It’s the first Sunday of 2016 and already the broadcasters are wheeling out the big guns.
On BBC1, Andrew Davies’ six part adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ boasted gorgeous Russian locations, Lily James, James Norton, Paul Dano, Jim Broadbent, Gillian Anderson and Stephen Rea.
Channel 4 aired the much trumpeted eight episode Cold War spy drama from German broadcaster RTL ‘Deutschland 83’.
Meanwhile in Ireland, RTE was expecting huge audiences for its centrepiece Easter Rising drama ‘Rebellion’ which began a five episode run, with the promise of another season if it works.
A co-production with the Sundance Channel in the US, ‘Rebellion’ comes from the imagination of Colin Teevan who last year gave us ‘Charlie’, RTE’s manic dash through the career of Ireland’s most divisive politician Charles J Haughey.
But whereas that show tried to compress a rich and controversial political career into three one-and-a-half hour films, Teevan and Finnish director Aku Louhimies have opted to take a ‘Strumpet City’ approach to 1916.
They do not focus on a major historical figure like Padraig Pearse, James Connolly or Countess Markievicz over the five episode run – although all three popped up over the course of the first episode.
Louhimies and Teevan have chosen instead to focus on ordinary people swept up in the events leading to The Rising.
The opening episode begins in August 1914, with a blast of ‘The Mikado’, the declaration of the First World War – marked by the pealing of Dublin church bells – and then a verse of ‘God Save The King’.
And while the first episode of ‘Rebellion’ gives us that firm staple of historical dramas – brothers on opposite sides of history in the form of Brian Gleeson’s republican socialist Jimmy Mahon and Barry Ward’s First World War soldier Arthur – where it really scores is its interest in the women involved in the Rising.
In particular, considerable time is spent following the women playing the three little maids in the production of ‘The Mikado’ – Charlie Murphy’s Elizabeth Butler, Ruth Bradley’s Frances O’Flaherty and Sarah Greene’s Cork-born May Lacy.
Elizabeth defies her moneyed parents – Michelle Fairley’s Dolly Butler and Ian McElhinney’s Edward – by concealing weapons in the family home for James Connolly’s Irish Citizens Army.
Ruth Bradley’s dedicated republican Frances O’Flaherty works alongside the Irish Republican Brotherhood and ferries a document to Marcus Lamb’s Padraig Pearse stolen from Dublin Castle by May.
May is torn between patriotism and the affair she is having with her English civil servant boss, Tom Turner’s Charles Hammond who is married to Perdita Weeks’ Vanessa.
Appalled by his brother’s involvement in the Irish Citizen’s Army, Arthur Mahon kicks Jimmy out of their Dublin tenement, berating him for enjoying the benefits of the King’s shilling while he earns it being shot at by Turks.
Visually, ‘Rebellion’ is a handsome period drama – with cinematographer Tim Fleming’s work reminiscent of Chris Menges’ Oscar nominated work on Neil Jordan’s ‘Michael Collins’.
Dublin is bathed in a gorgeous blue at night as Frances cycles through the streets with smuggled documents a la Collins in Jordan’s film.
May’s double life in Dublin Castle is also reminiscent of Ned Broy in Jordan’s movie.
Apart from the occasional stilted piece of dialogue packed with historical information, Teevan seems liberated by the opportunity to develop his characters over more than one series.
With Bradley, Murphy, Greene, Gleeson and Ward all shining, the first episode of ‘Rebellion’ was everything you might have hoped from an RTE drama.
It was delightful to see the veteran character actor Jack Shepherd, best known as ITV’s ‘Wycliffe’, turn up in Dublin Castle as General William Lowe.
Brian McCardle, best known for playing Glasgow hard men in series like ‘Line of Duty’, appeared as James Connolly and growled at the lead singer of The Stunning, Steve Wall’s Detective Coleman, calling him “a puffed up buffoon”.
The opening shots of RTE’s ‘Rebellion’ have been fired and it may well hold its own in the face of competition from Russia and Germany.
Dan McGinn is a journalist who was previously the Ireland Political Editor and Ireland Deputy Editor of the Press Association and has worked for the Irish News, Belfast Telegraph and other publications and for TV and radio. He currently works in public affairs and is also a film and television critic with his own blog, They’ll Love It In Pomona covering the latest cinema releases.