Dan McGinn on #Charlie: Dynasty on the Liffey

Last night the first in a three part mini series on RTE about former Taoiseach Charles Haughey hit the screens. Local film critic, Dan McGinn, reviewed part one for Slugger

In 2006 when Charles Haughey passed away, the former Irish Times journalist turned popular broadcaster Henry Kelly went apoplectic in the Daily Telegraph about the former Taoiseach being accorded a state funeral.

The former ‘Game for A Laugh’ and ‘Going for Gold’ host wrote: “Charles Haughey exemplified all that was, thanks to him, worst in the Irish nation: trickery, smoothness, conceit, cronyism (Tony Blair isn’t even in the foothills of Haughey’s skill in that area) and downright abuse of power.”

By way of contrast at the funeral of Charles Haughey, the then Taosieach Bertie Ahern described the former Fianna Fail leader as “a patriot to his fingertips” with a “strong intellect, natural charisma and driving spirit which was to make him the dominant public figure in the late 20th century Ireland”.

Arguing Haughey had played a critical role in the fledgling days of the peace process, Mr Ahern claimed in the graveside oration: “I have no doubt that the ultimate judgment of history will be positive.”

Haughey, who retreated from the public eye in the last few years of his life in the wake of the McCracken and Moriarty Tribunals and as a result of fading health, divided the nation in death as in life.

And now after the electoral meltdown in 2011 that drove Haughey’s beloved Fianna Fail out of office and after a period of austerity where citizens of the Republic have had to come to terms with living beyond their means, RTE1 has embarked on a three part miniseries on the former Taoiseach’s rise and fall.

But will it influence how Charlie is judged by future generations in much the same way as Neil Jordan’s biopic ‘Michael Collins’ cemented popular opinion against Eamon de Valera?

Written by Colin Teevan and directed by Kenneth Glenaan, the first episode of ‘Charlie’ set off at a riproaring pace as it charted the battle between Haughey and George Colley to succeed Jack Lynch as Taoiseach.

The episode entitled ‘Rise’ began with an Oliver Stone style montage of real images from 1979 – although there was no Martin Sheen style voiceover, just ‘Reeling In the Years’ style captions about Jack Lynch’s Ireland being partitioned and caught between the past and modernity before the return of the “Black Prince of Irish Politics”.

Teevan and Glenaan evoked memories of Stone’s ‘Nixon’ as Aidan Gillen’s Haughey callously talked shop with his mother, Sarah (played by Frances Tomelty) who bemoaned how he had been treated by Lynch and who also badmouthed Colley.

But as the opening episode unfolded, it also sparked memories of the BBC2 sitcom ‘The Thick of It’ with groups of politicos pacing around the corridors of Leinster House shouting, swearing and backstabbing others.

The only difference is: in ‘Charlie’, the politician was unquestionably the star of the show and he was much smarter and more foul mouthed than his spin doctor.

Having set off at a sprint, Teevan and Glenaan worked hard to maintain the breakneck pace of their marathon drama as Haughey and his trusty sidekick, Tom Vaughan Lawlor’s PJ Mara plotted their way to the leadership of Fianna Fail at the expense of Peter Gowen’s Colley.

Episode one galloped through Haughey’s election in the Dail as Taoiseach, the battle between Haughey and members of his cabinet over stringent cuts, his first EU summit in Paris, his attempts to engage and win over UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on Northern Ireland, the wooing of the trade unions to forge a social partnership, the 1980 and ’81 hunger strikes and the Stardust Disaster.

But the writer and director also sprinkled into the mix Haughey’s warm relationship with his constituents on Dublin’s northside, his dodgy financial dealings with Frankie McCafferty’s banker, Des Traynor and his dalliances with his mistress, Lucy Cohu’s Terry Keane.

All of this made for very uneven and, dare I say it, very camp political drama.

In the central role, Gillen turned in a note perfect impersonation of Haughey – all swagger and sneer as he asserted his formidable political presence over a weak cabinet.

However the impression was that Gillen’s Charlie had all the best lines, while other cast members portraying major political figures paled into insignificance with little to work with in Teevan’s script.

As good as Gillen unquestionably was, it was a bit like watching Arjen Robben lining out for Shamrock Rovers against UCD in the FAI Cup.

Peter O’Meara’s Brian Lenihan came across in the opening episode as a bit of a spineless lightweight, while Marcus Lamb’s Des O’Malley made very little impression at all. Peter Gowen’s George Colley was a bit of a stuffed shirt.

Apres Match’s Risteard Cooper was also rather tame as the civil servant Dermot Nally, Frankie McCafferty’s Des Traynor seemed underdeveloped and Frances Tomelty had little time to make any impression.

