At the cutting edge

TG4’s Imeall, which airs its 150th show tomorrow, has brought a fresh approach to arts programming, says Marjorie Brennan

At the cutting edge

IT is perhaps fitting that Imeall, the TG4 show that prides itself on its passion for the arts, celebrates its 150th episode tomorrow, St Valentine’s Day. The bilingual magazine programme has traversed the country in its mission to deliver informative and entertaining dispatches on arts and culture. Imeall (‘edge’) utilises arts practitioners as interviewers and reporters, an approach which was innovative when it first aired five years ago under the guidance of producer Maggie Breathnach and director Paschal Cassidy.

“The whole mantra of Imeall was simple, but it just hadn’t been done before — it was artists interviewing artists. What seemed the most obvious thing in the world hadn’t been done, and that’s what makes it different to any other arts show,” says Cassidy.

“We were trying to bring the audience along with us, without alienating them, which a lot of arts shows do. Not that we’re trying to dumb it down, but making it accessible was the big thing. That can be hard in the arts, but I think we’ve been successful.”

One of those roving reporters is poet Theo Dorgan, whose interview with novelist, Colum McCann, has been one of the show’s highlights, Dorgan displaying a naturalism and deftness of touch of which many veteran interviewers would be envious.

“We went out to Sandymount. They said: ‘walk along the beach, talk naturally and we’ll film it’. That was it,” says Dorgan. “They’re very relaxed. They don’t come with a mathematical plan of camera positions, and so on. Everyone sits down and talks, they get the feel for it, and off they go.

“One of the great strengths of the programme is that you can see that whoever is on it is enjoying being interviewed or talking about their work, and that’s a reflection of the genuine interest that the programme-makers have in them. They ask you to interview a writer, they don’t want to get the publicity blurb back. What they’re thinking is, ‘well, you both know the score, what have you got to say to each other?’. It’s always conversational, but it’s always illuminating.”

While Imeall has breathed new life into arts programming, it deserves a wider audience. How does Cassidy respond to suggestions that Imeall’s TG4 berth limits its reach? “I suppose there would be a preconception out there that, because it’s on TG4, that it’s all ‘as Gaeilge’ and wouldn’t be for everyone, but I think we’ve broken away from that over the last couple of years — doing everything on location frees us up to do way more stuff, become more inventive with how we approach a package, and so on. It’s given us more freedom to tackle stuff that would normally be English-speaking from an Irish speaker’s perspective, and vice versa.”

To Cassidy, tackling such preconceptions is a challenge. “There’s no such thing as a new idea and you find yourself sometimes reinventing the wheel, but that can be fun, as well. The big challenge, all the time, with TG4 is that you hear people say, ‘Ah, it’s the same faces cropping up all the time’, but we’ve found that hasn’t hindered us at all. We’re proud of the fact we’ve only repeated five guests over five series, which is a fair achievement. We’ve always been conscious of not taking the easy way out, finding the person out there you wouldn’t have heard of before — they can shed a whole new light on things.”

Dorgan says this positive attitude translates to the screen and viewers. “They [the Imeall team] know the audience is intelligent, they don’t feel they have to con them into ‘art’. They don’t make the mistake of looking for the lowest common denominator all the time. You get the feeling, ‘let’s use this camera and microphone to expand the conversation, a conversation that’s going on all over the country any hour of the night or day, whether people are talking about a play they’ve seen, a movie they’ve seen, an album they just bought or downloaded’. There’s no sense of alienation, probably because TG4 derived its ethos from RnaG, which is very close to its audience. It’s very much to the credit of TG4 that they’ve been very loyal to the idea that the arts are an ordinary part of everyday life.”

While featuring memorable interviews with well-known names including Sinéad O’Connor, Cillian Murphy and Michael Fassbender, Imeall has covered less promoted areas of the arts, such as dance, and this is appreciated by another of the show’s reporters, choreographer, Fearghus Ó Conchúir.

“People find the way the packages are put together are thoughtful and beautiful, in their own right. People who wouldn’t be familiar with dance find it easy, because they’re bite-sized, digestible chunks of material. It’s in-depth enough to be substantial, but it’s not too much so that anyone unfamiliar would get frightened off. It’s a well-thought-out format.

“People in the dance community watch Imeall, even if they don’t have Irish, because of the quality of the coverage. Imeall is very welcoming, it’s not telling people they have to speak Irish but, on the other hand, it’s making Irish a natural part of the conversation. It has always recognised the importance of dance and given it a lot of coverage. It is crucial for the art form that it is seen by as many people as possible. The fact that it has reporters who are experts and artists gives an amazing insight into the work. It has a friendly and open approach, which comes from the people who make it.”

Cassidy’s focus is now on the next 150 episodes. “We’re going from strength to strength. We see that with feedback and the goodwill towards the show. It’s flown by — you think you’ve done a lot, but every series you start with a blank slate and, after a couple of weeks, it starts to fill up and you realise you haven’t seen everyone, that there’s a hell of a lot more out there.”

*Imeall is on TG4 on Thursdays at 10.30pm

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