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Fresh drama at RTÉ: Can the broadcaster still afford to make landmark Irish television?

No ghosts, vampires or mummies, RTÉ has told pitching producers. But as it plots its way out of its financial crisis, what type of stories is it bringing to viewers?

Could an RTÉ drama – the kind commissioned by its executives, not starring them – make headlines?

The life-altering success of ITV’s acclaimed Mr Bates vs the Post Office, written by Gwyneth Hughes, has brought renewed focus on the power of “state-of-the-nation” television drama to not only reshape political priorities, but attract a colossal audience in the process.

So how might Irish state-of-the-nation drama fit into RTÉ's striking ambition to double its post-watershed drama output to 60 hours a year? I asked RTÉ's acting head of drama, David Crean, and its director of co-productions and acquisitions, Dermot Horan, starting with when they thought RTÉ had last aired one.

“I would say Taken Down, which Jo [Spain] and Stuart [Carolan] wrote, just because it is something that really deals with an issue that is right at the heart of our culture,” Crean says.

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The 2018 fiction series, which followed a Garda investigation into the death of a young migrant found abandoned near a direct provision centre, would have been my answer too. But that was almost six years ago. Isn’t there a case for more?

“There definitely is,” agrees Crean. RTÉ has two limited series in development for 2026, both based on “literary IP”, and one – a story about growing up in Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s – “would be state-of-the-nation”, he says.

“I think the challenge in Ireland is to make sure you have writers and producers who want to write them, rather than me saying, ‘I want to do a drama on this.’”

For example, he doesn’t want to specifically say “we want to commission a drama on neurodiversity”, but he was recently discussing ADHD with a writer, “and that is a great way of getting something that is definitely state-of-the-nation-y.”

Dramas don’t have to be self-consciously state-of-the-nation to have something to say. Crean hails the BBC’s The Responder, though “ostensibly just a series about a cop”, as “the best show” on mental health, while Horan describes Connell’s visit to a therapist in Normal People, made for the BBC and Hulu by Element Pictures, as a “transformative” scene for younger Irish men.

True, dramas that overtly beat a drum on specific issues can be clunky in their execution. Arguably, the whole concept of state-of-the-nation television is anachronistic, harking back as it does to an era when audiences were much less fragmented and nobody had ever heard of Netflix.

Although it was dubbed state-of-the-nation TV by the Guardian, Mr Bates vs the Post Office’s ratings-reputation double sprang from the real-life Kafkaesque injustice that was its source material. State-of-the-nation dramas in their purest form – sprawling fictional pieces with political intent – may struggle to win the same cut-through.

The term has become “a little dusty and old-fashioned”, BBC director of drama Lindsay Salt declared in February, saying she wants to redefine it to mean stories that are not “earnest or overloaded with messages” but revealing, “messy” and urgent.

But, in an industry where international co-productions are the norm, can a small, precarious market such as Ireland even afford to make television that provokes national reflection?

RTÉ director general Kevin Bakhurst’s New Direction strategy outlines how RTÉ typically stumps up 20 per cent of the money for a drama it develops and commissions. If it has been developed elsewhere, it chips in much less, though for some series, such as upcoming four-parter The Boy That Never Was – adapted by Jo Spain from a Karen Perry novel about a missing child – it might put in more.

The Section 481 tax credit then accounts for a net 25 per cent, with Screen Ireland contributing 10 per cent and 45 per cent coming from international distributors and broadcasters, meaning that when RTÉ spends €12 million-€13 million on drama – excluding Fair City – in a year, as it did in 2023, what viewers see on screen will have had a total budget of €60 million.

This financing structure – only Netflix, Disney+ and Apple TV+ fully fund their originals now, says Horan – has allowed RTÉ to step up its quantity of post-watershed drama to about 30-plus hours a year. In volume terms, the hard-won international deals bring bang for licence fee-payers’ buck, although, in true RTÉ fashion, a swollen tally of 43½ hours in 2023 was actually the product of constrained finances – to limit its 2022 deficit to €2.8 million, it opted to delay transmission of thriller Clean Sweep and Element Pictures comedy drama The Dry.

Nancy Harris’s The Dry, co-commissioned with ITV, is a line-perfect jewel that returns for a second series next month, with a third series in development. Another pearl of 2023, Ray Lawlor’s dark comedy crime drama Obituary, delivered an offbeat tone that is rare for RTÉ and, after streaming in the US on Hulu, will return next year. Both series are, and feel, authentically Irish.

But what is missing from the picture?

“Certainly, there are ideas that come in to us where you think this would make a big drama for an Irish audience, but if you don’t have significant resources from your domestic public service broadcaster as the anchor backer of the project, it is hard to see it being financed internationally,” says producer Ed Guiney, co-founder of Element Pictures.

