Archive for bbc

Documentary adds to political unease

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

The recent local television documentary about the IRA’s 1983 Maze prison breakout was ill-timed. At a juncture when suspicion still exists between the two overarching political communities in Northern Ireland, a programme celebrating the escapades of a group of terrorists seemed glibly out of touch with the current sense of unease. Indeed the surreal sight of Gerry Kelly reminiscing about shouting orders at prison officials put one in mind of a piece of Sinn Fein propaganda that might usually be sold in one of the party’s constituency offices or gift shops, but not broadcast to the general public. While these stories, as part of a Troubles history, are interesting it is the fashion in which this particular one was told that could spread yet more negativity through one half of the community in particular.

The tone of the interviewees ensured that the programme was as controversial as its title suggested – for instead of recalling events that occurred during some of Northern Ireland’s darkest years in a manner befitting such an era the jolly tone, almost Dan Dare-like, throughout much of the documentary was a stark juxtaposition to a recent book by the journalist Susan McKay in which she allowed victims of paramilitary violence to recount in grim detail their horrendous experiences. Not so in this programme, where the IRA-related crimes were airbrushed out and the violence which occurred during the prisoners’ breakout was mentioned almost as an afterthought despite a prison official losing his life.

It almost seems as though a certain slot on Monday evenings is being filled with controversial Troubles-related programme making for the sake of it, without considering the effects of such programmes on the wider public’s opinions regarding the peace process. Indeed a subsequent documentary on Marie Jones’s play ‘A Night in November’ is sure to have made people incandescent. Jones appears in the advertisement suggesting that on that night in November 1993 at Windsor Park the sectarianism of Northern Ireland football supporters had reached an epoch. Again it must be questioned what the benefits are of rerunning this play and the accompanying documentary at a time when Northern Ireland’s fans have been officially recognised as among the greatest in Europe.

Now is perhaps not the best time for such partisan programming. If anything a ‘shared vision’ should be encouraged by celebrating the positives of Belfast and Northern Ireland both historically and in the present.

Source: Belfast News Letter, September 2008

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New Troubles film reflects importance of television drama

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

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

Just Another Saturday in the City?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

With little or no fanfare the BBC recently gave permission for a series of critically acclaimed but rarely seen instalments of its much lauded ‘Play For Today’ series to be released on DVD. For those of us under a certain age who have relied on any means possible to view many of these classic television dramas, the opportunity to finally get to see lovingly restored screen adaptations of Glaswegian playwright Peter McDougall’s excellent ‘Just Another Saturday’ (1975) and ‘Just A Boy’s Game’ (1979) is a real treat. In its golden age ‘Play For Today’ was an important base for exciting and dynamic social commentary which tackled many controversial issues throughout the 1970s and early 1980s; one of the most high profile examples being the original adaptation for the BBC of Alan Clarke’s ‘Scum’ (1977) with its scathing indictment of the borstal system. Given last year’s suggestion by Peter Hain that there should be an increase in local television drama in Northern Ireland, the release of Peter McDougall’s ‘Play For Today’ collection on a modern format should provide an encouraging template for any aspiring local dramatists and directors who feel that they can provide a reflection of contemporary Northern Irish society. Although McDougall’s work is based in a different era, its situation on Scotland’s west coast means that it has a deep emotional and cultural resonance for a modern Belfast which, as has been demonstrated by Peter Shirlow and Brendan Murtagh in their recent work ‘Belfast – Segregation, Violence and the City’ is still very much a divided city. Therefore underneath the blithe depiction of non-strife that has been projected by ‘The Hole in the Wall Gang’ and others there is a bleaker side to our society and one that perhaps needs to be transmitted into the wider public’s consciousness, and what better medium than local televisual drama?

