'It's impossible now to view the decade past without regret'


JOHN O’REGAN, producer, ‘ Reeling in the Years’, talks to EOIN BUTLER

Where did the concept for ‘Reeling in the Years’ originate?The original inspiration for these shows probably came from a BBC programme called The Rock and Roll Years, which was first aired in the mid-1980s. I worked with Granada television and we made a version about football, called The Rock and Goal Years. Sky then made The Football Years. So Reeling in the Yearsis an Irish version of those shows. The first series was made in 1999 and the formula remains the same today: the story and the soundtrack, the hits and the headlines.

You work mainly in current affairs. What differentiates a story that’s a seven-day wonder from a story that will still have resonance in 10 years’ time?Well, here’s how we figure it out. We start on paper. We go through newspaper reviews, TV reviews of the year in question. From that we isolate maybe 60 stories – although we’ll end up using only 30 to 35 of those per episode. We have two very talented researchers, Ronan Murphy and Rhenda Sheedy, and they’ll do an initial trawl for footage. We look at what footage we have and, if it’s a foreign story, what footage we can afford to buy in.

How do you select the music?I go through the Irish and UK charts for every week of the year in question. I listen to about 100 songs and whittle that down to a list of about 50, of which we eventually use only 12 or 13. It’s tempting to use the songs that have the most street cred, but we have to be guided by what was in the charts. The “uncool” tracks – Finbar Furey singing ‘When You Were Sweet 16’, for example – are often the best things on the show. Exactly, it’s important to remember that the likes of Brendan Shine or Foster and Allen were in the charts in the 1970s and 1980s, just as much as The Blades or U2 or Thin Lizzy.

When Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was asked for his verdict on the French Revolution, he said it was too early to tell. Yet in the forthcoming series, you have to render judgment on the decade 2000 to 2009. . . The end of a decade is a natural point to look back. We made the series about the 1990s at the end of the year 2000, and that still seems to stand up. It’s true that it’s impossible now to view the decade past without regret. But we’re still trying to give a taste of what went on in each year – and not just in an economic sense.

Give us a flavour. You had the smoking ban in 2004; Dustin singing Irlande Douze Pointe in 2008; Pat Spillane talking about “puke football” in 2003; Nadine Coyle exiting Popstars in 2002; 9/11; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; Saipan; SSIAs; Jumbo Breakfast Roll at number one for six weeks in 2006; the popularity of fake tan . . . I could go on.

You weren’t tempted to juxtapose Brian Cowen’s giveaway budget in 2004 with, say, the music from the Benny Hill Show?We try to find a balance. You could treat that era with 100 per cent hindsight, but I don’t think that’s the best way to go. It’s great that the show is successful. But I’d emphasise that Reeling in the Years is a low-key, modest programme. It isn’t definitive.

You don’t have to accept this as a compliment to your work if you don’t want to, the power of the raw material is undoubtedly also a factor. . . Sure.

But I always find the programme extremely entertaining and moving. There’s an episode that ends with a sequence about mass emigration in the 1980s .. . Yes, that’s 1986. Tommy Gorman did a report about a GAA club in Sligo that couldn’t field a team because of emigration. I had emigrated myself in 1987, so that was a story I could relate to. My father had told me about people he remembered who left Ireland in the 1950s. I thought back to the economic war of the 1930s and the post-Famine era. The line I composed for the caption was “Another generation turns its back on Ireland . . .”

There was a really beautiful song used too?It was Jimmy McCarthy’s As I Leave Behind Néidín, performed by Mary Black. We had images of people in their late teens and early 20s getting on the bus in small towns in the west of Ireland, leaving for London, or flying to the US. As they step onboard, the refrain is: “Won’t you remember, won’t you remember me . . .” We now know that scenes like that will be repeated, which endows that episode with a whole new level of meaning.

Reeling In The Years – The 2000sbegins on RTÉ1 at 7.30pm next Sunday. Reeling In The 1970s, an edited DVD version of the programmes featuring 1970-79, goes on sale in mid-November