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The Great Television Writers: Roddy Doyle

By Martin Keady · March 17, 2020

Roddy Doyle is one of the master-writers of modern times, one of those supreme (and supremely rare) talents who seem able to write anything and write it well. He is primarily a novelist, having established his reputation with the wonderful Barrytown Trilogy, but he is also a playwright, children’s author, non-fiction writer and screenwriter. In addition, he is also a great television writer, and that is despite his only ever having written one television series more than a quarter of a century ago. However, the fact that that series was Family (1994), one of the most penetrating examinations of family life in any medium, means that he can still be considered a great television writer. 

Doyle was born in Dublin in 1958 and his own journey has mirrored that of Ireland itself at the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century. Indeed, Doyle himself has been one of the main chroniclers of the transformation of Ireland from one of the most backwards and regressive of western European countries into the increasingly liberal and progressive nation that it is today, as shown most recently in the historic vote to liberalize the country’s divorce laws. Even as the prospect of Brexit (if it ever happens) threatens to destabilize the whole island of Ireland, the Irish Republic has become a beacon of hope for other countries and cultures – proof that it is possible to change, and even change completely. 

Doyle grew up in the “old” Ireland, in which the Catholic church was seemingly all-powerful, anti-British feeling was rife (and it only intensified with the start of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland) and there was a general feeling that, as James Joyce had written nearly half a century earlier, “silence, exile and cunning” were an Irish writer’s best (indeed only) tools. But unlike so many other Irish writers, Doyle did not go into “exile” but instead stayed in Dublin, became a teacher and proceeded to mercilessly (but fairly) record what he saw all around him, namely life in a country that was on the brink of a historic transition from one era to another. 

Perhaps the first person to plant the seed in Doyle’s head that he could become a writer was his mother’s cousin, Maeve Brennan, who, like Joyce and so many other Irish writers, had made her name abroad, writing short stories and journalism in America. Although there is no evidence that Doyle and Brennan ever met, it is still feasible that the knowledge there was a writer (and an accomplished one at that) in his family spurred Doyle on to try to write himself. And when he did, at the end of the 1980s when he was fast approaching thirty, he did so with the kind of precise journalistic detail that had marked many of Brennan’s best stories. 

Doyle’s first published novel was one of the great literary, and subsequently cinematic, successes of the past three or four decades. It was called The Commitments (1987), after the band of the same name that decides to eschew all the synthesizers and over-production that had characterized so much 1980s music, even in Ireland, and instead dedicate themselves to becoming a great “Dublin soul band”, in the vein of Wilson Pickett, James Brown and the other legends of 1960s American soul music. 

It is not known whether Doyle was aware of the true story of the great Irish-English soul band, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, whose own origin story closely matches that of Doyle’s fictional Commitments. However, even if he was, Doyle transplanted the story from the Irish émigré enclaves of Birmingham, where Dexy’s had formed at the end of the 1970s, to the Northside of Dublin (traditionally the most working-class and therefore poorest part of the city) at the end of the 1980s. Then he demonstrated that he had clearly kept his own ears open in class while teaching English, because in The Commitments he proceeded to reel off several hundred pages of the finest and most authentic dialogue ever committed to page. It was as if the old Ireland of Joyce, Beckett and Yeats had been silenced, at least temporarily, and the new, rougher, more sexually and politically frank Ireland was being given a voice at last. 

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The Commitments soon became “The Barrytown Trilogy”, which was subsequently expanded even further into a “Pentalogy”, with the addition of two later books set in the same part of Dublin, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993), for which Doyle won the Booker Prize, and The Guts (2013). Nevertheless, for many readers Doyle’s Barrytown series of books will always be a trilogy, because those first three novels – The Commitments, The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991) – were so utterly perfect in their depiction of a close-knit community that struggled financially but lacked for nothing in spirit, humor and guile. All three books were also made into extremely successful films, for which Doyle wrote or co-wrote the screenplays, and so by 1993 he finally felt able to give up his job as a teacher and become a full-time writer. 

All of which leads us to Family (1994). Even the quickest and most desultory Google search reveals that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of TV shows and films that are either called “Family” or contain the word within their title. Indeed, it has often been said that the basis of all western drama, since the time of the ancient Greeks, is family, the basic building-block of society that has so often been the basic building-block of drama, from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon to recent Oscar-winners such as Manchester By The Sea (2016). And yet for many Doyle devotees, there is only one Family and that is his magisterial TV series of the same name. 

