With Irish cinema getting a ‘boom’ moment, what with the successes of The Banshees of Inisherin and The Quiet Girl, I feel that one has overlooked how we got here in the first place. Despite all this talk of a new Golden Age of Irish Cinema, there is not even done to show Irish cinema’s history.
The thing is, Irish cinema’s history has long been rewritten from certain views. One always hears of Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan, but little on, say, Cathal Black, Pat Murphy, Tom Collins, Pat Collins, hell even Thaddeus O’Sullivan. Part of this is we live in a culture where a failing, rather skeevy sport like dog racing (the top-shelf porno mag of sports) somehow gets more cred from the Irish government, while film only ever becomes a talking point when an Irish film scores an Oscar nomination.
And even then, the Irish Ministry of Culture seem more interested in bringing international films to Ireland, to keep our industry as primarily a service industry for British and American studios (as it was until the 1980s) rather than a self-sufficient cinema with a national identity. And one thing this means is that there is hardly any funding for the Irish Film Institute’s preservation projects. Compared to, say, the much larger and better funded British Film Institute, obviously reflecting a larger country and industry, the home releases of rare Irish films are miniscule, and streaming even less so bar the odd surprise on US ad-streamer Tubi and various pirate options.
Yes, the BFI themselves have ironically helped, releasing films such as Pat Murphy’s Maeve (1981, itself a BFI production) and several BBC NI projects under the aegis of English ex-pats Alan Clarke and Mancunian ex-pat Danny Boyle (yes, THAT one) and the rather extraordinary Play For Today Your Man From Six Counties (1977), but while all kinds of niche filmmakers from Britain (both from an arthouse background and an exploitation background) have had luxury box sets or blu-ray releases: see the BFI’s Flipside series of releases often finding films that in some cases never got real releases at all (John Krish’s military training feature Captured (1959), which includes Wilfrid Brambell).
Meanwhile, the likes of Barney Platts-Mills, Joseph Despins, Saxon Logan, Chris Monger, Don Levy and David Gladwell have gotten releases for their obscure and unloved films. And this leaves aside works by better-known figures like Peter Watkins, Pete Walker, Gerry O’Hara, Mike Sarne, Jerzy Skolimowski and Richard Lester. Even something critically revered as one of the Great Irish Films like Pat Murphy’s Anne Devlin (1984) or Pat O’Connor’s BBC/RTE drama The Ballroom of Romance remains frustratingly AWOL.
Part of this is rights. Both Anne Devlin and The Ballroom of Romance were funded by RTE, and Telly Eireann are notorious for not releasing their archive, blaming a mix of residuals and embarrassment. Meanwhile, so many obscure British TV productions get released that jokes are often made that Network DVD specially create weird old ITV dramas via AI. Certainly, the IFI did attempt to look into the rights of The Ballroom of Romance, a film even RTE constantly toot their horn about as a Great Irish Film without ever doing anything about people seeing it. Though the fact it seems to have been a mostly BBC production indicates that it may be owned by Auntie Beeb.
RTE’s lack of care to their archive seeing release is why the only release of seminal drama Strumpet City is a 20-year-old long out of print DVD, and bar a few BBC coproductions, the only other RTE drama of the 80s to get a release are The Irish RM (1984-1986) and The Price (1985), both dramas made by independent production companies in association with Channel 4 and RTE, and mainly controlled by the British channel. Where are the releases of C4/Telly Eireann shows like Year Of The French (1982), Caught In A Free State (1983), Summer Lightning (1984), and, most intriguing of all, the near-forgotten horror anthology When Reason Sleeps (1986)?
Film4 certainly helped, contributing to Irish cinema in the 80s. To films both fondly remembered (Eat The Peach (1986), Angel (1982), The Crying Game (1992), The Dead (1987)), and the more obscure. Where’s Robert Wynne-Simmons’ outstanding folk horror The Outcasts (1982), Comerford’s Reefer And The Model (1988), Aisling Walsh’s Cannon-coproduced gurriersploitation picture Joyriders (1988), and only partly Irish titles like Giro City (1982), Ascendancy (1984) and No Surrender (1985)?
But while the better-known titles did get releases, even The Dead is now out of print, and still not out on blu-ray, despite being one of the most gorgeously shot films ever made in this country (well, kinda, being mostly shot in California due to John Huston’s terminal illness). Same is of other titles, like Lamb (1985) and Nothing Personal (1995).
