This is a story about power

Haughey at ArdFheis

The Irish equivalent of the BBC is called RTE. RTE commissions television programmes and broadcasts the news, and so on. Well, last night, the final item on the news was – that an RTE drama was going to air after the news.

When that happens, I don’t think you can feel like you live in a first rate country.

They’ve made a three part drama about an Irish politician, Charlie Haughey, a man who became prominent in the 1960s as a rising political star, was disgraced in 1970, endured “wilderness years” for much of the Seventies, and ousted the Prime Minister who had brought him back in to the cold just as the Seventies turned into the Eighties. The show begins on the eve of that ousting.

“This is a story about power”, says the writer, Colin Teevan.

The problem is: we watched The House of Cards last year. RTE couldn’t hope to better it. It takes 13 episodes for Frank Underwood to manoeuvre himself into the Vice Presidency. In Charlie, it takes Haughey twenty minutes to overthrow the incumbent. It’s event after event, dutifully ticked off, “dramatized”, and designed to give us “insight” into the man’s character: a trip to Paris where he meets the German Chancellor and returns with luxury shirts, efforts to win over Thatcher, a tragic fire in a nightclub, the Hunger Strikes – but all it rarely amounts to more than fleshing out a wikipedia profile.

Why is this? At one time or another you will hear someone say that Haughey’s story is “Shakespearian”, because he had great talents and great flaws. I think the perception that his life was Shakespearian misleads people into thinking that a dramatization of his life would be compelling. In fact, a dramatization of anyone’s life is rarely compelling: again, it will hardly be possible to avoid fleshing out a wikipedia profile.

You can’t take twelve years of a political career and make a four hour drama out of them: it will not be dramatic, even if the raw materials – the events of the life – were “dramatic”. It will be a run-through nostalgia avenue for those who lived through the events.

It still doesn’t seem to be obvious that compelling drama – in a case like this – consists of a person overcoming various obstacles to achieve a goal. In Haughey’s case – like in Frank Underwood’s – that goal was power. What do you do after the character attains power? House of Cards has two seasons – 26 hours – under its belt, and Frank has only now achieved his goal. After twenty minutes of Charlie, Haughey became Prime Minister and the remaining sixty minutes was just – things that happened then.

If you make a biopic-type drama, it will always be second place to dramatic fiction – this is true even of Lincoln. Biopics satisfy no unconscious needs in the viewer, and actors and writers should avoid them.

The writer of Charlie thinks his show “is about power”. It’s not. House of Cards is about power, and it is universal. The same applies to Borgen, just in case you think it’s unfair to compare a well-funded American production with a drama by a small little tiny country that is just doing its best. Charlie is about re-creating an era in a reasonably accurate way and bringing a politician and his coterie “to life”, mainly for the entertainment of over-fifties on the island of Ireland.

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