Gritty, Moving and Heroic...Billy Plays Captured Life Here

Belfast Telegraph, 8 February 2012
By Gail Walker

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ... Sunday's 30th anniversary screening of the seminal Too Late to Talk to Billy was riveting viewing. But it wasn't nostalgic viewing.

The first of the 'Billy Plays', as the series of four became known, introduced on to the small screen characters painfully recognisable from our daily lives 'back then' and, to a large extent, here and now too.

Big Norman Martin, Uncle Andy, young Lorna, Billy himself, Ian, Shirley, and Fletcher were Belfast people we hadn't been used to seeing on TV. The Troubles were just a backdrop to ordinary lives being lived in the teeth of personal and social hardship. The drama of the everyday fuelled by the same ingredients people without much option reach for everywhere in the world. Drink, frustration, violence, dreams, loyalty and loathing.

And, as the gripping story played out over 90 minutes, these unlikely people and their small despairs, thwarted at every turn, suddenly became compelling and we were dragged almost against our will right over on to their side.

That a single 'Play for Today' spawned three 'sequels' was testament not just to the breathtaking skill of the writer Graham Reid, but also to the tale being told, which grabbed the ratings in GB and the Republic, where the programme was viewed with exactly the same sense of revelation it had in its home place.

The 'Billy Plays' didn't tell the story we wanted to hear, any more than they told the 'story of the Troubles' or the way well-off people spent their time at the height of the violence.

What they did was go right beyond the headlines, the guff, the ghastly pretensions we insisted on having about ourselves as society crumbled round us, and showed us how people manage to make it through from one day to the next. It's a theme found in much of Reid's writing about his native place, in 'The Hidden Curriculum' (televised in 1984) and in 'Remembrance', his best known work for the stage.

Almost as an aside, the series presented the Ulster Protestant for the first time to a national audience in two nations. Only 'almost' an aside though because Reid deliberately wanted to portray those people, his people, in all their grim, funny, anarchic, dangerous and peculiar colours.

In doing just that so memorably, he dragged the Ulster Prod from the margins of British and Irish awareness and planted them right in the living rooms of people who might only have known them by disrepute, by caricature, by noise or parody. It's hard to think of another piece of TV or film that made these people so vividly real in mass communication terms.

He introduced the working class Protestant not only to 'southerners' and the English, but also to many people here who viewed them as shameful or threatening or demonic (and that's just the Protestant middle class view).

There was as much unease about 'how we were portrayed' by the Billy Plays as there is now about The Estate.

There is much to say about the Billy plays.

Commissioning them was a tremendous act of faith by a BBC much less timid then than it seems now. That we saw, in Mark Mulholland and John Hewitt as Uncle Andy and John Fletcher, two of our finest actors at full power. That the series was the launchpad for Kenneth Branagh.

That, for a while, intermittently, through the trauma of the hunger strikes and the mass protest of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, there was the saga of the Martins, letting us all see that, really, there was no difference in the anger and the frustration and the impotence and the simple hurt of living here.

And the heroism too. Because there was something in the dogged persistence of the whole tribe in Coolderry Street that was dark, glowing, moving and unmalevolent, full of the best we have to offer here.

That was something recognised right across the sectarian divide among the people who count - ordinary people who, in other ways, were literally at each other's throats. People, whatever their religion or allegiance, watched those plays and thought not 'they're Prods' but 'that's me'.

The plays still ring true. And there's more to come over the next few weeks. The Billy story is only clearing its throat. You just watch.

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