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How Belfast was made to look ‘safe’ and then it disappeared completely

February 29, 2012

So now we know. In July 2010 the BBC in Northern Ireland was advised by the Audience Council that:

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.

Nobody is going to argue with an up-to-date portrait of Northern Ireland but I said at the time, ‘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.’

At Water’s Edge

Last Sunday night (26 February 2012)  brought At Water’s Edge, the story of Beth and Jack’s search for a child, which leads them to try IVF treatment. But it turns out that Jack already has a daughter that he has concealed from his wife for years. The child and his infidelity come to light when the two of them survive a car crash in which the mother is killed. Beth is left to deal with the betrayal. In the end she walks out on Jack, rather triumphantly, accompanied by the soaring sounds of Sior Ros, who provide an emotional cue for the audience, who otherwise might have been unmoved by a fairly banal domestic drama.

At Water’s Edge was filmed either in the interiors of what estate agents refer to as ‘well-appointed residences’, or along the attractive North Down shoreline, which made it all look rather… English, which will no doubt delight the denizens for Bangor, Cultra and Holywood, who’ve never cared much for living in Northern Ireland and prove it each election by stubbornly electing maverick unionist MPs.

The other new local drama, 6 Degrees, is nominally set in Belfast. Change the accents and it could be anywhere. Broadcast on Tuesday night (28 February 2012) this is a new six part series about a group of students. It is so lacking in ‘local colour’ I’m surprised the Northern Ireland Tourist Board haven’t lodged a complaint.

The blurb on the Northern Ireland Screen website about the series made my heart sink into my boots.

In a city with no limits, they’re breaking away from everything they’ve known and are here to make their mark. Hearts will be broken, friendships made and trust betrayed, but within all the madness and mistakes, our students are learning the invaluable life lessons that books just can’t teach.

…which is just as well, since the students of my acquaintance read very little anyway. I’m just glad they’re learning something, somewhere, somehow…

The good news for the BBC is that it seems to be well on its way to fulfilling the Audience Council’s recommendations. It has succeeded in making Northern Ireland determinedly normal looking. However, both these dramas come in the wake of the BBC’s re-screening of the Billy plays and, to be frank, they pale in comparison.

The Billy plays

For anyone who doesn’t know, the Billy plays were a series of three, written by Belfast screenwriter Graham Reid and broadcast in the early 1980s. They follow the progress of young Billy Martin as he tries to come to terms with adulthood. But unlike At Water’s Edge and 6 Degrees, the Billy plays were never coy about their rootedness in a specific place – working class, Protestant, Belfast.

What Reid does wonderfully with his script is to take a story that could have been told in Nottingham (Saturday Night, Sunday Morning) or New York (Mean Streets) and locate it very definitely in Belfast, making the city at once knowable and comprehensible to outsiders without having to strip it of its history.

If an ‘up-to-date’ portrayal of Northern Ireland means divesting the place of its past and cultural context then you have to ask why bother making anything here at all. In fact, it might be really interesting to set a drama in a fictional city, with multifarious regional accents, and shoot it in five or six different cities that are then passed off as the same place. Most cities all look the same anyway, with their cultural quarters, retail parks and riverside developments etc. All you need to do is remove the stain of human history and politics and presto! …

In essence, that’s what 6 Degrees does. It studiously avoids shots of Belfast from the top of Cave Hill. Such imagery is too closely associated with the old Troubles dramas. Instead, the establishing shot is of a car stopped at traffic lights! Inside is Jess, newly arrived from England, offering her mother a casual assurance on the mobile phone that the city looks ‘safe’. We get a brief glimpse of the Harland and Wolff cranes in the background at one point, but otherwise the mise-en-scene largely consists of anonymous, neon-lit bars, their toilets, cramped halls of residence, dowdy student rooms, and streets that look like they’ve been shot to avoid revealing any distinguishing features.

Only once does the environment distract from what seems like a fairly open and uninterrupted invitation by the producers to contemplate the Hollyoaks-good looks of the cast. This is when Danny lights up a fun-fair ride for Jess and the spinning, illuminated arms offer brief respite (and freedom) from the otherwise visually mundane world the students inhabit. The relief seems palpable in the elation Jess displays on the ride, like she’s momentarily escaped Nowheresville. Whatever the promo materials say this is less a ‘city that knows no limits’ than a drama that knows no city…

Jess says that she has come to Belfast to get away from her parents. Local boy Danny laments that Belfast is the sort of city where ‘you’re never that far away from someone who knows the person you’re trying not to be’. Both seem to want to escape their pasts and their roots. Serendipitously, so does Belfast.

Maybe as the series goes on the producers will pull the camera far enough back to give a glimpse of Belfast. Maybe the sectarian geography or the joblessness or the myriad of other social problems, all too evident in the real city, will play a part in the story at some future date. But for now the producers seem determined that nothing should frighten the audience or distract from the carefully constructed ordinariness of the story. Still, its a strange thing when storytellers aspire to produce tales that are routine and workaday.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Sue permalink
    February 29, 2012 10:00 pm

    I love the simplicity of this drama. It is to be commended for not being politically motivated. There are many facets to this country but not much of the ordinary life is reflected in media and culture. This is the reality for many people who live there. straight forward day to day student life which is not tarnished by politics. This reflects that people from Ni are the same as everywhere else. Well done!

