TV Eye: Through the eyes of 1916

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2006), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 14

RIC constables re-enact the battle of Ashbourne.

RIC constables re-enact the battle of Ashbourne.

‘Through the eyes of 1916’
RTÉ, 10–17 April 1966
Insurrection
Directed by Louis Lentin and Michael Garvey
by Brian Lynch

Early in 1965, the director-general of Telefis Éireann, Kevin McCourt, selected a group of senior production and administrative staff to arrange a programme scheme for the 1966 golden jubilee of the Easter Rising. In addition to planning the outside broadcast coverage of public ceremonials, Telefis Éireann also intended to make programmes to give the historical background to the Rising, written and presented by historians and military experts. Where necessary, these programmes could draw on pre-recorded interviews with survivors of the period. From the time Telefis Éireann began in 1962, several producers, including James Plunkett, Charles Scott and Aindrias Ó Gallchóbhair, had, in addition to their normal work, been actively collecting interviews with survivors of the 1912–22 period for archival purposes. These recordings, which now form a core collection of the RTÉ television archive, were to be a valuable resource for making the 1966 commemoration programmes.
Although Telefis Éireann was only four years old, the outside broadcast and film units had gained excellent experience in event coverage, notably during the visit of President Kennedy to Ireland in 1963 and the Roger Casement funeral in 1965. In addition to event coverage, the outside broadcast unit was used in another way. At the time, filming drama was a slow and expensive process, but the outside broadcast unit staff developed a cost-effective and innovative method using electronic cameras to record drama on location. This practice had increased Telefis Éireann’s drama output, taken pressure off scarce studio time and brought some Irish TV drama away from the traditional studio set. Pioneering these techniques were producers like Christopher FitzSimon and Lelia Doolan with

An armoured car comes under attack outside the GPO.

An armoured car comes under attack outside the GPO.

The Riordans, a very popular rural series that was shot on a real working farm. This kind of realism was also going to be a key element in how 1916 events would be represented in Insurrection, Telefis Éireann’s most important drama production for Easter Week 1966.
In devising the entire golden jubilee programme scheme, Telefis Éireann was mindful that the television service was catering for an audience spanning two generations: the generation of the Rising, who would be consulted and interviewed as first-hand witnesses of historic events, and the larger part of the audience under 50, who had a less clear knowledge about the details of the events of the Rising and the character and motivations of those involved in it.
Among the first programmes proposed was a straightforward documentary about the Rising, using historic film footage. This was rejected, however, because 1916 news footage was scarce and had already been well used in George Morrison’s Mise Éire. Another proposal—a commissioned drama based on the events of the Rising—was also discussed but considered impractical on both technical and cost grounds. Instead, the planners decided to include Seán O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars in their programme schedule for Easter Week 1966.
In July 1965 the outline scheme was offered to the Radio Éireann Authority (as it was still called) for approval, but the response was mixed. In general, the broadcasting authority wanted more emphasis on the surviving participants in the Rising rather than any analytical approach by historians. For instance, only survivors of 1916 should be used in programmes dealing with reminiscences. The Plough and the Stars was considered unacceptable as a play to mark the golden jubilee of the Rising. As a result, production of the O’Casey play was deferred until later in the year. Overall, Telefis Éireann production staff were advised to view the Easter Rising ‘through the eyes of 1916’.
After detailed revision by the producers’ group during August 1965, four main programme strands emerged.

RIC constables seize a small boat found at Banna Strand, Co. Kerry, following the landing of Sir Roger Casement. (RTÉ Stills Library)

RIC constables seize a small boat found at Banna Strand, Co. Kerry, following the landing of Sir Roger Casement. (RTÉ Stills Library)

