Irish people love to see themselves represented on television. And why wouldn’t we? Enjoying a diet largely consisting of British and American content, there is naturally anticipation when we hear of the arrival of a new home grown drama or comedy set in Ireland portraying Irish characters, issues, colloquialisms and traditions. Take Love Hate, for example. The latest series saw us tuning in with gusto every Sunday night before turning to Twitter and Facebook en masse to see what the proliferation of unofficial character accounts, memes and news articles documenting the very minutiae of each episode had to say, chipping in our two cent with communal enjoyment at the action unfolding week by week. The finale of series 4, broadcast on 10 November, was preceded by a number of radio interviews with various cast members and writer Stuart Carolan, and prominent features in a number of newspapers and magazines, and was headline news following its broadcast.
The reaction to last Sunday’s episode is interesting in that some viewers were disappointed while others loved it, and the fact that the debate rages on almost a week later is proof of just how engaged we are willing to become about our own home grown productions. There is one claim which sets alarm bells ringing for me, and that’s when something is described as “Ireland’s answer to…” Ireland should not answer to anything except itself. Authentic Irish production is what we need, and Love Hate doesn’t claim to be anything but, which is a relief, and undoubtedly part of its success and appeal.
Another explanation for its attraction may be our obsession with the grim, the downtrodden, the marginalised and the darker sides of life in both Irish cinema and television. For a witty people known for our humour and good nature, our televisual and cinematic output is historically and often unrelentingly depressing. The theories behind this are well researched and written about, and without wishing to trample over well-trodden soil, I want to know, what of our comedy?
As someone who loves comedy, and sitcom in particular, I lament the fact that I am more often than not disappointed with what I see on Irish television. We are a lyrical people with a great capacity for humour who have within us the ability to create exceptional comedy, and yet sadly I don’t feel this potential has been fully realised on our television screens.
Many attempts at a home grown Irish sitcom have invariably fallen flat, and we continually turn to Britain for the finest examples. When British produced Irish sitcoms such as Father Ted and Moone Boy delight us, it’s a frustrating reminder of the fact that we haven’t been able to match their calibre at home.
While budget can undoubtedly be a factor, I feel a big part of the problem is that home grown efforts seem intent on portraying us as something that we’re not. Certain televised sketch shows and comedians rely on wildy exaggerated stereotypes, and an often patronising tone which sees me reaching for the remote rather than the tissues. In watching such programmes I can’t help think if there was more subtlety, naturalism and realism, that the characters portrayed would actually be funny, possibly even endearing.
It was a joy to find these absent friends in Naked Camera and Meet Your Neighbours. Yes the sketch show has been done, and the brilliant Mike Murphy, Dermot Morgan and Fran Dempsey paved the way with aplomb from an Irish perspective as far back as the 1970s. But unlike some of today’s comedic offerings, PJ Gallagher and company bring to life Irish characters we can all recognise without resorting to patronising them, or pigeon holing them into a world where they don’t belong in an effort to emulate international formats. In addition to being authentic, they are subtle and more natural, just like ourselves, and thus infinitely funnier.
When I talk about the avoidance of exaggerated performances, I’m not saying characters cannot be larger than life, but if we’re going to succeed at an Irish sitcom, the characters must be grounded in the real if they are to be believable. Anyone need only look to the finest examples of situation comedy (Father Ted, Only Fools and Horses, The Office and Extras) to realise that authenticity, subtlety and naturalism are an essential combination which gives heart to the resulting humour, and it is in the absence of these attributes that we have been waiting for our success story.
I cannot confess to being a big fan of our comedy panel style shows, but as above, while we have struggled to produce a successful sitcom, we excel at sketch shows, and it is wonderful to see the likes of Republic of Telly fostering this talent with genuinely funny offerings. In 2011, a hilarious portrayal of two Dublin characters under the guises of Damo and Ivor; the skanger and the posh D4 head, both created and played brilliantly by Andy Quirke, hit our screens via Republic of Telly. In playing different classes off against one another, there is a danger of encouraging the superiority of one and degradation of the other. However, Andy’s portrayal of these characters makes them equals, irrespective of their background. The sketches on hangovers, drinking sessions and driving lessons, to name but a few, are genuinely hilarious, and have deservedly attracted thousands of viewers online, in addition to those tuning in to Republic of Telly. Songs Everbody’s Drinkin’ and Maniac 2012 even lead to top 10 chart success in 2011 and 2012, and millions of YouTube hits.
Our record for great sketches well established, there is natural trepidation when it is announced that a winning formula, utilised exceptionally well in the case of Damo and Ivor, is to be turned into a sitcom. Scheduled for air on 16 September 2013 on RTE Two, a number of questions arose as we went once more into the breach.
Would lending three dimensional personalities to generally stereotypical characters compromise the equality I spoke about earlier? While we were always going to be safe in the hands of Andy Quirke who is clearly extremely talented, what would the supporting cast be like, and would they maintain the authenticity portrayed in the sketches? Would the all-important naturalism and subtlety I have so longed to see be relegated in favour of exaggerated, and thus unfunny, portrayals? All would be revealed.
