A staple of Irish television: Why it keeps on reeling us in

Everyone’s favourite substitute history teacher, Reeling in the Years, just never gets old.

A staple of Irish television: Why it keeps on reeling us in

Everyone’s favourite substitute history teacher, Reeling in the Years, just never gets old. Colm Boohig talks to the man behind it all, producer John O’Regan

I was not previously aware that 1965 was the first year Ireland entered the Eurovision. But as I listened to Butch Moore’s Walking The Streets In The Rain act as the soundtrack to footage of Val Doonican celebrating 21 weeks in the UK charts, I was left thinking; how great is this show?

That is a rhetorical question, of course, aimed at a generation of people who love little more than settling down to an episode of Reeling In the Years. Like Ireland’s distinguished Eurovision history, it is etched in the collective national memory.

The concept of the fact-based show is simplicity at its finest — the biggest events of a particular year illustrated with deeply informative subtitles that demonstrate peak concision. Reeling In the Years is the Irish version of similar ventures predating the series, including the BBC’s The Rock ‘n’ Roll Years and Granada’s The Rock and Goal Years. Starting at 1962 and running all the way to 2009, each offering plays out to the music of the year over 25 minutes or so of pure nostalgia. There are no commercial breaks, either.

Producer John O’Regan is personally responsible for every word of the aforementioned subtitles. He spreaks of a “modest show” but there is much to brag about when a team as small as the Reeling crew — “one or two researchers, me as the producer, and a video editor along with a sound dubbing engineer” – created such longlasting magic.

The incredible final product measured against the minuscule size of the crew makes the endeavour all the more remarkable.

Its popularity has endured to such an extent that, despite repeated showings, it returns to RTÉ One every summer when the Six One news is temporarily reduced to 30 minutes.

And with justified reasoning. It is the most succinct history lesson one could rightfully expect.

Therein lies the magic of Reeling In the Years; the ability to make you feel a part of the defining past that long preceded your existence. Whether directly or otherwise, the show reminds a person of their place in this country and the world as a whole.

From Apollo 11 launching Neil Armstrong and the boys into history. Charles Haughey in a sling dismissed as Finance Minister over the illegal arms controversy. John and Yoko staying in bed for peace. Kerry and Meath experimenting with the first ever 80-minute All-Ireland football final.

These are the social events that link us all in our six degrees of separation.

Reeling in the Years was born in 1999 with the production of the 1980s series before continuing in 2000 with the 1990s version, and so on. John explained that each decade took between eight and ten months to complete. This time comprised mostly of editing the plethora of video and music footage (John would intensely scour the music charts from each year to find the perfect soundtrack) gathered in the ten half-hour episodes that made up each decade.

You can use the lyrics of a song to echo the pictures that you’re seeing, or, to contrast against them. Music is crucial. It can convey context. We don’t have a presenter, but we do have the music,” says John O’Regan.

The show’s iconic theme tune gets the hearts of a nation racing and legs moving towards the nearest television set when those inimitable opening notes are heard. It serves as the appetiser to the upcoming mastery that each instalment will deliver in how to set the tone of a given scene. There are countless examples on offer.

In The Air Tonight plays over the death of Bobby Sands and the subsequent violence.Gimme Shelter provides the backdrop to the nadir of the Vietnam War. There She Goes by the La’s encapsulates the joy of Jack Charlton’s heroes returning from Italia ’90. And Radiohead’s Pyramid Song’is the peerless soundtrack to the raw devastation of the 9/11 attacks. They are all pitch perfect when partnered with the visual display.

But it is also the skill of the editors to know when to go with the sound of silence. Those dreadful occasions when raw imagery plays louder than any song imaginable.

The most prominent example of this is arguably seen as the screen fades to black before the wreckage of the Omagh bomb in August 1998 is revealed.

Regular watchers know how it goes with Reeling In the Years. Too many joyous memories — be they classic sporting occasions, legendary musical performances, or archive footage of old adverts – is usually the calm before a tragic storm.

