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A 'Rebellion' in Manor Street

Above: remember this? It’s a ‘Rebellion’ in Manor Street

Ruth Bradley is a fine Irish actor and her latest award was for “Best Lead Actress Drama” at the IFTAs ceremony at the weekend. It was for RTÉ’s historical drama Rebellion.

RTÉ’s own coverage of the awards hardly mentions the fact. OK, her name is there, once, tucked away at the end of the main story, among the full list of winners. But that’s it.

Now normally when a TV station wins a big award it trumpets it to the heavens. So what’s going on?

1. ‘Rebellion’ (2016)

Rebellion was all over the place at the start of this year. It was almost impossible to avoid. Billboards, long interviews with the central cast on flagship TV shows, preview clips, press releases, launches. You could be forgiven for thinking that it was going to be The Big Thing of 2016. The marketing stuff even reached the walls of Stoneybatter.

Yet a couple of months after the series was first broadcast it has been almost completely erased from the official record.

What’s that fishy smell?

It’s of Irish broadcasting history being rewritten. The people in Montrose are good at that.

When RTÉ announced its 1916 programming last November, it said the five-part drama series was to be the major highlight of its output to mark the Easter Rising centenary. The announcement listed Rebellion as the first of its highlights. Not tucked away at the bottom, not fifth or even second but the first.

The November 2015 press release is over 3,400 words long, with plenty about Rebellion. The release is also remarkable not only for what it showcases, but also for what programmes it leaves out. I’ll come to those omissions in a minute.

Rebellion had a €6 million budget and a Finnish director, and did its bit for climate change by being “proudly sponsored by Kia Motors”. It was also given a cinema launch in Dublin last December, in the Light House in Smithfield.

RTÉ Television’s Managing Director Glen Killane said at the launch:

Rebellion is a key part of our RTÉ 1916 output, marking the beginning of a series of programming across television, radio and online where audiences can engage with, understand, commemorate and celebrate 1916.

Got that, a key part.

After the first episode, the same Glen Killane said about the viewing figures:

Delivering distinctive Irish drama is a key part of RTÉ’s remit as a public service broadcaster and it’s great to see that so many people enjoyed the opening episode of ‘Rebellion’. The five-part drama is a major part of the RTÉ 1916 output…

“A key part”, “a major part”. Right, got that too.

And, he said, so many people “enjoyed” it.

Hold on a mo. Raw viewing figures do not in themselves signify enjoyment, surely?

Mind you, the audience figures do tell a story of sorts. The first episode had 619,000 viewers, big in Irish terms, a 41% audience share. An Irish Times article the next day had the headline: “RTÉ’s ‘Rebellion’ seizes power in battle for viewers”. Dig those military metaphors.

Three weeks and another three episode later, the same newspaper’s headlines told a different story: ” ‘Rebellion’ TV series surrenders its hold on viewers”.

Viewing figures. I’m among those figures somewhere, so I guess I figure too. Like many of my friends, I watched the episodes with a growing sense of horror and disbelief. I figured that instead of an engaging drama about a key moment in Irish history, we were getting a bad costume drama, a sort of “Downton Abbey Street” with Mausers. One newspaper columnist called its portrayal of the Rising “risible”.

So where to start? The terrible script? The plodding pace? The unbelievable characters?

One central character, the “ordinary” working-class lad played by Brian Gleeson, was a sort of Zelig with superhuman powers. He managed not only to print the rebel leaders’ Proclamation and to make the world’s first radio broadcast, but also to fight outside Dublin Castle and in the GPO and in the battle of Northumberland Road. Unscathed too.

Then in the run-up to Easter 2016, about around a month after Rebellion ended it shuffled away and was quietly removed from the RTÉ Player. The series previously billed as a “key” / “major” / “main” highlight of the centenary output was now nowhere to be seen.

OK, almost nowhere: you can still search the RTÉ website for mentions of the drama – and there was a plethora of mentions up to January. But by last month and all the Easter commemorations all the episodes of the series – along with all those “behind-the-scenes making-of” clips and interviews online – had disappeared.

The RTÉ Player on its website has a section devoted to 1916 which has accumulated dozens of programmes since the start of the year. Some of them were broadcast in the same week as Rebellion, yet Rebellion has gone. It’s as though the show had never existed.

You know how, when Stalin’s disgraced former colleagues were removed from office, they’d also be removed from the photographs too? It’s like a case of the “vanishing commissars”. The case of the vanishing commissioned dramas.


Spot the difference


2. ‘Insurrection’ (1966)

On 5 March 2016 RTÉ said it was searching for cast members and their relatives of Insurrection, a series the station made in 1966. It gave no indication that the series might be about to be repeated.

Then, equally out of the blue, on 8 March RTÉ announced that it would be screening Insurrection again, for the first time since 1966. On Morning Ireland the following morning and on the TV news that night the rescreening story was a major item.