McDougall’s work, directed by John Mackenzie for television is filmed in a grainy documentary style – in part due to its shoe-string budget. It is often impossible for an engaged viewer to distinguish drama from reality and that style is what gives it much of its power on the small screen. Among these recent DVD releases the most high profile and perhaps most pertinent for Northern Irish viewers would have to be ‘Just Another Saturday’, supposedly originally written by McDougall at the behest of ‘Z Cars’ star Colin Welland whose London house he happened to be painting. Inspiringly McDougall had apparently never read a book, never mind written a drama script yet he was able to draw on his real-life experiences; those of working in the shipyards and being a drum major in the Orange parades in Glasgow (an activity which is shared by John McNeil, the main protagonist in ‘Just Another Saturday’) to create a series of stirring social commentaries. In a similar manner to local playwright Sam Thompson who wrote about sectarianism and bigotry in the Belfast shipyards, McDougall captured Glasgow, a similar city, in the midst of crises. The shipyards which like Belfast had provided so much employment to manual workers in the surrounding areas were in decline. The constitutional status of Scotland was under considerable debate, sectarianism was a societal and institutional malady and the Northern Irish conflict was spiralling out of control across the Irish Sea (Graham Walker provided an erudite analysis of some of these themes in his 1995 book ‘Intimate Strangers – Political and Cultural Interaction Between Scotland and Ulster in Modern Times’). Indeed, having been filmed in 1975 ‘Just Another Saturday’ was, like ‘Scum’ deemed so controversial at the time that its broadcast was put back for some years. Apparently during its production the head of the Glasgow police force banned its creation on seeing the script, predicting that the piece would cause social disorder during its filming and eventual screening.

In many ways the themes played out in ‘Just Another Saturday’ were relevant to the Ulster situation in the 1970s and are perhaps still just as pertinent for Belfast in the year 2007. While things are improving incrementally, it is hardly yet a cultural Xanadu. Although there are some who seem to bask in this notion, the flipside of this perceived utopia is that there has actually been a persistent decline in many communities in Belfast and beyond which have yet to taste the benefits of the ‘peace process’. Belfast playwright Gary Mitchell, who despite having his play ‘As The Beast Sleeps’ televised, has often encountered trouble in attempting to get his message across and is a dramatist who in a similar fashion to McDougall has constantly tried to project through an artistic medium the intense problems facing working class communities – in Mitchell’s case Protestant communities in Belfast as they come out of the protracted conflict. McDougall and Mitchell, while possibly unaware of each other, undoubtedly share a common narrative in that both have successfully critiqued their respective similar backgrounds and the inherent machismo, violence and divisive institutions that have dogged them and their communities, especially in a shared experience of post-industrial decline. Indeed the central characters in Mitchell’s ‘As The Beast Sleeps’ and McDougall’s ‘Just Another Saturday’ are faced with contextually similar though circumstantially incongruent choices about their destiny and identity. For Kyle in Mitchell’s play the narrowed definition of his role as a post-ceasefire Loyalist paramilitary have come to bear along with the political and economic pressures of that role (John Hill – ‘Cinema and Northern Ireland – Film, Culture and Politics). For John McNeil, the young drum major in McDougall’s play it is a matter of coming to terms with his previously concrete convictions about Orange pageantry which has been abused by Rab Williamson, who was up until the Saturday in question something of a role model for McNeil. The institutions of paramilitarism and Orangeism, which are respectively central in the urban communities written about in ‘As The Beast Sleeps’ and ‘Just Another Saturday’ come in for unflattering scrutiny in each writers’ works.

No matter what our individual opinions on the institutions subjected to analysis in these works are, it is vital that a new generation has the opportunity to appreciate Peter McDougall and John Mackenzie’s classic work from the 1970s. In ‘Just Another Saturday’ and ‘Just A Boy’s Game’ we get glimpses of social ailments – violence, bigotry and misogyny – that are still sadly prevalent on both sides of the divided city in Belfast. Perhaps if someone acts upon Peter Hain’s advice about the importance of local television drama they’ll first take a took at these DVDs, Gary Mitchell’s work and tomes similar to it in the Nationalist community and aim to give a balanced view of a society which has yet to fully transform.

Source: Fortnight Magazine, December 2007