First, On behalf of the Provisional Government was a factual film series about the signatories of the Easter Proclamation, produced by Aindrias Ó Gallchóbhair. Taking a longer historical view was The long winter, a series of drama-documentaries produced by James Plunkett, which dealt with significant personalities and episodes in the history of Ireland, from the Flight of the Earls to the Rising of 1916. Plunkett also scripted two episodes. A third strand, for younger viewers, was a set of half-hour dramas commissioned from the Kerry playwright Bryan McMahon, produced by Christopher FitzSimon. These short plays dealt with aspects of the Rising as seen through the eyes of a child. Some incidents and characters in the plays drew on McMahon’s own childhood memories of 1916. Lastly, the programme planning committee returned to the previously rejected idea of a historical drama. The result was Insurrection, an eight-part dramatic reconstruction of selected events from Easter Week 1916. The overall producer, Louis Lentin, directed both the studio and the spectacular outside broadcast sequences, Michael Garvey directed the film inserts and Hugh Leonard was commissioned to write the scripts.
Under great time pressure, Louis Lentin and Hugh Leonard devised a highly original approach to the subject. In eight episodes, Insurrection depicted the unfolding events as they might have been made known to the Irish public day by day if there had been an Irish television service during Easter Week 1916. Hugh Leonard’s script managed to combine dialogue, action, marching and battles into a documentary and news reportage style. Presenter Ray MacAnally coordinated the overall programme in a ‘1916 TV studio’. ‘On-the-spot’ reporters ‘door-stepped’ the 1916 leaders as they left meetings or during a lull in the fighting. These reporters also spoke to other participants and bystanders. Events of 24 hours were contained in a half-hour format, which allowed for formal interviews, breaking stories, vox pops and ‘time-shifting’ of events in a modern credible TV format. Incidents outside Dublin such as the arrest of Roger Casement, the sinking of the Aud and the battle of Ashbourne were introduced into the programmes as filmed news items of the day.  Where necessary, the military events were further analysed and explained by the studio presenter using maps and three-dimensional models to clarify details for the viewers.
Telefis Éireann had not attempted a drama production on this scale before. Among the large cast were Ronnie Walsh as James Connolly, Eoin Ó Suilleabháin as Patrick Pearse and Joe Lynch as Cathal Brugha.

Cover of the special commemorative edition of the RTV (now RTÉ) Guide, 8 April 1966. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Cover of the special commemorative edition of the RTV (now RTÉ) Guide, 8 April 1966. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Other performers included Anna Manahan, Jim Norton, Fionnuala Flanagan and 200 extras, including members of the Defence Forces, who provided not only marching men but also explosives and firearms expertise.
Given the sensitivities involved in such a production, a historical adviser, Kevin B. Nolan, was appointed months before filming began. He worked closely with the scriptwriter and production staff and also provided a valuable liaison with survivors of 1916. McCourt advised his radio and television executives that no 1916 project should be commenced without reference to Dr Nolan. This was also to ensure that production staff would not have to make judgements on differing accounts of particular events.
During November and December 1965 Michael Garvey directed several film sequences, including Banna Strand, Ashbourne, the lancers’ charge in Sackville Street, and Portobello Barracks. The principal designer, the late Alpho O’Reilly, was interviewed for RTÉ archives in 1989 about Insurrection and described the care used in ensuring period detail of tunics, weapons, vehicles, street furniture and other properties. He had even located the original 1916 GPO clock in a Board of Works store. For street scenes, electric and telephone wires, street markings and CIE bus stops had to be removed or concealed. Nearby householders were persuaded to remove rooftop TV aerials, change curtains that were too modern in design and hide garden ornaments. Louis Lentin told the RTV Guide how, during filming, production manager Charles Roberts had to spend time persuading people to allow battles to be staged on their doorsteps.
When the film inserts were complete, work began in the studios. Unfortunately, by late 1965, several buildings in Dublin connected with 1916, such as Liberty Hall, the South Dublin Union and the Mendicity Institute, were gone or modified beyond recognition. So essential locations such as Clanwilliam House were recreated as studio sets. The GPO interior was the largest set ever built by Telefis Éireann. For actors, crew and production staff this studio ‘GPO’ was to prove a difficult work environment. The final scenes involved action, special effects and complicated camera plots, and at one point actors and crew had to work surrounded by smoke, explosions and a real fire. Army experts in explosives and armaments, in-house safety officers and professional firemen were constantly on duty.
Insurrection was the centrepiece television drama of Telefis Éireann’s Easter Week 1966 programmes. Episode one was broadcast on Easter Sunday, 10 April 1966, and the other episodes on seven succeeding nights. The audience and critical response was very positive. Initially, Irish TV critics praised the scale and boldness of Insurrection, but as Easter Week progressed their attention turned to the other productions, in particular the filmed portraits of the signatories, On behalf of the Provisional Government. Reflecting on the whole week of 1916 programmes, O. G. Dowling, television critic of the Evening Herald, summed up:

‘. . . they were overshadowed by the two main series, Insurrection and On behalf of the Provisional Government. Surprisingly I would say that of these two series the one which had the greatest impact has been the latter—the portraits of the signatories. I say surprisingly, because I suspect that six months ago nobody in Telefis Éireann would have thought this would be the case.’

