Charles Haughey drama: ‘This is a story about power’
While being true to much of the Haughey story, there were some things RTÉ couldn’t stretch to
Aidan Gillen as Charlie Haughey in RTÉ’s three-part drama series Charlie: “I was trying to find a middle ground where his look and sound could meet what I was capable of without being ridiculous or distracting.”
A living imitation of Charles J Haughey is looking at a monitor, near a two-bar heater. “That’s some make-up,” I say.
“Make-up?” says the actor Aidan Gillen.
“He’s just aged doing this,” says Catherine Magee, one of the producers of Charlie, the new three-part RTÉ drama based on the career of former taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil Haughey.
In reality, she says, Gillen spends two hours a day being bewigged and made-up. “He’s the hardest-working actor,” she says. “He even had his teeth discoloured slightly, like Haughey.”
“I wonder how you ask a dentist for that?” asks an RTÉ PR person.
“I don’t know,” says Magee. “It’s quite an unusual request in this day of teeth-whitening. And he’s had his head shaved. He didn’t want a bald pate. It’s a full-time job looking after the wig. HD is so precise. It’s made with real hair.”
The suits are made for him by Louis Copeland, where Haughey, apparently also bought his suits. Are the shirts Charvet? “There are some things you couldn’t justify on the RTÉ budget,” says Magee.
Magee is showing me around the set of Charlie in the old John Player factory in Dublin 8. She walks me through the painstakingly reconstructed corridors of the Dáil. Some artistic licence was taken, says Magee, because the real offices weren’t sufficiently grand. Haughey’s office is very grand, Dessie O’Malley’s less so.
“Poor old Dessie,” says Magee. “He only got three walls.”
It’s colder inside the factory than out. The concrete floor is freezing. “That’s why I wear these big boots,” says Magee. Gillen wears a big puffy anorak over his Haughey costume between takes. “We’ve all had colds,” says Magee.
It seems to be “Christmas jumper day” on set – you’d need them for warmth, to be honest. One make-up woman has reindeer antlers and a string of Christmas lights around her neck. “You’ll need a dimmer for them,” says a lighting guy.
We are watching a sickbed scene in a re-creation of Haughey’s mother’s bedroom. It is, as one crew member says, “an intimate scene shot in front of 20 people in a warehouse”.
This set reminds me of my granny’s house. “Everyone says that,” Magee says.
Next door I see an old packet of cornflakes in the set of the kitchen next door. There’s an English company, says Magee, which specialises in period packaging.
Gillen gets into character by directing Haughey’s piercing statesman-like glower into the camera. Magee is full of factoids. Because Gillen is playing someone older than him, she says, they had to cast around him age-wise.
“You can’t cast people who are actually 52,” she says, “because that will make him look young. So everyone is cast around him. It’s a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. You have to buy that the group is ageing up.”
To make Peter O’Meara, who plays Brian Lenihan, look sick in the period when he was dying, they made his suit bigger and his collar bigger.
Finding sets is difficult, Magee says. “There aren’t many places you can shoot any more when you’re shooting period – and I know it’s hard to think of the Eighties as period but it is.”
“This is a story about power, the individual craving power and what power does to the individual and what that individual does with power,” says Colin Teevan, writer of Charlie.
It is 12 months after my set visit, weeks before the debut of Charlie on RTÉ 1, and I’m sitting with Teevan and a now de-Haugheyed Gillen in Toner’s pub on Baggot Street. Teevan and Gillen are fascinated by the mysterious “lack” they perceive at the heart of Haughey’s character, a mysterious void masked by desire. They chat away about it.
“On the way up he was at his most brilliant as a politician and in his ministries,” says Gillen. “When he got there, it became about staying there – and that’s a different story.”
“I think Terry Keane says that about three months after he became taoiseach for the first time, he was utterly depressed,” says Teevan, “that it wasn’t what he thought it would be. And the implication is that he then craved a bigger country to be Taoiseach of.”
“That country being Europe,” adds Gillen. “One of the producers, someone who doesn’t even come from Ireland, said ‘this is like a portrait of an addict’,” says Teevan.
“The addiction thing did come to my mind,” says Gillen. “[He did] what he had to do to maintain a lifestyle, maintaining status to himself as much as to everybody else. I constantly asked, ‘Could I go there? Could I do that?’ The answer is, surprisingly, ‘yes’; although I wouldn’t find myself in those situations, I would do things to fuel an addiction if I had it.”
Much of Haughey’s life and career is, says Teevan, “a gift for a dramatist. He’s an anti-hero as opposed to a hero. He lived it bigger, larger and faster than anyone else in the country at the time. And we’re hazarding to get into his head and see the world through his eyes . . . He’s intriguing as a character because he left no memoirs. He left no autobiography. Things like the arms trial he just never spoke about.”
The word “Shakespearian” is tossed around a bit. “We’ve all said it at some point or another,” says Gillen, “but it is a classic Shakespearian narrative, a quest for power. You start out one way and end up another way.”
“Ironically Haughey made that link for us himself,” Teevan adds, “because in his resignation speech, he quotes the last act of Othello, ‘I’ve done the state some service’.”
In order to write the script, Teevan spoke to a huge number of people “from all parts of his [Haughey] life” and the scripts were “thoroughly legalled from beginning to end.”
He drew up a document for the lawyers, he says, in which every scene was annotated with sources. He laughs. “He [the lawyer] said he’d never seen such a good document.”
He thinks many people have forgotten just how sensational the established facts are. “Various stories have been leaked to newspapers but they fizzled out, because people were saying ‘there’s this new revelation or that new revelation’, when just about everything is in the public realm if you look. I suppose people forget.