Guiney, though grateful to RTÉ for backing The Dry, believes its corporate governance crisis should not be wasted.

“One of the things that I hope they’re really taking on board with all the reviews is how they engage with the creative community, because historically that has been wanting.”

RTÉ is “probably quite risk averse”, says Jennifer Davidson, a screenwriter who chairs the Writers Guild of Ireland. “At the moment, it feels like everything they are doing is a crime drama, which is not to knock the crime dramas.”

Writers feel there is no point attempting certain genres, such as period pieces, because production companies will tell them “RTÉ won’t want that”, she says.

Indeed, in something of a timesaver for all concerned, RTÉ's current commissioning brief specifies what not to pitch. It’s a list that includes supernatural stories (“no ghosts, vampires or mummies”), science fiction, biopics, story-of-the-week hospital or Garda station-based shows and, yes, period drama.

“It kind of sounds a little bit glib, but it’s not meant to be,” says Crean.

“If you’re commissioning something, the last thing you want to do is be prescriptive, but we still have to be cognisant of what is actually financeable, what we think the audience will watch and also what the brief is from our bosses.”

His slate for the next few years will be “very carefully targeted so we’re not making four crime dramas featuring a female detective in a woolly jumper”, he adds.

“My sense is that people don’t want to go to bed terrified and hiding under the sheets.”

In the meantime, the multiple-jurisdiction crime series has become a familiar sight, with critics here collectively seeming to lose patience with the formula by the time New Zealand-based The Gone, co-produced by Keeper Pictures, arrived last autumn. The Irish Independent said it came across as “driven by production incentives rather than creativity”, while The Irish Times concluded that “to pass it off as Irish drama is to risk taking licence-fee payers for fools”.

“I think that’s really unfair, because we developed it. We put more money into it than TV New Zealand,” says Horan. The plot, which centres on a missing Irish person, is “an absolutely valid Irish story that people could identify with” in an age of youthful emigration.

“Also, did anybody in the UK say ‘oh, The Tourist, the BBC shouldn’t be making a drama in Australia?’”

The Gone will return later this year. Another cross-border “returnable”, the pacy Hidden Assets, will be back in 2025 for a third run that shifts the overseas portion of the action from Antwerp to Bilbao. However, North Sea Connection, which ended on a raft of cliffhangers in 2022, was “one and done”, as Scandinavian streamer Viaplay ditched its policy of financing English language co-productions.

And then there is the unfinished business of Kin, RTÉ's biggest drama ratings magnet since Love/Hate. Canada’s Bron Studios – the big money behind Peter McKenna’s Dublin gangster family saga – filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last summer, meaning the assets of Kin are for sale and RTÉ must wait to see if a third series can be greenlit.

“It’s like trying to buy someone’s property in an executor’s sale,” says Horan.

Bumpiness like this is the consequence of a global industry plot twist everyone saw coming: the bursting of a streamer-propelled bubble in scripted content known as “peak TV”. We are now “post-peak-TV”, which will inevitably make RTÉ's 60 hours target harder to pull off. And then there are its own uncertain finances.

“Obviously, yes, the 60 hours is dependent on ongoing future funding,” says Horan. Licence fee reform is only one component of this. A content levy on the international streamers and broadcasters that operate here would generate estimated annual funds of €25 million for the sector but remains conspicuous by its absence.

Good scripts can find a home beyond RTÉ: Baz Ashmawy’s charming, contemporary family sitcom Faithless, at one point in development with RTÉ's comedy department, found a backer in Virgin Media Television. Stephen Jones’s Northern Lights, a touching, slow-burn grief drama that RTÉ decided not to pursue, was picked up by TG4.

But, unless the Government completely pulls the plug on it, the most likely stage for “national statement pieces” that trigger conversation and change is still RTÉ.

Mr Bates vs the Post Office, shown in the middle of a public inquiry, has sent UK commissioners racing to procure dramas that might repeat the trick with other outrages deserving of attention.

Inspired also by BBC plans to adapt Dear England – James Graham’s play about masculinity, colonialism and Gareth Southgate – I jokingly propose to Crean and Horan that RTÉ should commission a Football Association of Ireland drama. They point out that, as RTÉ remembers from Whistleblower (2008), the “legal minefield” of a live news story can be immense.

“Fair play to ITV for finding a way,” says Horan.

With its own future left dangling by the Government, big swings like these may be beyond RTÉ for now. But Guiney will not be the only one who thinks it is part of the national broadcaster’s remit to “advocate for bold stories that resonate with contemporary Ireland”. Viewers, too, may hold out hope that, at some point soon – to paraphrase RTÉ's promo for “local drama” – it will be able to scratch a different type of itch.