Feature image courtesy of RTE.
Like similar efforts to incorporate women into the commemoration of the Easter Rising, RTE’s Flagship television fictional miniseries Rebellion was met with accusations of heavy-handiness. Dr. Heather Laird presented her paper “Reading Rebellion: Women, History and Commemoration,” in which she used the series as a case study to understand the meta level of commemoration. According to Irish historiography, Ireland has been slow to adopt a broader sense of history. Laird questioned where the emphasis is placed on the remembering the Rising, since little every day acts of rebellion are frequently ignored. This exclusivity often has class and gender repercussions.
Dr. Laird provided fascinating context into the creation of the series, which has shaped my idea behind Rebellion‘s clunky attempt at commemoration. She noted that the miniseries’ writer, Colin Teevan, said that he was not trying to be feminist. He wanted to write fictional characters because then the audience would not know what was going to happen. In fact, he said that he was surprised when he began researching the Rising to learn the number of women who were involved, which only further proves Dr. Laird’s point about the narrow way in which the Rising has been previously commemorated and taught.
From that statement, it was clear to me that Teevan wanted to create a captivating and suspenseful drama, not a historically accurate story. This made me think about dramatic miniseries within the framework of the genre theory that I have studied in my film classes. Susan Hayward best summarizes this in her book Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, where she says that genres are influenced equally by “capitalist imperatives of the film industry” and “audience preference and the socio-historical realities of any given period” (Hayward 168). To elaborate, once society decides that they enjoy a particular genre, which is frequently influenced by cultural factors, the industry caters to that and continues to produce similar material. However, popular genres frequently “switch, change, [are] imbricated (an overlapping of genres), subverted” (168).
Prior to Dr. Laird’s lecture, I was not familiar with Rebellion. The presentation piqued my interest and as a result I went on Youtube to look up trailers and clips from the series. When I watched the following trailer, I was struck by how familiar it felt.
I was an avid fan of Downton Abbey in its first three seasons. As I watched the Rebellion trailer and heard the children’s choir cover of U2’s “With or Without You,” I remembered that Downton Abbey trailers frequently featured children’s choir covers of popular contemporary songs. Even more telling, Downton Abbey actually used a children’s choir cover of “With or Without You” as the music for the season two trailer. While the trailers use different parts of the song, there is no denying that the song is used in both to create a similar moving reaction.
A closer analysis shows that the trailers contain similar images: distressed upper class men and women, distressed working class men and women, war and destruction, melancholy faces, unfulfilled romantic attachments, slow-motion running, and tender moments of embrace — essentially all of the makings of a multi-character “historical” miniseries.
Another key aspect of Downton Abbey was the romantic plot developments of the characters. As such, a couple of Downton Abbey trailers teased the possibility of marriage and more dramatically, the idea of a disrupted wedding. The Rebellion trailer similarly entices views with hints of romance. It begins with one of the protagonists, Elizabeth, being fitted for a wedding dress, as she is told that she needs to “stop” and therefore conform to the role of a wife. It ends with Elizabeth running down a hallway in her wedding dress, thus implying a broken romantic attachment. As Dr. Laird pointed out, Elizabeth and May both become involved in the rising because of a man they love. Despite Teevan’s heavy-handed attempt to deny this through Elizabeth’s dialogue, much like Downton Abbey it is apparent that romantic motivations move the plot forward.
Downton Abbey received world-wide acclaim after it began airing in 2010. The series aired in Ireland on TV3 and in Northern Ireland on UTV to similar success. In fact, when UTV aired the film Serendipity instead of the first episode of the final series, entertainment news website The Daily Edge reported that fans took to social media in mass to complain and that “No one, and we mean no one, was impressed,” forcing UTV to issue an apology (The Daily Edge). Executives at RTE must know about its success and fandom, and therefore Rebellion provided them with the perfect opportunity to try their hand at the historical miniseries genre.
Dr. Laird cited RTE’s 1966 drama Insurrection and Pat Murphy’s 1984 film Anne Devlin as examples of commemorative texts that were not only much more innovative than Rebellion in terms of form and narrative, but also did a better job at incorporating marginalized figures. Within the confines of my reading, I would suggest that this is because the filmmakers behind these texts were not attempting to fit into a certain type of genre, and thus had more freedom to innovate.
Perhaps this is cynical, but this could be a reason why Teevan gave little regard to bringing real, marginalized figures into its narratives. RTE possibly wanted to strike while the iron was hot and use the fervor of commemorating the 1916 Rising as a way of getting into the successful genre of miniseries period dramas. It is clear from the mimicking marketing that the network is attempting to appeal to Downton Abbey fans, as seen in the similar promotional photos. Yet as Hayward said, genres shift and change frequently and without notice. Rebellion didn’t achieve Downton Abbey fame, and it certainly did not help commemorate real women.
Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2000.
Laird, Heather. “Reading Rebellion: Women, History and Commemoration” 16, Nov. 2016, School of English Research Seminar, University College Cork, Ireland.
PBS. “Downton Abbey.” http://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/everyone-who-died-on-downtonabbey/
RTE. “Rebellion.” 3 Jan. 2016. http://presspack.rte.ie/2016/01/03/rebellion-new-series/
RTE TV Promotions. “Rebellion | RTE 1 | 1916.” Youtube, 27 Nov. 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ueThSkUgk4&ab_channel=RT%C3%89TVPromotions
Speedtrls. “Downton Abbey Season 2 Trailer — HD 720p.” Youtube, 7 Sept. 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoe3CoxcYm0&ab_channel=speedtrls
“UTV Ireland didn’t air Downton Abbey last night.” The Daily Edge. 21, Sept. 2015, http://www.dailyedge.ie/utv-ireland-downton-abbey-2343055-Sep2015/Accessed 20, Nov. 2016.