“You dig out Terry Keane’s articles or dig out The Boss [the book on Haughey by Joe Joyce and Peter Murtagh] or things like that.”
Haughey and his cronies were, he says, hugely entertaining. “One of the things that came up in the research was how funny and witty they were. Haughey, I believe, had a very dark sense of humour. Marx said that history played out the first time as tragedy and then repeats itself as a comedy.” He laughs.
“We’re at the comic stage.”
He mentions a punch-up in the Dáil in the early 1980s, before which all the ushers were sent home and during which the TD Jim Gibbons was kicked to the ground.
“I asked a source how they got him up without the ushers.
“He said that someone had brought in an ornamental Samurai sword for their office and they had it near by and sort of waved it around.” He laughs. “That’s a gift for a dramatist. A sword being waved in the Dáil.”
At the same time, he feels the need to stress that “drama is different from documentary.” He needs to get the facts right so as not to distract from the drama, he says, but “this is a drama based on fact. These are imagined conversations, [based on] the little bits of evidence that we have.”
What’s it like playing a real person? I ask Gillen. “A real person?” asks Gillen, raising an eyebrow. Teevan laughs.
He has played “real people” before, he says, including Pádraig Pearse in Tom Murphy’s The Patriot Game at the Peacock and a member of the Tallaght Two for a Today Tonight reconstruction. He has also played politicians.
He played Mayor Carcetti in The Wire, “who was based on three people, two real and one fictional”, and the Machiavellian courtier Littlefinger in Game of Thrones, who he says was modelled partly on Peter Mandelson.
“What’s Mandelson called again, ‘the dark lord’?” asks Gillen. “Haughey also had a moniker, ‘the dark prince’ – or did you invent that?
“I invented that, I think,” says Teevan.
“It’s good,” says Gillen.
Gillen says he was wary of doing an impression. “I was trying to find a middle ground where his look and sound could meet what I was capable of without being ridiculous or distracting,” says Gillen.
“It’s a remarkable performance,” says Teevan. “I remember after watching it I saw footage of Charlie and PJ back in the day and I was so shocked to see how they really looked because I’d got so used to seeing Aidan and Tom and the rest of them.”
Did Teevan come to like Haughey as a person? “When you’re writing a character you can’t stand in judgment,” he says. “Did Shakespeare think Macbeth was a good guy or a bad guy? He just presents you with the character. [I had to] divest myself of opinion on it. You leave that outside.
“Charlie is in this situation, how does he get himself out? It’s more thinking your way through that logic rather than ‘I don’t like him therefore I’m going to present him in a bad light.’ . . . To stand in judgment and say he screwed up the country... I’ll leave that to the audiences. It’s not helpful in writing drama.”
The original plan was for a one-off show, but it stretched to three 90-minute episodes dealing with three of Haughey’s four administrations. “I could honestly do an eight or 10-part drama. This could be The Wire.”
Why hasn’t RTÉ delved into political drama before now? Part of it is practical, says Teevan. “Because of the sterling work of the tribunals we can now put what we knew to be the political story with the personal corruption story underneath and run them together . . . I’d hazard a guess that part of the reason politics is so underexplored [in Irish television drama] is a national insecurity about holding up our dirty secrets and looking at them . . . We shouldn’t be insecure about those things. Look at politics all over Europe – the corruption and the horse trading.”
Gillen wonders if Irish people are more forgiving of their politicians’ flaws. “A taxi driver said to me just this morning ‘Haughey was great. Of course, he was taking things but he was doing great things for the country and I wouldn’t begrudge it to him.’ I don’t honestly know how in other countries they react to that sort of thing but I know corruption isn’t exclusive to Ireland.”
“Berlusconi, Putin,” says Teevan.
“We’re probably just in the middle of the scale,” says Gillen.
Haughey was obsessed with managing his public image. Garret Fitzgerald told Teevan that the morning Haughey received a copy of The Boss, he “burst into tears” at a meeting.
“Dick Spring had to lead him from the room. He was so shattered by reading it . . . Did you know he had his portrait painted every year from about 1967 onwards, sometimes twice a year? One guy did four or five portraits of him.”
“I now have two portraits of myself as Haughey,” says Gillen.
What would Haughey make of this drama? “He’d be delighted it was Aidan Gillen playing him for a start,” says Teevan. “He’d love the mythologising aspect of it. But he wasn’t happy with stuff coming out in the tribunals so he wouldn’t be comfortable with that coming up on screen.”
Both Teevan and Gillen know that people will have expectations. “There are four million versions of the Haughey story,” says Teevan, and there were, he says, aspects of Haughey’s life – “the family and that” – which he wasn’t hugely interested in.
One particular concession he made to public expectation, he says, was keeping a reference to the Charvet shirts Haughey bought with taxpayer’s money. The British producers wanted to remove this.
“But every Irish person would say ‘that has to stay in’.” He turns to Gillen. “Did they buy you Charvet shirts?” he asks.
Gillen leans forward confidentially. “The closest thing you can get to a Charvet shirt without getting a Charvet shirt, you get in Penneys,” he says. “That’s fact.”
Why is Haughey’s story still important?
“People are always asking ‘How did we end up here?’” says Gillen. “If you are asking that question, then looking at that place in time is a good place to look.”
Teevan goes further. “In the 90s everyone decried Charlie as all the revelations and tribunals came out,” he says. “And yet everyone was trying to live like Charlie. It’s wrong to see him as evil. In one sense you could see him as an Irish Everyman . . . [in the boom] everyone lived in a mock Georgian house – he lived in a real Georgian house – and everyone lived on borrowed money. His crash came in ’94 and ours came in 2008, but he was the vanguard.” Charlie is broadcast on RTÉ 1 on Sunday at 9.30pm