Goodbye `Glenroe'


Every 22 years, I get to write an obituary for a TV programme. The last one, when The Riordans' 15-year life was ended, appeared in this paper on January 13th, 1979. The RTE press statement, issued just before Christmas, had told us that it was better "to stop when the series was still drawing strongly favourable reactions", and I'm still trying to get my head round that one. I was also given to understand that rural drama had had its day, so I was puzzled when, coming to the end of that final season, I was asked to come up with a spin-off, in the form of a mini-series. Gabriel Byrne had joined The Riordans by then, as the smouldering Pat Barry, so I suggested that his father might die and that Pat should go back to Slievebracken to take over the home farm, running sheep on the mountain. Once we got him there, we could do a classic "western" story which we would call Bracken, with Gabriel playing the gallant homesteader struggling against the cattle-baron who wanted his land - and who, naturally, had a beautiful daughter. It would still be rural but maybe people wouldn't notice. With Noel O Briain directing, I did two seasons of that, and might be doing it still, if Gabriel had not been lured away by Hollywood.

But he was. I was then invited to come up with another weekly series, or soap, based on the characters of Dinny and Miley Byrne, who had made a very strong impression in Bracken. This confused me, since I had been reliably informed that rural drama had died three years before. And Dinny and Miley were unmistakably rural.

But this time we were to set it closer to Dublin, which made it all right. Pat Barry married the cattle-baron's daughter, which enabled him to buy Dinny and Miley's farm and allowed them to make the journey over the mountain to a new home in Glenroe.

All this was put in place, with much art and industry, by Brian MacLochlainn, and the first episode of Glenroe went out on September 11th, 1983.

The characters in that first couple of episodes were the blow-ins from Slievebracken, Dinny and Miley Byrne; their new neighbours, the MacDermotts, Michael and Mary and their daughter Biddy; the local estate agent, Dick Moran and his son Matt; and a neighbouring grower, Stephen Brennan. There was also an eligible widow, Madge O'Regan, at whom Dinny would set his cap, though it would come to nothing. He would save himself for the arrival, years later, of the glamorous and well-heeled Teasy. Miley was impressed by the horticultural expertise of Biddy MacDermott. He took her advice, not only on carrots and parsnips, but on how best he might woo her younger sister, Carol. It would take some time before he would transfer his affections to Biddy and begin an epic courtship that would lead them, in no great hurry, to the altar. Biddy's mother Mary had married ageing bachelor Michael MacDermott when she was 18, and had remained a teenager while her husband grew old. From the first moment she and the handsome Dick Moran appeared on screen together, there was no doubting what would follow.

Of that first company, how many remain? Joe Lynch, a national institution in his own right, created another in Dinny, but now Dinny is gone. Biddy too is gone and sadly missed. Michael MacDermott, played by that fine Abbey actor, Michael O Briain, is long gone, and Madge O'Regan and young Matt Moran. But the others are all still there. Bobby Carrickford, as Stephen Brennan, still dispenses wisdom from the bar stool. Geraldine Plunkett and Emmet Bergin, as Dick and Mary, are still, after 18 years, trying to sort out their love-life. And the inimitable Mick Lally will carry his alter ego Miley on his back for ever. Many others - literally hundreds - have come and gone. In the three years since I departed from the show, there have been dozens of new arrivals whom I have never met. So, although I'm tempted to sneak in the names of my favourites, like George, and Teasy, and Tim Devereux, and Michelle, and Blackie . . . no stop! No more lists of names. They know who they are and how much they are appreciated, not only by myself, but by their great countrywide audience.

I have noticed in recent years that in discussions of TV programmes, the buzz-word is "driven", with a hyphen in front. A soap, for instance, is categorised as "issue-driven", or "character-driven", or "story-driven". Less often mentioned - at least not out-loud - is "ratings-driven", though that consideration has come to dominate all others.

Not 10 years ago, we were accustomed to audiences between one million and one and a half million. If Glenroe fell below a million, it was a crisis. Now, with the huge increase in choice, those days are gone. Only the most shameless kack can reach such numbers. But, for better or worse, ratings remain the chief preoccupation and in the area of soap, one guiding principle has emerged . . . that frequency is all.

To explain this, let me recall the Great Ratings War between Coronation Street and EastEnders. When they were both going out twice a week, Corrie was winning. Then EastEnders went to three times a week, and in no time it took the lead, but Corrie then went to three and took it back. Then Corrie went to four times a week and . . . All right, I realise how boring this is, but it confirms the simple point that the more often a programme appears in a week, the higher its rating goes. The added benefit is that the show becomes more lively, since there must be more characters and more stories to fill the extra time. By now, Hollyoaks and Brookside, both on Channel Four, have three weekly outings each. Emmerdale has five. I haven't the strength to count the numbers for Neighbours or Home and Away, but in the end, Glenroe has been left as the only soap in the archipelago struggling along on one slot a week. That number should have been doubled, at the very least, years ago. The fact that it has continued to hold its own in the ratings against the thrice-weekly Fair City is a kind of miracle.

Apart from that one gripe, I have only the fondest memories of Glenroe, and of the friends I made there. Three years ago, I left to try my hand at other things but when Paul Cusack asked me to write the New Year's Eve episode, I jumped at the chance. We did not know then that we were due for the chop, but as it has turned out, it gave me the chance to be in at the death, as at the birth, and for that I am grateful. And there are still 15 episodes to go.

So let there be no whingeing or moaning at the bar for Glenroe, which, for 18 years, gave good neighbours to a generation. All who were part of that have cause for pride.