RTE’s ‘Rebellion’ – truth and ethics be damned

There is a convention that should normally apply to critics reviewing art, drama, etc. of trying to find some element worthy of praise even in a review which is necessarily harsh in general terms. In the case of RTE’s ‘Rebellion’ series, that is difficult, given the overall awfulness of this entire enterprise.

So yes, of course, the actors did their best, one presumes, with the material they were given to work with – the lines that were written for their characters, and the directions given them by the series’ director. And yes, the wardrobe team, and hair and makeup, and set dressers and the other functionaries in the process presumably did their best, and some of it was good. But that is not enough.

A film or a TV drama or a staged play depends in the first place on a script, including the premise on which it is grounded. As the ideas develop the script will have a central plot and a series of sub-plots that weave through the narrative, all of which have to be tied up by the end. Crucially, it will also have its main characters – the protagonist (hero) who has a need or goal, and the antagonist (villain) who blocks the achievement of that need or goal. Think of Neil Jordan’s ‘Collins’, Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’, or Dorothy and the Wicked Witch in ‘The Wizard of Oz’. We all understand this aspect of story-telling, partly through instinct and life experience and partly because we implicitly know the structure of story-telling. Good guy, bad guy, and the journey towards resolution.

Presented as it was, Rebellion’ failed hopelessly on these essential elements. Who was the protagonist? Who was the antagonist?

Yes, the protagonist can be a group of people, but that group has to have a common objective – a goal or a need. Given that this series is supposed to be about three young women with the 1916 revolution playing out as moving wallpaper behind their stories, what is their common goal? I can’t see it. And who is the antagonist? Given the surface story, the three women, it cannot be the British Empire except in the case of one of them and partly in the case of another. Is it the patriarchal culture in which they live? If so, the revolution is an unnecessary diversion from the story that needs to be told, since its mission to create an egalitarian society is never teased out. Instead, the revolutionaries are presented, particularly in the form of Patrick Pearse, as being arch-Catholic and conservative, essentially no different to the status quo in terms of attitudes to women, so why bother with the revolution at all?

But the scriptwriter has another crucial task to do if he/she is going to create a credible  and engaging drama, and that is in the creation of characters that ring true to the audience, that we care about, that we gradually understand in terms of the goal or need and where in the character’s psychology that springs from. What character flaw do each carry into the story which they must overcome in order to achieve their goal or need? It is a job that simply must be done, to construct a back-story for the character so that even before we first see and hear them on stage or on screen they already exist in a complete form. An actor can work with that, but not without it.

That, Colin Teevan has utterly failed to do. He has shown us three young women who are at best half-formed in dramatic terms. I could not bring myself to care about any of them, and as the series went on it became obvious that the three-women story was just a soap-opera device, and an opportunity to divert our attention from the potential excitement of the real story of the 1916 revolution.

And in the story of the revolution, and more importantly the revolutionary characters, Teevan failed even more dismally. A character’s backstory has to be true and credible whether a fictional character, but even more so when it is based on a real, once-living, person. For a writer to use the stage, film or television to traduce the character of a real person, and to do it gratuitously as in the case of his portrayal of Patrick Pearse is reprehensible, unprofessional and worthy of outright condemnation regardless of one’s attitude to Patrick Pearse. Pearse lived, had a unique character as we all do, harboured a set of ideas, worked in the world in a variety of political and social ways, had friends and enemies, had a goal and a need which was to free Ireland from the clutches of the empire and to replace it with an enlightened modern republic, penned his name to a very progressive Proclamation and in the process knowingly signed his own death warrant. But that is not the Pearse that Teevan and his collaborators want us to see and to know.

Would that we could sue Teevan and his collaborators for slandering a dead man, because that slander was perpetrated knowingly, and carefully planned as part of the overall noxious enterprise. Prominent among those collaborators is Jane Gogan, RTE’s Head of Drama. Gogan has received high-quality training in screen-writing via the New York University screen-writing course presented at UCD in 1995. I know that because I also attended that superb course. There is simply no excuse for her not to have insisted on great care being taken in the creation of fictional characters and plot construction, but particularly in the truthful representation of a living or once-living person. The ethics of screenwriting demands that.

And ethics must form part of our evaluation of this series. It is unethical to portray the actions and the motivations of a set of historical characters, from the leaders to the rank-and-file in a revolution, in a way that runs counter to known fact. It is unethical to distort fact in such a way as to manipulate public sentiment towards a part of the history that the public not only shares but owns. The 1916 revolution is part of the backstory of each of us as individuals and of us as a collective, whether we acknowledge it or not, or whether we take one side or the other. It represents the facts of a past from which we have emerged and around which we have been culturally moulded.

When a social/political class interferes in a significant way – outside of the acceptable expression of opposing opinions – by altering facts or deliberately misrepresenting key figures so as to manipulate our understanding of history and therefore the backstory to the world we live in today, then that becomes a political act, an act of altering our perceptions through propaganda so as to suit the political and social exigencies of this moment in time and future time as they affect the privileged status of members of the political class.

I have no doubt at all that this dreadful series was concocted to be what it is – a shallow soap-opera that provides the vehicle for portraying the 1916 revolution in a very bad light – at a series of meetings, which I have outlined in a previous review of an episode. Those meetings included senior personnel from the publicly funded State broadcaster, and involved the spending of about €6 million of our money on a production that disseminates highly negative and counter-factual propaganda against a key moment in our history and its central characters.

It is not difficult to discern just who is intended to be the beneficiary of that publicly funded propaganda. It is of course the counter-revolutionary class, the political class, to which those who created this series belong and from membership of which class they benefit in terms of continuation of power, privilege, and wealth. It is the counter-revolutionary class that is challenged by the facts of history and the true characters of the leaders and the rank-and-file of the revolution.

And we can’t have that.

Truth, and ethics, be damned.

 

 

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About Tom Stokes

Tom Stokes is a writer and journalist, and has taught media and journalism at foundation and under-grad levels. He holds a BA in Communications and Cultural Studies and an MA in Journalism from Dublin City University. He is a grandson of John Stokes, a striking tram driver in the 1913 Lockout and a Volunteer in Boland’s Mill in the 1916 revolution. He is an organiser of the Citizens’ Initiative to establish a new national day in Ireland on April 24th, to be known as Republic Day, and is co-organiser with Marie Mulholland of the campaign to have Ireland's new children's hospital dedicated to the memory of Dr Kathleen Lynn, to be named The Kathleen Lynn National Children's Hospital. View all posts by Tom Stokes

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