Ache for the bor­der

Writer and di­rec­tor Al­lan Cu­bitt on the chal­lenges and re­wards of adapt­ing Eu­gene McCabe’s 1992 novel ‘Death and Nightin­gales’ for tele­vi­sion

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY FIONOLA MERED­ITH

Bring­ing Eu­gene McCabe’s his­tor­i­cal novel to the small screen

When writer and di­rec­tor Al­lan Cu­bitt fin­ished the last se­ries of The Fall, the BBC se­rial killer thriller set in Belfast, he asked him­self what he wanted most to do next. The an­swer to his ques­tion – a pe­riod drama based on Eu­gene McCabe’s 1992 novel Death and Nightin­gales, set in ru­ral Fer­managh in 1885 – might seem like a rad­i­cal de­par­ture from the bru­tal con­tem­po­rary world of The Fall. But it turns out that there are sev­eral un­der­ly­ing con­nec­tions be­tween the two pro­duc­tions.

The cen­tral ac­tion of Death and Nightin­gales is con­tained within a 24 hour pe­riod: the 23rd birth­day of Beth Win­ters (played by Ann Skelly), step­daugh­ter of Protes­tant landowner Billy Win­ters (Matthew Rhys). This is the day on which Beth plans to es­cape the drunken, “un­fa­therly” at­ten­tions of her step­fa­ther and es­cape to a new life of free­dom, to­gether with the gruff, se­duc­tive - and se­cretly in­sur­rec­tionary - Liam Ward (Jamie Dor­nan), a Catholic ten­ant on Billy’s land. The cu­ri­ous ti­tle is a ref­er­ence to Keats’ poem Ode to a Nightin­gale.

“Death and Nightin­gales is paced like a thriller, but that’s not what it is,” says Cu­bitt. “It’s a clas­sic of mod­ern Ir­ish lit­er­a­ture, packed with great de­tail. Eu­gene’s writ­ing is full of feel­ing, there’s a huge heart present in his work, but at the same time he turns a brave, bleak eye on his world. He al­lows his char­ac­ters to be ugly and beau­ti­ful si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

“And his di­a­logue is ex­cep­tional. It re­minds me a bit of Synge and The Play­boy of the Western World: he un­der­stands reg­is­ter and id­iom, the di­a­logue sings, all the time. This was the big chal­lenge for me, in in­vent­ing di­a­logue and scenes: what would Eu­gene do? I tried to match my id­iom with his, and I hope I stayed faith­ful to the ma­te­rial as well as an­swer­ing the de­mands of drama­ti­sa­tion. The power of his writ­ing made me stick to the book and bring it to the screen. It’s a story about be­trayal and treach­ery that cuts across class and gen­der and pol­i­tics.”

When Cu­bitt was crit­i­cised for graphic

It’s a clas­sic of mod­ern Ir­ish lit­er­a­ture, packed with great de­tail. Eu­gene’s writ­ing is full of feel­ing, there’s a huge heart present in his work, but at the same time he turns a brave, bleak eye on his world

de­pic­tions of male vi­o­lence against women in

The Fall, he re­sponded that, far from in­dulging in misog­yny, he re­garded The Fall as a fem­i­nist drama. Sim­i­larly, he sees Death and Nightin­gales as in­her­ently fem­i­nist in na­ture. “It places a strong and com­plex fe­male char­ac­ter, Beth, at its cen­tre. In line with her nine­teenth cen­tury sit­u­a­tion, she is trapped by cir­cum­stances. She is try­ing to take con­trol but she’s trapped by her lack of em­ploy­ment and in­de­pen­dent means. Her at­tempt to get out is both pow­er­ful and pro­found.”

Cu­bitt says that Beth is pur­su­ing the great theme of the nine­teenth cen­tury: how to choose the right per­son to love. “She has a choice be­tween two men [Billy, her step­fa­ther, and Liam, her lover], nei­ther of whom are suitable for her.” An­other el­e­ment of con­ti­nu­ity be­tween The

Fall and Death and Nightin­gales is the cross-over of cast and crew, par­tic­u­larly the pres­ence of Jamie Dor­nan, who played the se­rial mur­derer Paul Spec­tor in The Fall.

“I al­ways thought that Jamie would make a great Liam Ward,” says Cu­bitt. “It plays to his ob­vi­ous strengths: he’s good-look­ing, in­trigu­ing, and hard to pi­geon-hole - you’re al­ways try­ing to read him.”

In a re­cent BBC in­ter­view, Belfast-born Dor­nan spoke of his de­light in re­turn­ing home to take on the role: “This is the part of the world I’m from and I want to show­case it and they will con­tinue to write very in­trigu­ing sto­ries from here, whether they’re ver­sions of things that al­ready ex­ist in our his­tory or they’re con­tem­po­rary orig­i­nal sto­ries. This is a great breed­ing ground for drama in this coun­try and if I can keep sup­port­ing that through­out my ca­reer I’d love to keep work­ing here.”

