The long road to a green light for ‘Amber’
A four-part miniseries about a teenager’s disappearance, made in 2011, is finally being aired on RTÉ from Sunday. Its creators, Rob Cawley and Paul Duane, are glad we won’t be missing it
Lauryn Canny as Amber Bailey in ‘Amber’
David Murray as Ben Bailey in ‘Amber’
Eva Birthistle as Sarah Bailey with director Thaddeus O’Sullivan on the set of ‘Amber’
In August 2001, Rob Cawley was driving through the desert in western Australia when his car broke down. He hitched a ride to the nearest town, Broome, and, with only $50 in his pocket, decided to look for a job.
Cawley wandered into a small TV studio where, unbeknown to him, a local production company had just been commissioned to create Australia’s first-ever all-Aboriginal variety comedy show.
“They were having a meeting,” he recalls. “They needed a writer, and I walked in.”
He handed over a showreel of his work on such Irish TV shows as Don’t Feed the Gondolas, and unwittingly made some remarks of “quasi-religious significance” to his hosts. (“Something to do with turtles. They decided I’d been sent by God.”)
One very brief crash course in Aboriginal history, culture and patois later, and Cawley was cheekily inviting some of the world’s biggest names to appear as guests on the show’s first episode. “Prince Charles made his excuses. Nelson Mandela cited ill-health. But Kylie said yes and so did Russell Crowe.”
Scripts were rehearsed, and everything was in place for the big launch, when September 11th happened. All domestic and international flights were grounded.
“The only other way to get to Broome is to drive, and that takes about four days. So we had to replace our celebrity guests with local people.”
The hastily improvised show that resulted was nonetheless well received, and Cawley had absorbed one of the cast-iron rules of his chosen profession: the show must go on.
Ten years later, in the strange Indian summer of October 2011, Cawley and his Screenworks partner Paul Duane (the acclaimed director of Natan and Very Extremely Dangerous) were on the set of Amber, a new RTÉ drama that is finally set to air over consecutive nights beginning on Sunday at 9.30pm.
The show tells the story of a 14-year-old girl’s disappearance, told and retold over the course of four hour-long episodes, from the perspectives of the child’s mother, father, a family friend and a total stranger.
It’s a tightly scripted mystery, packed with subtle hints and carefully placed visual clues – and filmed on a bare-bones budget. The story has a special personal significance for Cawley. It was partially inspired by the 2009 disappearance of his wife’s brother. “I’ve done sitcoms before,” he says, “but this is my first serious, grown-up drama. This is from the heart.”
Yet when it came to shooting a sequence that was key to explaining Amber’s disappearance – the ejection of the youngster (played by newcomer Lauryn Canny) from a Luas tram in south Co Dublin after an inspector discovers she lacks a valid ticket – an unexpected problem arose. Veolia Transdev, the company that operated the tram service, was happy to facilitate filming on its regularly scheduled green line service, where cast, crew, extras and this embedded journalist mingled with regular commuters. But it refused to allow one of its inspectors to be depicted throwing Amber off the train.
“They’ve said that no child is ever kicked off the Luas for not having a fare,” Cawley explained at the time. “They have a duty of care and it would be inaccurate to portray it otherwise.”
Other writers and producers might have been forgiven for tearing their hair out in despair at this juncture. But Duane and Cawley took the setback in their stride. The script was altered to have Amber exit the Luas inexplicably, but of her own volition. “There’s no major impact on the story,” Cawley insisted. “It’s really not a problem.”
A friend of both men, I was on set that day with a view to writing a piece about the drama when it eventually aired on RTÉ. Truth be told, however, in the dire economic circumstances of October 2011, it seemed somewhat less than a sure thing that there would still be a national broadcaster in January 2014, let alone print media.
Looking back, Cawley admits the pervading gloom of that year infused all aspects of the show. The gleaming Sandyford apartment complex inhabited by Amber’s mother – played by Eva Birthistle (Ae Fond Kiss) – and the swanky office block from which her father – played by David Murray – masterminds the search effort, are both owned b y Nama.
“The decision to have the family live and break up in what is essentially a well-known ghost estate was quite deliberate on our part,” says Cawley. “At the time, they did a survey at the Luas stop where Amber goes missing [Laughanstown] and I think something like two people were using it every day.To me, that represented the loss of a future. It was a metaphor for where we were, where we wanted to be, and where we ended up.”
For his part, Duane says the show’s multiple-perspective format was a creative no-brainer for the pair. “It’s not that original an idea,” he says. “Citizen Kane tells the same story from eight different points of view. As we see it, Amber’s disappearance is a stone dropping into a pool, and each episode of the show is a separate ripple. Through working with Rob, I had experienced vicariously the enormous impact one person’s disappearance can have on an extended family, on their friends and on the people who work with them.
“The structure came almost immediately. What we were left with then was the brain-melting complexity of trying to make that work.”
Although Cawley insists he did not draw on any of his own experiences in writing Amber – “the emotion is real, everything else is completely fabricated” – he admits he had some qualms about being seen to exploit his wife’s family tragedy in any way. (Her brother was eventually found to have died by suicide at the Cliffs of Moher.)
That sense of unease he felt in himself is personified onscreen by the character of a journalist and family friend (Justine Mitchell) whose desire to help Amber’s stricken parents is complicated by her awareness that the story might be helpful in advancing her own career.
“The journalist character, to me, represents my feeling kind of icky about using events in the recent past.” He pauses for a moment, then continues.“I mean, I had to ask myself, am I plundering some misery in my own family to tell a story and make a career for myself? Of course, the answer is no, but the emotions of feeling conflicted are represented in that character.”
Since the series wrapped, it has gained an appreciative audience via Netflix in the Americas, Australia and Scandinavia. It has also been released on DVD in Israel, and will screen later this year on BBC4. The story’s ambiguous conclusion is even the subject of much debate on online forum Yahoo Answers.
Were the pair frustrated at how long it took for the series to air on Irish television?
“This is standard stuff for broadcasters,” says Duane philosophically. “It has to do with scheduling and budgets and stuff like that. But look, at the end of the day, we’ve ended up with a very good slot. They’re moving programmes like Prime Time around in the schedule to accommodate us, which I don’t think has happened since Roddy Doyle’s Family in 1994.”
No regrets, then?
“It’s dangerous to say you’re completely happy with something,” say Cawley. “That puts you in a bad place, I think. But we’re certainly proud of Amber and we’re very proud to put our names on it.”
Amber is on RTÉ1 on Sunday at 9.30pm and Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 9.35pm