Roddy Doyle: Family matters – and an old soul classic

Roddy Doyle is planning a stage musical of The Commitments, he tells James Mottram. But first he's revisiting another hit
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The Independent Culture

If there has always been a streak of optimism in Roddy Doyle's work – from the aspiring Dublin soul band of his debut novel The Commitments to the entrepreneurial mobile chip-shop owners in The Van – he's never been one to wear rose-tinted spectacles. You only need to look at Family, his 1994 four-part television drama – and the reason we are sitting in a London hotel together. When we meet, Doyle has just finished recording an interview for the newly-minted DVD of the series with Michael Winterbottom and the director's long-time producing partner, Andrew Eaton.

Made the year before Winterbottom began his prolific feature-film career with Butterfly Kiss, it may just be the most powerful thing he's ever directed. Set on a rundown Dublin housing estate, each episode focuses on one family member, beginning with the violent, alcoholic patriarch Charlo Spencer (the wonderful Sean McGinley), who dishes out abuse to wife Paula (Ger Ryan) while his four children look on. Dealing with the thorny issue of domestic violence to the backdrop of crushing poverty, the first episode saw half of Ireland's adult population tune in when it was shown on RTÉ.

From the left, Doyle was accused of depicting all working-class Irish families as living under the shadow of abuse, while right-wing church officials claimed he was undermining the traditional Irish family unit. "I remember turning on the news the day after, getting ready to go to work. It was the main headline. There were national politicians talking about it. The lunchtime news was about domestic violence. Family was the story. I was very proud that a piece of writing had an impact like that – though it was very unsettling at the same time."

After the first episode of Family, Women's Aid was inundated with calls from women in similar circumstances to Paula, while Doyle met "hundreds" over subsequent years. It was enough to inspire him to write two novels – The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1996) and Paula Spencer (2006) – continuing Paula's troubled life on the page.

Last year the busy Doyle, 53, published The Dead Republic, furthering the adventures of Henry Smart, his fictional IRA assassin who, by this point, has come into contact with film director John Ford. The third in his trilogy The Last Roundup, he admits it was a mammoth task. "Those books took seemingly forever," he sighs (the first, A Star Called Henry, was published back in 1999).

This year, he followed it with a second collection of short stories, Bullfighting, which dealt with middle-aged men and their concerns over loss – of power, virility, love and, most significantly, the boom days in Ireland.

He is venturing into new territory, of the fictional kind, working on a musical of The Commitments. He stresses it will be an adaptation of his 1987 book rather than Alan Parker's 1991 film version. "I wouldn't be interested in bringing people into the theatre so they can see the stage version of the film. Like Billy Elliot isn't a stage version of the film. I've seen the film, which I really enjoyed, and I went to the musical, and it was an entirely different experience. I was just bowled over by the musical. I just thought, 'That's the way to go'."

Having turned down the chance to pen a movie sequel when he was approached by Hollywood a few years ago, Doyle admits he hasn't revisited the material in 20 years. "When I came across to London to meet [stage] producers, I read the book on the plane on the way over and I was laughing at it – which I normally would never do – because it felt new, because I didn't know what was happening on the next page."

Currently half-way through the adaptation – which he intends to launch in the West End at the end of the year – Doyle admits it's been a revitalising experience. "I'm going to sound like an old man but at my age, it's lovely doing something that you've never done before."

'Family' is out now on DVD