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Lelia Doolan Talks a Lifetime of Irish TV & Film
14 Jul 2010 : By Aileen Moon
Ronnie Masterson, Christopher Young, Lelia Doolan and
Gabriel Byrne at the first Galway Film Fleadh
As a driving force to be reckoned with in the Irish film and television sector, Lelia Doolan has, it would appear, tried her hand at all aspects of the Irish arts and made a lasting positive mark on every single one. She is without doubt someone we all need to thank for her enormous role in whipping Irish cinema and television into shape. Said debt of gratitude was this year officially recognised by her Galway Film Fleadh co-founders and the Irish Film and Television Academy who joined forces to celebrate Lelia with an ‘In Conversation with…’ event and the presentation to her of the prestigious Galway Hooker award at the festival’s closing ceremony.

Her habituated wry outlook comes beautifully to the fore in her description of how the news of this homage was broken to her: “I went along to the programme launch one Tuesday evening a few weeks ago,” she tells us (in a tone that makes it clear she is still quite bemused at the proceedings that came to pass), “I’d actually thought about not bothering and just picking the programme up somewhere but I arrived in and everyone was absolutely beaming at me and I thought to myself ‘“God, what have I done now? Have I been found out at last?’ “ Told to look at page 17 of the programme Lelia was greeted with the news that she was the recipient of this year’s Galway Hooker award. Speechless with emotion? Not quite. “I mean, people usually wait until you’re dead to do these kind of things,” she reasons. “The rumours of my death have not been sufficiently exaggerated etc.”

Lelia’s time is tight when we speak with her - she is truly a woman in demand. Actor, singer, teacher, community activist, RTÉ director, Artistic Director of the Abbey Theatre,  Chair of the Irish Film Board. . . she was commanding a multi-faceted career woman long before the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé. It’s therefore difficult to limit questions about her career choices into three or four questions but something that definitely needs to be checked are her thoughts on contemporary Irish television. As co-author of ‘Sit Down and be Counted’, alongside Jack Dowling and Bob Quinn, she questioned the workings of RTÉ in the late sixties - does she think we are in need of another edition written? “I’d love to see another one done,” she replies avidly. “I suppose that I would always be glad to see people who have a point of view because I think it’s very good to stimulate an organisation like RTÉ which has, of course, changed hugely. It hardly makes its own programmes anymore - even the programmes that one hears on radio - portions of those are being sponsored.” So where do these problems stem from? “It’s partly due to the legislation which was set up with regards to the service to be provided by Irish television in that it has a dual mandate in the sense of having two contradicting masters - one being commercial and the other being the common good and its role in society. The difficulty in that is that more and more in our society the government is being run by large multinational organisations rather than governments. And this is reflected to a pretty large extent in the organs of public communication where you have very large business interests running huge acreages of the public print and television and radio media.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom, as Lelia is swift to point out: “There are one or two grassy knolls where you would hope to have a different viewpoint occasionally on RTÉ,” she says, thoughtfully. “There are some excellent doc programmes and of course we have the continued efforts of ‘Prime Time’. But a re-sync of the character, nature and structure of television would be a very good idea. I feel it’s extremely tired at the moment and I think there are plenty of intelligent, bright and imaginative people out there who could make a valuable contribution.”

Having resigned her position as Head of Entertainment in RTÉ in the seventies Lelia was pulled into the world of film-making. Joe Comerford had written ‘Reefer and the Model’ and was all set to direct it. All that was missing was a producer, ideally a strong female one who could raise an astronomical amount of money and make sure the film received the attention it was due. “So I became a producer,” comes the expected explanation. “And we raised one million Irish pounds which was twenty-odd years ago - back when we had real money.” What came next in the saga is quite the infamous tale now but refreshing to hear from the protagonist at the centre of things: “It was quite difficult to raise that money, as you can imagine, and at the very last moment one of our American producers, Hemdale Films pulled out so I blagged myself onto a flight to L.A. while our pre-production was going on in a dusty couple of rooms in what is now downtown Temple Bar. I got into L.A. anyway the night before the Oscars and ‘Platoon’ won a handsome number of awards and the producer involved with it was John Daly from the very same Hemdale Films.”

What follows is the fêted arrival of Lelia to John’s office complete with whiskey, smoked salmon and sausages and an iron determination not to return home empty-handed. “His secretary didn’t exactly invite me to stay but I did anyway. So I sat in his office, reading a book. I was staying with Colm Meaney and his wife Barbara because I didn’t have time to find a hotel and of course that wasn’t financially part of the bargain either. So he came in and said ‘What’s that you’re reading and will it make a good film?’ But I persuaded him he needed to put the finance back in our film instead, and he did.”

Thus, a distinctive approach to production was realised. “Yes, that’s how I got involved with the filmmaking side of things because I really knew absolutely nothing about film. I still don’t but there are people around me who y can teach me. I mean the word ‘I’ should be excised from this kind of work.” The latter sentiments belie a common theme in Lelia’s approach to life - this is further embodied by her co-founding of the Galway Film Fleadh itself. Once ‘Reefer and the Model’ was finished Lelia et al were approached to premiere it at the Galway Arts Festival. Mentions were casually mentioned in her presence about the advantages that the founding of a Galway-based film fleadh would bring to the city and an idea took root. A year later the Galway Film Fleadh was launched. Like most things the founding of the Fleadh came together organically and with a powerful driving force. “I got together Bob Quinn and his wife Miriam Allen, Joe McMahon who has run the Galway film society here for 40 years with his wife Bridie and the four of us along with several other poor devils who we dragged in from the street went about setting this event up.” The best way to get something done? Quite the only way according to Lelia: “Ireland truly runs on voluntary energy. Certainly in the arts and that hasn’t changed at all.”

Lelia’s description of the growth of the Fleadh since is proffered as a series of logical steps. It seemed a good idea to introduce a fair after a few years, it made sense that there should be awards given . . . the list goes on and of course culminates with a word about her co-founder and Fleadh managing director, Miriam Allen. “She has been running it for years and years. I mean I retired after seven years, I decided that was my lot. But she’s still hard at it.” That said Lelia is quick to point out her continued association with the event, albeit in her trademark self-deprecating manner: “They’re kind enough to drag me in for odds and ends kind of things which is always very enjoyable.”

This all brings us very nicely back to the most recent of reasons for Lelia to be dragged in - the timely honouring of her life and work for Irish audiences throughout the decades. She - as should be expected at this point - doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. “The whole point was to get a bit of enjoyment from whatever it is you’re doing. I mean, come one - what is the whole thing about if we’re all solemn and it’s all very ‘work-y?. The interesting thing is that the more gas you can whip up the better the damn thing works out in the end!” Did this work ethic come across at the Fleadh? “Well absolutely, we saw ‘The Pipe’ during the festival from Richie Ó Domhnaill, all about the Corrib gas dispute and it is a powerful piece of work and Richie is a cinematographer so it’s an extraordinary first piece of work for him as a director. It was something he felt powerfully about and went for it and it is brilliant!”

We finish with talk about another highlight of the Fleadh, the opening screening of Paul Fraser’s ‘My Brothers’ “Oh, I enjoyed it hugely,” she says. “It’s a good strong piece of work and the young people in it are absolutely marvellous. But one of the really delightful things about it is of course that it came from the Fleadh. It was pitched here last year and it is fantastic to see it come full circle.” A beat before a fierce additional nugget of praise: “Rebecca O’Flanagan, the producer, is a real do-er and that helps enormously obviously. Thanks be to god we have these strong Irish women out there behind the arts.” I couldn’t put it better myself.  

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