  2. Rab permalink*
    March 1, 2012 9:56 am

    Welcome Sue,
    And many thanks for your comment. It got me thinking: student life is profoundly influenced by politics and in my experience there is little that is straightforward about it. At the moment the big political issue is fees. Because of the costs of going to university these days many students work long hours on low wages. As a consequence many miss classes or their studies suffer because they’re often too exhausted. I see this regularly. Also many students, to save money, live at home and sometimes commute long distances to university, which also has an impact upon their attendance. This is the mundane background noise to the lives of many young people in higher education. It is, so far, completely absent from 6 Degrees. But that’s OK because it probably wouldn’t make a very interesting drama anyway.

    The best dramas about Northern Ireland have never run scared of their location. I’ve mentioned the Billy Plays above but there’s also Eureka Street, which satirised the entrepreneurial pretensions of the new Northern Ireland while simultaneously exploring universal themes of love and redemption. As the Beast Sleeps, looked at the cost of the peace process to those who had once profited from the conflict. Its social realism allowed it to engage with the politics of working class loyalism in a way that few other dramas had previously. The documentary dramas about Bloody Sunday and Omagh, were not just about historical events in Northern Ireland, they engaged with broader issues of truth and justice that effect people everywhere.

    I just don’t think that good drama can be based on denial – the denial of history, politics or place – because, ultimately, isn’t it from history, politics and place that the most engaging characters and stories emerge?

  3. John permalink
    March 1, 2012 4:17 pm

    You’ve hit the nail on the head so succinctly with 6 Degrees, the show is an abysmal appraisal of modern Belfast (unrelentingly boring), modern university education (as in it actually happens) and the whitewashing of successive alcoholic generations (by dressing it in sex and momentary lapses into morality). I’m really depressed that things like this take hold where our literary and journalistic fields, as well as much of the entire UK’s artistic realms, are slowly eroded by economisation. The fact is, the pretty faces in this show will make the BBC more money than an adequate dramatisation of Belfast or student life ever would have. How about the struggle with abstraction, or the direction of concentration in academic fields? Or the mostly great, but always light-hearted and humourous competition between the faculties? These are subjects of a far greater interest to me dramatically than anything I’ve seen depicted… Probably because the actors themselves could never truly emulate the minds engaged in such.

  4. Rab permalink*
    March 1, 2012 6:45 pm

    Thanks for the comment, John.
    I’ve been thinking further about 6 Degrees and I see it as a cross between The Young Ones and Friends, only without the jokes. Maybe it’ll grow on me, but with its Facebook page and Twitter account this looks like drama by numbers – identify your niche market and produce something that ‘caters’ for them.

  5. March 1, 2012 6:57 pm

    Eureka Street and the first Billy play were brilliant, can’t say I was as enthralled by the 2nd and 3rd of the Billy plays. Good Norn Iron drama seems to me to need to be a but bonkers, which Eureka Street certainly was, in order to really convey how the political situation gets into people’s bones.

  6. March 1, 2012 6:57 pm

    That’s ‘a bit bonkers’….

  7. Rab permalink*
    March 2, 2012 7:14 pm

    Hi Jenny,
    Eureka Street was really interesting. Based on a great book. Well directed – I loved the way it made Belfast look a bit skew-whiff. Surprised that nobody has ever adapted a Glen Paterson book for the screen…

  8. March 2, 2012 7:25 pm

    Yeah! The International!

  9. March 4, 2012 7:38 pm

    Rab – Audience Council is recruiting new members at present. You should think seriously about applying! Alan

  10. Rab permalink*
    March 5, 2012 8:04 am

    I will, Alan. Many thanks for link and heads up…

  11. March 5, 2012 10:57 am

    I haven’t been able to bring myself to look at 6 Degrees but it’s not the first time that the BBC has made a drama series about student life in Belfast (specifically QUB). I’m referring to Seacht – or Seven – about, guess what, the lives and loves of seven students at QUB but as Gaelige with subtitles. So it looks like some original mind at BBC NI Drama thought it would be a grand idea to make an English language version but with one less student. Rab has mentioned how the series has obviously been made for a niche market, linked to a student audience via social media. But I wonder if students are actually watching it in the kind of numbers needed to rate the series a success? From what I know of students and their attitudes to TV, I suspect not but we await the ratings with interest.

  12. Rab permalink*
    March 6, 2012 9:05 am

    Hi AA,
    I suspect that the audience will be 14-17 year olds. I seem to remember loving Grange Hill just before I went to secondary school. So it is with 6 Degrees, I suspect its niche is looking forward to university.

  13. Mike permalink
    September 18, 2012 10:54 pm

    “Probably because the actors themselves could never truly emulate the minds engaged in such.”
    How can you make such a statement? Do you know the actors personally? Wind your neck in.

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