Northern Ireland has a strong literary tradition and many established Northern Irish writers such as Bernard MacLaverty (Cal, Lamb, The Real Charlotte, Hostages
), Anne Devlin (Titanic Town, The Long March
), Graham Reid (the Billy plays, The Precious Blood, You, Me and Marley
), Stewart Parker (Catchpenny Twist
), Ronan Bennett (Fields Of Gold, Lucky Break, Rebel Heart, Love Lies Bleeding
) and Barry Devlin (All Things Bright And Beautiful, A Man Of No Importance
) have written for television and film.
In recent years, this tradition has been continued and extended by new dramatists who are embracing the medium of television and making it their own.
Coming from a variety of backgrounds and writing traditions, the one thing these writers have in common is a strong, distinctive voices and their passion for representing Northern Ireland and Northern Irish characters on television.
Popular novelist Colin Bateman started his career as a journalist, with a column satirising small town Northern Irish life in the Co Down Spectator. Turning to fiction, Bateman authored a series of cult novels featuring the journalist Dan Starkey. Always a film buff, his first screenwriting venture was the short film Jumpers, followed by his first major screenplay, an adaptation of one of his own Starkey novels, Divorcing Jack. He later wrote the original feature film, Wild About Harry.
Bateman is a prolific television writer who created, and continues to write for, the BBC1 series, Murphy’s Law, about a Northern Irish undercover cop working in London. His television pieces display the same black humour and irony that pervades his novels, and his characters share striking similarities—they are usually charming yet flawed heroes, with a maverick approach and irreverent wit. Bateman is currently developing new ideas for television, and writing a series of novels based around the character Tommy Murphy.
Terry Cafolla grew up in Armagh and now lives in Belfast. One of a new breed of writers who started in television, Cafolla came to attention through the prestigious Carlton Screenwriters Course. His first television drama was BBC2’s Holy Cross
, a powerful and moving drama about two fictional families caught up in the real events surrounding the 2001 dispute on the Ardoyne Road, Belfast.
A difficult and potentially contentious piece for anyone to tackle, let alone a first time writer, Cafolla deftly managed the subject by exploring the human stories and emotions behind the headlines. He has won several awards for this script, including a BAFTA nomination. Cafolla has also written the inaugural episode for the ITV series Making Waves, and remains much in demand.
Pearse Elliott was born and raised in west Belfast, and his writing strongly reflects his community. He came to prominence in 1995 when he won the BBC Young Playwrights' Festival Award. His first television piece was A Rap At The Door, a single drama about the disappeared. In 2003 he completed Pulling Moves, a groundbreaking, ten-part comedy series, and the first of its kind to be set in Northern Ireland.
Pearse writes about Belfast in a fresh and colourful way and his writing is imbued with authenticity; his dialogue perfectly captures the Belfast syntax and slang. His first feature film, Man About Dog, was produced in 2003. He is currently working on a second feature film, Valhalla, writing a novel, and developing other ideas for television.
Tim Loane lives in Belfast and originally came to prominence as an actor. Driven by the shortage of opportunities for young actors, he became a founder member of Tinderbox Theatre Company in 1988. He has also directed for the stage.
Loane’s first television piece was a comedy for BBC Northern Ireland, Out Of The Deep Pan
. He then went on to direct the critically acclaimed Dance Lexie Dance
, which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Film in 1998.
He also wrote for the hugely popular BBC series Ballykissangel. More recently, Loane created the popular Channel 4 series Teachers. His first stage play, Caught Red Handed, was produced by Tinderbox in 2002, and his first feature film is entitled No Man’s Land. His radio play, I Can See Clearly, was broadcast in 2004.
Loane’s writing is always irreverent, witty and uncompromising. The passion that marked out his early days is still present, and he is determined to create a mainstream television series that is set in Northern Ireland.
Acclaimed playwright Gary Mitchell was raised and continues to live in Rathcoole in Belfast. His stage plays, including Loyal Women, As The Beast Sleeps, Trust, Suffering, Marching On and The Force of Change, strongly reflect this predominantly working class Protestant community. His first radio play won the BBC Young Playwrights Festival Award in 1990. In 1995 he became the first Northern Irish writer recipient of the prestigious Stewart Parker Award.
Mitchell’s recent television piece, As The Beast Sleeps for BBC2, was an adaptation of his award winning stage play. The drama explores the conflict between friendship and loyalty when a paramilitary unit starts to implode in post ceasefire Belfast. He is developing several other ideas for television, including an adaptation of his stage play The Force Of Change.
Gemma McMullan grew up in Downpatrick and currently lives in Belfast. Her first produced drama was 1997’s award-winning short film, The Freesia Of Eden
She honed her skills working as a television script editor for BBC Northern Ireland Drama, and she currently works part-time as a radio producer for the same department. Her main passion is children’s drama, and she has written for the BAFTA winning RTE children’s series, Custer’s Last Stand Up. However, the range of her voice has also led her to write for Channel 4’s hard hitting, late night Coming Up. She has written and directed several radio dramas for Radio 4.
Christine Murphy grew up in west Belfast and now lives in London. Although her first degree was a bachelor of arts in media and theatre studies at Coleraine University, it was only ten years after graduating that she found her calling as a screenwriter. She completed a masters in screenwriting at the prestigious London College of Printing.
After a nine-month stint as a script editor on Crossroads, she gained a place on the Eastenders New Writers Scheme, and was commissioned to write two episodes. Murphy currently writes for the popular soap Emmerdale, and is developing several original drama ideas of her own. Her writing veers from the light hearted comedy of the dales to the darker side of contemporary life. She was nominated for a Dennis Potter Award in 2003.
With a proliferation of MAs in screenwriting, and dramatists from other media being seduced by television and feature films, we can expect many new voices to make their mark in screenwriting in coming years.
Short film writers, such as Ballymena’s Don McCamphill, Belfast’s Jimmy McAleavey, Derry’s Martin Meenan and actress Francis Tomelty, are just some of the emerging writers developing television ideas. Acclaimed playwright Daragh Carville is going into production with his feature film Middletown, and has other features in development.
Richard Crawford moved from novelist to screenwriter when he co-wrote the feature film The Abduction Club. Terry Loane scripted the feature film Jonjo Mickybo. The trend looks set to continue. Dennis Potter described television as the nation talking to itself. It looks like we in Northern Ireland are finally ready to speak both to ourselves and for ourselves.