And the same is true of the various BBC films about Ireland, many made by BBC Northern Ireland, whose work we tend to forget when talking about Irish TV, but constantly did more experimental and interesting stuff than Telly Eireann. See the almost forgotten (bar the late Joe McNally on twitter) BBC NI sitcom Space Oddity (1982), with a young Ian McElhinney as a stranded alien in Belfast. Or the haunting black comic thriller Murder In Eden (1991) – often seen as ‘Donegal’s answer to Twin Peaks‘, but equally an attempt to do a ‘fringe mainstream’ drama in the vein of The Life and Loves of A She-Devil (1986) or Edge Of Darkness (1985).
Or Runway One (1996), an international thriller, partly shot in America, revolving around American smuggling operations at Shannon Airport, starring Peter Capaldi and American actors Robert Beltran and Marshall Bell, plus such Irish faces as Gerard McSorley, Lorraine Pilkington, Tom Hickey and Fair City stalwarts Paul ‘Harry’ Raynor and Dave ‘Leo’ Duffy. Or Children of the North, starring Adrian Dunbar and a post-Batman Michael Gough oddly cast as a Belfast bookmaker.
That’s not mentioning the dozens of Play For Todays and Screen One/Twos and Play On Ones about Ireland and the Irish. Sure, the Billy Plays (1982-1985) and The Snapper (1993) are still fondly remembered, but what about Katie – The Year of the Child (1979), a story of Irish travellers starring a partly amateur cast, or Shergar (1986), a docudrama about the kidnapping of the racehorse starring Stephen Rea and Niall Toibin?
Then, there are the mavericks, especially in the little-dwelled-on world of regional Northern Irish cinema. Bill Miskelly’s children’s adventure The End Of The World Man (1985) is barely an echo online. And while everyone who ever saw Enda Hughes’ Peter Jackson/Sam Raimi-esque Troubles/zombie comedy The Eliminator (1996) has fond memories of it, Hughes himself is willing to bury the film, writing it off as a ‘student film’. And that’s not even mentioning visitors like Argentinian director Martin Donovan’s Kerry-based magic realist fable State Of Wonder (1984).
That’s just the 80s. The 90s was a boom period for Irish cinema like never before, and you can still find DVDs of majorish international co-pros like Widow’s Peak (1994) or The Playboys (1992), but even once-hyped local films like Martin Duffy’s The Boy From Mercury (1997) and The Fifth Province (1997) have vanished into the ether.
And then there are the various international films about Ireland. It is astonishing to think you can buy special features-laden releases of Rawhead Rex (1986) or The Iguana With The Tongue Of Fire (1971) or the Troubles-era Belfast slasher Naked Massacre (1976) or the Dublin-shot The Face of Fu Manchu (1965). But there are films that are still AWOL. Where are the two Lee Dunne adaptations made by Roger Corman and AIP? The hysterical morality tale Wedding Night (1969), starring a miscast Dennis Waterman and Tessa Wyatt as Dublin newlyweds in a suspiciously un-swinging London that resembles Stillorgan? Despite being directed by British TV mainstay Piers Haggard, one of the architects of ‘folk horror,’ thanks to Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971) it remains obscure even amongst the BFI Flipside brigade.
Paddy (1970), a more authentic chronicle of Dublin life starring Des Cave, Milo O’Shea, Dearbhla Molloy and Judy Cornwell got a VHS release in the 80s. Paddy still has a champion in renowned scriptwriter Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People Vs Larry Flynt). Will MGM and Warner, who own the films respectively, ever release these from their vaults? Or something like The Sleep Of Death (1980), Calvin Lloyd’s follow-up to his Wicklow-shot Victor Frankenstein – a Sheridan LeFanu adap featuring Irish legends such as Patrick Magee, Ray McAnally and Niall Toibin?
And talking of Toibin, where is Murphy’s Stroke (1980), the ITV drama with him and a young Pierce Brosnan in a rare positive display of our country’s love of corruption? In this era when we are supposed to see Niall O’Connor as a hero, maybe someone should look into the Thames/Fremantle archive.
Then, there are films which worryingly seem lost. And No One Could Save Her (1973), even by the standards of ABC Movies of The Week is non-existent online, despite starring Lee Remick as an American heiress in Dublin searching for her missing husband (Frank Grimes).
It’s hardly worth mentioning that there are so few blu-rays of the Great Irish Films. The Field? The Butcher Boy? The early work of Lenny Abrahamson? Dozens of Irish films exist only on 20 year old DVDs in CEX and charity shops. When will someone rediscover the lovely Kimmage Wyrd of Steve Barron’s Rat (2000)?