Lucy Cohu’s performance as Terry Keane was pure Joan Collins and merely emphasised the camp, soapy nature of the screenplay and Jody O’Neill seemed to be the only political hack working in Leinster House as Geraldine Kennedy – presumably the decision to make her the embodiment of the Dail press corps was down to Glenaan’s limited budget.

However the biggest disappointment was Tom Vaughan Lawlor’s PJ Mara – lacking any presence or credibility as a character, his tendency to spout aphorisms and quote liberally from Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ merely underscored the poor quality of the script.

While we got a glimpse of West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Teevan and Glenaan rather oddly chose not to cast anyone Garret Fitzgerald or Margaret Thatcher – we heard actors mimicking their voices and also those of former Labour leader Frank Cluskey, Noel Browne and the Rev Ian Paisley.

On the bright side, Gavin O’Connor turned in a spirited performance as Sean Doherty and bore an uncanny resemblance to the former Roscommon TD.

But as Cohu’s Terry Keane flounced into Leinster House in her fur coat, you couldn’t help wishing ‘Charlie’ was more substantial like ‘Borgen’ or ‘The West Wing’ instead of being ‘Dynasty on the Liffey’.

As the titles rolled, it is clear Teevan and Glenaan will need to significantly up their game in episode two if we are to rise and follow ‘Charlie’.

Dan’s review of part two will be up next Sunday evening

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  • Makhno

    Overall, I enjoyed this show. I felt Gillen gave a good rendering of CJH, sonorous voice, floppy hair and all. Not sure about Mara, as the actor is fresh in the minds of many as Nidge in Love /Hate, and gives a few Nidge like ‘pleasant’ gormless looks which you expect to end with a beheading, or some such, but this is FF we’re talking about… It is a delicious irony to have the two leading characters portrayed by John Boy/Carcetti and Nidgeweasel.

    Not sure how else Brian Lenihan could be portrayed, his nickname in the party was ‘no problem’ and he always came across as an affable buffoon to me. Thought Des O’Malley looked too tall, but maybe that’s just me, many of the central characters were physically recognisable. Am guessing Joe Pesci to play Martin Mansergh.
    I guess this series WILL stand for a long time as, let’s face it, who else is going to produce a more sympathetic portrayal within the next few decades? I was in Dublin in the early 80s and feel the spirit of those times is generally well captured, albeit in a compressed way. While I thought there was too much Terry Keane tonight, we should remember that CJH’s love life was an open secret in the country, yet was never mentioned in the media. The only exception was the likes of a Letter from Dublin in Private Eye, as I recall.
    The show will hopefully develop beyond Dynasty on the Liffey: for example, does Jacintha from the Newsagent’s die in the Stardust tragedy, and are Haughey’s links here further explored? I also think the dominance of Gillen is not solely based on acting prowess, but a reflection that CJH completely dominated his party and the politics of the day.
    Upon his election as leader /Taoiseach I remember a newspaper profile headed “The Imperceptible Rise of Charles J Haughey” and the series will be a useful epitaph if it shows how one person, fixated on power, was able to gain and hold it for so long. I would hope that it will deal with the acquiescence of large sections of the public, including those who were ”with Charlie against the world” and knew he was a bad ‘un but “fair play to him” etc. Noel Browne’s contribution during the debate on Haughey’s ratification as Taoiseach was telling, and ultimately well founded.

  • chrisjones2

    ‘a patriot to his fingertips’ yes and they wre very sticky fingertips werenet they

  • Jag

    Haven’t seen it yet, but that’s a great review by Soapbox and will catch it this week on the RTE Player.

    It’s rare for RTE to do historical dramas, and given the libel laws in the Republic, it’s fairly risky stuff and as the BBC and ITV have found to their cost, trying the old “this is a work of fiction based on real events” is no deterrent to those upset by their portrayal. The gossip is that the actors were told not to ad lib lines in case of libel action and the script was pored over by the lawyers beforehand; a fair few of the participants in the CJH drama are still alive today, and I’d be surprised if they were all happy with their portrayal last night. Drama is indeed the most expensive genre on TV, this drama may become the most expensive ever.

  • The story starts in 1979?

  • Tochais Siorai

    It was fairly easy to read between the lines in Terry Keane’s own newspaper column about Haughey’s affair with her. Everyone knew who the ‘Sweetie’ was that she kept referring to. It was amazing that he let it go on or maybe he got a perverse kick out of it. Or maybe it was part of the deal.
    I think Nige as PJ Mara is great. He’s completely hamming it up but it’s none the worse for that.

  • Makhno

    None stickier, except for his protegé. The most devious, most cunning one.