Last night saw the concluding instalment of the RTE drama ‘Charlie. This has been a long awaited series. It contained many positives and negatives that other future series should learn from and I have no doubt that the viewership figures should spark an interest in Irish political drama.
The first problem ‘Charlie’ had to overcome was the time span and the large amount of events. Unlike Colin Murphy’s ‘The Guarantee’ this series was played out over many years and condensing that down to 3 hours is a difficult business. Whereas ‘The Guarantee’ managed to keep an intensity and pace, ‘Charlie’ sometimes dragged with too many bits and pieces of information. Any movie struggles to cover something that spans so many years and events. The first problem ‘Charlie’ had as a drama was that too many side incidents were included. Many of these were a nod to stereotypes and old tales that didn’t really bring anything to the drama itself. In episode 1 far too many characters were coming and going with no real part to play. On the upside the series managed to capture some of the attraction of Haughey when he talked about vision or he played the part of the ‘outsider’ and local boy done well.
In truth to cover the events properly RTE would probably have to have commissioned a love/hate style weekly series over many weeks. Aiden Gillen and Tim Vaughan Lawler did a very good job with characters that everyone recognises and therefore are always difficult to play. However, a great weakness of ‘Charlie’ was the fact that we never got any depth from any other characters. Everybody else was superfluous and only there in a nod to history. In fact, the entire thing seemed more like the writers would have wished to just do a series of Charlie and PJ discussing events. As a stage show that might have even worked better.
Episode 2 saw the best of the series. However, for anyone with little interest in politics I don’t think this was drawing them in in the same was as ‘The west wing’. If we are not reaching new audiences and bringing this type of drama into lives of those who like TV but don’t necessarily watch the news then, personally, I think we are failing. The first step for any writer should be to try reaching a new audience, helping them understand and make it more accessible. I don’t think ‘Charlie’ achieved this.
It was highly surprising that there was not one opposition figure featured. No Garret Fitzgerald and No Dick Spring. I don’t believe you can understand Haughey without understanding those he was up against and the type of personalities involved. It was a big weakness that we never saw what Haughey faced or got to know any perception of the views external to Fianna Fail. Des O’Malley was reduced to a few predictable lines and wielding a sword. This is disappointing. O’Malley had a lot more political depth and his relationship with Haughey was never really examined. The entire series portrayed Haughey himself like a colossus among a world of pygmies. He was the only one capable of strategy. O’Malley and McCreevey were just hapless outwitted fools who never planned or organised. Haughey was the only one capable of vision, never the opposition.
The problem with this is that it led to every other character being completely two dimensional. We never saw or understood Haughey through their eyes. In fact, I would argue that it is the complex layers of so many of these relationships that makes the era so fascinating. We saw none of that. Having built Brian Lenihan up as a witless fool in two episodes the writers had a problem in the third and the portrayal of the presidential election was a disaster. The writers obviously only researched Haughey and never took the time to read James Downey or many of the other authors who have written about Lenihan and that story. While Haughey himself is the Character with most depth he also came across as totally emotionless and we could never empathise with the character unlike the real man. We never once saw the Haughey family. The over playing of the Terry Keane role was both distracting and unnecessary to the drama. It was probably hoped that this might give us insight into the personal man but it did not and there were more factual ways of doing that in a much better way. The story skipped along like a stone across the water but it never got under the surface.
By episode 3 it was clear the writers had a problem. Everyone around Haughey was a stooge and unable to match him. He had no opponents whatsoever in the opposition that we had got to know and therefore how is it possible for him to fall? In the end it all rushes along and sinks quickly and rather confusingly. Haughey may have been under pressure from forces outside politics but a lot of this had to do with him losing control of his party. McSharry was never seen really despite his pivotal role in both Haughey’s rise and his economic strategy from 1987. There was no room for strong characters other than Charlie himself. It was all explained away with a secret ‘Arms trial file’ that really wasn’t necessary.
Other things were just sloppy. The start of episode three Reynolds was referred to as the Minister for Agriculture. That is a role he never held. A basic Google could have found that out. It hinted at some very rushed writing and a lack of informed research. Several of the scenes were probably played down due to budget but let’s just say the reality was far more dramatic than what was portrayed particularly in the case of the Lenihan sacking. Reynolds was only a bit part in the series but was never built up enough to take Charlie on. The idea that Charlie left with a happy heart and leaving something to help Reynolds was also taking license. That was a bitter struggle. A few people asked me about Reynolds character in ‘Charlie’. All I can say is that the writers did give some believable lines for the amount of space the character had and that wasn’t too bad. The casting was all wrong though. The mannerisms, delivery and approach didn’t come across as Albert at all. However, this series was about ‘Charlie’ and we must remember that.
I enjoyed it overall as a piece of TV. I think it could have been so much more though. To be fair to all concerned budget is always a factor. It is very hard to take a piece of history and turn it into something that everyone can watch and that will please everyone. However, what disappointed me most was that I think it fell down on some very basic research to inform the writing. Some great scenes were missed in order to facilitate some weak fictional scenes. Credit must go to RTE for funding it and risking it though and it is great to see home-grown drama getting big viewer ratings.
There should be more of this type of drama on our TV and if there is then it can develop and progress and some of the faults that ‘the ‘Charlie’ series had can be avoided in the future. Overall though we watched, were engaged and talked about it so I guess that’s a success.