In episode one we meet an atrociously affluent Ivor, entertainingly living it up courtesy of Mummy (Victoria Sheahan) and Daddy (Rik Mayall) and their seemingly endless pot of cash, while skint Damo lives in a homely and humble house with his Granny (Ruth McCabe), or Grano, as she’s affectionately known. Twins separated at birth, their mother couldn’t bring up both of them, and so Ivor was sold to a wealthy family, the Itchdaddys. Shocking revelations strike early doors, as Ivor learns this disastrous truth, and Damo is devastated to hear Grano is ill. The characters show immediate and effective depth, the storyline is pacy and funny, and I look forward to next Monday.
As the programme progresses, it really comes into its own. Aside from a flawless performance by Andy Quirke (it is genuinely easy to forget the same person is playing both parts), himself and his co-writers Jules Coll and Alan Keane have managed to transfer Damo and Ivor from sketch to sitcom with great success. We are presented with three dimensional characters who are loveable and sympathetic in both their best and worst moments, and without losing any of the humour found in the sketches, for as much as I talk about the essential ingredients for the perfect sitcom, if it doesn’t make you laugh, it’s not doing its job. The attention to detail with regard to costume and locations anchors the brilliant characters in their own very real worlds, ones we can all claim familiarity with, and it’s the realism and authenticity which makes them entirely believable, even if the madcap aspects of the story (Damo selling his kidney, for example) are accepted, because the characters and their situations are entirely plausible.
Ivor’s friends Tarquin (Tom O’Mahony) and Sarah Jane (Hannah Crowley) are sublime, as are Spuddy (Lewis Magee), Tracey (Eimear Morrissey) and the rest of Damo’s crew, and not a detail is overlooked in bringing them to life. From Sarah Jane’s charity lunch to Ivor’s modelling stint as a flasher, and from Grano testing out a flat pack coffin to Ivor trying to purchase cut price vodka incognito, the whole series is a riot.
When Damo realises that he has a brother, he sets out to find recently abandoned Ivor, and along comes Episode Four, the absolute jewel in the crown. It’s Halloween night, and Tarquin has suggested a skanger theme for Ivor’s party. Meanwhile Damo heads for Foxrock to find Ivor whose empty house is heaving by the time he arrives. Tarquin and his friend are a sight to behold in their carefully pieced together, but brilliantly unconvincing skanger outfits, and while Ivor is in the shop looking for one of his own, Tarquin finds Damo climbing in the bathroom window, obviously thinking it’s Ivor returning in character. The sight of Tarquin marvelling at the authenticity of Damo’s “costume”, and Damo’s bewildered reaction to this is one of the scenes of the series. “Oh my God, you absolute legend, that is classic” cries Tarquin, “The hat, the rings; oh my God the rings, and the runners; where did you get those things?…dude you’re so in character it’s not even funny” Damo can’t believe his luck when the faux skangers roll out the red carpet, and uses the opportunity to summon his crew for a “whopper session.”
The twins finally come face to face at the party which results in Damo decking Ivor’s smug rival Oisin (David Crowley) and Ivor fainting as the cops break it up. He’s not the only one, as perfectly pink and fluffy Sarah Jane realises she has just “made love” with Damo thinking he was Ivor.
Another essential ingredient in any great sitcom is pathos, and Damo and Ivor does not fail us here either. In the aftermath of the party, Ivor is rejected by Tarquin who is appalled by his apparent fall from grace, and we feel truly sorry for him. Damo’s endearing good heartedness, and Sarah Jane’s compassion and sincerity are the only constants in his crumbling world, and lend a genuinely warm tone to the story. Penniless and abandoned with nowhere to go, he can rely on both, and eventually comes to live with Damo and Grano, finding real happiness with the family he’s never had. Damo’s unconditional love of Ivor makes him infinitely likeable, and this is consistent with the selflessness that saw him sell his kidney to buy Grano a dialysis machine; the fact that his kidney itself would’ve been more use to her is comedic irony at its best. Both brothers make big sacrifices in the last episode, all with a view to saving Grano, and the climax to the series tops off what has been a brilliantly crafted storyline throughout.
Damo and Ivor can hold its head high, as finally we have a fantastic home grown Irish sitcom. It combines hilarity and pathos through genuine, authentic characterisation, an excellent script, brilliant acting, casting and locations. The storyline is larger than life, but the affability of the lead characters ensures that they are not patronised, ruined by exaggeration, or made a mockery of. Nor is Damo and Ivor Ireland’s answer to anything, and as such is wholly uncompromised in its portrayal of genuine Irish characters in an Irish setting. In fact, the only cartoonish elements are Damo’s hat and Ivor’s collar which are hilarious props, but don’t let either fool you. Beneath the large peak and starched collar exteriors are real living breathing characters with an abundance of heart and hilarity, and I for one cannot wait for the second series.
By Emma Hynes