New Troubles film reflects importance of television drama

The filming of the forthcoming BBC drama ‘Five Minutes Of Heaven’ began in Belfast last month. Written by Guy Hibbert and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) the work will star local actors Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt. It purports to be a fictional tale based on the memories of the real events surrounding the murder of 20 year old Catholic James Griffen in 1975 by the UVF. The film is said to tell the story from the perspective of both the victim’s brother (Nesbitt) who as an 11 year old witnessed the murder and the gunman (Neeson), himself a teenager at the time. Patrick Spence, the current head of Drama for BBC Northern Ireland told the BBC NI website that ‘Northern Ireland is a society emerging from conflict. We wanted to develop and produce a single film, which, in a responsible way, marks part of that transition.’

While ‘Five Minutes Of Heaven’ may be regarded as an attempt to represent a Northern Irish society coming to terms with the legacy of the Troubles, it might also be said that it demonstrates a gradual acceptance that the conflict, which has informed day to day life in so many ways for the past 40 years, is now a topic which can be used as a reference point for a new and rich vessel of local television drama.

In recent decades there has been a rich pool of local writers and actors who have succeeded in having their work transmitted. For example Gary Mitchell’s excellent play ‘As The Beast Sleeps’ was shown by the BBC, and the classic ‘Billy Plays’ which starred a young Kenneth Brannagh lived on to become a trilogy after its first instalment initially aired as part of the excellent ‘Play For Today’ series. In both works the Troubles loomed large, inviting various narratives that are both unique to this country and applicable elsewhere.

In other parts of the UK screen writers have been unafraid to confront the negative aspects of their respective societies. Indeed some of the best English drama in recent years has relied on the issues that have characterised the changes experienced in that country; post-industrial decline, racism and the effects of Thatcherism flavoured excellent episodes of Jimmy McGovern’s work such as the dystopian ‘Cracker’ and more recently, the underrated ‘The Street’ where the simple pleasures of day to day life are staged against a backdrop of impending social and economic pressures.

Northern Ireland is coming out of the worst of its negative history, yet reservations about the recent past and the reality of a society that in parts is still very much divided and violent make for a combustible mix; similar in tempo if not context to the issues that have consumed McGovern’s imagination.

From initial reports ‘Five Minutes Of Heaven’ looks to be a promising addition to what has, throughout the UK in the past 35 years, been a uniquely regional brand of television drama. Yet it would be a mistake to close the book on Troubles-related drama thereafter. A cursory glance at Susan McKay’s latest offering, ‘Bear in Mind These Dead’ or the hefty ‘Lost Lives’ suggest that the past 40 years have produced many stories that demand to be told whether that be in private or – in the case of ‘Five Minutes Of Heaven’ – communicated to a wider audience through television drama. If classic British television drama has demonstrated anything throughout its rich history it is that ordinary people’s stories are compelling, and in the case of Northern Ireland’s quest for a lasting peace – valuable.

Source: Belfast News Letter, June 2008

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