Film & Media at Institute of Art, Design Technology, Dun Laoghaire
by Díóg O’Connell. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
4x1hr (TV); First screened Sept 3rd
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Written by Mark O’Halloran
Produced by Element Films: Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe / RTÉ
One of the more exploratory and reflective pieces of television drama in recent years was produced and screened in 2007, a four part series entitled Prosperity, written by Mark O’Halloran and directed by Lenny Abrahamson who had also collaborated on Adam & Paul (2004) and Garage (2007). What makes this drama particularly interesting is its links back to a tradition of radical drama from the 1960s and 1970s known as Social Realism, evolving in Britain and appropriated by some Irish writers and directors in the nascent days of Irish television. Yet, far from being anachronistic, this turn to this tradition acquires a distinctly contemporary feel in the creator’s treatment of narrative and aesthetic.
Social Realism evolved from realism, a term with multiple definitions, but most associated in television drama with ‘kitchen sink’ drama, soap opera etc. Realism is often inextricably linked with verisimilitude, differing to naturalism by drawing attention to ‘truth’. As a concept, realism has a powerful philosophical thrust, relying on an ideological commitment to an objective, external reality — whether of timeless universal abstract notions like ‘human nature’, or of historical but objective facts like class struggle (Cook, 1990). The status of external reality is privileged over its representation, i.e. we look through the representation for a ‘truth’ beyond, or else some kind of cultural resonance, significance or explanation. Realism can be then understood as an aesthetic construct dependent upon a set of artistic conventions and forms.
Social Realism developed in British cinema first, and like other political movements in the field of cinema (French New Wave, Italian Neo-realism for example) emerged as a result of critical writings in film journals. Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz argued in the seminal film publication Sight & Sound for a new type of film ‘which would discard out-moded artifice in favour of the simplicity and freshness of personal observation of every day reality’ (Ibid: 147). As socialists, these critics/writers pitted themselves against the artificiality of Hollywood and requested a personal poetic observation of reality, giving rise to the documentary forerunner of British Social Realism known as Free Cinema. Like all movements it lasted just as long as it was commercially viable and its formation policy remained in tact — in this case its adherence to realism. The films directed by Lindsey Anderson (If, 1968), Tony Richardson (A Taste of Honey, 1961) and Karel Reisz (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960) were generally centred on themes that embodied issues of class, sex and youth, exploring what became known as the social problem film, demonstrating a committed left wing view of British films and an interest in artistic form. This aesthetic and narrative form was appropriated into television drama in the 1960s, notably in such ground-breaking productions as Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home (1966) and Tony Garnett’s Kes (1969), continuing the tradition of observational style, long takes and improvisation. These productions brought a political edge to the realism approach, by combining the specific subject matter with a distinctive aesthetic approach.
As has been noted elsewhere (Sheehan, 1988) Ireland’s output of television drama in the 1960s and 1970s was remarkable for a country of its size and the newness of its broadcasting service. While the 1960s was characterized by a predominance of Abbey Theatre stage play adaptations, the 1970s was the most innovative decade for the eclectic range of dramatic productions. Ireland’s close proximity to Britain and its nearest competitor, the BBC, meant the standards of production were set very high. This challenge, which the new station RTE rose to, particularly in the field of drama in the early days, meant that the strong tradition of social realism drama filtered through, emerging in such notable productions as A Week in the Life of Martin Cluxton (Brian MacLochlainn, 1971). Telling the story of a male youth just released from a reform school in the West of Ireland and how he tries to re-integrate into society in the absence of any state support or efforts at rehabilitation, this drama can be seen as a political drama in a similar vein to Cathy Come Home. MacLochlainn mixes documentary style approaches such as the voice over and direct address to the camera with fictional drama, portraying urban Dublin through an aesthetic of social realism. While not having the same political impact as Cathy Come Home, A Week in the Life of Martin Cluxton is an important historical document in revealing the close relations between British traditions and the nascent television station in Ireland of the 1970s. The fact that Irish writers, producers and directors were exposed to weekly BBC television drama meant that this era was both innovative and experimental. However, Ireland’s economic downturn in the 1980s meant that the level of output of drama plummeted and although recent years has seen a growth and diversity in the range of Irish television drama, the levels of 1970s production have not been recaptured despite Ireland’s economic growth and boom in the 1990s.
