Is Northern Ireland on the verge of a TV make-over?
A few years ago, before the Good Friday Agreement made Northern Ireland a ‘good news’ story, I was in a Reading bar with a Welsh friend and a few of his English neighbours. The evening had passed amiably and before we left for home I nipped off to the gents.
When I got back to my friend’s house he said he had something funny to tell me. Apparently when I’d gone to the toilet one of his English neighbours had asked him what I was so angry about.
‘Angry?’ said my friend, ‘He isn’t angry. What makes you think he’s angry?’
‘He sounds angry’, one replied.
‘Ohh’, my Welsh friend said, as it dawned on him why his English associates were so perplexed. ‘No, he’s not angry. He’s from Belfast.’
Once upon a time Belfast’s reputation went before it, so much so that even the sound of its native accent carried violent connotations. As the character Jake Jackson ruminates in Robert McLaim Wilson’s Eureka Street: ‘Under the circumstances Belfast is a pretty famous place. I mean, when you consider that it’s the under-populated capital of a minor province the world seems to know it pretty well. […] Belfast shares the status of the battlefield. Belfast is big because Belfast is bad.’
Times change. Reputations change. So it’s little wonder that the BBC in Northern Ireland has been advised by the Audience Council in its annual review to think again about how it depicts the ‘wee six’ in its dramatic output. This means paying less attention to the ‘troubles’ and their legacy, and making a greater effort to reflect the transformation of Northern Irish society.
To be fair to the BBC, it has registered the new Northern Ireland, albeit in subtle ways. Murphy’s Law and Silent Witness have both brought Northern Irish characters to the fore in the fight against crime on-screen, in the shape of undercover cop, Tommy Murphy (James Nesbitt) and forensic scientist, Sam Ryan (Amanda Burton). In both cases the protagonists are scared by events in their past associated with the conflict in Northern Ireland, but not since Bert Lynch (James Ellis), in the pre-Troubles Z-Cars, have Northern Irish actors played the role of law-enforces on mainstream UK TV.
Neither can BBC Northern Ireland be accused of playing safe or being parochial, if we exclude Ballykissangel, that is. It has been behind some quality TV drama such as the Messiah, a dark crime thriller, Occupation, which followed the lives of three soldiers in Iraq and after, and the forthcoming, Bring the House Down, a dramatisation of the MP’s expenses scandal. When BBC NI has turned it’s attention closer to home in films such as Holy Cross and Five Minutes of Heaven the results have been awarded and critically acclaimed.
The annual review, congratulates the BBC on its dramatic output. It says: ‘We have been pleased to see an increase in local commissions, including independent and in-house productions. there have been some wonderful examples of local productions of the very highest quality, such as Occupation, Five Minutes of Heaven and Panorama.’
However it does note: ‘Audiences expect a more up-to-date portrayal of Northern Ireland on the BBC’s UK-wide services, reflecting the huge changes in our society in recent years. we have noted how often people from different backgrounds and interests talk about an apparent preoccupation with political and security issues and the absence of a fuller picture of a modern and evolving Northern Ireland.’
I’m all for an ‘up-dated portrayal of Northern Ireland’ but the suggestion that we need less political drama on screen carries (just ever so slightly) the whiff of a middle class looking to put Northern Ireland’s ugly past behind it with indecent haste and rush into warm embrace of romantic-comedy. We’ve had a taste of this already with films such as the insubstantial and inane The Most Fertile Man in Ireland, Mad About Mambo and Everlasting Piece.
Let’s hope this isn’t the future of Northern Ireland on screen because at the moment we have some pretty interesting stories to tell as Northern Ireland emerges into the world of global capital… For instance, have you heard the one about the corrupt politician, the dodge property developer? I reckon there’s enough intrigue, venality and jobbery in Northern Ireland these days for a new series of The Wire.
With thanks to Phil for bringing this to my attention