With Family, it was as if Doyle, who had made his name as a truly great comic writer, decided to try his hand at drama, to see whether he was equally adept at that. The answer was undoubtedly yes, as Family, a co-production between the BBC and Ireland’s RTE (a collaboration that would have been almost unthinkable in the first few decades of Doyle’s life, such was the hostility between Ireland and England), tore through all the clichés of Ireland and Irish family life, and showed perhaps the most dysfunctional family ever captured on screen (big or small). 

One of Doyle’s many strokes of genius in writing Family was to divide the four-part series into four different points of view, such that each episode was the story of a different member of the same family: first, that of Charlo, the supposed “father figure”, who is actually not only infantile but positively destructive of his own family; that of John Paul, his oldest son, who idolizes his father until he realizes just how hateful he really is; that of Nicola, his oldest daughter, who struggles both materially and emotionally in the absence of a genuine father-figure, and who ultimately proves pivotal to the conclusion of the whole story; and finally that of Paula, Charlo’s wife, who is not just long-suffering but, in the tradition of so many women in Irish literature and cinema, apparently destined to suffer forever, until finally she flips and demands more from life than Charlo can ever give her. (There are actually two other children in the family, but they are much younger than John Paul and Nicola, and serve mainly to emphasize the toll that family life is taking on Paula in particular.)

Charlo is played by Seán McGinley, one of Ireland’s relatively unsung but none the less truly great actors, who completely brings Charlo to life. To say that Charlo is a bad, or even absentee, father is an enormous understatement, as we see him variously screwing (women other than his wife), boozing (day and night) and abusing (principally his wife, but on occasion his children too). In an incredibly naturalistic style, with dialogue that matches the flat, unfussy, almost documentary-style of director Michael Winterbottom’s camerawork, Charlo is shown as being the most untrustworthy of men, a hideous inversion of the old ideal of the Irish paterfamilias, as embodied most famously in the form of Scarlett O’Hara’s father in Gone With The Wind, although he too, of course, ultimately proves to be far less able than he initially appears to be. 

The second and third episodes of Family examine the impact that Charlo’s selfish and self-destructive behavior has on his two oldest children, John Paul and Nicola, and it is here that all of Doyle’s talents (both literary and non-literary) seem to combine and coalesce: as a teacher, he would have witnessed the kind of bored and distracted behavior that John Paul exhibits almost continually at school; as a novelist, he had already shown in The Snapper, the story of a Dublin girl who becomes pregnant at a very young age, that he was remarkably sensitive to the situation of so many young Irish women; and as a screenwriter/television writer he keeps the whole story moving along at pace, while also ensuring that the most important details (for example, Charlo “entertaining” his children by exploding food in the microwave, which his wife subsequently has to clean up) are emphasized. 

The final episode of Family was Paula’s story, and after the sheer misery (and occasional horror) of the three previous episodes there is at last a glimmer of hope, but it only comes at the end and then perhaps only partially. Paula has put up with Charlo’s womanizing and drinking for so long that she appears almost immune to it, but that completely changes when she notices that Charlo appears to be turning his attention to his own daughter, Nicola, as expressed in his overlong stares at her developing body. Charlo denies any accusation of incest, but eventually Paula realizes that he really does pose a sexual threat to her daughter and that is the point when she finally snaps and starts to fight back against him. This entire episode, the conclusion of the series, is stunningly realistic and truthful, in its depiction of a woman who has been treated so badly, both by life and her husband, that she clearly no longer cares about her own well-being. However, when the well-being, even safety, of her children, particularly her eldest daughter, is threatened, and threatened by their father at that, she responds like a true “Celtic Tiger” and defends her offspring to the death. 

In effect, Family marked the end of the first, and indeed imperial, phase of Roddy Doyle’s writing career. In a little over seven years, he had enjoyed the kind of start to his writing life that almost all other writers (with the possible exception of J.K. Rowling) can only dream of. He had written a brilliant trilogy of comic novels that had done much to overturn established, even clichéd, views of Irish life; those three novels had then been turned into enormously successful films, for which he wrote or co-wrote the screenplays; and finally he had topped off that seven-year run triumphantly by writing a seminal TV series, the after-effects of which can still be felt in any depiction of Irish family life on screen more than 25 years on. 

To this day, a quarter of a century later, Roddy Doyle has not written any other original television drama, although he has continued to explore the lives of the characters in Family, particularly that of Paula, in subsequent novels, such as The Woman Who Walked into Doors (2003). That book was a kind of prequel to Family, in that it examined how an apparently intelligent woman like Paula could ever have fallen for a shite (and that’s putting it politely) like Charlo in the first place. 

Nevertheless, as is often said in other contexts (including that of life itself), once is enough, if you do it right. And with Family, Roddy Doyle certainly did it right, creating and writing a television series that was short in duration but colossal in its impact and influence. 

Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.”


Roddy Doyle photo credit: Alan Betson


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