With ambitious TG4 series ‘Wrecking The Rising’ hitting the small screen this week, we catch up with writer James Phelan – the man who thought up the very original comedy drama.
Produced by Stephen Rooke of Tile Films with funding from TG4, the BAI and Section 481, this series is TG4's flagship project to mark the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising and will be broadcast at 9.30pm on Saturday 23rd, Sunday 24th and Monday 25th April 2016 to mark the actual 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising – in 1916, Easter Monday fell on 24th April.
The series follows three modern-day Irishmen, Ernest (Owen McDonnell – ‘An Klondike’), Tom (Sean T. Ó Meallaigh – ‘The Callback Queen’/‘An Klondike) and Seán (Peter Coonan – ‘Love/Hate’), who endure listless and unexciting lives living in Dublin. Their only enjoyment comes from staging re-enactments of the Easter Rising. After being mysteriously transported back in time to 1916 they cause a huge blunder that has the potential to wreck the Easter Rising before it has even begun. Somehow they must keep history on course – and figure out a way to return to the future.
The series was filmed at twenty locations throughout Dublin city. But its real showpiece is the life-size GPO constructed in an empty hanger in Galway airport, where the bulk of the series was filmed in October and November 2015.
Here, James Phelan takes us through the inception of the ambitious series.
IFTN: I guess the most obvious initial question here is where did this very original idea come from?
James Phelan: ‘Well the idea first occurred to me about how funny it would be to have re-enactors of any era travelling back to a battle that they knew in forensic detail. The immediate drama and humour possibilities within that tickled me. To be honest, the first pass at this material was in a World War II setting but then the centenary of the Rising started to loom here and that period just seemed so rich and somehow more contained - so that was the spark.’
Why was the drama being contained important?
‘Oh, I don’t know what it’s like for other writers but I generally try to find my way into some unwieldy topic that is miles too big to visualise or summarise. Researching a drama on the Rising could be your life’s work if you wanted but you’d never get to write the bloody thing. Finding the way in is crucial I think. And I knew straight away that with this the G.P.O. would be the focus - the fulcrum of the drama. It’s the crucible where this trio of modern men who time travel wind up with history unfolding around them but in a manner that they alone know is altered and wrong. We break out of this location several times to interject in other time honoured events around Dublin but deciding on the G.P.O. as the main setting was both obvious and vital.’
Did this containment make the project more financially feasible?
‘It’s never my first concern, certainly when writing but you have to be smart about how any project will eventually reach screens and at least give it a fighting chance. If I wrote something that zoomed around outdoors period Dublin with a huge breadth and expanse that only Hollywood money could afford then the project is likely going to sit on a shelf. It was still a huge ask for Tile Films to realise this project even with TG4 and BAI support but they did a tremendous job. The production designer Padraig O Neill and his team built a staggering 360 degree G.P.O. set in Galway. The craftsmanship was so impressive and it made for a really immersive atmosphere for the actors.’
Speaking of cast, take us through the main characters?
‘Well the main characters are three friends in the present day who seek distraction and escape in their mundane lives by re-enacting the Rising events. They have romanticised the past to a huge degree and each resent where the country has ended up to varying degrees. Each of the characters lack something. I actually came up with this ‘Wizard of Oz’ analogy which really added to the writing. Sean T O Meallaigh’s character Tom needs to open his heart up again after a tragedy. Peter Coonan’s character Sean needs a brain – or just to use it more often and Owen McDonnell’s character Ernest needs to find some bravery within himself. It really informed the writing but when I armed the director Ruan Magan with this little nugget of insight and he eventually relayed it to the actors, they apparently laughed their arses off.’
So how radical does the re-writing of history get?
‘Quite extreme. There was a version of the scripts where the main guys travelled back in time and muddled and meddled in history but were mainly observers and commentating on how they had subtly deviated history. When Ruan came on the project, at the very first meeting, ourselves Tile and TG4 had this moment where we decided to go big or go home. Notice I’m using the word ‘we’ to drag them all into being complicit. But we did and it freed me up to push it even more. To dispense with sanctified fact and really see how much change we could introduce to the events of Easter week and the future that the men return to. I guess that’s a spoiler alert statement but most time travellers usually get back to their original time period and we stuck to that convention.’
‘But yeah – I wanted to deviate from the established norms. I knew we’d know the Rising by heart by the time the tsunami of docs washed over us all. So it freshens everything up by not being totally constrained by history. This way the whole endeavour is enlivened again. We don’t do the usual ‘real’ outcomes. Some people live who died. Some unexpected people perish. One famous one is gone early doors (laughs).’
Did the cast and crew have to be won over to the premise?
‘In fairness, the pitch for this made most people smile. You could nearly see the central notion of what we were attempting taking hold. The challenge for me became trying to live up to the promise of that premise. Despite having a very immediate familial connection to the Rising, Ruan was gung-ho to be even bolder. In both senses of the word. Daring. And also that Irish childlike version of bold. A little naughty. Pushing things. Everyone knew they would be plenty of respectful solemn takes on the Rising and there should be room for something different.’
Depicting an altered Ireland sounds ambitious?
‘Again, Tile, TG4 and Ruan were all up for the challenge. What’s really funny is watching the re-enacting scene that the show mooted actually coming to pass. I know of lots of actors getting and doing good work in all facets of re-enacting Easter events. When we started we didn’t know if that was a fanciful notion.’
You’ve had a fruitful relationship with TG4?
‘For sure and with Micheal O Meallaigh in particular. I owe him and people like Proinsias Ni Ghrainne an awful lot. They took a chance on me allowing me to write a seven part drama (‘Rasai na Gaillimhe’) with very little on my CV. I hope I’ve repaid some measure of that trust. But then as the actor and Irish language advisor on ‘Wrecking’, Peadar Cox pointed out to me – there’s four years between each of my TG4 projects. Like Olympics or World Cups. Be nice to break that up with odd European championship too.’
And you added animation to your bow recently?
‘Yeah. It’s been a lovely addition being so different a process from everything else. Both shows I’ve written for so far have been virtually dialogue free and that’s a huge challenge to someone who loves and overuses dialogue as much as I do. It’s been eye opening how complex a story can be tackled with just visuals. One of the shows ‘Oddbods’ has just started to broadcast episodes on the kids channel Boomerang on weekend mornings. My nephews and friends’ kids have taken to it instantly so impressing that demographic is very gratifying.’
‘Wrecking the Rising’ goes out on three consecutive nights on TG4 at 9.30pm starting on Saturday 23rd April. ‘Oddbods’ is on Boomerang channel on weekend mornings.
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