And the winner is ... Ireland

As the IFTA awards show, the Irish entertainment industry has kept up its quality output despite the recession, writes Carl Dixon

ONE of the big winners in the Irish Film and Television Awards on Saturday could be Love/Hate. The Dublin crime drama has 10 nominations, among them Aidan Gillen and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor in two of the acting categories.

Series director David Caffrey is also up for an award for a show that has been re-commissioned for a third season. Caffrey believes the industry is still very strong in Ireland, buoyed by the experience Irish crews have built up over the last 25 years, and a naturally strong creative element.

“Even though I try not to get too emotionally involved, it is a great night,” he says of the IFTAs. “I feel that having the show re-commissioned and being given a chance to keep developing your characters is an award in its own right. One of the great things about a television series, in comparison to a film, is that it does give you that opportunity to really explore your characters.”

Caffrey first came to prominence with his black romantic comedy, Divorcing Jack and, although he has been successful since then, he admits it isn’t easy. “My father was a civil engineer, so nepotism wasn’t an option unfortunately, so there weren’t a lot of avenues available to get into making films,” he recalls.

“I sweated blood making shorts and got a bit of luck with the success of Divorcing Jack. But to some extent, if you don’t have a runaway success with everything, you do go back to square one. I think in one two-and-a-half-year period of working in film, I made 30 grand. It is a bit like setting up a new business with a factory and employees and then six months later it is over. All that ducking and diving, all those arguments and intense relationships, and all you are left with is a story and a series of images which the public may or may not like.”

Caffrey believes there is a real resurgence in quality television at the moment and that some of the brilliant material coming out of America has been a big influence.

“There is a crime genre which is born out of actual events, which are then sprinkled with a bit of writer’s magic,” he says. “The types of shows coming out of HBO are definitely an influence in terms of style. I think there was a stage in Ireland where crime was depicted as comedic and grotesque; however, we try to focus on reality, and we aren’t making a point of trying to be funny. Putting Love/Hate into such a primetime slot was a risk. But perhaps we’ve tied into a state of the nation moment, and it is a risk that seems to have paid off.”

He also believes that the concept of television as a poor relation of films has worn off, and big movie actors in America are now willing to appear either as stars or in guest parts on television.

“There is a huge resurgence in television drama,” says Caffrey. “I have just finished a TV drama for the BBC called Line Of Duty and the next two directors lined up for shows on BBC Two are Sam Mendes and Jane Campion, both of whom are Oscar winners. It shows that any stigma attached to television is long gone.”

The IFTAs are in their ninth year and will bring a touch of glamour to the Convention Centre in Dublin as the stars converge. The show, broadcast live on RTÉ One, will be hosted by Simon Delaney, and there are awards up for grabs in a range of acting and technical categories. Winners are mostly chosen by members of IFTA and a jury of industry professionals, and even if a win may lack the cachet of its counterparts in America and the UK, an award is a useful calling card in a very competitive business.

As well as the Love/Hate crew, the nominees this year are the usual combination of immediately recognisable names and a scatter of relative newcomers. In the acting categories there are nominations for the likes of Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson, Martin Sheen and Liam Cunningham.

The best actress category is more open, with this year’s nominations including Saoirse Ronan, newcomer Aoife Duffin, Antonia Campbell Hughes and Marcella Plunkett. The Guard — which received nine nominations in total — will compete for the best film award with Albert Nobbs, Charlie Casanova and Stella Days.

In the television world there are nominations for some heavy hitters such as Petyr Baelish in HBO’s Game of Thrones, which is filmed in the North, and Neil Jordan’s series The Borgias. Masterchef Ireland has been nominated for three awards, and Hardy Bucks, Mrs Brown’s Boys and The Savage Eye are up in the best entertainment category.

In the documentary category, there are multiple nominations for The Writing In The Sky, a programme on writer Dermot Healy, and two episodes of Prime Time Investigates were also nominated. Also getting a look-in is RTÉ’s coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s visit and the presidential debates on The Frontline.

There will also be a warm welcome for the IFTA lifetime achievement award which this year goes to versatile actress Fionnula Flanagan (The Others, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, etc). An interesting category is that of rising star, which features four strong contenders: Rebecca Daly, writer/director The Other Side of Sleep; John Michael McDonagh, writer/director The Guard; Chris O’Dowd, actor Bridesmaids; and Emmett Scanlan, actor Charlie Casanova.

Áine Moriarty has been CEO of IFTA since its establishment nine years ago and believes it fulfils an important function within the industry. “We have 1,000 members within 14 different disciplines which is indicative of the pool of talent that is available in Ireland,” she says. “We look to provide a voice for the industry, which is still going from strength to strength, despite the financial constraints which makes it harder to get projects off the ground.”

She believes that although big projects are still coming through, we are also returning to our roots. “I think there are a lot of unusual projects coming through and new stories being told,” she says. “We are realising that we must rely on our own creative energy; we have always been a nation of story tellers but we also have the potential to be international story tellers. In difficult times people have to work harder to get things moving, but it is also a very exciting time.”

Robbie Ryan, who received a nomination for director of photography for Wuthering Heights, is based in London. “Certainly, from what I am hearing, the industry in Ireland seems pretty solid, although there is less emphasis on Hollywood blockbusters nowadays,” he says.

“There are definitely big changes happening within the industry, with long-running series like The Tudors providing steady work for a lot of people. I have a romantic attachment to film, but as the recent demise of Kodak illustrates, digital is becoming increasingly dominant, which brings its own challenges and opportunities.

“With Wuthering Heights, a huge effort went into finding the right location and to a degree I am the beneficiary of that amazing landscape. But it is great that people like the look of the film. It is a brave film in many ways and any accolades it receives are a great bonus.”

Ryan is also hoping that those accolades include a distinctive bronze statuette on Saturday night.

* The 9th Annual Irish Film & Television Awards, Saturday, RTÉ One at 9.30pm

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