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Is Northern Ireland on the verge of a TV make-over?

July 10, 2010

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

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 10, 2010 1:39 pm

    Nice one Rab. I was just thinking there might be an opportunity for us here. As you might have seen from my recent post, Job Cuts and Universities (10 July), I’m feeling a bit job insecure in this current climate, so maybe we could get together and pitch a few programme ideas to the Beeb? I have a few in mind already:

    “Hunting Hugo”: A reality TV show in which five contestants compete to hunt down Hugo Duncan and bring him back dead or alive. The contestants will, of course, be encouraged to forget all that traditional Northern Ireland politeness and get in touch with their inner savage. They’d need to: Hugo’s fans are ferocious and will protect him to the death. “A frightening insight into the new and emerging modern Northern Ireland” (Belfast Telegraph).

    “Being Christine”: A one-off, 90 minute TV film about Dimphna, a go-getting but neurotic young media studies graduate from Hollywood, County Down, whose burning ambition is to be a TV star like Christine Bleakley. However, as she lands a job reading the traffic news on community radio and becomes a local WAG (girlfriend of Robbie, a centre forward for Hollywood Celtic), Dimphna is gripped with the feeling that life isn’t being fair to her, transforms herself into a Christine double and stalks her celebrity hero. “A frightening insight into the new and emerging modern Northern Ireland” (Belfast Telegraph).

    News From Your Wee Place: A new concept in local news, this programme would serve as an antidote to the Belfast-centred, politics-dominated agendas of BBC Newsline and UTV Live. It would go out once a week and feature stories from the “super-local “(the commissioning editors love that kind of hyperbole) such as ploughing events, neighbourhood gossip, wheelie bin protests and of course the beating heart of any super-local news programme, a story about an animal such as Molly the Friesian heifer (black and white cows are always a favourite) who embarks on IVF treatment and delights everyone with twins. “A frightening insight into the new and emerging modern Northern Ireland” (Belfast Telegraph).

    So what do you think, comrade? You got any ideas to pitch? Don’t let me do all the work here.

  2. July 11, 2010 7:55 am

    But isn’t Northern Irish politics where the makers of Big Brother got the idea from in the first place? I mean, everyone smiles at each other in public and then goes into a private room to bitch about each other and vote on who to chuck out of the house?

    • July 11, 2010 11:57 am

      There’s that, too, Charlie. Of course there is an element of political stupidity here. Voters elect the same politicians election after election yet constantly slag them off for not doing the job they were elected for. Strangely, all logic and awareness evaporates within the claustrophobic confines of the polling booth. There’s a zombie movie in that for sure.

  3. bertmart permalink
    September 29, 2010 11:25 pm

    Not having blogged much recently, I don’t get your updates on blogroll, but do you post updates on Twitter?

    Quite miss the sardonic take on academia and all that

  4. October 1, 2010 3:34 pm

    Hi Bert,
    Good to hear from you. You’ve been missed.

    I don’t twitter. Actually, you may have noticed that even the bloging is a bit thin on the ground at the moment. But I’ll be back once work settles down.


  1. The Trouble With “The Trouble With Northern Ireland” (BBC NI) « Academic Anonymous

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