RTE’s latest drama series, The South Westerlies, premiered on 6 September in the flagship Sunday 9:30pm slot after the main evening news. According to a 2019 Variety report, the series, produced by Dublin-based Deadpan Pictures for RTE and the US streaming channel Acorn TV, has further co-production and distribution involvement from ZDF Enterprises (Germany) and TV2 (Norway). This impressive line-up of international players suggests the project, initially conceived by writer Catherine Maher, will justify the early investment from Screen Ireland and RTE, who co-funded its development under a joint scheme announced in 2017 to support ‘scripted comedy projects with export potential’.
The new series boasts an excellent cast, including Orla Brady, Eileen Walsh and Patrick Bergin – all proven actors with considerable international profiles. Its roots in the TV comedy genre, however, sit awkwardly with its ‘six-part drama’ marketing by RTE. So does its scheduling in the Sunday time slot in which viewers have become accustomed over the years to seeing considerably edgier fare like Love/Hate (2010-14), The Fall (2013-16), Taken Down (2018), and many more.
This blurring of boundaries between comedy and drama contributes to a number of problems evident in The South Westerlies initial episode. The story centres on local West Cork opposition to an offshore wind farm being developed by a shadowy Norwegian energy company, and some press releases for The South Westerlies have played up this plot element to position the series as an ecologically aware drama in tune with serious contemporary issues like global warming and renewable energy concerns. That would seem at odds with a storyline positioning the energy company as a manipulative behemoth, a stance that might make more sense played for laughs in any number of comedy formats. The same can be said for related elements like the impromptu barroom brawling; Bergin’s larger-than-life publican/politician persona; and the sheer implausibility of the central ruse, placing Orla Brady’s ‘blow in’ holidaying Dubliner as an undercover agent of Big Wind. These shenanigans jar with the serious Sunday Night Drama ‘brand’ that RTE has worked hard to create over the past decade and more.
While it is perhaps a little early to pass judgement on the series, it must be noted that initial public reaction has not been great. One tweet-based headline, suggesting that the show ‘makes Fair City look like The Godfather, seems unaware of several connections to RTE’s long-running soap. Two of The South Westerlies‘ writing team – Michelle Duffy and Hilary Reynolds – have been members of the Fair City writers room, and Simon Gibney, who directed three of the six episodes, also lists the show on his CV. It is hardly an accident that the fictional West Cork village where much of the action takes place is called Carrigeen, surely a knowing nod to Carrigstown, Fair City’s fictional northside Dublin setting.
None of which is to suggest that a connection to RTE’s soap serial is necessarily a negative one. On the air since 1989, it is the most-watched drama in Ireland. A show like Fair City hoovers up a lot of talent, and arguably one of its prime industrial functions is to nurture and develop future drama makers, in front of and behind the camera. This function applies not just to Fair City, but its genre competitors as well. TV3/Virgin Media’s now-defunct Red Rock, for example, was important in the career of Hugh Travers, one of The South Westerlies‘ four contributing screenwriters. So despite the tone of the headline referenced above, shows like Fair City are important launchpads for successful screen careers. As clearly emerged in the recent Ecologies of Cultural Production survey, important too are the networks developed during the course of a creative career, especially early on. To that end, it’s interesting to note that many of the cast and crew of The South Westerlies share connections with previous Deadpan film and television projects such as Hardy Bucks (2010-), Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope (2016-2018), Halal Daddy (2017), and Women on the Verge (2018).
Career development, of course, is always enhanced by connections to successful projects, as evident from the buzz around Paul Mescal, Daisy Edgar Jones, and almost everyone else involved with Normal People, the indisputable Irish TV drama hit of 2020. Ironically, in light of the current discussion, that show was produced in the half-hour format more typical of TV comedy.
Hopefully The South Westerlies will evolve and transcend the problems of its pilot episode, some of which may be rooted in a developmental transition from comedy to more conventional drama. For the moment, however, RTE’s latest flagship drama appears to have an identity crisis.