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THE IRISH TIMES: Sat, Dec 30, 2000
A rousing Corrs soundtrack, all fiddles and bodhrans, combined with picture postcard scenes of ould Dublin are the superficial signs that the new TV series, Rebel Heart, could prove a winning global export for BBC Northern Ireland. The fact that the four-part TV drama based around the period of the Easter Rising and the Civil War is packed with bombs, bullets and bodies can only add to its potential international appeal.
Variously described by critics as Mills and Boon meets the IRA, and Ballykissangel with bullets, Rebel Heart follows the journey of fictional character Ernie Coyne from the day he signs up to fight in the Easter Rising. A man who "ultimately", the production notes have it, "finds his loyalties divided between the man he believes in (Michael Collins) and the woman he loves". You can almost hear the voice-over for the trailer?
The Mills and Boon analogy is not far wrong as it turns out, although some of the love scenes would be unworthy of even the trashiest romantic paperback. Middleclass Dublin freedom fighter Ernie Coyne (James D'Arcy) falls head over heels with feisty Belfast Cumann na mBan member Ita Feeney (Paloma Baeza) on Easter Monday 1916. Love at first riot, if you will - a flash of Ita's bare thigh as she gets to grips with a gun in St Stephen's Green is all it takes for Ernie to be smitten. The love story is woven through the four hour-long episodes of Rebel Heart, providing a handy vehicle for the historical events the series sets out to dramatise.
Directed by John Strickland of Prime Suspect fame, Rebel Heart is extremely watchable stuff, not least because the political figures who inevitably crop up, such as James Connolly (Bil Patterson) and Michael Collins (Brendan Coyle), are wonderfully drawn. Still, their appearances are minimised in favour of a personal story which seeks to grip the viewer in the way Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry provided readers with a human insight into those turbulent years.
The acting is superb. The accents of the leads are virtually flawless, an achievement which seems all the more striking after meeting the actors who play the two star-crossed lovers. Paloma Baeza is a slightly frail-looking, softly spoken girl, with an English mother and a Mexican father. She was last seen in the title role of Anna Karenina. Rebel Heart is the first major lead for James D'Arcy, an articulate young English man who, until he was offered Rebel Heart, thought he would only get "posh Englishman" parts. He has since completed work on a television adaption of Nicholas Nickleby.
Baeza was interested in playing Ita because she was a strong character and also because of the tightly written script from Belfast author, Ronan Bennett. "It's just a really well-written piece. It shows that the period was really complex," she said at a recent preview of Rebel Heart in London.
D'Arcy (27) told journalists about the research he had undertaken for the part, saying he had read every book about Irish history he could get his hands on: "And the more I read, the more I found I had to keep going back further and further. I did about 800 years of research in around seven weeks," he said. To strengthen his middle-class Dublin accent, he spent a lot of time in pubs talking to strangers: "If I were in the position to do so I would move to Dublin in a flash. I think it's the most amazing city in the world," he said.
There was much interest in D'Arcy's views on the most controversial scene in the series, which comes near the end of episode two. Ballykissangel star Lorcan Cranitch plays Inspector Nelson of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC),, who tells the males in the Feeney family to say their prayers before shooting all but one of them dead in their Belfast home. (The fact that Ernie failed to save the family despite having a gun has ramifications for his relationship with Ita later on.)
It is disturbing stuff, but D'Arcy defends its inclusion on the grounds that it is based on the actual massacre of the McMahon family by an RIC member in 1922.
"It's a real event. We have changed the year it happened but there was a massacre of a family and there actually was a surviving brother who never spoke again, as we see in Rebel Heart. I think John Strickland has handled it incredibly delicately," he said. In the third episode, D'Arcy's character murders "two rather sweet policemen, so it shows the flipside," he said.
"It is not just taking a republican standpoint and saying these people were right and the others were wrong," he added. Cranitch said he was surprised to discover that such an event had actually happened - albeit in 1922 and not in 1919 as the series suggests. This has already proved controversial, with Bennett being castigated in the UK press for offering a one-sided view of events. "It is a powerful scene. It shows that it is not necessarily the amount words one has to say that makes an impact," said Cranitch.
One of the other Irish-born actors in the series - the majority of the leads come from the UK - was Liam Cunningham, who plays another volunteer, Frank Laverty. He said the experience of filming scenes of the Rising in Dublin was gratifying: "It was amazing really getting to storm the GPO. As we did it, we watched all the stragglers coming home from the pub. It was great seeing their reactions. They were really confused," he said. Over 3,000 extras were used during filming - with 200 tonnes of gravel poured onto the city streets to disguise modern road markings and evoke Dublin in 1916.
It is seven years since the idea for the series was first mooted by Robert Cooper, head of drama for the BBC. "It's not called Development Hell for nothing," Cooper laughed. "The more ambitious a project, the more difficult it is to get off the ground.
"I hope the reaction from viewers will be that it is an extraordinary piece of drama and that they engage with the characters. I did it for those reasons. Drama is really interesting when you have people set against major passions," he said.
Rebel Heart is a Picture Palace production for BBC Northern Ireland. Joint producer Malcolm Craddock describes it as a story about "people who were prepared to die for their beliefs. We show the terrible price you pay for those beliefs," he said.
James D'Arcy strips the story back to its romantic core: "Rebel Heart is told through the eyes of two people who are desperately in love. Even if you as a viewer don't understand exactly what is going on politically, you will understand the pain of what they are going through". It's unlikely that this will be enough to persuade students of history to hold their fire when the series appears on our screens.
Rebel Heart begins on Monday on RTE 1. It is on BBC 1 from January 7th