Why Darklands is much more than just 'the new Love/Hate'
Virgin Media’s gritty new drama blends MMA and an exploration of why people join gangs
It’s not often you see a group of youngsters gadding about jocularly in front of a funeral hearse, but in this instance it’s an entirely reasonable occurrence. On a sunny July morning, the group are filming a funeral scene for Darklands, the TV series created by Mark O’Connor, and Virgin Media’s big drama project for the autumn season. Much of the Darklands cast, in this scene anyway, is made of unpolished, box-fresh faces. There doesn’t appear to be a Billie Barry pro among the lot of them. The set crackles with an inimitable, enthusiastic energy; a portent, that something intriguing is being created.
Once the first assistant director calls “action”, however, it’s up to the show’s 16-year-old lead, Dane Whyte O’Hara, playing promising MMA star Damien Dunne, to convey sufficient inner turmoil (the fictional body in the box, we find later, belongs to Damien’s friend). Wisecracking with extras minutes previously, his face during the take is a scramble of vulnerability, uncertainty, toughness and naivety.
Director-writer Mark O’Connor has form in breaking new talent: Peter Coonan and Barry Keoghan were neophytes when they starred in his 2011 feature debut, Between the Canals.
Dane was unearthed by casting agents via a Facebook post calling for martial artists; he has been involved in martial arts since the age of four, but this his first ever acting role.
“The casting was meticulous, and we watched hundreds of tapes,” says O’Connor. “I was trying to find people who were really good actors, but had star quality and were also believable. [For Damien], I wanted a fighter, because an actor just wasn’t going to be believable in that role. I think it was pure luck that he was really good and natural in front of the camera as well.”
“When you’re casting a 16-year-old, you look for a 20-year-old who can express themselves and remember what it’s like to be 16, but [Dane] is actually in the moment, feeling all this, so that makes it more natural,” says producer Frank Agnew. “Very quickly, you have this immediate reaction to him, and luckily Mark is excellent with young actors.”
Originally set in inner-city Dublin, the Darklands action has moved out to the majestic Bray seafront. At its outset Damien is a gifted and focused MMA fighter, training hard under the tutelage of coach Paddy (Mark O’Halloran). His dreams of sports stardom are within reach, but things aren’t easy at home, as his parents’ marriage starts to implode. In their Bray neighbourhood, criminality and gangland violence loom large just outside the front door. When Damien’s brother Wesley (Damian Gildea) goes missing, Damien finds himself edging towards the Hill Crew, who enlist him to help locate Wesley. At the head of the Hill Crew table are Bernie (Judith Roddy) and Butsy (Thommas Kane Byrne), whose names make them sound like a ticklish double act, but in fact are a ferociously calculating brother-and-sister duo.
It certainly has the makings of a hit: there’s the appeal of the MMA angle and all the drama and theatre the sport entails. There’s also the Machiavellian cat-and-mouse chase of gangland criminality, added to the pulsating, gritty directorial style that made O’Connor’s film Cardboard Gangsters a hit.
The series was co-written with Adam Coates, who drew on the experiences of his own brother, the late Westies leader Shane Coates, to shape the story.
It’s a very different stripe of show, but we might as well hustle the Love/Hate-shaped elephant out of the room right away. Naturally, comparisons to Stuart Carolan’s massively successful gangland drama irk most people involved in Darklands.
“It doesn’t bother me because Love/Hate is a great show, but when I was working on Between the Canals, I thought it might be interesting to explore [criminality] through the eyes of a teenager,” says O’Connor. “It’s a completely different story, and it’s about showing the backstory to these characters and how they get mixed up in crime.”
Agnew maintains that the drama is a different beast entirely, about the fork in the road that every 16-year-old finds themselves at.
“I know we’re doing to get comparisons to Love/Hate, but this is not actually about the gang. It’s about the family that are influenced by the gangs, and how you survive in one of those neighbourhoods, where people driving past in Mercedes and BMWs laughing at people who have a job,” he says during some downtime in the set’s catering bus.
“In real life, everyone has to make choices at 16 about who they’re going to be in life but in Darklands, Damien’s choices are pretty extreme,” he adds. “All around him, his friends in his social circle are making choices and picking sides in a feud that is taking place between rival drug gangs.
“The gang represents an easier path, where you don’t have to worry about training or applying yourself or facing disappointment because you can get your money tomorrow or next week if you’re part of this gang, which is [like] a family. You want the gangster stuff in it, but really you’re always trying to focus on the bigger question: why do people make these choices?”
There is one significant departure from Love/Hate: the female characters appear to have much more agency in Darklands.
“Three or four of the main characters are women and they’re fully realised people,” Agnew says. “Damien’s mother is a key character, as is his girlfriend, and one of the gangs that is central to the story is actually led by Judith Roddy’s character, Bernie, who is the Michael Corleone of the show.”
On moving the action from Dublin to Bray, Agnew notes: “This happened everywhere. We talked about Limerick, we talked about Cork, and Mark realised that it doesn’t have to be [set] in Dublin. The establishing shots show Bray Head – it makes it a lot more handsome.” This is a big bonus, he notes in terms of viability in the international market.
But in much the same way that Love/Hate’s cast, largely unfamiliar to Irish TV audiences, created pure alchemy, Darklands’ newcomers also bring a special something.
Luke McQuillan plays gang member Eric, and trains himself as an MMA fighter out of Team KF in Swords.
“I think [Darklands] will appeal to a lot of the younger crowd,” he says. “It’s so relevant to what’s going in with the criminal world. I think this will really capture young people and teenagers.
As to whether it will glamourise criminality for a young audience, he adds: “I don’t think it will. Just look at the papers, and people die at the end of it. You can be flashy, you can make all this money, but it doesn’t end well for them.”
Thommas Kane Byrne, who plays Butsy, grew up on Sean McDermott Street and has seen the nature of Dane’s quandary at close range himself. He is a revelation as the malevolent gang leader, not least because he arrives on set looking for all the world like he’s bound for Club Tropicana.
Byrne, originally a dancer and singer, had usually gone for the “gay best friend and hairdresser” roles before he caught wind of the part of Butsy.
“I gayed it up to the f***ing rafters [in the audition],” he laughs in between takes. “I came in as Graham Norton and I sat on the chair and then I was Phil Mitchell.”
By way of illustration, he drops his voice at least an octave and turns in front of our very eyes into a man you wouldn’t want to mess with. It’s a startling transformation.
“God forbid she does a bit of acting,” he purrs. “It just feels like a gift of a part to play. I’m lucky that I get to show a bit of skill, and Mark has been brilliant in fine-tuning it.
“I think [Butsy] is a bit jealous of Damien, who has his whole life ahead of him and so many prospects, but he’s now resigned to his own fate. He can’t give it all up and go to Tesco.”
Darklands, he notes, brings the viewer in behind the sensationalist headlines, towards the more human side of the criminality story.
“I think that’s the sort of thing, what happens behind closed doors, that fascinates the regular Joe Soap,” he says.
Working with seasoned actor O’Halloran has been a dream for Byrne, although he admits that acting alongside fellow theatre actress Judith Roddy, last seen in Derry Girls, was a more intimidating prospect.
“I’m jealous of the youngsters because it looks like they’re having the absolute craic on set, though” he says. “I could be wrong, but I’ve a really good feeling about this. I have a feeling that something really refreshing is going to happen.”
Darklands airs on Virgin Media One on Monday, October 7th, at 9pm