Reconciliation and reality: beyond the reach of TV drama?

“Do movies about the Troubles help?” was Kirsty Wark’s surprisingly basic question on Newsnight Review last Friday. That question prompts a more important one: does the often maligned “reconciliation industry ” help? Both questions were raised in the BBC’s “Five Minutes of Heaven” shown on BBC2 last night but premiered as a movie in Belfast weeks ago. My answer to the first question is, probably not much. Earnest protestations of true story telling tend to surrender to the thriller romp aspect, as I suspect (though I haven’t seen it yet) in “Fifty Dead Men Walking.” Northern Ireland is case-hardened to media depiction. In many of our darkly cinematic communities, learning to play the media game became almost as fundamental a part of life as working out a modus vivendi with the paramilitaries. The place became a gigantic Truman Show, like that movie about the nightmare of the ultimate reality television programme which covered every detail of the life of a boy growing up in the ideal island suburb, where all the nice people are film extras and the horizon is the cyclorama of a film set.

Five Minutes of Heaven is about the staging of a TV encounter between Alistair, a convicted UVF killer, now an international peace messenger ( Liam Neeson) and Joe, the brother of his innocent Catholic victim (James Nesbitt), who as a child witnessed his brother’s murder 30 years previously and had the blame for it transferred to him by the frantically grieving mother. Joe is the sole survivor of his destroyed generation, though he now has two daughters of his own. In the present, his bitterness is aggravated, for he remains an egg box maker while the Neeson character struts his stuff on the world stage.

As the Times critic points out, Five Minutes of Heaven tilts at the documentary maker’s version of “truth. ” It recalls for instance, Michael Stone’s encounter three years ago with one of the victims of his Milltown massacre, chaired lugubriously by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In today’s more febrile and uneasy atmosphere I doubt if it would be attempted.

In this film, we are thankfully spared the simplistic taking of sides. Indeed these days, ambivalence is all. Yet Five Minutes of Heaven also falls between two stools on the reconciliation question. Alistair, despite his world role, is a hollow man while Joe is consumed with revenge underneath the familiar Nesbitt Jack the lad veneer. We are let in on the secret that his “five minutes of heaven” are his plan to murder Alistair on camera ( or does he really mean it?). Revenge is messily aborted and the film ends sentimentally and unsatisfactorily with – guess what? – a reconciliation therapy scene.

On question one, I doubt if drama speaks as much of the truth that is often claimed for it. So often, its conventions are obstacles, are as human documentary’s. Five Minutes of Heaven uses slightly out of character soliloquies to wrestle with the issues, but in the end defers more to the need to build up tension. As each day passes, the Troubles legacy appears more complex and ambivalent. It will take a remarkable dramatist to catch up with it – and a notably intellectually brave TV commissioner actually to get such a breakthrough drama made and aired.

  • Scaramoosh

    A brilliant piece of television drama, which expertly explored the banality of the killings that took place during the troubles, and the resulting psychological fallout.

  • Skintown Lad

    I remember watching that Desmond Tutu reconciliation programme. The one with Stone was terrible I thought. The basic theme was that victim’s families met round a table with their killers and talked it out. The whole point was that it was meant to be ‘closure’ for the families, with the killer admitting what he did and revealing some home truths. Stone came in and sat down round the table. The family were obviously still distraught and were desperately looking for some ounce of humanity. Stone feigned to give it to them, really laying on the treacle and eventually working his way over to shake hands with the victim’s wife. By this stage she was overcome with emotion at the whole thing. She held his hand and it obviously nearly sent her over the edge. She broke down, hardly believing what she’d just done. But then Stone said something like “I’m sorry to have been involved in the killing of your husband. I mean, it could just as well have been me that killed him.” The family pressed for detail “what do you mean? You mean you didn’t kill him?’ And Stone effectively said “No. Well, I didn’t actually kill him. Someone else did, I think. But it could have been me.” The whole thing became a horribly undignified farce as I saw it. Stone wouldn’t give further details and so it ended, with some ruse of a ‘reconciliation’ but, in reality, serious questions as to what Stone’s motives really were. It wasn’t long after that Stone proved he hadn’t really been interested in letting bygones be bygones by his ‘storming’ of Stormont. The programme remains one of the worst things I’ve ever seen on TV.

  • ArchiePurple

    Does anyone ever wonder why TV and films always portray the murderer i.e. baddie as a Protestant / Unionist / Loyalist / Non-Catholic or Other [as the PSNI / Government prefer]? My copy of ‘Lost Lives’ [updated] shows that the Roman Catholic / Republican / IRA Terrorist / assorted Catholic killers, were guilty of thousands more murders than the afore mentioned Protestants…

    The above is why I didn’t think the film worthy of watching [plus I can’t stand the sight of Nesbitt since he played the ex Young Unionist Stoop]… well as the fact that as a taxpayer, helped pay for the making of this rubbish, through my taxes, as it received funding from the NI Film fund.

  • Skintown Lad

    Archie – why do you view it in terms of which ‘side’ is represented as the killer? The overwhelming message I always get from these programmes is that the only ‘sides’ are the men who think they are/were justified in killing on the one side and the rest of us on the other.

  • Neil

    as well as the fact that as a taxpayer, helped pay for the making of this rubbish, through my taxes, as it received funding from the NI Film fund.

    No it didn’t.

    Interesting choice of words ‘this rubbish’ to describe something you haven’t seen, I think that makes you a bigot who’s prejudged this film on the basis of the fact that you don’t like the way your people have historically been depicted in the arts, mainly due to the behaviour of your people in reality.

  • Skintown Lad

    Neil, talking about ‘your people’ is not really very helpful. You are validating Archie’s tribal mentality

  • Jo

    See my comment on the other thread on this exceptional drama.


    There’s no pleasing some people.

  • percy

    powerful adult drama, anyone watching it would discover that neither man could find peace/closure until the past was confronted.

  • granni trixie

    Archiepurple: I dont know if I am in agreement with you but,watching the Tv programme, it did occur to me that “would an IRA man have been in the role of someone who had remorse”,given that it seems that there is some “rule” within the IRA that “we did no wrong”?

  • lamh dearg

    The fight scene was laughably bad

  • ArchiePurple

    I phoned a brother-in-law around 9.45 on Sunday night…so I watched around 5 minutes of it….that was enough….as to NEIL…who says:

    ….mainly due to the behaviour of your people in reality.’ Well no actually….UVF / UDA scum are not my people and never were….Protestants were never taught to kill and the fact that we Protestants didn’t vote for these scumbags of Loyalist terrorists shows [unlike our Roman Catholic neighbours who voted in droves for the murderers in Sinn Fein / IRA] that we didn’t support their murderers nor their political apologists.

    There should be no terrorists in Government….they should be in jail.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit


    re. Do programs about the troubles help?

    In relation to this particular program, which I thought was excellent – I would have to say yes. It reminded everyone that some people will have great diffculty in reconcilliation even after a long passage of time and that therfore there is not going to be a reconcillation process that helps everyone. Casting Liam Neeson as the Prod and as international peace campaigner help avoid some of the more obvious sterotype traps that the program could have fallen into and his remorse was very convincingly portrayed.

    If the program had a target, it probably was the naive enthusiasm of the TV crew who seemingly enjoyed the thrill of proximity to something they didnt understand but found exciting.