‘Embarrassment of riches’ for makers of Haughey drama ‘Charlie’

Trilogy about disgraced Taoiseach will air on RTÉ One from January 4th

It's grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented– and that's just the hair. Charlie, the new trilogy of dramas about the rise, reign and fall of Charles Haughey, will be on RTÉ screens from Sunday, January 4th, and for the makers the problem was not what to put in but what to leave out.

Executive producer Rob Pursey describes the events of Haughey's life as "an embarrassment of riches", while writer Colin Teevan says there were "things that fell by the wayside that were particularly extraordinary" because even a running time of three 90-minute episodes proved "tight".

A preview suggests that the drama, starring Aidan Gillen as Haughey, is laced with both wry humour and the flavour of a Shakespearean tragedy.

The first episode, Rise, covering the events of 1979 to 1981, includes the moment when Haughey delivers his now notorious "we are living way beyond our means" address from January 1980. This is shown pointedly over pictures of fur-coated guests leaving an Abbeville party in high spirits.


The second episode, Gubu, relives the scandalous events of 1982, while the final part of the trilogy, Fall, documents the 1989-1992 circling of enemies.

The makers of Charlie, a co-production by Element Pictures and UK company Touchpaper, stress that it is a drama, "not a biopic", nor is it their intention to cast judgement on the disgraced former taoiseach, who died in 2006.

Haughey's long-term relationship with journalist Terry Keane (Lucy Cohu) is only featured because it is "connected" to how Haughey behaved in power, Teevan says. "An affair is not very interesting drama, really."

Asked for his response to the concerns of the Haughey family that Charlie will be a "hatchet job" because the makers did not interview people who knew Haughey well, Teevan says "everyone we thought would be relevant" had been approached and that some people had declined to co-operate.

“Who we talked to and what was said was always done on the understanding that it was confidential, so I’m not willing to comment further on that.”

Like Teevan, Gillen grew up on the northside of Dublin at a time when Haughey’s “face was everywhere” and politics was “probably even more of a national sport” than it is today. “This was a man who seemed to inspire utter devotion in some people and total antipathy in others.”

He was not aiming for a full impersonation in his portrayal. “That wouldn’t work,” he says. But because he is such a familiar figure, “there is an attempt to look something like him and sound something like him.”

And glare much like him.

The producers of Charlie, which cost about €4 million to make, do expect that there will be some fallout from its broadcast. For his part, Gillen says he was aware from the outset that it would be "impossible to please everybody", but he was satisfied that the story is fair. "If it was a sensationalist hatchet job, I wouldn't have been interested in any way."

Every taxi driver in the country has their own version of a Haughey story, says Teevan. “This is mine. Luckily I got to make mine. But yes, he’s a controversial character, he’s a divisive character, so a drama about him could hardly not be.”

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery is an Irish Times journalist writing about media, advertising and other business topics