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Behan There, Done This
01 Dec 2014 : Paul Byrne
As The Roaring Boy debuts on RTE tonight, Paul Byrne talks to director Maurice Sweeney about bringing something new to the Brendan Behan story.

PAUL BYRNE: Behan's been the subject of quite a few documentaries now - from the 1966 TV half-hour Brendan Behan's Dublin through the 1971 Omnibus TV outing and 1980's A Hungry Feeling: The Life And Death Of Brendan Behan, up to 1990's The Spirit Of Brendan Behan - did you feel you had something new to add with The Roaring Boy?

MAURICE SWEENEY: 'I think many of the documentaries run through the anecdotes and certainly serve to maintain the reputation Behan has as a drinker and and a caricature of himself. It helped and gave life to the famous line, ďIím a drinker with a writing problemĒ. What we have tried to do is get beneath the drinking and what was essentially a working class writer redefining the world.'

Having actor Adrian Dunbar as our guide through this spiritual and geographical journey of Behan's haunts and homes - an easier way to tell the story, rather than just having the archive footage and the talking heads?

'Yeah, sometimes Iím wary of Ďcelebritiesí presenting docs, but Adrian brought a real knowledge of Brendan to the documentary. He had played Behan in Brendan at the Chelsea, a play written by Brendanís niece, Janet. It was all about Brendanís fears and anxieties, looking back at his life. So Adrian had already attempted to get under his skin. So, from the first day of filming, there was a real understanding of what we were trying to say.'

Some notable talking heads are involved here, including JP Dunleavy, Jim Sheridan and Kathy Burke - all members of the Brendan Behan fan club, I presume? Were you keen to get down and dirty with this complex, sometimes troubled man?

'I think anyone we interviewed was keen to be fair to Behan, warts and all. I think what comes across is, letís talk about the drink but lets also look at the other parts of the man. What drove him, what frightened him and what was he trying to do. Sheridan says it brilliantly, that he drank so much that it wasnít the drink, but the need to escape from himself.'

You sourced some new archive footage - can you tell us a little about that?

'Well, thereís the famous interview with Eammon Andrews; here we see a sober Behan and at his wittiest and saddest. We also found the programme that made him famous in the States. He is having a drunken misunderstanding with Jackie Gleeson. But we also found great footage of him arriving in JFK to a huge press conference, drinking milk.'

What is it about Behan that still sparks such interest - he's an unlikely icon in many respects? Which is all part of his charm, of course...

'I think we always have a fascination with the young and the talented who die young. These days itís more about celebrity than talent. Well, he had both in huge measure. And in many ways, they were his downfall. I think his keenness to take on the celebrity possibly killed the writer within him. I do think though that he is a great working class icon. Someone who wrote themselves out of the shit, so to speak.'

Youíve alluded to this already, but, the Irish stereotype of the great Irish artist swimming in booze - keen to kick that to the kerb, or is there some truth in that gutter?

'I think Adrian says it well in the doc when he talks about giving out to Brendan for playing the Irish drunken fool, etc, but "Brand Ireland" thinks itís fine to celebrate the national day by everybody getting pissed.'

Anything on the cutting room floor that you wish you'd more time to squeeze in?

'I think more archive of Brendan could have been used but archive these days comes at a cost. A few more expletives from Kathy Burke maybe, but I think we got what we wanted on screen.'

What next for you, young Maurice?

'Hoping to do something with the Druid theatre soon, involving Shakespeare, and developing a few ideas for 1916, like everybody else.'

'Brendan Behan: The Roaring Boy' is on RTE One at 9.35pm Monday December 1st 2014.

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