The series follows the interwoven stories of a number of inhabitants of the Dublin of the 1910s, still under British rule. It is set in the years leading up to WW1 and the Irish Easter ...
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The series follows the interwoven stories of a number of inhabitants of the Dublin of the 1910s, still under British rule. It is set in the years leading up to WW1 and the Irish Easter Rising of 1916. There are the young wife of a factory worker, a country girl new to the big city, and her husband, a staunch supporter of the unions. Then there is the mighty Union leader Jim Larkin, the elderly priest, who drinks more than is good for him, and his young curate; the delightful tramp Rashers and his dog, and a few members of the better off middle class, some of them sympathetic to those dependent on them, others less so.
"Strumpet City" is based on one of the best-selling Irish novels of the 20th century. James Plunkett's tale of love, loyalty and anger is set against the backdrop of the 1913 Dublin lockout and the political context that surrounded it. When it was published in the 1970s, the period was about to depart from living memory and the emotions evoked by this record of one of the most bitter episodes in the nation's history meant that it would never be forgotten.
Unless a total cock-up was made of the material, the mini-series was bound to command huge public interest in Ireland. At the time, however, such an outcome was not beyond the bounds of possibility. Up to 1979, a year before Strumpet City was first broadcast, the only television available in much of Ireland was six hours a day on RTÉ's single channel. British TV could be picked up in Dublin and along the east coast and cash-strapped RTÉ's output often looked amateurish in comparison.
Nowhere was this more evident than in drama. Although the national broadcaster had produced two well-written soap operas, most of its few attempts at historical fiction were embarrassing to watch. Badly scripted, badly structured and dominated by hammy scene stealing, they were seen more as an attempt to the drama department to justify its underfunded existence rather than as an attempt to entertain.
To make matters worse, the BBC was then in its heyday, producing such blockbusters like "Upstairs, Downstairs", and its success exacerbated the monumental inferiority complex afflicting much of the nation during the 1970s.
With its credibility at rock bottom as a result of a political censorship that rivaled that of North Korea, RTÉ was taking a major chance when, for the first time in history, it ransacked every available budget to come up with the resources needed for a plausible attempt at period drama. And just to make sure, established international stars Peter O'Toole and Peter Ustinov were taken on to prove the seriousness of their intent.
Heavily publicized and amid the usual whinging from nonentities about the diversion of scarce resources, the first episode was promised for a wintry Sunday evening in late 1980. A huge audience tuned in, many of whom half-expected yet another national disaster.
I saw it myself in a pub somewhere in the middle of Ireland as I stopped halfway through a long journey home from a football game. Like the rest of the packed crowd, I stood up and clapped when it was over.
A quarter of a century later, it doesn't look quite the finished article on RTÉ's DVD and betrays the playwright background of Hugh Leonard who adapted Plunkett's novel. Traces of Abbey Theatre mannerisms, which may be fine before live audiences but appear pretentious on screen, linger on as do the occasional excessive wordiness and a tendency to state rather than imply the obvious.
But Leonard still captured the raw spirit of the book, the historical anger of its broad sweep, the private tenderness and kindness of its personal level and the tone and propriety of early 20th century Dublin. I was as moved as I had been a generation ago when, last week, I saw it only for the second time.
Six hours is a lot of viewing but Strumpet City's pace allows it to hold interest right to a bittersweet end. It is helped no end by some outstanding acting, particularly Donal McCann as hard-as-nails carter Barney Mulhall and Cyril Cusack as the sad, boozy, world-weary but decent parish priest, and Angela Harding as Mary retains a credibly beautiful, innocent and resilient presence despite the depressing awfulness of Dublin's disease-ridden and poverty-racked tenements.
And on a visual level, Strumpet City looks great. Big scenes like the fire in the foundry, the royal visit and the riots are taken on and provide the depth of background needed to carry its emotions. That, more than anything else, defined Irish reaction to its original release as it proved to a confidence-sapped nation that, if we put our mind to it, we could do just as well as anyone else.
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