Category: Archive

Emigration Idol

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

So much interest, in fact, that the Irish media is sitting up and taking notice. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things makes for good reality television, which as any “American Idol” fan knows, has become the dominant form of broadcast entertainment in recent years.
Irish television production companies are vying to come up with exciting and original television programs about returning emigrants as the topic becomes more prolific on Irish airwaves and screens.
Independent production company Happy Endings are currently developing a return emigration reality TV show for TG4, Ireland’s Irish-language television channel.
They hope to track Irish people who emigrated in the 1970s, ’80s or ’90s to live abroad who have now returned to resettle in Ireland.
“We’re looking at alternative and hopefully revealing ways to assess the huge changes that Ireland has gone through in the last three decades. We would hope to monitor the challenges facing the returned emigrant and record their observations and reactions as they resettle in their native country,” according to researcher Jean Devlin.
“We are thinking of making four programs where we follow four groups of people on their journey back to Ireland; how they’re settling back into the social scene and so forth. It’s in the early stages — we’re still looking for people, its that bit harder because we need to find Irish speakers,” Devlin said.
Stopwatch, the production team behind the documentary series “Meet the family,” which aired on RTE in 2004, plans to make returning emigrant families a focus of its second series.
“Moving is a big deal for each member of the family,” said producer Mary Murphy. “Any family who left Ireland 10 years ago would find it very different now. I know that even from coming across it anecdotally. We’re putting out the call at the moment.”
In 1994, Dublin-based Parallel Productions filmed “The Morrison Tapes,” a series tracking three groups of Irish people as they emigrated to the U.S. Ten years on, they revisited the participants to film a second series, which aired on RTE last December.
“The Morrison Tapes,” proved extremely popular, highlighting the level of public interest in the issue of emigration.
“We followed three stories about people who emigrated – a family from Tallaght, a single parent from Clontarf and two young men from Kildare,” said Darragh Byrne, who produced “The Morrison Tapes.”
“10 years ago, emigration was a big issue. It’s interesting that so many people have returned and ended up finding what they were looking for in the U.S. in Ireland,” Byrne said.
Why does return emigration fascinate Irish people so much?
“It’s a recognized feature of Irish life, and it feeds in to a number of other interesting issues,” according to Kevin Dawson, commissioning editor for factual programming at RTE.
“For instance, lots of returned emigrants express horror at the cost of living and rampant consumerism in modern Ireland.”
Said Devlin: “Ireland has changed so much in the past 10 years, more so than it changed in the 50 years before that. For those who left in the ’80s, people are interested in why they want to return, what challenges they face, how difficult they find it to adjust to life in Ireland. There’s been a lot of television documenting the changes that have happened in Ireland; we wanted to highlight people’s experience of those changes.”
She thinks the rise of reality television in recent years has also shaped people’s expectations of broadcast entertainment.
“Reality has seeped into so many aspects of television that its almost ingrained in it. There’s a reality TV show for everyone now, from interior decorating to finance management,” she said.
“People are anxious to find formats that will engage with people personally. People are looking for more meaningful programming,” said Byrne.
“I think that’s why ‘The Morrison Tapes,’ tapped into some nerves. It was interesting to people who had emigrated themselves or had thought about it. In some cases, it made people think: ‘Thank God, I didn’t do it.’ In other cases, it made people wonder what they might have achieved if they’d done it.”
Said Dawson: “Trends have moved towards ‘formatted TV’ and capturing people’s life situations. Irish viewers tune in heavily to UK series like ‘Big Brother.’ RTE has run some reality TV series, and these have generally been popular.”
Kildare-born Charlie Bagnall took part in “The Morrison Tapes,” series when he emigrated to New York in 1994. Today, he lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and daughter.
“The producer approached us at a party and asked if I’d be interested in doing it,” he said.
“At first I said ‘no’ — the process of moving would be difficult enough without having a camera following us around. But in the end he convinced me to go for a screen test, I ended up agreeing to it. The first time round it was great. I thoroughly enjoyed it — until I saw the show. I cringed the whole way through it. I came across like an eejit.”
Bagnall continued: “The second time it was more difficult. The crew stayed for five days. I was married at that stage, so I had to think of my wife and daughter. We talked about a lot of personal matters, like the process of adopting my daughter. It was very draining to talk about a lot of life altering events over such a short period of time. But it was worth it. They did a wonderful job. We loved it.”
Devlin thinks reality television can be exploitative.
“Reality TV is often very contrived – a lot of meaning is created in the editing,” she said.
But according to Murphy, it can be entertaining and informative, when program-makers act responsibly.
“The biggest concern for parents is whether the kids are settling in,” she said. “Housing is also a big issue – finding the right house at the right price. That kind of information is useful to anyone thinking of returning. Not everybody who takes part wants to be on ‘Big Brother.’ The results can be really powerful when somebody lets you into their lives.”
Overall, Bagnall was happy with how the program-makers portrayed his story.
“They were as true as possible,” he said.
“With a documentary, they are going to try and make the story compelling. The guy I moved over with hated it, he left after three weeks but they made it look like he stayed three months. We laughed when we watched it, because there are shots of him back in Kildare saying that the place hadn’t changed much.”
However, he advises anyone thinking of taking part in a reality television program to be aware of the potential negative consequences.
“Choose your words carefully before you spit them out,” he said.
“Be prepared for bad press. I got slaughtered. You will say things that you will cringe at and people will laugh at you. Oh, and my wife brought this one up – change clothes often, so it doesn’t look like you only own one T-shirt.”

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