Cu­bitt says he’s grate­ful to Dor­nan for in­tro­duc­ing him to the young ac­tor Ann Skelly. “Ann was a rev­e­la­tion to me. Such a de­light­ful, un­der-stated per­son, but she un­leashes such pow­er­ful emo­tional truth on cam­era. I was just sit­ting at the mon­i­tor, gob-smacked by what she was do­ing. I pre­sented Jamie through The Fall, and hope­fully that will also work well with Ann.”

He also has high praise for Matthew Rhys, as Billy Win­ters. “Eu­gene drew him as be­nign in some senses, a land­lord com­mit­ted to the land and place - at times rea­son­ably en­light­ened, at other times an out and out bigot. Matthew got the mix­ture of charm and he was un­afraid to make him­self ugly.”


McCabe him­self, now in his late 80s, still lives with his wife Margo on the farm on the Mon­aghan/Fer­managh bor­der where he wrote

Death and Nightin­gales. “Eu­gene and I cor­re­sponded quite a lot, me writ­ing from Nor­folk to him in Mon­aghan,” says Cu­bitt. “I’d tell him when the snow­drops were out, and then the prim­roses. The Ir­ish cli­mate al­ways seems to be a few weeks be­hind. To­wards the end of The

Fall, I made a pil­grim­age to see him and Margo. He’s not in the best of health, so sadly he wasn’t able to visit us later on set, which he would have en­joyed. My thanks to Eu­gene are con­tained within the piece.”

In an in­ter­view for a 2009 RTÉ ra­dio doc­u­men­tary, McCabe said that Death and

Nightin­gales was “a metaphor for every­thing that’s hap­pened since 1610 un­til now. It’s a metaphor about con­quest and those who are sub­jected to it.”

He spoke of the feel­ing that “no mat­ter how colonists be­have, the peo­ple who are colonised feel that they are en­ti­tled to do any­thing they like to those that have colonised and abused them.”

It was the com­pelling po­lit­i­cal di­men­sion of the novel that prompted pro­ducer Jonathan Cavendish to buy the rights to it 25 years ago. “This is a story about Ire­land - the tragedy of the ori­gins story of North­ern Ire­land in the nine­teenth cen­tury,” he says.

The first film that Cavendish pro­duced was a 1991 adap­ta­tion of Sam Hanna Bell’s novel,

De­cem­ber Bride, set in Co Down in 1909. “When I was in Ire­land do­ing De­cem­ber Bride, 30 years ago, I thought - this prob­lem is sol­u­ble. They are the most friendly and won­der­ful peo­ple from what­ever side of the re­li­gious di­vide they come from, and there’s enough land, enough op­por­tu­ni­ties. I think that now is a good time to look at the foun­da­tion stones of the 20th cen­tury po­lit­i­cal cri­sis, and the fool­ish sit­u­a­tions that politi­cians put peo­ple into.” Cavendish had al­ways in­tended to pro­duce

Death and Nightin­gales as a film, and that was still the plan when his old friend Al­lan Cu­bitt came on board. “For many, many years I tried to make it work as a movie,” says Cavendish. “The ac­tion is set over one day, and we wanted to keep that struc­ture be­cause it’s so ex­cit­ing - but within that struc­ture there are lots of flash­backs, which give it such tex­ture and mean­ing. Well, when we brought it to TV, all our dif­fi­cul­ties fell away.”

The three-episode drama is a BBC/RTE co-pro­duc­tion. Cavendish first worked with Cu­bitt on an ear­lier BBC/RTE tele­vi­sion se­ries, in 1995, called The Hang­ing Gale, which was set in 1846, at the be­gin­ning of the Famine. “It was a story about four broth­ers who were thrown off their land, and they were ac­tu­ally played by the four McGann broth­ers [Joe, Paul, Mark and Stephen]. It won many awards, and I saw what a great writer Al­lan is. So then he goes off and does The Fall, and then about five years ago, we de­cide to do Death and Nightin­gales to­gether, still as a movie - be­fore we saw the logic of TV. Al­lan writes so truth­fully of the past. He has a rare gift: he’s a bril­liant in­ter­preter of ma­te­rial as well as a cre­ator. And of course now he knows North­ern Ire­land very well in­deed.”

“The Bor­der coun­ties are etched in Eu­gene McCabe’s soul,” says Cu­bitt. “And he ex­plores the Protes­tant/Catholic di­vide in such an even-handed, non-polem­i­cal way. There is great moral com­plex­ity in his char­ac­ters. He of­ten writes about peo­ple who don’t want to hate but are pushed to do it in some way.

“Beth, in par­tic­u­lar, comes on a big jour­ney to the po­si­tion she reaches at the end. Tra­di­tion­ally, peo­ple call a happy end­ing an Amer­i­can end­ing, and a tragic end­ing a Rus­sian end­ing. But what McCabe gives us is a com­plex end­ing to a com­plex story. He is an ex­traor­di­nary writer.”

Death and Nightin­gales be­gins next Mon­day at 10.35pm on RTÉ1, and on Wed­nes­day at 9pm on BBC2


Left: Jamie Dor­nan, Matthew Rhys and Ann Skelly in the BBC/RTÉ co-pro­duc­tion of Eu­gene McCabe’s 1992 novel Death and Nightin­gales, set in ru­ral Fer­managh in 1885. Be­low: writer and di­rec­tor Al­lan Cu­bitt.

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