Our Friend in Ireland: Agnes Cogan

Our Friend in Ireland: Agnes Cogan

Agnes Cogan
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Agnes Cogan reports sightings of Matt Damon as filming resumes across the country.

The past six months have been a period like no other in Ireland. Our lockdown has been followed by a partial lifting of restrictions that has us bobbing up and down between level two and level three of the pandemic regulations.

The good news is that production has resumed, and it is slightly surreal that Matt Damon, star of Contagion, a spooky thriller about a deadly virus and a global panic, has been spotted pottering about in Dalkey, a small seaside town south of Dublin, where he chose to spend lockdown.

He’s here, along with Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck and others, to star in Ridley Scott’s latest movie, The Last Duel – put on hold for a while, but now up and running again.

Also steaming ahead, following an enforced pause, is Foundation, a sci-fi epic for Apple TV+. It is the largest production ever undertaken in this country. The producers are using Troy Studios in Limerick, the biggest in Ireland. For the nerds among us, Foundation is based on a pathbreaking trilogy – long considered to be unfilm­able – by Isaac Asimov, a giant of sci-fi, whose influence is found in everything from Star Wars on up.

Another major production under way again in County Wicklow is Net­flix’s Vikings: Valhalla, a spin-off from the successful Vikings series shot for the History Channel.

All of these big productions have meant welcome and much-needed work for local crews, technicians, actors and musicians. At the other end of the scale, unfortunately, it is a different story. For independent production companies, the past six months have been devastating, “a horror show” in the words of one independent producer. One of our biggest and (usually) most successful production companies has seen its staff reduced from a peak of 580 less than a year ago to just seven.

Some productions have had the agility to adapt to changed conditions and new protocols, but some, by their nature, cannot. Sports events are happening again but, without “gates” and crowds of fans, the atmosphere is sadly lacking.

Fun in a time of lockdown was hard to come by, but RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster, succeeded in launching a Comic Relief Telethon when such a notion seemed unthinkable. This effort raised 6m for charity, an enormous sum for a population of just under five million people.

The most successful segment of the night was a satirical sketch riffing on Normal People, starring not only Normal People actors Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, but also Andrew Scott, Fleabag’s hot priest! No wonder it went viral.

Normal People, the drama based on the 2018 novel by Sally Rooney, was, of course, the hit of the lockdown; it would have been the water-cooler topic du jour if only we’d had water coolers to go to.

Viewing patterns changed profoundly as streaming made more inroads. For TG4, Ireland’s Irish-­language TV service, this was nothing new, since it had pioneered streaming way back in 2002, long before most people had ever thought of it. TG4 now serves an unexpected global audience for Irish-language programmes (with subtitles).

All broadcasters have taken a huge financial hit and have had to find ways of providing a service adapted to the new requirements of a changed TV landscape.

From the huge undertaking of adapting Asimov’s Foundation for the TV screen, to the nightly spectacle of people talking to us from their homes, often with unscripted interventions from barking dogs and playing children, the TV community has had to get used to a whole new way of doing things.

And it’s not over yet.

Agnes Cogan is Chair of RTS Republic of Ireland.