Setting his new TV crime series in Wexford gave Billy Roche a different dynamic to work with than the usual Dublin shows, writes Richard Fitzpatrick
WHEN Billy Roche was completing his Wexford Trilogy cycle of plays, which were the toast of London in the early-1990s, he reckoned he’d ended his fascination with his hometown. We’re grateful he changed his mind.
Roche has returned to Wexford for the script of his new four-part crime series, Clean Break, which starts on RTÉ One on Sunday night. The town looks well, with the Nicky Rackard statue and some of its neat, narrow side streets on display.
Roche agrees it’s a tonic to see the town as a backdrop for Irish drama on RTÉ for a change. “We’re sick of the same streets in Dublin being shown so it’s wonderful to see these little laneways, the sea, the harbour, the railway tracks. It is in a particular place.”
What also makes the setting novel for a crime series is that there’s more at stake for the characters involved. There’s nowhere to hide in a small town. People know each other’s little secrets. The characters’ backstories intertwine in a way that’s not quite possible in dramas set in a big city.
In Clean Break, the main character Frank Mallon has history with the wife of the bank manager, Desmond Rane, who’s threatening to take control of his stock, house and car showroom for “running out of rope”, as he describes the debts Frank owes the bank. It spurs Frank into organising a tiger kidnapping of Desmond’s wife and their adopted daughter, half in spite.
“Shared histories is what makes it different from a city drama,” says Roche. “People of the same age know each other. Desmond might be a bank manager but chances are his father wasn’t — and it actually turns out he wasn’t — so people have rose up in the world. We’re only a couple of nicks away from the Famine. That’s the underside of setting it up in a small town, with different stratas of society, from the golf club right down to the snooker hall and the boxing club. They all rub shoulders with each other from time to time.”
Roche is subtle about the way the characters circle each other. “It’s interesting that Frank calls Desmond Rane ‘Dessie’,” he says. “Dessie flinches when he calls him that. That was his street name. He’s left that persona behind. Those things are placed in there like little honey-traps or grace notes.”
Roche was born in 1949, one of six children. It was from knocking around his father’s waterfront bar in Wexford that he probably got the knack for observing people, listening to stories and creating ones later on about working-class heroes and their tragedies. Boxing is a touchstone for him. One of his recent plays, Lay Me Down Softly, follows the travails of a travelling boxing ring around Ireland’s fairgrounds in 1962.
Roche’s father was a professional boxer in the 1930s. When he was growing up, Roche remembers him having two broken thumbs that were bent like “boomerangs”. Roche’s grandfather, Gem Roche, was a famous Irish heavyweight boxer at the turn of the last century. He fought in a world title fight, losing to the Canadian heavyweight champ, Tommy Burns, in 1908. Maybe he was lucky because Burns got clobbered in his next difficult bout against the indomitable Jack Johnson.
“We all did a bit of boxing in the family, as children we used to box,” he says, “but it kind of stopped with me. I had a spell living away in England and that. Wexford is a very big boxing town. Legendary Irish boxing coach Billy Walsh is from Wexford. I know Billy well. In fact, some people mix the two of us up. We always explain ourselves with the line, ‘He can’t write and I can’t box’ or vice versa.
“There’s something manly and honourable about boxing, isn’t there? A guy without honour won’t make it in the ring. You need a slow heartbeat. Let’s be honest, if a guy gets in the ring he has to prove himself. It’s not like walking down the street.”
The boxing club is a hub for the community in Clean Break. Desmond, with a “finger on every till”, helps out as its treasurer. Danny Dempsey, the young buck in the town who seduces Frank’s tearaway, 17-year-old daughter and gets roped into the tiger kidnapping because of his mounting casino debts, trains the kids at the club. Seán McGinley — who Roche acted with on the film Man About Dog — plays Ben, the old cornerman who keeps the gym in running order. Ben acts as a conscience.
“There’s an innocence there as well,” adds Roche. “He kind of expects the best of people. He gives you the benefit of the doubt until you let him down. Seán is a great, slow actor. He’s wonderful as this character Ben. You need someone who knows what he’s doing for a character like that because he’s silent. He ain’t going to be pouring his heart out to you verbally so it’s got to be in the face and the eyes and in the tiny things that he says and does.”
Roche first worked with McGinley on the film Trojan Eddie, which Roche scripted. As it happens, the film’s Scottish director, Gillies MacKinnon, is the gun for hire on the first and fourth episodes of Clean Break; Damien O’Donnell directed the second and third episodes.
Stephen Rea and Richard Harris played the lead roles in the film, Trojan Eddie, back in 1996. The film’s producers gave Roche the task of convincing Harris to take the part.
“I was given money to wine and dine him, and bring him to a French restaurant in Dublin,” he says. “It was a bit like the Garden of Gethsemane — I didn’t want this challenge, but they said, ‘Just go and do it. Don’t mess it up’.
“So I went into a bar beside the restaurant for a drink before the meal. I said I’d let him be in there in the restaurant first. He obviously had the same idea because he came into the bar as well. Now I was rightly stumped because he didn’t know me. I knew him.
“When he came in, the whole bar turned to look at him. So I had to introduce myself and he said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m Billy’. He said, ‘You’re supposed to be next door’. I said, ‘I know. So are you’.’We never got out of the bar. We stayed in the bar all night and never got the meal.”
The first episode of Clean Break will be broadcast on RTÉ One at 9.30pm on Sunday
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