A generation of Irish people is aware that when the happy music fades, something is about to go south. Often it was up north, where the Troubles so dominated the airwaves throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. For those of us not around to have lived through those horrible moments, it is a humbling experience. For those that were, a brief contemplative moment takes over before the mood is soon switched again. Positively relentless.

This was always John and the team’s intention, he told me. Their unofficial philosophy was simple but extremely ambitious.

“If somebody wasn’t alive at the time or too young to remember, they should still be able to follow this programme. And if you were around, there should be memory triggers. We wanted to make a show that if you weren’t from Ireland, you could still follow it.” The team was acutely aware of the need to entertain and educate, with John sticking to a mantra which he inherited in his early career. “Viewers are very smart. You should never underestimate the viewers’ intelligence.” This production tactic of never settling on one emotional narrative for long is as repetitive an exercise as it is captivating for the viewer. It is an emotional way to spend a spare half an hour.

Most poignantly, though, Reeling In the Years possesses the effortless capability to gather three generations of a family at once. One episode famously shows an Aer Lingus plane taking off carrying scores of bewildered passengers joining the mass exodus from Ireland. As always, the music is nailed on. Mary Black’s mournful vocals set the mood so precisely.

The offering in question is 1986. The footage demonstrated the devastating impact of unemployment as families became separated all in the name of necessary pastures new. It could have been from almost any period in Irish history and yet, so much has changed in the intervening decades. Leaving the country now is not the death knell in familial relations it once had the potential to be.

Everyone can relate to this feeling.

Despite the show’s unexpected yet phenomenal success, John, to this day, remains incredibly grounded about it and, amazingly, quite self-critical. He explained:

I ultimately take responsibility for what’s in and what’s left out. It’s something I think about a lot when writing a programme like this. I can see the stuff that we’ve left out and I wonder, ‘could we not have found space for something else?’

John pointed to two examples in particular. One omission which still wrangles with him is the Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia from 1995 (John was actually working in Sarajevo at the time).

“It should have been (included). It’s the biggest genocide in Europe since the end of the Second World War.” The other exclusion mentioned related to the 1999 episode and the massive earthquake in Turkey which killed tens of thousands. The only input concerning Turkey from that year was their Euro 2000 playoff victory over the Republic of Ireland in which Tony Cascarino ended up fighting the opposition.

This is the difficulty of editing a mammoth undertaking like Reeling In the Years; it is impossible to include everything, as John explained: “The programme just cannot be exhaustive. It’s not definitive. It is more of a time capsule than any kind of definitive history. It is an attempt to balance information and entertainment in Ireland and internationally.” That was undoubtedly achieved.

Watching years 2000 to 2009, the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger and the advent of the iPhone, it all seems somewhat antiquated in retrospect. The 2010s have socially and culturally evolved at such speed that only a programme like Reeling In the Years can slow it all down. Then again, every generation will claim the same pace of change from their day.

On that note, it is fulfilling watching an older episode with parents or grandparents — John’s intention was the make the show as broadly appealing as possible — as they nod along to the songs of their childhood and chuckle at the television offerings from the respective eras.

Quite often, it is a state we rarely see them in, as they corroborate the information on the bottom of the screen, elaborating on certain events that you might be ignorant to. Even if you’re not, you listen gleefully anyway. There is always something to learn.

Someday, it will be you passing on the stories from your time to the next generation.

That is the way with Reeling In the Years. It is equal part inspiring and humbling.

Inspiring because it prompts action when you see the East and West unite after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Totally humbling when you realise just how much mankind has already achieved. It is an everlasting education for both young and old: constantly nourishing and ceaselessly entertaining. Such beauty in simplicity.

Will there be a new series to capture the best of the 2010s? According to John, “Ultimately, decisions about commissioning and transmitting another series of Reeling in the Years are for RTÉ to make.

As the producer of the five series so far, I think the end of a decade is the earliest point when you’d start to look back.” We wait with interest to see. Oh, and Walking The Streets In The Rain came sixth in 1965. Not bad.

- Reeling in the Years airs Tuesday, 7pm on RTÉ One

More in this section