The Irish edge in the ratings war
Is TV drama in Irish the new secret weapon? FERDIA MAC ANNAbuilds the case that Irish-language drama is getting away with a lot more than its English-language rivals
IRISH LANGUAGE drama is like an eccentric uncle that you run into at weddings and funerals. Everyone knows of his existence but most family members take little notice of him unless they have no choice or he falls into their laps. To be taken seriously, the eccentric would have to re-invent the wheel or maybe win a big award like an Oscar.
The acclaimed TG4 comedy drama Rásaí Na Gaillimhe(the Galway Races) won the Special Irish Language Award at this year’s IFTAs rather than Best Drama (for which it was also nominated). A great achievement but also perhaps a case of the eccentric uncle being kept in his place, in this case the self-contained bubble of Irish language productions.
The reality is that Irish language TV dramas, no matter how acclaimed or however many awards they might win, are unlikely to show up in box set form in any DVD mega-store. TG4’s viewership ranges from between 2 and 4 per cent of the population, enough to cost a politician an election but far too few viewers to send a show into the top 10 in the TV ratings.
A shame, because there are great things happening in the area. TG4’s recent batch of mini-series Rasaí na Gaillimhe, Paddywhackeryand Na Cloigne(not to mention Aifric, Seachtand long-running soap Ros na Rún) have featured outrageous plots and wacky characters, and dare to be politically incorrect: they get away with it because they are in Irish. An actor in Rasaíhad hot wax poured on him in the throws of passion – surely the sort of image more suited to Tarantino or Jerry Springer. In Na Cloigne, the decapitated heads of two pretty young women lurk inside potato sacks or peek out of undergrowth in spooky misted woodland. At an ATM machine, a down-at-heel character in Paddywhackerybumps into iconic Irish writer Peig Sayers.
“People feel that it’s their TV station, and they will accept what goes on air because they feel it belongs to them,” says Alan Titley, professor of modern Irish at UCC. “And a lack of cash forces you to use your imagination.”
“TG4 hassled the heck out of us,” says Paddy C Courtney, co-writer of Paddywhackery. “But they were also generous and supportive. I had only basic school Irish and they loved that. Daniel O’Hara and I were unemployed and Paddywhackerycame about because we wanted to create something that would give us both work. We’d done Lu Ming is Ainm Dom, a short that won awards in 18 countries, including an IFTA, and we wanted to work together again. I never thought it would take four years but it was worth it.”
Courtney has since become a successful stand-up comic as well as an in-demand actor, with RTÉ and the BBC, while O’Hara is in the UK, directing the new season of Skinsfor Channel 4. Small audiences may mean fewer ads and less income but the very fact that it’s a minority interest, gives commissioning editors the leeway to take more risks.
“ Rasaíwas just so different. It gave us the chance to really push the envelope,” says Michael O’Meallaigh, a commissioning editor for TG4, who is accustomed to making the most of limited resources. Rasaí na Gaillimhewas a comic mini-series based around the Galway Races. It focused on the Seven Deadly Sins – an idea that O’Meallaigh conceived and then put out to tender. He sifted through submissions and eventually settled on a young writer, James Phelan, who came up with an outrageous and engaging treatment.
“ Rasaíwas written in English and translated into Irish later. It broke all the rules but it worked. He was a writer who wanted to push the boundaries and we encouraged him,” says O’Meallaigh.
The budget of €2.5 million was on a par with English language drama serials on Channel 4 and BBC2. Directed by Robert Quinn, who helmed the feature films Dead Bodiesand Cré na Cille(graveyard clay), Rasaíattracted an opening night audience of 100,000, a low figure for TV drama (RTÉ’s Fair City, for example, regularly attracts more than 550,000) but it was a spectacularly high rating for a station with a small and ageing viewership (TG4’s average viewer is 40-plus). Not surprisingly a second Rasaíis in development.
Meanwhile, some critics lauded Paddy-whackery, which featured Fionnula Flanagan as Peig Sayers, but this was not reflected in viewing figures. This was also the case with another acclaimed series, The Running Mate, directed by Declan Recks and featuring Don Wycherly (of TV drama Bachelors Walk).
More recently, the supernatural thriller Na Cloigne, written by Darach O’Scolaí, drew only around 45,000 viewers, but managed to connect with younger viewers whose enthusiasm created a buzz on social networking sites.
“Supernatural stuff just doesn’t seem to bring in the big audiences,” says O’Meallaigh. Although delighted that the series received positive reviews, he acknowledges that the late time slot (10.30pm) may have been partly to blame. “We don’t produce series or programmes for no audiences. Nobody wants to do that. But we thought it was a daring and original concept and we were pleased with it.” But Na Cloigneisn’t finished. A repeat is due soon and ratings are expected to be higher, mainly due to positive word-of-mouth. Meanwhile producer Ciaran Ó Cofaigh and TG4 are in discussions to recut the the series into a feature film to be transmitted at Halloween.
Some Of The People Driving The Drama
THE DIRECTOR (an Stúirthóir)
Quinn has directed several Irish language dramas including Cré Na Cille, Na Cloigne, Rasaí na Gaillimheand the first series of Seacht. Rasaíwas something that hadn’t been seen on Irish TV before, a kind of Irish answer to US comedy films like The Hangoveror Superbad. “Word is getting out that there is a certain type of ballsy drama being shown on TG4,” says Quinn who is happy to work in Irish language drama but not exclusively. “I also work in English. I’d just like to point that out.”
THE ACTOR (an Aisteoir)
Aoife Nic Ardghail
A former member of girl group, Pzazz, Aoife Nic Ardghail has appeared in the series Na Dodaías well as three seasons of Seachtin which she played a very dramatic “lipstick lesbian”. “I thought when I got the part that casting agents would call me up and offer me parts and, in particular, English-language dramas. That’s how naïve I was.” She received little feedback from her TV roles and is now becoming frustrated at finding her prospects reduced. “I’m not sorry I did it. But I thought it would open doors and it didn’t”.
THE STAR (an Réalt)
A graduate of RADA, O’Kelly cut her acting teeth on TG4’s long-running soap Ros na Rún(now in its 16th year), and starred in Paddywackeryand Na Cloigne. “I guess we haven’t quite squashed that perception of ‘if it’s in Irish, it’ll be crap. But look at Aifricand Seacht. I think casting agents and directors take good work seriously. I don’t shy away from including Irish language work in my showreel. I used to think that there was a snobbery regarding Irish language work but attitudes have changed.”
THE PRODUCER (an Léiritheoir)
Ciaran Ó Cofaigh
Ciaran Ó Cofaigh says that BCI (Broadcasting Commission of Ireland) funding has been crucial in the emergence of new Irish language dramas. “Otherwise we would never have been able to develop something like Na Cloigne which took four years.
“We tried to do something very different – a genre-based supernatural thriller that was aimed at a young audience. I’m glad it attracted people who had no connection to the language.”
Paddy C Courtney
Courtney enjoys working in Irish or English but hates being regarded solely as a stand-up comic. “People love to pigeonhole you. I write, and I act and I also do stand-up. I don’t see a problem with that so why should anyone else?”
Courtney has appeared in Mac An Athair, a short film written and directed by up-and-coming talent, Colm Bairéad. At present, Courtney and Daniel O’Hara are developing a new sitcom.