A bit of background: Insurrection is an eight-part drama that was first shown on successive nights in Easter 1966 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Rising. Less than four years later, the “Troubles” flared up in Northern Ireland, and Insurrection was lost or locked away in a bottom drawer in Montrose. Maybe the series no longer fitted the orthodoxies of the Irish establishment down south. It was somehow “subversive” or “incendiary”, an embarrassing chapter in the station’s history. Apparently it would never be shown again, not even on DVD.

So last month’s announcement – that they had resurrected the series from the archives, had had it lovingly restored, and this new print was to be shown on successive nights in less than a fortnight’s time this Easter – was both sudden and surprising to say the least.

Even more surprisingly, the same announcement revealed that Insurrection’s restoration project had been completed by RTÉ’s archives conservation staff and Windmill Lane post production studios not a week ago or a month ago but back in 2007.

So if the restored print already existed for almost a decade, why didn’t the rescreening in March merit any mention in all the announcements and hoopla last November about the centenary programming? Had Insurrection been overlooked?

The biggest surprise of all: what programming slots did the station allocate for these new broadcasts? 11.30 pm to midnight each night – or 12.05 am in the case of one Sunday night episode. Audiences at that time of night are tiny; if the show attracted more than 10 or 11% of that minuscule audience it would be a miracle.

Was the series deliberately shunted away to the most obscure times imaginable? Or was it such a last-minute addition that the only available slots  – without a noticeable dismantling of existing schedules – were around midnight?

Insurrection deserved far, far better. OK, the series has a few wobbly moments, but today it offers a very special, almost mesmerising kind of time travel. It uses a clever alt-history or sci-fi device of having a modern TV newsroom reporting on the Easter week events half a century before, as if they were unfolding “in real time” (as we say nowadays), and as if television already existed back in 1916.

For a modern Irish TV audience in 2016 looking back at a drama made in 1966 about the events in 1966, you get to travel back in time not once but twice – to the Rising itself and to the televisual world of half a century ago. See? Mesmerising.

Insurrection is astonishing in its scale and imagination, particularly given that the TV station was only four years old at the time it was made. Today, despite being “ancient TV” from a black-and-white age – or perhaps because of it – Insurrection clearly still has an audacity, a verve, a wonderful sense of history.

The  smart script is by Hugh Leonard – who went on to create the magnificent TV adaptation of James Plunkett’s Strumpet City 14 years later, about the 1913 Lockout – and at the centre of it all as the newsroom anchorman is the majestic presence of Ray McAnally.

A tale of two stations

So while Rebellion has become today’s embarrassment, already being written out of RTÉ history, Insurrection – a previous triumph then an embarrassment for nearly half a century – was being rescreened almost out of the blue, at an awful time of night, either as a belated attempt to patch things up or as a token gesture.

In a way, this story of the journey from the brilliance of Insurrection in 1966 to the sheer mess of Rebellion in 2016 reflects the 50-year journey that RTÉ itself has undergone.

It is a tale of two stations, and the rapid change from relatively radical beginnings and brave decisions and a mixture of naivety and original thinking to a very different kind of station – one with stale ideas, a safety-first-at-all-costs mentality, of covering arses and revising your own history, and treating the staff canteen as the beginning and end of the universe, and wondering where the next big sponsorship deal will come from.

At least Insurrection is still available on the RTÉ Player at the time of writing. We probably won’t hear much of Rebellion again, apart from the launch of the DVD, the Region One version.

A note about the cast

When they announced the re-broadcast of Insurrection, RTÉ’s PR department noted that the series “starred Anna Manahan, Jim Norton, Ronnie Walsh and Kathleen Watkins among others”.

Not exactly the set of names that I’d begin with. The “among others” include a fleeting appearance by the late great Donal McCann, a chirpy Mike Murphy as a Volunteer in at least two episodes, Abbey actor Eoin O’Súilleabháin as Pearse, and a young lass called Sabina Coyne as Cumann na mBan member Julia Grennan.

Sabina is kinda famous. With Deirdre O’Connell, she co-founded the Focus Theatre in Dublin in 1963. Insurrection was a rare cinematic outing for her, a quick break from the usual Chekhov and Ibsen plays on stage.

Sabina first met her future husband in 1969. She gave up full-time acting after they married in 1974 and had four children, but she stayed involved with theatre and community arts around Galway, and she worked with Druid, An Taibhearch and other groups. In her sixties she became a mature student, and received a BA in Arts and an MA in Theatre.

After spotting her in Insurrection, I happened to see her again and again on the TV this Easter during the 1916 commemorations. You see, Sabina is more famous than ever. She was attending the ceremonies with her husband, who’s famous too. He’s now the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins.