Sheamus Sweeney
Boston University’s Dublin Programs

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Quirke (TV Mini-Series 2014)

Quirke is the indirect offspring of two recent developments in television crime drama. In one respect it appears pitched at the audience that embraced the rise of Scandinavian crime drama; Nordic noir like Wallander (2005-2013), Bron/The Bridge (2011-), and Forbrydelsen/The Killing (2007-2012). This is evident in its relatively high production values, stories of institutional wrongdoing, graphic content, ambivalent conclusions and other markers of quality television. Central to these is the series origin in the crime novels of John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black), which gift it an inflected literary pedigree. Like the Swedish-Danish co-production of Bron/The Bridge it is also an international drama, through the context of its production and financing. Three ninety minute episodes were co-produced by the BBC, with the Irish companies Tyrone Productions and Element Pictures, and a €450,000 production loan from the Irish Film Board (Cummins 2012). Initially slated for broadcast on RTE1 and BBC1, there were reported pre-broadcast sales to five other European countries (Barraclough 2014).

The BBC element is particularly important as Quirke most comfortably fits into another relatively recent development; the increasing popularity of the British period crime drama. While this sub-genre has long been a popular television presence more recent examples like Inspector George Gently (2007- ), Foyle’s War (2002-2015), Endeavour (2012- ) and more recently, Grantchester (2014-) all foreground a tendency to revisit the social history of the periods in which they are set. Quirke also shares with most of these a preference for short runs of three or four feature length episodes, a format inaugurated by Inspector Morse (1987-2000), of which Endeavour is a prequel, and which Foyle’s War was intended to replace in the schedule (Nicholas 2007: 207). These dramas are aimed at an older audience than the one for the latest Nordic noir. However, the original Swedish version of Wallander, dubbed “Norse Morse” by one critic (Tapper 2009: 60), would not look particularly out of place on the all-crime cable channel Alibi. Furthermore, Foyle’s War, for all of its connotations of cosy crime and wartime nostalgia, initially used its period setting to revisit, revise, and disinter marginalised narratives of anti-semitism, pacifism, communism, and xenophobia (Nicholas 2007).

Ireland, specifically Dublin in the 1950s, would seem a prime space and place for such dramatic exploration. The decade sees the post-independence Catholic and conservative political, economic, and religious establishment at the height of its power. Kate Warner’s (2009: 729) argument that “in many cases the model of investigation used in detective shows is set up to specifically echo that of historians” seems particularly apposite in the case of Quirke (Gabriel Byrne). Quirke is a pathologist who dissects the bodies of dead women to uncover which particular cultural or historical hypocrisy killed them. In common with other dramatic revisiting of the past, these discoveries often make veiled references to current preoccupations. Quirke’s first episode, Christine Falls, re-treads familiar ground of abuse and illegal adoption in religious run institutions.

Like most amateur sleuths, Quirke is drawn into investigations seemingly against his better judgement, by a mixture of curiosity and circumstance. He is an outsider, a Heathcliff type foundling, and a non-believer adrift in a sea of self-serving piety. This status is underlined in the opening credits, where he appears as an indistinct outline, and the space where his body should be is filled with events and images from the upcoming episodes. The streets of Dublin appear suitably grainy, rainy and noir-like. Like his adopted brother Malachy, an obstetrician, Quirke is a doctor, but ministers at the opposite end of the life cycle. Oscar Latimer, who appears as brother of the titular missing woman in the third episode, Elegy for April, is also an obstetrician. All three exercise dominion over women’s bodies, although in Quirke’s case the seeming exclusivity of his focus is due more to crime fiction convention than to any subjective bias of his own. The opening scenes of the first two episodes feature women’s bodies laid out on a slab in his mortuary. The second episode, The Silver Swan, opens with a middle class woman, complete with fox fur stole, sitting dead in a car, a shoe hanging off her stockinged foot and top blouse button undone. The sexualisation of her corpse is especially, and possibly deliberately, jarring, as it is followed immediately by her graphic post-mortem.

In terms of its dramatic quality and thematic coherence, Quirke’s limited run of three episodes is uneven. While it attempts reasonably faithful adaptations of source material with a specifically Irish focus, the subject matter is the raw material of most crime fiction; conspiracy, corruption, blackmail, sexual jealousy and institutional wrongdoing. Unfortunately, even in comparison with a drama like Foyle’s War, there is little sense of thematic boundaries being tested, or the presentation of a newer perspective on familiar events. The revelation of illegal adoption practices within mother and baby homes is not particularly revelatory, nor is its augmentation by a conspiracy plot involving wealthy and powerful men. It is worth acknowledging that the plot may have had more edge in its 2006 source novel, which was based on an abandoned mini-series mooted for co-production by RTE and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) (Independent.ie 2014).

The uneven tone is also apparent in The Silver Swan, which abandons the broader themes of the first and third episodes for a generic sexual blackmail plot. The episode has a placeless quality and could easily slot into any number of crime drama series. Respectable middle class women are induced, under the influence of drugs, to undress for nude photographs which are used to blackmail them. Yet this is not the episode’s most troubling element, underlined by its Irish setting, as the two main corrupting influences in the story are foreign. Lesley White is an English drug-addict, libertine and embezzler, who steals from his business partner Deirdre Hunt. The drug dealer and pornographer who persuades women to undress for his photographs is Hakim Kreuz, and is clearly signalled as a native of the Indian subcontinent. In the book he is described as part-German, but no such qualification is present here. Therefore Catholic middle class respectability is outraged by two sleazy foreigners, presented as straightforwardly corrupt and self-serving, without a hint of nuance or mitigation. The only element that potentially undermines this reading is the implication that Deirdre Hunt, an uppity working class Dubliner, is partially the architect of her own downfall.

The milieu of the novels and adaptations is that of the 1950s Catholic upper middle class, whose worldview, and the dramas themselves, is largely bounded by affluent Dublin south of the river Liffey. This is humorously adverted to by Quirke’s incrementally acquired northsider sidekick, Inspector Hackett (Stanley Townsend), who jokes about being in south Dublin without his passport. Despite initially appearing as an identikit clueless copper, his silences and tendency to understatement slowly reveal a character who understands the institutions he confronts far better than Quirke. He does what he can, within the boundaries that Quirke consistently oversteps. His development stands in stark contrast to Quirke’s estranged daughter Phoebe Griffin (Aisling Franciosi), a plot device masquerading as a character, who alternates between potential victim and plot catalyst. In Christine Falls she is revealed both as a partial explanation for Quirke’s own dysfunction, and as the seed from which a larger conspiracy evolves.

In an interview published as the series aired on BBC1, Gabriel Byrne describes the church-dominated society of the time as “Talibanesque” (Independent.ie 2014). Banville suggests that “the Catholic Church was our [the Irish] Communist Party” (ibid). The narratives themselves seem to cut against such statements. What is striking about both Elegy for April, and Christine Falls in particular, is the marginal role played by the institutional church. The adoptions that form the core of the plot are initiated and sustained by a lay organisation, the Knights of Saint Patrick. The role of the religious orders at either end of the adoption supply chain is effectively warehousing and logistics, mirroring the transport business of Quirke’s American father-in law. His father, Judge Griffin, is a papal knight. The plot climax in Elegy for April takes place as another lay organisation, Corpus Christi, meets to honour a veteran of the War of Independence. This is one of the stronger recurring tropes within the series; religion as a fundamentally social and political infrastructure to reproduce and maintain power in the hands of a self-selecting elite.

Even granted the need to appeal to international audiences, neither of the first two episodes rises much above the level of melodrama. The only part of Christine Falls with a ring of truth is its conclusion where Judge Griffin suggests that the police will only laugh if Quirke, his adopted son, starts telling tales of illegal adoptions and abducted babies. In The Silver Swan it is revealed that the adoptions investigation has been quietly dropped. Both were written by veteran screenwriter Andrew Davies, whose credits include the original House of Cards (1990) and the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. There is little in either episode to really engage an Irish audience, or for that matter any audience accustomed to better executed dramas about personal or institutional corruption. The partial exception to this is the third episode, Elegy for April, written by playwright and screenwriter Conor McPherson (The Seafarer (2006) and I Went Down (1997)).

The writing in this episode is characterised by its attempted exploration of the legacy of the generation who won independence. It engages with their financial, political, and media power, and the revolution’s degeneration into censorious morality and self-interested silence. These elements emerge through Quirke’s investigation into the disappearance of April Latimer, independent-minded daughter of a prominent Fianna Fail family. It reveals the effects of a psychic disfiguration caused by the struggle for independence, which is then transmitted through the generations. It is not the most nuanced of symbolic representations, but is welcome as an exploration of the nature of Irish political dynasties. It is perhaps unsurprising that McPherson has more of a feel for the historical period than Davies, and he approaches it primarily as an Irish drama with crime elements, rather than as a crime drama.

Elegy for April, while not without problems, stands qualitatively apart from the others. It opens without a body, focussing in its teaser sequence on the trembling figure of the alcoholic Quirke, drying out in a religious run institution. The contradictory class politics of republicanism are hinted at. When Quirke and Hackett visit Celia Latimer to discuss her daughter’s disappearance, she speaks only to Quirke, son of a High Court judge, and ignores the working class Hackett. By contrast her brother-in-law, as befits a minister on the cusp of the pragmatic and technocratic Lemass era, treats Quirke with open contempt, as only Hackett has professional competence in the area. McPherson’s script is strengthened by other narrative and visual details. In an early scene Quirke listens to a de Valera speech on the radio addressing “the twin evils of unemployment and emigration”, a theme bound to resonate with the television audience. When Phoebe’s journalist friend, who works for the de Valera controlled Evening Press, writes a story about April’s disappearance, he is sacked. At the conclusion of the episode he writes the full story, but this time for the Irish Times, formerly the voice of protestant unionism, and without any party affiliation. On both occasions the papers’ mastheads figure prominently. Patrick Ojukwu, a doctor from Benin, is introduced as part of the social group including April Latimer and Phoebe Griffin. While his presence mostly adverts to the continuity of racism within Irish society, it also suggests the possibility of miscegenation within the Latimer family. Incest, Malachy Griffin presciently observes, would undoubtedly be seen as a lesser evil.

The how and why of women’s death constitutes the raw material of the plot in all three episodes, as it does in much crime drama. In the case of April Latimer, it turns out that she died as the result of a botched abortion. In The Silver Swan, Deirdre Hunt is murdered by her husband, in what can only be described as an honour killing. He reflects, “It’s the women isn’t it. It’s always the women. What they do to us, what we do to them.” It is a line worthy of sentimental misogynists everywhere. Unfortunately, the women not despatched violently are treated little better. Sarah Griffin, Quirke’s sister-in-law, and the love of his life, dies in the second episode, for seemingly no other reason than to deny him happiness after they belatedly sleep together. Phoebe occupies almost as much screen time as Quirke, but has no narrative of her own, and her storylines centre on sexual encounters that leave her respectively traumatised, manipulated, or rejected. The one potential counterpoint is the actress Isobel Galloway, whose response to Quirke’s desperate plea for help is to drive him back to the alcohol clinic and leave him there.

Raphael Samuels (1994, p.657) argues that “our understanding of the historical past is constructed not so much in the light of documentary evidence, but rather of the symbolic space or imaginative categories into which representations are fitted.” As a crime drama Quirke largely stays true to genre convention by eschewing a wider societal critique, something to which Irish crime drama would be particularly amenable, given the overlap between state, church and business during the dramatized period. In this respect, part of the problem with crime drama is that a formalistic adherence to generic constraints and tropes tends to predominate. This is also apparent in the Banville-Black novels, and of course these formal elements form part of the genre’s attraction. Of equal importance is the difficulty of balancing the need to make an export-friendly drama, while still attempting to say something about a country whose audience is of limited commercial import. While the final episode of Quirke was partially successful in this regard, for British and other audiences it has too little to distinguish it from the plethora of dramas about detectives in hats that clog up their own screens. This is underlined by BBC1’s decision to schedule it almost as something of an afterthought in May 2014, four months after it aired on RTE. In spite of the faults identified here it would be unfortunate if, as seems likely, Quirke does not return, and not only because of the potential for development apparent in its final episode. It is also one of the few counterpoints to Irish television’s seemingly insatiable desire to equate urban Ireland with either a vacuous middle class, or a violent underclass.

Works Cited

Barraclough, R. 2014. “007 creator drama Fleming spies sales with BBC Worldwise”. Variety [Online], 20 January. Available from: http://variety.com/2014/tv/news/007-creator-drama-fleming-spies-sales-with-bbc-worldwide-1201065463/ [Accessed 6 March 2015].

Cummins, S. 2012. “Gabriel Byrne to shoot BBC crime thriller Quirke in Dublin”. The Irish Film and Television Network [Online], 27 August. Available from: http://www.iftn.ie/news/?act1=record&aid=73&rid=4285270&tpl=archnews [Accessed 6 March 2015].

Independent.ie. 2014. “Gabriel Byrne returning to Dublin for second series of QuirkeIndependent.ie [Online], 22 May. Available from: http://www.independent.ie/entertainment/tv-radio/gabriel-byrne-returning-to-dublin-for-second-series-of-quirke-30295762.html [Accessed 6 March 2015].

Nicholas, S. 2007. “History, revisionism and television drama: Foyle’s War and the ‘myth of 1940’”. Media History, (13) 2/3, pp.203-219.

Samuels, R. 1994 [2012]. Theatres of memory: past and present in contemporary culture. [Kindle edition] London: Verso.

Tapper, M. 2009. “‘More than ABBA and skinny dipping in mountain lakes’: Swedish dystopia, Henning Mankell and the British Wallander series”. Film International, (7) 2, pp.60-69.