, Finn’s predicament seems to be that - although like a female spider that lured her male lover to his death - she herself is trapped by history’s web of male republicanism. Finn’s representation is open to being interpreted as a psycho-femme terrorist like Miranda Richardson’s Jude in The Crying Game; a representation which seeks to deny that ordinary women can be republican and remain rational.
Adaptations of fiction and drama by established fiction writers continued to attract drama resources in the BBC. Productions such as Maurice Leitch’s Chinese Whispers (1989), about an orderly in a mental hospital, provided a scenario in which the Troubles impinge on a world of institutionalised madness within a state that is itself unstable. Use of indirect parallels and understated observation is characteristic of William Trevor’s fiction, much of which he has adapted for the screen. Beyond the Pale (1989)  tells of an English middle-aged, middle-class foursome holidaying at a hotel in Northern Ireland. One of the group, Cynthia (Annette Crosbie), suffers a breakdown brought on by seeing the ghost of a young man who committed suicide for his co-religious lover. The production values enhanced the excellent ensemble acting that is a hallmark of British TV drama. Trevor, nevertheless, exposed the complacency of English attitudes to Ireland, even if in doing so, he reinforced other stereotypes about Irish character.
Loyalist anger at English ignorance, wilful or due to laziness, is the prime target of one of this decade’s most acerbic television dramas, Ron Hutchinson’s Rat in the Skull (1987)  made for Central TV. It is set in a London police cell during the interrogation of Roche (Colum Convey), an IRA suspect, by RUC detective Nelson (Brian Cox), under the supervision of P. C. Naylor (Gary Oldman) and his superior, Superintendent Harris (Philip Jackson). In a moment when they are alone, Nelson assaults Roche, fouling up the prosecution’s case and allowing Roche to go free. The heightened stage language, the studio-bound production, with plenty of long takes, big close-ups of faces and little incidental music lent itself to the claustrophobia inherent in the dramatic situation but also expressed the intimate hatred shared by opposing traditions within Northern Ireland. The play was structured through a series of flashbacks to Nelson’s interrogation observed by Naylor and the debriefing between Harris and Nelson. Harris needs to know why Nelson hit Roche for his incident report and as part of his ‘specialisation in Anti-Terror’. Nelson will only refute that it was ‘a straight brutality’, simply sectarian hate. It points up an English, colonial tendency to define problems within a limited framework. Naylor is a vulgar version of the more senior professional Harris. Nelson punctures the racist attitudes of English people and British institutions for failing to recognise the Irish as anything but ‘paddies of failing to differentiate Ulster protestants from nationalists and republicans. Moreover, Nelson observes that in loyalism the English ‘see the worst of yourselves in us. The Brit boiled down. The bollock-bare, the stripped and stinking. Not comfortable to live with, are we? The clockwork Orangemen, bobbing along behind our tribal banners, our ranting reverends, wa-hooing down the street, so damn confusingly loyal to you.’ Nelson’s attempt to get ‘behind Roche’s eyeballs like a rat in the skull, becomes a process of self-interrogation about his own father’s generation of ‘stick-up Orange men’ and, ultimately, the nature of loyalism that will define his future. Understood in this way, Rat in the Skull is a searching revision of loyalism’s core beliefs and attachments to British values and as such is a rare piece of TV drama. Over the last generation, the fabric of Britain’s postcolonial identity has come apart at the seams. Many of the symbolic threads of Britishness - such as its unwritten constitution, its legal and judicial systems - were seen to stretch and snap under strains the source of which lay in Northern Ireland.
