Television didn't bring sex to Ireland - just reruns of 'Get Smart'

 

CULTURE SHOCK:Far from being a force for progressive values, the national broadcaster’s first programmes were shaped by the conservative style of US broadcasting that formed a huge proportion of its schedule, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

IN 1965, THE RTÉ Authority met to discuss the TV station’s plans for covering the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. According to John Bowman’s intriguing history of RTÉ, Window and Mirror, there was agreement that the rebellion should be portrayed as “a nationalist and not a socialist rising”. The committee decided, moreover, that the overall approach to the commemoration should be “idealistic and emotional” rather than “interpretive and analytical”. So, no reds and no eggheads, just tear-inducing Irish patriots.

The vignette, like many others in Bowman’s book, is interesting in itself and for the light it casts on one of the governing myths of Irish cultural modernity: the idea that RTÉ, since its foundation, was a progressive and enlightening force. The truth is much more complex.

There is a tendency, in looking back over 50 years, to confuse two things: the impact of RTÉ and the impact of television itself. Much of the effect of the latter is often attributed to the former. This is not unreasonable.

Many people in the Republic, especially those in Border counties, had access to British TV long before the home channel was on air. But for most – and certainly for me – the experiences were fused. In single-channel land RTÉ was “the telly”. But the telly was not really RTÉ – if by RTÉ we mean programmes produced in Ireland for an Irish audience. And the telly was not a force for cultural radicalism. It was a channel for conservative values.

The key point here is that the early RTÉ actually typified a long-established Irish cultural mindset. That mindset might be called lop-sided protectionism. There was suspicion of Britain and British values but a welcome for American influence, especially for the dominant conservative forms of Americanism. RTÉ didn’t break with this attitude; it intensified it. The BBC, with its strong elements of a postwar social-democratic ethic, was the opposition. American TV was the motherlode.

Chris Morash in his fine History of the Media in Irelandencapsulates the reality: “To put it simply, without American television, there would have been no Irish television.” This is almost literally true: RTÉ’s funding model meant that it could not afford to programme even a single channel with its own work. The gap was filled not by shows bought from the BBC but by US series and old Hollywood movies. Bowman points out that, at a time when RTÉ’s budget for home-produced shows was £214 an hour (itself minuscule), it could buy an American series for £20 an hour and a Hollywood movie for £40. Unsurprisingly, RTÉ bought the cheap stuff in bulk: 180 episodes of The Virginian, 58 of The Monkees, 84 of The Lucy Show, 86 of Get Smart. By 1969, 75 per cent of RTÉ’s output was American. Bowman reproduces a cartoon from Dublin Opinionof a family watching a TV screen on which static takes the shape of the Stars and Stripes, with the husband remarking that “even the interference seems to have a certain amount of American influence”.

Most of this stuff was culturally conservative, endorsing established notions of masculinity, family, individualism and materialism. The Monkees were a clean alternative to The Beatles, who were always more than a bit suspect. Comedies such as Father Knows Bestlived up to their titles: the patriarchy was not in much danger. As for the Westerns that formed the staple telly diet, their values were summed up by the University College Dublin academic Gus Martin when he wrote in praise of The Virginianin the RTV Guide(as it then was) in 1966, noting of its good cowboys that “like the heroes of mediaeval romance, to whom they bear a more than superficial likeness, they see it as their duty to slay the monsters of this world: this is the sort of violence we could have more of”.

As for the movies, they were generally so old and bland that even the veteran Fine Gael politician James Dillon complained in the same year that the “rubbish in bargain lots” bought by RTÉ was insufferably old-fashioned, even then: “Just imagine poor Paulette Goddard thumping around and trying to look romantic in these days when she did not look romantic in the 30s and just imagine trying to get us all to swoon about her now – why, you might as well ask us to fall in love with a two-hundredweight sack of flour.” If, as Oliver J Flanagan famously declared, there was no sex in Ireland before television, it is equally true that there was precious little sex on Irish television either.

The other side of this embrace of mainstream American imagery was RTÉ’s difficulty in adapting to the innovations of British TV. Tolka Row, RTÉ’s answer to Coronation Streetas an urban working-class soap, ended after five years with the main characters emigrating. Equally, the station’s answer to the BBC’s groundbreaking social-realist docudrama Cathy Come Homewas Brian MacLochlainn’s A Week in the Life of Martin Cluxton, dealing with a child just released from an industrial school. It showed that RTÉ could do British-style social drama very well. The lack of a follow-up showed that it chose not to do so.

It is worth bearing in mind that some of RTÉ’s most innovative figures, such as Lelia Doolan and Bob Quinn, felt compelled to leave the station.

The loss of Doolan, who made The Riordansa world pioneer in taking TV drama out of the studio and who forged the innovative current-affairs show 7 Days, is incalculable. People like her, equally at home in fiction and nonfiction TV, come along once a generation. If RTÉ was a radical a force as is often imagined, Doolan would have become its director general.

The most subversively revisionist aspect of Bowman’s history of RTÉ is his willingness to pay attention to the imported product that was, after all, the bulk of the station’s output. And even when it comes to the undoubtedly powerful effect of some of the station’s home-produced shows, Bowman makes a convincing case that its cultural effects had as much to do with the “consumerist culture embraced by television” as with any deeper radicalism.

The cultural shift that RTÉ was part of had more to do with accommodating Ireland to economic globalisation than with questioning globalisation from a distinctive national angle.