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Interview with Billy Roche – writer of RTÉ series ‘Clean Break’
25 Sep 2015 : Seán Brosnan
With ‘Clean Break’ airing on Sunday, September 27th, we chat to the man who dreamt up the world of RTÉ’s new hit drama.

Writer Billy Roche is no stranger to theatre (The Wexford Trilogy), novels (Tumbling Down) or film (he won an IFTA in 2010 for co-writing ‘The Eclipse’) but television has proven to be the writer’s own clean break with Roche dreaming up the small town kidnap drama series way back in 2010.

152 Productions and Octagon soon came on board followed by acclaimed film directors Gillies MacKinnon and Damien O’Donnell to create the series we will see airing from September 27th.

Here, we talk to Roche about differentiating ‘Clean Break’ from ‘Love/Hate’, the influences behind his stories and writing in a timeless zorb.

IFTN: A tiger kidnapping rocking a small, Wexford community driven by love, greed, status and revenge - where did the idea of ‘Clean Break’ come from?

Billy Roche: ‘I never know where ideas come from but a spark must have come from somewhere at some point. I think it was a newspaper article or something and then there the story was in front of me. The end of the Celtic Tiger, a man with his back to the wall forced to do a desperate thing. There’s something kind of Greek or Shakespearean about it, isn’t there [laughs]?

You have written plays and written films but never for television – why did you decide that the small screen would be the ideal form for ‘Clean Break’?

‘Well, I was talking to some producers in that vein anyway because as you said I had never written for television before but it’s nice to take a little detour and see if we could make it happen. It’s a minor miracle that it did happen. It took about five years between thinking it, writing it, pitching it, selling it and actually getting it made but here we are now.’

You have Octagon producing, it’s a crime story and it’s on airing the same night in the same slot – you must be sick of telling people this isn’t ‘Love/Hate’?

‘Absolutely [laughs]. But look it’s not the worst thing in the world either – to be compared to such a successful show. It’s not ‘Love/Hate’ of course. The very nature of even setting it in a small town makes it different. It’s also very character based and the crime is really just a palette to paint these people on – to see the measure of these individuals I have dreamt up and see what makes them tick.’

I know you mentioned this story having shades of Greek and Shakespearean drama but what about more contemporary influences? Small town crime stories like ‘Fargo’ spring to mind for example…’

‘Yes I suppose ‘Fargo’ would be – the Coen Brothers always tap into Greek mythology in their works and I am always looking to Greek mythology for my inspiration as well.’

So, when did you start writing ‘Clean Break’?

‘I think it was almost five years ago when I started tinkering with it. It went through many drafts and processes in between. All that is kind of a dream-like thing for me – re-inventing things, fleshing out characters – I never really know where I will end up.’

With television being a new form for you – were you constantly getting feedback from anyone in the TV arena?

‘Before Octagon was involved I would have been showing my drafts to producers Emma Burge and John Chapman. Even though I had never written for television, I had written for film – I wrote ‘Trojan Eddie’ and co-wrote ‘The Eclipse’ as well as other film scripts that never got made and are now in a box somewhere I’m sure. I had actually tried to dream this one up as a film script initially but I think television is actually a very cinematic form now. We also got two beautiful film directors in to direct it – Gillies MacKinnon and Damien O’Donnell so I knew they could raise the visuals up as well.’

So, are you the type of writer then to write the script and then let the directors take over or were you down on the set every day like many writers nowadays in television, particularly in the US?

‘I was still writing as they were shooting so I didn’t get to the set very often. I would have been polishing up the next day’s scenes so I think I only visited the set three times – just to show my face and see what was going on. I missed out on all the fun – if you can call it fun [laughs]. I have seen all the episodes and I am happy with how they turned out. We really found some wonderful actors – Adam Fergus, Aidan McArdle, Simone Kirby, Damien Molony, Dermot Murphy, Ned Dennehy and Sean McGinley. Amybeth McNulty was a real find also. To hear these actors speaking your words is a real honour.’

This seems like a story born out of recessionary times and you mentioned beginning to write it five years ago – Ireland is now out of recession and things are picking up – were you worried about the story remaining relevant?

‘Yes, I remember saying to the producers “we need to get cracking on with this because everything could change” so I did have to alter it as I went. Originally, the story had ghost estates and we were worried that ghost estates would be completely gone but they’re not. We did have to be careful that the changing times would make us antiquated as we went along so there was a bit of tinkering involved.’

‘At the end of the day though, I write about universal, fundamental things like love and death and all that entails. They will always be relevant. You have to be careful about trends changing but generally speaking I tend to write in a timeless zorb. You can see that in the Coen Brothers films too – you would be watching their films and you don’t know until you see a calendar what era it’s in sometimes. I think that’s the way a lot of writers operate.’

It is refreshing to see a drama set in a small town on Irish TV – it seems like dramas these days are either set in the extreme opposites of a big city or a rural village?

‘A town like Wexford is not rural but it’s not metropolitan – it’s somewhere in between like a lot of towns in Ireland. I think that can be refreshing and it is certainly gold-dust to me as a writer being from Wexford. There is a different lingo in small towns; everyone knows everyone else and all that plays into our characters in ‘Clean Break’.’

Are you nervous at all about this series going out on Sunday and how it will play with an audience? Twitter means that you will hear what people think of the show before the episode even hits its’ first commercial break…

‘Well, that’s the world we live in now. People tell you yes or no very quickly but we have done the best we can do and are proud of it. No show is ever going to be everyone’s cup of tea.’

Sorry to mention ‘Love/Hate’ again but that started out with four episodes in the same Sunday night slot and went on for five seasons – would you be hopeful of at least a second season out of ‘Clean Break’ or is the story self-contained in these four episodes?

‘I think it’s open-ended enough for there to be a second series but I also think that the four episodes reach a satisfying conclusion for there to be nothing after it too. Whatever happens, it was a great achievement to get these four episodes out there and we are happy with them.’

‘Clean Break’ airs on RTÉ One on Sunday, September 27th at 9.30pm. Check out the teaser trailer below:

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