Strange times at RT╔. On the one hand, all is doom and gloom, with impending cutbacks, job losses and S∅le de Valera's slap on the face over the licence fee. On the other, audiences are enjoying the benefits of a highly ambitious autumn TV drama schedule.
Bachelors Walk is already turning out to be something of a triumph, its slouchy rhythms and low-key humour making it a must-see every Monday night. And if The Cassidys is pretty rubbish, well so what? Every broadcaster in the world has produced bad sitcoms, and plenty of them. It's a notoriously hit-and-miss business even in the US, where they spend more on the doughnuts for script meetings than RT╔ has available for its entire annual budget. And tomorrow evening sees the first episode of On Home Ground, RT╔1's biggest new drama project in years.
It's not so long ago that the idea that RT╔ would have three new drama series (well alright, two dramas and a sitcom) running concurrently would be the stuff of fantasy. For years, Montrose claimed Fair City and Glenroe as part of its annual drama productions, affecting not to notice when it was pointed out that soap opera, with its never-ending plotlines, was a different beast entirely.
The two soaps served as a fig leaf for RT╔'s embarrassingly tiny drama output - an occasional Europudding mini-series here, a piggyback on essentially British productions there (Amongst Women). In fact, the bulk of TV drama set in Ireland was made by the BBC - most notably Ballykissangel, which finally got the chop last year (watching the end credits for On Home Ground, almost the entire production crew appears to have migrated from Ballykissangel).
In fact, at first glance, On Home Ground looks a bit like Ballykissangel Without the Brits. It has the same glossy sheen and implausibly well-groomed characters, and a similar setting - a rural area within hailing distance of Dublin. There's even a syrupy music score which intrudes at every possible moment.
But the resemblance ends there - this is mainstream, contemporary Irish drama for an Irish audience, not a British one. Where the BBC's drama nestled amidst picturesque hills, this series is set at a quintessentially modern Irish location - a satellite boomtown squatting on one of the radial routes out of the capital.
Set in the fictional Co Kildare town of Kildoran (actually Kilcock), the eight-part series revolves around the fortunes of the town's Gaelic football club and its attempts to win its first county championship since 1962. In the hands of manager Fergal Collins (Sean McGinley), the team has failed to impress, and McGinley is under increasing pressure from the local bigwig (Daragh O'Malley) to shape up or ship out. The team's progress forms the central story, but there are many others, focusing on family tensions, inter-generational conflict and the divide between the townspeople and the "blow-ins" in the new housing estates. The strong cast also includes Charlotte Bradley, Laurence Kinlan, Peter Gowen and Pat Laffan.
What's most heartening about On Home Ground is that, while it clearly sets out to paint a picture of contemporary Irish life, it doesn't hit you over the head with that fact. There's a relaxed, assured tone to the writing and directing, exemplified by the way in which the matches themselves are shot (not an easy thing to do, as any student of soccer dramas will attest).
It's only a couple of years since RT╔ felt it had to import directors from the UK for its crime series, Making the Cut (with not very impressive results), so it's a notable step forward that all four directors here are Irish, and the series definitely benefits from their familiarity with the themes and subject matter.
It's not all sweetness and light. Writer Patrick Clarke has instituted legal proceedings against Little Bird, claiming that On Home Ground bears more than a passing resemblance to a script he submitted to the company two years ago. The case is pending, and the producers decline to comment.
According to Little Bird, the genesis of the series came when the company's chief executive, James Mitchell, attended his first GAA match - last year's All Ireland semi-final replay between Kerry and Armagh - and saw the dramatic potential. He asked Little Bird's head of development to devise a series set around a football team, which was then submitted to RT╔'s commissioning editor for drama, Mary Callery.
That was last November, only 12 months ago - a remarkably short time-frame to write, produce and deliver an eight-part drama series. Producer Martha O'Neill and script adviser Antoine ╙ Flatharta were brought in to flesh out the initial outline. The first writers' meeting was on January 3rd and the first four scripts delivered to RT╔ by mid-February, at which point the decision was made to go into full production. The breathless schedule might lead one to expect some raggedness in the finished product, but it's a tribute to those involved that this is not the case.
Callery, who has been responsible for drama output for the last two years, seems to be making a real difference at RT╔, while Little Bird, which has been based in Dublin and London for the last 15 years (producing films such as December Bride, Into the West and Ordinary Decent Criminal) is in the process of stepping up its activity in Ireland.
If some of the more grandiose claims made for On Home Ground don't ring entirely true - there's not much sign in the first few episodes of the "dirt under the fingernails" promised by the producers - the series has a confidence and poise which should find it an appreciative audience over the next few Sundays.
Unlike Bachelors Walk, this is more mainstream drama - so no jerkycam or retro-hip pop songs. The most obvious reference point is Playing the Field, the British TV series about a women's football team - solid, prime-time fare, made with intelligence and skill.
Let's hope it survives the troubled times ahead.
On Home Ground starts at 8 p.m. tomorrow on RT╔1.