Aidan: make a proper Charlie of yourself
RTÉ’s TV drama about Charles Haughey, starring Aidan Gillen as the late taoiseach, will be worth watching. Why did it take so long?
Aidan Gillen: his character needs to both match and confound Haughey’s public persona. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
So Aidan Gillen is to play Charles Haughey in a three-part dramatisation of his political life. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is to be PJ Mara. Laurence Kinlan is to play Tony Gregory. There’s a Love/Hate joke there somewhere. Or maybe a Game of Thrones one.
The cast is interesting, the idea even more so. Until now Irish true-life drama has been largely confined to the ordinary person fighting the machinery of the State rather than those who saw themselves as the State.
There was Whistleblower, about exposing the obstetrician Michael Neary, and No Tears, starring Maria Doyle Kennedy and Brenda Fricker in a dramatisation of the hepatitis C scandal. RTÉ was also a producer of Omagh, which focused primarily on the impact of that bomb on one family.
Even when RTÉ has previously brought political and cultural giants into drama – such as through Insurrection, Hugh Leonard’s eight-part dramatisation of 1916 aired on the 50th anniversary – they were among a large cast set against a backdrop of national tumult.
To give a sense of how historical the Haughey period now is, Charlie will finally air half a century after the late taoiseach first took a seat at an Irish cabinet table. His early rise is as far from us now as the 1916 rebels’ execution was to mid-1960s Ireland.
When to dive in
There is the question of when exactly to dive into a biography, as you need to make sure not simply that you have some sense of the truth, or even of the person, but also that you deliver a character that both matches and confounds the public persona.
Element Pictures (behind, among other films, the recent What Richard Did) has some experience of this area, having coproduced the Live Aid dramatisation When Harvey Met Bob. That highlighted one of the great problems of biographical TV: if the central character is so familiar as to seem almost a caricature of himself, then how does an actor get past that?
In the case of When Harvey Met Bob, Domhnall Gleeson had to do an impression that pretty much every kid in the mid 1980s could do. Geldof is so utterly Geldof that playing him means coming across as all too Spitting Image. Plus, Geldof is still very much around and still utterly Geldof.
At the moment, a Bertie Ahern drama – one is inevitable at some point – would easily be crushed under the pressure of mimicry, as he is the most impersonated politician since Haughey. Good writing and a decent actor would illuminate the wide cracks in that simplification, but the timing would have to be right, otherwise it wouldn’t matter: even if Liam Neeson were cast as Bertie, the viewer would only be hearing Mario Rosenstock.
Likewise, Charles Haughey has become possible only since Scrap Saturday was filed away in a distant corner, to be pulled out only on special occasions. Even if an honest portrayal of the facts had been possible in the Dermot Morgan days, neither Haughey nor Mara could have been played with much of a straight face.
In the meantime, British television has charged ahead with relish. Tony Blair’s career has been turned over so much that Michael Sheen built his reputation (and probably a couple of houses) on a sequence of portrayals. Margaret Thatcher has been played by a glut of actors; aside from Meryl Streep’s recent go at it on film, recent BBC dramas include Thatcher’s early days in The Long Walk to Finchley and her final hours as prime minister in Margaret.
It is the evolution of a character previously owned by Spitting Image and a comedy cameo in a James Bond flick. What’s more, that challenge was met while Thatcher was still alive and still a glowering presence in British politics.
In Ireland, where every scrap of truth and reputation tends to be fought over and, so often, covered over, there was always the sense that Charles Haughey could be fully brought to life only after he had died.