There was a sense of life travelling full circle for Co Cork screenwriter and novelist Kate O’Riordan as cameras began rolling last year on the Lahinch, Co Clare, set of her new RTÉ thriller Smother. The mournfully beautiful coastal backdrop carried echoes of O’Riordan’s upbringing in Bantry, with its gorgeous views out over the harbour.
“From the time people started saying ‘yes we are interested in this, let’s see a script’ to actually going into production was probably six to eight months, which is incredible really,” says O’Riordan from her home in Twickenham in London. “I’ve done shows previously that were shot in Ireland but set in the UK. This is the first time I am absolutely able to beat my chest and say, ‘yes, my show is set in Ireland’.”
Smother, which begins on RTÉ this Sunday at 9.30pm, is a claustrophobic whodunit starring Dervla Kirwan as the matriarch of a wealthy family with many skeletons in many closets. Seána Kerslake, Gemma-Leah Devereux and Niamh Walsh play her daughters in a drama pitched as a homegrown blend of Agatha Christie and Scandi Noir.
The production values are high and include opening titles by London-based credits specialist the Morrison Studio, which also designed the title sequences for The Undoing, The Great and Patrick Melrose.
“It’s an amazing cast and they got on so well,” says O’Riordan, whose career achievements include four years executive-producing ITV hit Mr Selfridge. “It was just a thing of riches that cast. Dervla made the main character, the matriarch, her own completely I couldn’t have thought of anybody doing it differently.”
Filming began in February 2020, weeks before the first lockdown, which led to a temporary halt in production. By then, harsh weather had already played havoc. “It was one of the wettest Februarys ever in Clare, which is saying something,” says O’Riordan. “And then when they came back filming they had to quarantine in a hotel and be tested every day. They couldn’t even go out to the shops. Hats off to them. I hope they get the accolades.”
Emotion crackles in O'Riordan's voice as she talks about making television in Ireland. She emigrated in the 1990s feeling, as did many at the time, that the country held little future for its young people. She spent a year in LA, which she hated. And then came spells in Canada and Australia. Finally she and her husband Donal, also from Bantry, ended up in London.
“In my day it was in your psyche that you’d probably go to the States or to London or Manchester. London was kind of a stop-off point on the way home. And then you think, ‘why are we going home? There are no jobs’. We got jobs in London.”
In LA she was employed by a travel agency. In London she became an airline sales manager. But O’Riordan was always writing – both novels and work for the stage. Her passport into the world of letters was her 1995 debut novel, Involved, a thriller about “the psychological pull of family and conflict” which won the Sunday Tribune Hennessy emerging-writer prize and received a nomination for the Dillon’s first novel prize.
Involved, the first of O’Riordan’s six novels, was adapted by ITV, which served as her avenue into writing for television. She also completed a course in screenwriting on the advice of a friend who had caught a play O’Riordan had written for the Edinburgh Fringe.
“I did the course and loved it,” she says. “And I thought, ‘well I watch so much bloody TV anyway. I might as well be writing it’.”
Starting out, she worked on soaps such as Casualty. O’Riordan had soon moved on to more prestigious fare. Mr Selfridge, which starred Jeremy Piven as the eponymous department store tycoon, was one of her biggest projects.
“It was a massive education,” she says. “That was a huge show – they sold it to 200 countries worldwide. It was big. Big budget, big everything. I had never done anything like that before. It was fantastic, with a really good and tight team. I got to know the actors. They took their parts to heart. They almost became the characters. They would have ideas for things they would like to see happen – which was great as we were running out of ideas ourselves at the end.”
In a way she feels that she never truly left Ireland. Home was just a flight away and she would return as often as every month. Her mother still lives in Bantry and O’Riordan speaks warmly of her West Cork childhood, growing in the centre of town over her father’s butcher shop (the local slaughter house was just behind the family residence). She attended Our Lady of Mercy primary in Bantry and Mount Saint Michael’s secondary school in Rosscarbery.
O’Riordan is thrilled to do see Ireland’s TV industry take off as more and more international productions film here (from Game of Thrones to Apple + TV’s adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, shooting at Limerick’s Troy Studios).
Television in general has changed beyond recognition in recent years she says. “There is just so much more of it. It’s boomed because of the streamers. Actors, writers, directors who would have turned their noses up at TV years ago now all want to be on Amazon Prime or Netflix. You’ve so many more places where you can go. It isn’t that closed shop that it was.”
In the old days, she says, the potential avenues for shepherding an idea to screen were limited. That is no longer so.
“In the UK you had ITV or BBC and that was it. If both refused, the project was dead. There was nowhere else to go because Channel 4 wanted a very specific type of show. And Channel 5 didn’t do any drama at all. Nor did Sky.”
For smaller broadcasters such as RTÉ she feels the only option is to partner up to with producers in other countries (Smother is a collaboration between RTÉ and the BBC). Scripted TV is so expensive that often the only way of getting a show made is by spreading the costs.
She hopes Smother – which in Britain will air on BBC-owned UKTV – will take advantage of this upward current in television. The omens are positive with a second season green-lit before the first has even aired (filming is set to begin shortly).
“You can never tell. I’ve seen the rushes and the cast are great,” says O’Riordan. “Fingers crossed it gets a good reception and that people enjoy it.”
- Smother begins on RTÉ One, on Sunday, March 7 at 9.30pm
Dervla Kirwan plays Val – “a devoted mother who is determined to protect her family”. The morning after a family party, her husband Denis (Stuart Graham) is found dead at the foot of a cliff close to the family home. And so Val begins to delve into the events of the night before.
Daughter Jenny (Niamh Walsh) is a heavily pregnant, single doctor “unsure of the choices she has made”.
Grace (Seána Kerslake) is “an angry but fragile young woman struggling with mental health issues” Anna (Gemma-Leah Devereux) is “an angry but fragile young woman struggling with mental health issue”.
“Val explores Denis’s relationships with his children, stepchildren, and his siblings in order to find out who might have been responsible for his brutal, shocking death,” says RTÉ.