Blind Justice (1988), conceived by Scottish barrister Helena Kennedy with dramatist Peter Flannery, was produced for the BBC out of the conviction that ‘the 1980s was not a decade we will come to associate either with justice in our courts or with outspokenness in television drama’ The series of six films was not a drama-documentary as such, more a faction, a creative conflation in dramatic terms of the recent past with reference to actual events and the process of justice in Britain, but with fictional figures and narrative. According to Helena Kennedy, ‘an Irish case had to be at the core of the series’ and episode three, ‘The One about the Irishman’, sought to address the issue that Irish suspects could not expect fair trial in British courts due to political pressure and racial prejudice. It starred Jack Shepherd as Prank Cartwright, a barrister who successfully acquits Eamon Hand (Colum Convey) of conspiracy to blow up the Cenotaph in Westminster while six other suspects are found guilty. Frank’s fellow law partner, James Bingham (Julian Wadham) unsuccess fully defends Ruari McFadden (Frank Grimes), a leading republican, but earns himself career points with a passionate speech about the nature of British justice. In a series of cleverly worked plot twists, it emerges that the crown prosecution’s case against Hand was rigged because he had offered to be a Police informer on the fringes of the IRA’s bombing of Brighton in 1984, but was turned down at the time. In conversation with Frank about his charges in the present case, Hand claims he had a deal with the police. He is supposed to withhold bogus information in order to get a lesser sentence, while actually providing real information to sink the others, but not disclosing this to his defence lawyer. Frank realises that Hand is being used by the police and MI5 (the British security service) and that, ultimately, he too is being used by the judicial system. In court, the prosecution deliberately spikes its own guns following collusion between MI5 and the office of the director of public prosecutions, in order to cover up the mistake of 1984 and the use of an informant in the present case. Frank muses how the state and its apparatus operates: ‘There are moments when you actually feel the monster roll its muscles underneath your feet; and you’ve suddenly been moved, you’re not standing where you thought you were’.
The episode ends with Hand contacting a newspaper to give them the real story, but he is shot in a pub toilet - by the IRA as an informant, or could it just possibly be MI5 anxious to silence any further revelations? The constraints imposed on independent thinking within the media in the 1980s, culminating in the Douglas Hurd legislation of 1988, had particular impact on investigative journalism but anxieties about litigation also affected the commissioning of dramatic work too. However, journalists’ projects began to find their way into dramatised productions as a means of circumventing full-on censorship and further changes to broadcasting guidelines. For example, in the IBA’s Television Guidelines (April 1985), paragraph 6.2, it is made clear that ‘the due impartiality required of a play by an independent dramatist is not identical to that required of a current affairs programme'. But under the Broadcasting Act (1990), the new ITC’s Guidelines were significantly altered so that ‘dramatised documentary which lays claim to be a factual reconstruction of a controversial event covered by the Act is bound by the same standards of fairness and impartiality as those that apply to factual programmes in general’.  It was in such increasingly constrictive conditions that film-makers attempted to use drama-doc to create space to imagine alternatives. Their aim was to question authorised versions of the recent past and attack state authorities in whose name injustices were carried out.
1990 stands out as a vintage year in drama-documentary, the hybrid genre which, although it is based on journalistic research, documentation and evidence like a documentary, uses the aesthetic and dramatic codes of fiction film to mediate the real world to which it specifically refers. There were no less than three films that dealt with the cases of innocent people charged by the state and wrongly convicted for crimes they did not commit. In March, Who Bombed Birmingham?  (Granada TV) brought the appeal cases of the Birmingham Six to the attention of huge television audiences. A pre-broadcast furore in parliament saw Conservative ministers faced with awkward questions and Prime Minister Thatcher assert: ‘A television programme alters nothing. We do not have trial by television here'.  Mary Holland, an experienced newspaper commentator on Irish affairs, insisted that ‘it is vital for all of us that this kind of expensive, irritating journalism continues’ since it overcame the switch-off reaction produced by current affairs programming about Northern Ireland.
