Television & Radio: Love thy neighbour

Stereotypical gunmen in balaclavas bite the bullet in a new Northern Irish sitcom with an altogether more human touch. James Rampton reports
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The Independent Online
Belfast may not be the least likely setting for a sitcom - that title would probably go to somewhere like Burundi - but it must come close. After all, how many laughs can there be in a city which, at least to the outside world, is characterised by intractable sectarian divides?

This question obviously played on the minds of the makers of Safe and Sound, a new six-part sitcom about a cross-religious friendship between two Belfast garage-workers, the Catholic Tommy (Des McAleer) and the Protestant Dougy (Sean McGinley). Eschewing grandiose rhetorical statements, the producers have rather homed in on the impact of the political on the personal: the difficulties of fraternising socially, their varying reactions to friends proposing a mixed marriage. As producer Joanna Willett puts it, this series could be subtitled: "Best friends, but could never drink in a pub together". Guy Slater, the co-executive producer, chimes in that "We wanted to get away from the murk and Kalashnikov image of Northern Ireland. The series is about humanity rather than tribalism. The microcosm is more interesting than the politcal macrocosm."

Unwinding over a glass of white wine after a screening of the first episode in a London preview theatre, the writer Timothy Prager reflects on the thinking behind the series. "What I found appealing," he observes, "was doing a show in Belfast where no one wore a balaclava."

It would still, however, have been perverse to have pretended that politics does not impinge on everyday life in Belfast. "The context of life is coloured by the political situation," Prager concedes. "It's an ever- present problem, you can't ignore it. One cab driver said to me, `We love everybody. We just hate each other'. It affects many aspects of daily life, but the people of Belfast view it as a shadow rather than something that motivates everything they do. Anyway, in a half-hour show, you can only describe a small group of people rather than a world in its full complexity."

An accomplished actor, best known for his searing portrayal of the abusive father Charlo in Roddy Doyle's Family, McGinley was attracted to Safe and Sound because "It never shies away from where it's set, and yet it's completely about the people. Our perception of Northern Ireland is a media picture, it's distorted. People have to get on with their daily lives. They're moulded by their circumstances, but the bottom line is they're human beings."

The series was commissioned during the paramilitary ceasefire, and the IRA's subsequent breaking of that with the bomb in London's Docklands inevitably caused the producers to rethink. "On a practical level, the ending of the ceasefire affected our production," Prager recounts. "After Canary Wharf, we had to re-write. It didn't need narrative structure changes, but all the characters had to reflect the new circumstances and optimism became tempered. But the people of Belfast would be gutted if we didn't show it now. They'd say, `Hold it, we can't be held hostage to political swings and roundabouts'."

Slater takes up the story. "After Drumcree [when Unionists and Nationalists had a stand-off over a proposed Orange march through a Catholic area], there was a temporary anxiety about transmitting Safe and Sound," he reveals. "Questions were asked within the BBC, like, `Is this the right time?'. It would have been irresponsible not to have asked them. But the series is written as a testament to peace, rather than the Troubles, so now is perhaps a better time than ever to show it. It is always possible that our series will become out- of-date by 9 August. But the positive thing is that the BBC has decided to transmit it. That's the affirmation."

Given this setting, no comedy series could realistically be a barrel of laughs, and Safe and Sound is more of a sad-com than a sit-com. "This a hybrid animal," Slater confirms. "It is a wry, verbal-based comedy that doesn't deliver banana-skin laughs."

Much of the action revolves around Tommy and Dougy's marital difficulties. Tommy has been booted out by his wife, and Dougy yearns for Tommy's sister, Eleanor (Michelle Fairley). All the characters seem to be sighing wistfully, "What might have been?"."I'm a victim of circumstance," moans Dougy. "If we'd been born before the Troubles, we'd be together, Eleanor and I." "Aye, maybe, but you'd be very old," Tommy rejoins.

"The tinge of sadness is representative of Belfast," Prager contends. "They have a great sense of humour with a perverse edge to it. A gallows humour infects the place. When I told a friend I was staying at the Europa, he laughed that it was the most bombed hotel in Europe. There's been a sense of loss there since 1968. They've lost a great hunk of their lives. It's like the Rip Van Winkle story; people go to sleep for 20 years, wake up, and a great revolution has happened. That was the notion behind the relationship between Dougy and Eleanor - 20 years have passed them by, and it wasn't their fault."

While making no high-falutin claims about helping the Northern Ireland peace process, the makers of Safe and Sound are hopeful that their series will contribute to a greater comprehension of the much-misunderstood province. "I hope it'll make people re-assess their pre-conceived notions about Belfast," Prager says. "Preconceptions colour things. Without them, you're able to deal with people at face value. If you can portray a community that's warm and that you care about, you go a long way towards breaking down preconceptions."

Slater concurs. "The first shot of the series is of a sign on the back of a bus saying, `A Better View of Belfast'. I like that. If Safe and Sound gave viewers the notion that Belfast is a place of people rather than a place of balaclavas and helmets, then that would suit me fine."

`Safe and Sound', starts tonight, 8.30pm on BBC1

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