Television: Troubles-free drama

A serial set in Northern Ireland which isn't about men in black balaclavas? Surely some mistake
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The Independent Culture
In the pre-title sequence of Eureka Street (right), the absorbing new BBC2 drama serial set in Belfast, a type- writer bashes out the words: "All stories are love stories."

In the past it has equally been the case that all Belfast stories have been Troubles stories. But not this time.

Certainly, the backdrop to Eureka Street is coloured by the dark hues of sectarianism. The protagonist, Jake (Vincent Regan), jokes that his job as a repo man in today's Belfast is "thrillingly ecumenical". "We raided Protestant estates with all the grace and panache with which we raided Catholic ones," he says.

He is also sneeringly cynical about such goodwill gestures as a "peace train": "Let's send a load of clapped-out radio celebrities on a big choo- choo train and get some tosser to read a poem about hedgerows. Sure, the IRA and the UDA will be quaking in their boots."

But the Troubles are mainly incidental in Eureka Street. Adapted from the 1996 novel by Robert McLiam Wilson, the drama is primarily about the working lives of Jake and Chukie (Mark Benton), his loser mate, and is more concerned with male bonding than terrorist bombing.

It was this fact that appealed to the director, Adrian Shergold, previously responsible for such landmark dramas as Births, Marriages and Deaths and Holding On. "I'd never read anything about Northern Ireland before that was giving such a different viewpoint. You can get alarmed about Northern Irish drama because you think it's all going to be about the Troubles and all about men in balaclavas. Even though our backdrop is that period of time, Eureka Street isn't about anything like that, which is why it was so exciting."

Sophie Gardiner, the producer, says the drama is very much about people getting on with their lives. "It's not a matter of wanting to deny the Belfast nature of Eureka Street, but this drama tries to say that most people who live in the city have have nothing to do with any paramilitary activity apart from being aware of it. You can't ignore the Troubles - and we don't - but what is important to me is that people realise that Eureka Street is also the story of the rest of life, away from the Troubles."

Eureka Street is particularly strong in depicting the way people in Belfast often use black humour to deal with the difficulties life throws at them. For instance, as Jake's team repossess a woman's TV set, she shoots a warning at them that her nephew is in the INLA and will have them all knee-capped. "Last time he was in the IRA," Jake says. "Well, he's now in the INLA," she replies. "A boy can change his mind, you know."

Gardiner was struck by the dark comedy when she first read Wilson's novel. "It was so funny but was also able to combine that humour with meaning and poignancy. I'm always really interested in things that work on that funny, human level, but also take you to another place on how you think about things. It was the most incisive piece of writing I'd seen about violence - and yet also a funny piece of writing."

Dramas focusing on relentlessly driven para- militaries have become a turn-off for viewers, something Robert Cooper, head of drama at BBC Northern Ireland and executive producer on Eureka Street, is all too conscious of. "There have been a lot of unsurprising dramas from Northern Ireland. The Troubles tend to lead you into a particular genre, which is grim, violent, dark, brooding and presses certain buttons. But you can surprise people. Drama has to be about people rather than stereotypes. There have been an awful lot of stereotyped Northern Irish dramas in the past."

Cooper wants to show that Northern Ireland is populated by people as opposed to issues. "I hope that viewers will take away from Eureka Street a sense of the paramountcy of the individual," he says. "Individuality is heartening. Politics aren't optional in Northern Ireland, but this drama is about people rising above them."

`Eureka Street' begins Mon 9pm on BBC2