1960s 1970s Armchair Theatre BBC Belfast Film Festival Directors Dominic Behan ITV John Hill Northern Ireland Play For Today Thames Television Writers

Forgotten Dramas season at Belfast Film Festival: Dominic Behan

As part of the History of Forgotten Television Drama project, John Hill has curated a mini-season of plays by Dominic Behan for the Belfast Film Festival.

The Folk Singer (Thames/ITV, 7 November 1972)

This includes a newly-restored version of The Patriot Game (1969) which has not previously been seen in Northern Ireland as well as Carson Country (1972) which, as far as we can tell, has not been publicly screened since its initial television transmission.

dominic behan on screen

Dominic Behan is probably best-remembered as a singer and songwriter, responsible for such songs as ‘The Patriot Game’ (which inspired Bob Dylan’s ‘With God on our Side’), ‘The Auld Triangle’ and ‘Liverpool Lou’ (which became a hit for The Scaffold). However, he was also a writer of some distinction, enjoying a degree of success with his play Posterity Be Damned (1959), his autobiographical novel Teems of Times (1961) and the biography of his brother, My Brother Brendan (1965). From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, he was also the author of a number of plays for television, many of which dealt – at times controversially – with Irish history and politics. Most of these have not been seen since their first transmission and two – The Patriot Game (1969), and Ireland, Mother Ireland (1971) – were never broadcast in Northern Ireland. The mini-season of Dominic Behan TV plays at the Belfast Film Festival, therefore, provides a rare opportunity to see some of the first drama to be made about Irish politics in the modern era of the ‘troubles’ and to become familiar with the inventive televisual approach developed by Dominic Behan and his collaborator, the director Piers Haggard.

The Patriot Game
The Patriot Game

The Patriot Game (ITV, Playhouse, 13 October 1969)

Beanbag Cinema, Belfast, Monday 20th April 2015, 9pm. Introduced by John Hill.

Written by Dominic Behan; produced by John Kershaw; directed by Piers Haggard. A Thames Television production. With Patrick O’Connell (Martin Stewart), Roddy McMillan (Scot O’Brien), Elizabeth Begley (Mrs McKiernon), Wesley Murphy (George Macken), Donal Cox (Frances O’Neil), Declan Mulholland (Monto), Paddy Joyce (Kimmage), Tommy Godfrey (Charles), Gerald Taylor (Skouse), Paddy Ward (Barman), Billy Milton (Pianist), George Roubicek (Detective Inspector), Dermot MacDowell (IRA Judge), Robin Lloyd (Prosecuting Counsel), Desmond Jordan (Defending Counsel), S. Keith James (Judge), Harold Bennett (Clerk)

The Patriot Game
The Patriot Game

Even though it deals with historical events – the IRA’s bombing campaign in London in 1939 – The Patriot Game is probably the first television play of the modern era of ‘the troubles’. Dealing with a bombing plot gone wrong, Thames TV argued that the play warned ‘of how fanatical patriotism puts innocent people into danger’. Although the play does suggest the futility of the bombers’ exploits, Behan was also concerned to retrieve the socialist components of the Irish republican project (at a time – the beginning of WW2 – when republicans had been prepared to form alliances with the Nazis). The production, however, still proved too inflammatory for Ulster Television who refused to show it. Newly restored (with the help of the BFI and Kaleidoscope) as part of the AHRC-funded History of Forgotten Television Drama project at Royal Holloway, University of London, this will be the first time the play has been seen in Northern Ireland.

Carson Country (BBC, Play For Today, 23 October 1972)

Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast, Saturday 18th April 2015, 3pm. Introduced by John Hill.

Written by Dominic Behan; produced by Graeme McDonald; directed by Piers Haggard. With J. G. Devlin (Tom Curdie), Elizabeth Begley (Sarah Curdie), Sam Kydd (Tom Brannigan), Patrick McAlinney (Reverend William Piggot), Harry Towb (Sash Walker), Neil Coney (Lord Carson), Derek Lord (Willie Henderson), John McBride (Lambeg Billy), Denys Hawthorne (Archie Heron), Maggie Walker (Mrs Piggot), Dermot Tuohy (Father Donoghue).

Carson Country
Carson Country

Dominic Behan’s most ambitious work for television dealing with Unionist opposition to Home Rule in 1912 (led by Lord Edward Carson) and the class divisions that it fostered. Clearly revealing the anti-naturalist tendencies in Behan’s work, the play imaginatively mixes fact and fiction, black-and-white and colour, social observation and theatricality. The BBC was unsure what to do with the finished product, demanding cuts and delaying transmission for six months (until ITV’s production of The Folk Singer eventually shamed them into showing it).

The Folk Singer (ITV, Armchair Theatre, 7 November 1972)

Beanbag Cinema, Belfast, 25th April 2015, 1pm.

Written by Dominic Behan; produced by Kim Mills; directed by Piers Haggard. With Tom Bell (Danny Blake), Celia Bannerman (Miss Arrowroot), Bernard Spear (Eddie Reubens), J. G. Devlin (Waiter), Bill Nagy (Professor Malone), Declan Mulholland (Protestant Man), Phyllis McMahon (Protestant Wife), David Atkinson (Catholic Priest), Maggie Fitzgerald (Catholic Wife), Steve Benbow (Guitarist), Harry Towb (First Workman), Frederick Hogarth (Second Workman), Ann Murray (Lady Psychiatrist), Allan McClelland (Hotel Manager), Tim Hardy (Jesus Freak), Michael Elwyn (Officer), Jack Fallon (Double Bass), Steve Rye (Harmonica).

'Armchair Theatre: The Folk Singer' (Thames/ITV, 7 November 1972)
‘Armchair Theatre: The Folk Singer’ (Thames/ITV, 7 November 1972)

Behan’s most raucous and entertaining work in which Tom Bell plays a folk singer (with some degree of resemblance to Behan himself) trapped in a Belfast hotel during the ‘troubles’. Mixing political allegory, Brechtian commentary and the theatre of the absurd, the play sets out to expose the idiocies of sectarianism and hypocritical religious belief. The IBA was sufficiently nervous to view the programme ahead of broadcast while the play itself was shown by UTV at a later than normal time slot.

6 replies on “Forgotten Dramas season at Belfast Film Festival: Dominic Behan”

Two different plays with the same title. Murphy’s play was first performed in 1991 and is set during the 1916 Easter rising.

The title of The Patriot Game derives from the song Dominic Behan wrote in the aftermath of the funeral of Feargal O’Hanlon, a young IRA volunteer who was killed (along with Sean South) following an attack on the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) barracks in Brookeborough, Northern Ireland, in 1957. Although the TV drama, by Dominic Behan, is set in 1939, and deals with an earlier IRA campaign in England, Behan’s performance of the song may be heard at the end of the play. As Billy points out, Tom Murphy’s play is set during the Easter Rising in 1916. However, given how well-known the song ‘The Patriot Game’ became, the choice of this title for a play would necessarily imply a reference to Behan’s song (and the rather ambivalent attitudes towards patriotism that it expressed).

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