From Game of Thrones to Ripper Street, more and more of the television we love to watch is filmed in Ireland. Our cities and countryside have become the perfect backdrop for the latest shows, many of which are set in, or inspired by, periods in history.
Period dramas have always been popular on both the big and small screens. But now more than ever, this genre is riding the crest of a wave and Ireland’s film industry is making the most of the favourable conditions. Advantageous tax breaks lure in production companies but filmmakers need more than financial incentives and attractive scenery to evoke the past. Time-travel is a difficult feat to accomplish without the right experts on the ground.
Dr Donal O’Drisceoil, lecturer in History at UCC has worked as historical consultant on Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley and his latest film Jimmy’s Hall set in 1930’s Leitrim. Donal worked closely with writer Paul Laverty, researching the real life story of Jimmy Gralton.
“I prepared packs for them about the characters and gave them historical context,” he explains. “Part of the schedule for the actors before filming involves training for particular skills like horse riding and included in that schedule are seminars on the history of the period.”
Game of Thrones has become a global phenomenon and is one of the most successful productions ever filmed on this island. An amalgamation of literary fiction and fantasy, the show is also steeped in historical references. The crew have the arduous task of combining all these elements into visual effect without distracting from the story.
Brendan Rankin, an art director on the series explains the approach. “Game of Thrones is not trying to appear set in a particular period of time but we do take our cues from different eras and give it an historic feel. On the last series we introduced the City of Meereen where the architectural inspiration for the sets was pyramids. “Obviously the audience recognise the pyramids and they can relate to those structures. So visually the show is grounded in something real that the viewer can connect with.”
Brendan has also worked on other historical series filmed in Ireland including The Tudors and Ripper Street. Television, more than cinema, is about short bursts of compelling storytelling.. “The level of historical accuracy on the sets varies depending on the production. But the audience are your main concern, they have to be kept engaged.”
A dramatic plotline might keep us glued to our sofas but so too do period details. Viewer expectations regularly take precedence over historical accuracy.
“Audiences often have a preconception of what things looked like in the past that isn’t always accurate,” Brendan explains, Ripper Street is set in Victorian London and some of the buildings associated with the period would have looked very new at the time but we made them look older because that’s what the viewer expects.”
Fermanagh native, Lorna Marie Mugan is a BAFTA and Emmy- nominated costume designer whose credits include Ripper Street and Quirke. Like Brendan, she creates atmospheric visuals that drive the story rather than smother it in historic detail. “I do a lot of research before filming — working with photographs, paintings and books from the relevant period. I gather it together and then I put it all aside and use my instinct. That’s so important because with the time limits of production, particularly with television, it’s never going to be an exact replica from the era.”
Lorna’s costumes also have to be functional within the working environment of the set. ‘I might design a beautiful hat but once the actress is wearing it, discover that the crew can’t light it properly’.
“You find yourself obsessing on the historical accuracy,” Lorna says, “and then realise you still have to be able to film it; the viewer has to be able to see the actors’ faces.”
There has been a move away from rigid interpretations of history on television and Lorna’s designs combine historical research with modern elements. The costumes work within the fast-paced plotlines and action sequences. “I use a lot of vintage fabric like tweed alongside new materials. I like juxtaposing the modern with the vintage. You can give historical periods and looks a modern twist.”
So if you spot a familiar city street on your favourite show tonight, think of the talent working behind the scripts, the sets and the clothing. Their work, weaving new stories into old worlds, keeps us watching.
The enormously popular series based on the fantasy novels of George RR Martin is now the most successful of HBO’s productions, eclipsing The Sopranos. It spans several countries including Northern Ireland, Iceland and Croatia. Pre-production for season 5 is currently underway in Belfast.
After two series the Victorian detective series was axed by the BBC despite a cult following. Now it has been re-commissioned by Amazon Prime in partnership with BBC and the Irish Film Board. The third series is currently filming in various locations around Dublin.
Actor Chris O’Dowd’s semi-autobiographical sitcom follows the ups and downs of young Martin Moone and his imaginary friend Seán (played by O’Dowd). Set in and filmed around O’Dowd’s hometown of Boyle, Co Roscommon, it recreates some of the quirkier aspects of 1980’s and 1990’s Ireland.
With Sam Mendes as an executive producer this horror series set in Victorian London has a lot to live up to. Generating a strong fan base it has already been re-commissioned for a second extended series. Production will resume in Ardmore and on location around Dublin later this year.
In many ways this was a breakthrough series putting Ireland on the map for TV production. With our own Jonathan Rhys Meyers (right) playing Henry VIII, it was produced in Ardmore Studios, Co Wicklow. Despite ruffling the feathers of some historians, the series was enormously successful winning several BAFTAs and Emmy awards.