Glamour does not abound: just look at the Healy-Raes. So why would you watch a TV drama about our inglorious political elite? Aidan Gillen and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor are to play Ireland’s ultimate political partnership, Charlie Haughey and PJ Mara, but how have politicians, at home and abroad, fared when they’ve made the leap from real life to the screen?
Vampires aren’t the only bloodsuckers to have become fodder for Hollywood and TV Land. Recently, politicians have become inspiring programmes. Chief muse is Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady. From cameos in films such as A View To A Kill to Some Mother’s Son, Thatcher had been portrayed by the cream of Britain’s actresses, until Meryl Streep slipped out of her farm in Africa and into the leather heels of Britain’s only female PM. The film, The Iron Lady, won Streep yet another Oscar.
There’s better Maggie drama, such as the BBC’s Long Walk to Finchley, which even has an amusing homage to Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, as Maggie walks bustlingly from camera, the shot fixed on her backside.
When not playing other people’s politicians, the Americans have portrayed their own for years, with dozens of biopics on TV and the silver screen.
Often, they are played by titans of acting, like Wicklow’s adopted son, Daniel Day-Lewis, or Welshman Anthony Hopkins. Aficionados of foreign-language films will have seen Francois Miterrand brought back to life in the fascinating The Last Mitterrand.
So what of our home-grown greats?
Apparently, the first instance of an Irish politician getting the celluloid treatment was Robert Emmet, in 1908, though there was little chance of a sequel, for obvious reasons.
The big names of Irish politics have been played by some of the most durable names in Irish acting. Peter O’Toole was a chancy, lean, mean Jim Larkin in Strumpet City, while Eamon DeValera was famously portrayed by Englishman Alan Rickman, alongside Liam Neeson’s Michael Collins in the film of the same name.
Barry McGovern was the ‘Long Fella’ in RTE’s excellent The Treaty, opposite a burly Brendan Gleeson, playing an even burlier Collins.
Meanwhile, Dev’s successor, Sean Lemass, was good enough company for a young Indiana Jones in the eponymous TV series of the 1990s.
Collins, of course, is best-remembered on screen as portrayed by Ballymena man Neeson, when the villainous Rickman might have shot Collins, so evil was his de Valera. Imperfect, the film accidentally threw up comedy gold, when Aidan Quinn, as Harry Boland, hilariously remonstrated with Collins in a plaintive Bertie-esque accent: ‘Ah, Mick, you gave away de Nort!’
Among modern political types, it’s been slim pickings. It’s so bad, they’ve had to be made up.
Arthur Matthews and Ardal O’Hanlon teamed up to create the hapless Val Falvey. While its success might have been modest, Val Falvey pinned down the archetypal Irish backbench TD perfectly: dilettantish, there by accident of birth and not much between the ears.
Across the pond, in BBC series The Ambassador, Owen Roe became a regular fixture as Minister Kevin Flaherty, who seemed to have a lot of time for the BBC programme’s heroine, played by Pauline Collins. They even cast TP McKenna to play a Taoiseach who had the gait and growl of one Charles James Haughey, without naming him as such.
Haughey is still a lightning rod, for adoration and loathing in near equal, tribal measure. His flaws have been exposed like few others, in tribunals and chat show tell-alls.
His most successful portrayals thus have been on the legendary satirical radio show Scrap Saturday, and in Sebastian Barry’s play Hinterland and the dramatised readings of tribunal proceedings on radio and live.
The choice of Gillen to play the great little man seems perfect. Gillen’s acting pedigree is anything but flawed.
He checks all the boxes — he’s played a smooth-talking politician, in the shape of Tommy Carcetti, in The Wire.
He’s a self-made man practiced in the dark arts at court, as Lord Robert, in Game of Thrones. And he was John Boy, the unhinged crime lord of Love/Hate.
It remains to be seen if the finished article will live up to the hype, and up to the real-life Haughey, who was compelling drama in his own right.
It should, however, be pointed out that PJ Mara never gunned down Haughey with supermarket classical muzak playing in the background. That was Albert Reynolds.