It is notable therefore that one of the more innovative and critically acclaimed dramas of recent years, while distinctly modern in many production approaches, is reminiscent of these historical movements and as Fintan O’Toole (2007) has noted, nods back in the direction of dramas such as Cathy Come Home and A Week in the Life of Martin Cluxton. Prosperity follows the lives of four people on one day, living on the fringes of Celtic Tiger Ireland, each episode devoted to one character, with their lives overlapping tenuously. Characterised by a low–key approach to narrative development, little in the way of plot points and dramatic moments are knitted into these stories. These dramatic scenarios unfold as observationally constructed with the significance of their stories not being realised until the closing sequence and on reflection when the subtleties of approach have sunk in.
Episode One, for example, focuses on Stacey, a 17-year-old single mother who whiles away her time on the streets of Dublin with her small baby, hanging out in the new Mecca of Ireland, the shopping centre, looking for appropriate places to feed and change her baby, while waiting to return to her welfare Bed and Breakfast accommodation each evening where she is prohibited to spend her days. The other three episodes follow the stories of Gavin, a 14 year old boy with a stammer who is both a bully and is being bullied; Georgie, who is struggling with a drink problem, and Pala, an African living in Dublin who finds herself increasingly isolated. Each episode is tenuously linked visually, rather than narratively yet all can be understood as stand-alone dramas; akin to the approach of Kieslowski’s Three Colours Trilogy. The modern urban yet alienating environment of Dublin city is evoked in a style reminiscent of Abrahamson’s earlier feature film, Adam & Paul.
While not self-consciously demonstrating that the Celtic Tiger has an under-belly, this series reveals another side to Ireland’s recent growing prosperity, that there are many marginalized people living on the fringes of society, yet they are still very much part of the complex Irish society that has developed over the past fifteen years. It is not that these stories are untold, that these sections of society are invisible or absent from the mass media or that mainstream Ireland is oblivious to this parallel way of life. If anything, this marginalized sector of Irish society is, ironically, very much visually to the fore by occupying and inhabiting public spaces in Ireland. Their existence can’t be unknown.
What is unique and innovative about this series therefore, is its approach to the art form rather than its polemical objective. This series develops out of the shadow of radical, ideologically-driven social realism drama yet has a distinctive 21st century feel to it. Neither polemical nor didactic in tone, it allows the narrative advance through the development of its characters. While British television drama of the 1960s and 1970s had a function as a consciousness-raising vehicle, Prosperity resonates more in the vein of Ken Loach’s My Name is Joe (1998) rather thanLadybird Ladybird (1994), and consequently is all the more effective for it. By focusing on the story this drama series reveals complex yet subtle characters rather than plots that simply act as a vehicle to convey snippets of time and space.
Stacy’s character in Episode 1 resonates at a deeper level through her absence of verbal expression. Failed somewhere along the way, by her family, her education, her society — we can only surmise — she has been rendered inarticulate about her own situation. This is not to say she doesn’t experience or feel emotionally, she just can’t find the means to express it. This inability, or disability, is brought into sharp relief through her relationship with her baby’s father and other people around her. The absence of control over her own life is in stark contrast to the perceived nature of modern Ireland, evoking a bygone era whereby she moves through her days, ghost-like.
Reminiscent of Kirsten Sheridan’s Disco Pigs (1999) and Lenny Abrahamson’s Adam and Paul, Gavin in Episode 2 reflects that urban male youth that has become a familiar anti-hero of recent Irish cinema. However, in Abrahamson’s construction, pity and fear is simultaneously evoked. Gavin is vulnerable but in the absence of any protection for his vulnerability he turns his emotions inside out to become a bully, way-ward, anti-social, a hard-chaw, rounding on the one companion he has. Thus his fragility wins out to tragic effect. Rather than casting the Celtic Tiger as the bête noir of contemporary Irish society, this drama reveals the complexity of a modern, neo-liberal capitalist society, giving voice not so much to the hidden aspects but allowing the shadows come to the fore.
Where this drama deviates from traditional social realism drama is in its subtle approach to its core meaning, developed and articulated through its characters, who are not simply ciphers for a polemical position but rather reveal through nuanced subtlety how some sections of Irish society have been left behind or outside, and thus excluded from the ‘great move forward’. Similarly to the early pieces, Episodes 3 & 4 tell the story of one character on this particular day and follow their narrative as they grapple with alcoholism and social exclusion respectively. It is not an angry piece, but rather an observation of those on the margins, yet people inhabiting very public physical spaces, who are encountered by mainstream society but are rarely heard or invited to speak.
Cook, Pam (1990) The Cinema Book, BFI.
O’ Toole, Fintan (2007), “The Shock of the Raw” in The Irish Times Weekend Review, 8 September.
Sheehan, Helena (1987) Irish Television Drama, RTE/IFI.