This was proved in June with Shoot To Kill (Yorkshire TV), which portrayed the investigation of the RUC’s counter-terrorist activities and MI5 involvement in Northern Ireland during the early 1980s. This investigation was carried out by a Manchester-based chief constable, John Stalker, whose extensive report was never finally published since he was removed from the case. Documentary film-maker Peter Kosminsky commissioned screenwriter Mick Eaton to produce a two-part, £1.5 million thriller because he encountered difficulties obtaining the interview and film evidence usual in the investigative research for a straight documentary. The result was compelling: four hours of prime time fiction broadcast over two consecutive evenings. It was introduced as a drama documentary, the action was date captioned 1982 and characters bore the names of real figures, but it used the full repertoire of TV drama conventions, visual cues and incidental music score to convey the covert war of surveillance, the paranoid foreboding and suspense surrounding Stalker’s investigation team. Having played a similar role in Blind Justice, the casting of Shepherd was perfect as the plain-speaking Yorkshire policeman, John Stalker, doggedly applying his objective English policing ethics in the face of Sir John Hermon’s (T. P. McKenna) dour obstructionism. The film indicted a special anti-terrorist unit within the RUC for unlawfully killing six unarmed terrorist suspects, the RUC’s fabrication of evidence and perpetrating a cover up in the subsequent inquiry. Stalker’s investigation was itself spiked because he came close to revealing that operations in Ulster were authorised by MI5 and senior members of the British government. UTV refused to screen the programme in Northern Ireland on legal advice, owing to the sensitivities of the security forces and families affected. The broadcast was attacked in advance by John Hermon himself and in a post-transmission discussion programme on the issues raised. Ian Gow, for the government, and Unionist David Trimble claimed the film was inaccurate and misleading to viewers; an example of how ohjections to content and viewpoint in drama-documentary are often ‘strategically displaced into
objections about the unacceptability of the form itself’.’ But Kosminsky, Seamus Mallon and Amnesty International defended the veracity of the research, stressing the importance for democracy of questioning decisions made by authorities purportedly in the national interest. A memorable year in television drama-doc production ended with a co-production called The Treaty (Thames/RTÉ). This was a kind of television film forerunner to Michael Collins, which marked the seventieth anniversary of the treaty that ended the Anglo-Irish war in 1921. Based on a meticulously researched and documented script by Brian Phelan, it represented an important intervention in the political context of the early 1990s. Although historical, this dramatisation of the past ghosted the secret negotiations between Sinn Féin and the British government that were taking place during the production of The Treaty.
The BBC continued to commission work that shaped the Troubles within a tragic template, usually in a thriller format, like the series, Children of the North (1991). It also produced a rare sitcom series, Albino Productions’ So You Think You’ve Got Troubles? (1991), in which a London Jew (Warren Mitchell) is transferred by his company to manage the take-over of a tobacco manufacturer in Belfast. Breed of Heroes (1994) told the story of a group of young British army officers on a tour of duty in Belfast in 1971, but only rehearsed the well-worn idea that the army were reluctantly sent to keep apart what liberal journalism was still calling ‘the two white tribes of Ulster' over two decades later.
Proving again the worth of work from within Northern Ireland itself, Bill Morrison and Chris Ryder’s Force of Duty (1992) was carefully produced by BBCNI under Robert Cooper. Although based on Ryder’s journalistic research, it was a conventional drama that focused on the pressurised lives of RUC officers. Simpson Gabby (Donal McCann) is a middle-aged, married police detective with a good service record, who ends up committing suicide following the assassination of his detective colleague, Billy (Adrian Dunbar). Badly traumatised and guilt-ridden, Gabby becomes emotionally detached from his loving family, finds little solace in drink and the pious invitations to prayer from his boss. Although early in the film he has resisted the pressure of Orange Order marchers within his own community to move outside the law, the generic requirements of the police genre do show Gabby pushed to the brink in his desire to see justice done after Billy’s funeral. The play captured the paranoia within the ranks of the RUC. One uniformed officer even comments, ‘We know what they’ve done and we can do nothing about it. Well, there are men who will do the job’. He has leaked photos of IRA suspects to loyalist paramilitaries, which Gabby condemns with the classic liberal defence against extra-legal action: ‘You can’t take the Law into your own hands, or there is no Law’. Often viewed in long-shot from a hidden camera (under surveillance by the enemy?), Gabby and Billy are observed going about their thankless duty engaging in a grimly humorous repartee. Gabby’s expression is reduced to taciturn ‘ayes’ and the music score signifies aurally the tragic inevitability of Gabby’s suicide. While Brian McIlroy has praised the script as one that actually gives voice to members of the RUC and humanises them, this is to miss the point that, however accurately represented, the film dramatised Gabby’s destruction as a personal response to his job; the force of duty broke him. It did not explore the idea of institutional failure, where a consensual society does not exist to be policed in an ordinary way. The limitations of British law enforcement traditions in Ulster were exposed in Morrison’s screenplay, but this film was more significant for its portending portrayal of RUC and grassroots Orange protesters clashing, one of whom asks Gabby to his face: ‘What kind of Protestant are you?’ Here, drama pre-empted the test of loyalty that became known as the ‘spirit of Drumcree' after 1995 as Ulster loyalism reinvented its fundamentalism in the middle of the peace process.
The key factors in furthering the peace process in Northern Ireland have been the paramilitary ceasefires, and the issues of prisoner release and decommissioning of arms. Ronan Bennett’s intensely involved thriller, Love Lies Bleeding (1993), about Conn (Mark Rylance), a Republican prisoner out on twenty-four hour home leave, anticipated some of these developments. While trying to find the killers of his girlfriend, he becomes embroiled in an internal battle for power within the IRA. Fellow prisoner Thomas (Brendan Gleeson) has been instrumental in the pro ceasefire campaign, opposed on the outside by the hard-line Armagh faction led by Ruairi (Bosco Hogan). The film ends in bloody carnage as Gleeson’s men slaughter the hard-liners allowing Sinn Féin to enter political negotiations with the British government. Formally, Love Lies Bleeding adhered to the generic conventions of the TV film thriller, but in fictionalising a ceasefire it did offer an alternative position, anticipated that republican politics could be engaged in negotiations and presaged the ceasefire that was declared in August 1994.
In a typically sombre fashion, Graham Reid’s Life after Life (1995) showed further ramifications, portraying the problems of a republican prisoner (Lorcan Cranitch) trying to acclimatise to life after long-term imprisonment. He finds out that family, former lover and republican politics have all moved on and that the lasting significance of his heroic sacrifice is questioned by those around him. In The Precious Blood (1996), Reid takes a similar theme with Billy McVea (Kevin McNally), a Protestant paramilitary turned evangelist preacher in East Belfast, living his faith empowered by the ‘Power of the Blood’. McVea’s religious conversion took place while serving a sentence for the killing of Paul Willis, a small-time UVF man, allegedly an informer. McVea now runs a local boxing club but by fateful coincidence becomes a surrogate father and trainer to John Willis
(Michael Legge), the teenage son of the man he shot, and befriends the widowed Rosie Willis (Amanda Burton). When Rosie finds out about her former husband’s unknown UVF connections from the RUC and tells John, the boy reacts badly. He is stoned in a street incident and critically injured. At the hospital bedside, McVea confesses his crime to Rosie, and the closing shot is of McVea entering an RUC station, suggesting that he is going to give himself up.
Drama since the late 1960s has not only reflected the political shifts in Northern Ireland, but it has in certain instances explored some of the deepest fears of those embroiled in conflict. The political, security and legal apparatus of the British establishment has been most effectively critiqued at different junctures in the drama-documentary format. There has been a line of drama that has interrogated the problematic relationship of unionism within Anglo-Irish politics and the increasingly attenuated sense of Ulster loyalism. Little drama exists to explain how and why many ‘ordinary’ people would join or support - even passively - paramilitary organisations involved in killings and punishment beatings. This limitation is only of television’s making in the sense that its restricted range is an historical index of British political and cultural shortcomings. While most drama has followed the terrain of the Troubles, marking out a representational middle-ground, in a few cases drama has challenged viewers’ minds by imagining events that could not be countenanced by factual television. Fictional representations, therefore, have played a major role in the maintenance and reshaping of perceptions about the Troubles and to this extent they have performed a political function.
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within the University of Ulster.
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