TV Eye Through the eyes of 1916 5Telefis Éireann’s audience research and letters to the RTV Guide also reflected this. Aindrias Ó Gallchóbhair’s Portrait of James Connolly drew the comment from one viewer that Nora Connolly’s account of her father’s farewell to his wife ‘sounded so realistic I felt I was in the same room with them’. In general, audiences were impressed with the intensity and palpable sincerity of the contributors to this series. But the level of realism in Insurrection was disturbing to some viewers. One old lady for whom painful memories were revived by the series thought that the programmes were excellent, but she told a Telefis Éireann researcher that ‘there was too much sadness for one who suffered in it’. The looting scenes also drew some negative comments from viewers, critics and 1916 veterans. By the end of the week, Maurice Kennedy in the Evening Press described Insurrection as ‘oversold’ and pointed out the difficulties encountered in making the series, which had resulted in technical and acting shortcomings. He thought that ‘the Portraits series in its own quiet way has been much more rewarding’.
Although Telefis Éireann had sold or exchanged programmes abroad before, this was the first major export of a complete drama series. Insurrection was warmly received overseas; both BBC2 in Britain and ABC in Australia rebroadcast the entire eight episodes. Norway, Belgium, Sweden and Canada also broadcast shortened versions of the programme. Television critics outside Ireland not only discussed the programme but also wrote longer articles referring to the historic significance of the 1916 events and how they had been represented. In the London Observer, George Melly commented that

‘The Troubles are coming to us through a Brechtian lens . . . Television is backdated 50 years . . . at first I found the alienation too successful, but after a time the crosscutting between the aseptic studio, and the splendours and miseries on the streets outside begins to work. This technique succeeds in preventing us from thinking that the past has nothing to do with us. After all, behind today’s newscasts are the same heroism, suffering and senseless brutality.’

In the Sunday Times Maurice Wiggin was less sure; he described the programmes as ‘a brave try . . . the dramatisation varied between not so bad and not so good’. The Sydney Morning Herald columnist Jim Cunningham described Insurrection as ‘authentic . . . they did stick pretty close to history. The highlight was James Connolly fortifying the Post Office’.

Patrick Pearse (Eoin Ó Suilleabháin) watches (top) as the interior of the GPO burns. Actors and crew had to work surrounded by smoke, explosions and a real fire.

Patrick Pearse (Eoin Ó Suilleabháin) watches (top) as the interior of the GPO burns. Actors and crew had to work surrounded by smoke, explosions and a real fire.

On Swedish television, the reporter and war historian Jan Olof Olsson introduced Insurrection. Svenska Dagbladet of 25 April 1966 described Olsson’s introduction as showing

‘that we today ought to see the extreme nationalists who proclaimed a republic in 1916 as the pioneers of the movement of liberation from imperial and colonial powers since the Second World War and which still continues. It was the Irish who began it all. The programme lacked, to a certain extent, nuances . . . but it could be said that naivety, combined with its pathos, corresponded to reality.’

Telefis Éireann repeated the Insurrection series only once: on 1 May 1966 all eight episodes were broadcast. While audience response was still positive, a small number of viewers felt that the repeat had come too soon, or were now tiring of 1916 anniversary programmes.
At the end of 1966, Aindrias Ó Gallchóbhair’s On behalf of the Provisional Government received a Jacob’s Television Award as ‘the most outstanding contribution to the Easter commemorative programmes’. Another award-winner was James Plunkett’s production ‘When do you die, friend?’, one of the Long winter series. Although the innovative script by Hugh Leonard and the considerable production skills of Louis Lentin and Michael Garvey had made Insurrection into a spectacular and realistic representation of 1916, the programmes did not receive a citation at the Jacob’s Awards ceremony of 1966. But a Telefis Éireann drama broadcast in September 1966 did receive an award. Viewers and critics had praised the same production technique: an outside broadcast unit had made realistic use of outdoor locations in Dublin slums and tenements. The award-winning play was The Plough and the Stars, produced by Lelia Doolan.

The famous lancers’ charge down Sackville Street is re-enacted on the same street (now O’Connell Street). (RTÉ Stills Library)

The famous lancers’ charge down Sackville Street is re-enacted on the same street (now O’Connell Street). (RTÉ Stills Library)

Brian Lynch is the Written Archivist in RTÉ and has published several articles on Irish broadcasting history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Sherwood Foresters’ (bottom) come under attack on Northumberland Road. (RTÉ Stills Library)

‘Sherwood Foresters’ (bottom) come under attack on Northumberland Road. (RTÉ Stills Library)

 

 

'


Copyright © 2018 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568