Good-time Charlie makes for bad TV

HOW do you solve a problem like Charlie? Not easily, if the dramatisation of Charlie Haughey’s life that has been showing for the last two Sundays is anything to go by.

Good-time Charlie makes for bad TV

Tomorrow, the final instalment will be screened. The audience figures are reportedly very good, in Late, Late Toy Show territory. But what are we watching?

One incident in last Sunday’s episode summed up much that ails the series. Haughey was in conference with Ray McSharry. The scene suggested that McSharry was all common sense, Haughey nothing but political sense.

The door burst open and Brian Lenihan’s head appeared. “Ray Burke is on from Dublin West,” Lenihan said. “The by-election is not going well.”

Charlie had the answer. “Tell him to throw everything at it, new schools, new jobs, new trees for the road,” he hollered.

New trees for the road? ‘Ah, yes’, nod the anoraks. Remember that? One of Haughey’s major boo-boos. He handed the plum job of EU commissioner to Fine Gael TD, Dick Burke — it was in the series — hoping that the resultant by-election would shore up his slim majority in the Dail.

In the course of that 1982 by-election, Burke, the party’s director of elections, had some trees planted in the constituency to soften up a few voters. The by-election was lost, and in a fit of pique Burke had the trees dug up again. It was stroke politics at its most humorous and petty.

Only those of a mature age who have a high interest in current affairs would remember the incident, and appreciate that it was being retold, albeit clunkily and humourlessly. All that appears to have mattered to the programme-makers was the historical record.

Had there been any interest in drama, the tree planting/uprooting incident would have made a fine side-dish storyline.

It might have involved Burke on the canvass, receiving a doorstep reaction that was less than welcoming, and spotting a green area where somebody wanted trees.

He could then have personally planted the trees, making a song and dance about it, getting his hands dirty, digging a hole for himself, attracting ridicule from local teenagers, or whatever.

Then, at the end of the episode, as an afterthought, Ray pulls up beside the trees on a darkened night, furtively takes a shovel from the boot of the car, and begins uprooting them. Maybe a local resident could spot him and call the guards to report vandalism.

Anything that might have invested a little drama or humour into a long-forgotten, marginal happening in those turbulent political days.

Instead of the detail of lives lived, and the drama therein, the Charlie series has swept broad brushstrokes, attempting to fit in every political incident that involved Haughey.

And while Aidan Gillen makes a fair fist of portraying the man himself, the character appears to be afflicted with an impulse to deliver speeches rather than engage in dialogue.

He is forever excoriating the Brits and musing on his vision for an Ireland free from the shackles of something or other. And when he does deign to speak rather than speechify, it is to convey information.

“As my father-in-law, the former Taoiseach, Mr Lemass, used to say…” he intones. Would Haughey not have been more likely to say something like, “that f***er Lemass used to put it well…”

By the end of two episodes I was exhausted from processing all the information.

Yes, as a history anorak, I spotted all the events, the turbulence, the pettiness, the real drama. As a viewer, I found it less than palatable.

It was as if it had all been done for a select audience: Anybody who had lived through the period and was at least engaged in politics. (As huge swathes of the population were back then).

None of which is to suggest that the makers had an easy task. Far from it.

Imagining and putting together the kind of drama that Charlie could have been is hugely difficult, and would be beyond most, including the likes of this reviewer.

One of the main difficulties is that it is recreating a history that is still much-disputed, and regarded with fervour or trepidation by those who had a walk-on role.

The reaction to the series has demonstrated just how sensitive these matters continue to be.

Politicians, journalists and activists from the time have rushed the parapets of review to pass judgement on whether the drama is an accurate portrayal of events and the central characters.

Last week, the big issue was how Sean Doherty, Haughey’s minister for justice — whom many would describe as Haughey’s henchman — was portrayed. Doherty is one of the figures from that time who has died, and is therefore beyond any defamation law.

Des O’Malley, who was an opponent of the Boss, suggested that the portrayal was quite accurate. Doherty’s daughter, Rachel, a Fianna Fail councillor, told Sean O’Rourke, on RTÉ Radio One, that the portrayal by actor Gavan O’Connor was “ridiculous, farcical, his character was over-the-top, cartoonish even”.

Doherty does come across as cartoonish in the series, a man without a brain, but equipped with a devious cunning. Those who knew him are adamant he wasn’t like that at all, but he was certainly the most controversial minister for justice the state has known.

He may not have had to resign from the office, like poor Alan Shatter, but it emerged in 1992 that his survival owed most to the fact that he knew where ‘the bodies were buried’.

The point is that another opportunity was lost. Doherty’s nefarious occupation of a highly sensitive and powerful office could have been top-heavy with drama and not a little humour, but it seems the focus was on conveying every controversial incident in which he was involved, rather than portraying his flawed character.

Charlie might have made better drama if it was constructed around a Haughey-like figure, rather than attempting to portray the man himself. Equally, those around him could have been composite characters, representing his allies and enemies.

Inevitably, though, there would be both breast-beating and outrage about such a portrayal, particularly from those who claim purchase on the real interpretation of that time.

Haughey cast a long shadow, all the way down to the halcyon days of the imposter known as the Celtic Tiger, through tribunal land, and into the seeds that would lead to the destruction of the largest political party in the country. Getting him right was never going to be easy, just as pleasing all the opinions about him was always going to be impossible.

So, how do you solve a problem like Charlie? Much too early to figure that one out yet. Give it another 30 years or so.

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