Tuesday, April 26, 2011

We Are Family

There was an interview with Irish author Roddy Doyle in the Guardian last week which discusses, in some detail, his work as writer on the 1994 BBC mini-series Family, its reception and the effect that had on him.
I thought nobody else remembered Family. It's hard to find mention of it, even on the Internet in these days of finding everything on the Internet. This despite the fact that it was written by Booker-winning bestselling novelist Doyle and directed by subsequent Arthouse Superstar Michael Winterbottom. Also despite the fact that Doyle's novel The Woman Who Walked Into Doors was a spin- off from the series, focusing intently on one character.

Well, Family was a big deal in Ireland at that time. As Doyle describes in the interview, Ireland was finally emerging into the 20th Century in the early 90s, with European Union money going into infrastructure and technology. The Irish National football team had qualified for two consecutive World Cups, and Riverdance, of all things, had been a massive feelgood success on its debut at the Eurovision Song Contest that year. Then came Doyle and Winterbottom's Family, with its poverty, criminality, drug abuse, domestic violence, chronic alcoholism and suggestions of incestuous lust. People - the kind of people who ring radio phone-ins - were appalled. But Family was an incredible piece of television drama; brilliantly written, uniformly well-acted and directed with Winterbottom's considerable feel for place and people.

Doyle's script is somewhat novelistic, attempting a polyphonic portrayal of these people, with each episode focusing on a different character. It begins with John-Paul, the eldest son, who is just beginning Secondary School, then his smalltime criminal father, Charlo, then the eldest daughter, Nicola, who is becoming uncomfortable about the way Charlo is looking a her, before finishing with Charlo's abused wife. Her emancipation and new self-respect gives the series an unexpectedly upbeat ending, but much of the preceding action is the bleakest Doyle ever wrote. Not that it's unrepresentative, on the contrary it captures working class Dublin perfectly, which is partly why it was so controversial. Sometimes looking in a mirror can be uncomfortable.

The performances are perhaps what make Family so memorable. Sean McGinley pops up in every major American or British production shot in or about Ireland or the Irish in a supporting role - there he is in Braveheart, Gangs of New York, The General etc - but as Charlo he is electric, full of rage and self-loathing and confusion but never too sympathetic, never downplaying his characters more monstrous side. Ger Ryan, mostly a jobbing actress on Irish television, more than matches him as Paula, and her transformation from long-suffering victim to independent single mother is the emotional uppercut of the climactic installment.

Family is finally released on DVD in June, which will hopefully restore it's reputation as one of the great tv dramas of the last couple of decades.

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