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stowing away the time

Fitting all of 2018’s events into an episode of Reeling in the Years? Its producer on how they made iconic show

John O’Regan speaks to about the process that went into making the show, and its enduring appeal among the Irish public.
There have been a few occasions, even live on air, when a moment has struck me ‘that might be one for Reeling’…

JOHN O’REGAN IS an RTÉ producer who, alongside his regular duties of planning and producing large-scale outside broadcasts, has produced the much-loved and oft-repeated show Reeling in the Years.

First made in 1999 with the initial series featuring the events of the 1980s, the show has spawned a further four series, covering events in Ireland and abroad every year from 1962 to 2009.

In a year when we’ve had the Eighth Amendment referendum, a Papal visit, the Beast from the East, the Ulster rape trial, the Disclosures Tribunal, a daring rescue in a Thai cave, Brexit anarchy, countless Trump-related news stories and a bizarre doughnut craze sweeping west Dublin, how could you fit all that and more into a half-hour programme?

O’Regan told that it’s a problem that came up all too often when they were making the previous episodes of Reeling in the Years and, as a result, trying to apply “rigid editorial criteria” to the programme proved useless.

“Reeling in the Years isn’t a definitive social and political history,” he said. “The programme tries to give a flavour of what went on in a given year, using music and archive footage – more of a ‘time capsule’ than a straightforward news or current affairs review of a year.”

He stressed that the intention is to show only some of the major events of that year, combined with moments from sport, entertainment, music, TV and so on. 

He said: “The example I use sometimes is to pick a year from the 1980s.

What’s more ‘important’ – Ireland winning a Eurovision, an atrocity in Northern Ireland, an international number 1 single from an Irish band, a Late Late Show item about condoms, the popularity of legwarmers, or a massive earthquake in the Middle East?

O’Regan said that while this year may feel like one full of historical events, there are examples already in the past few years that would create a jam-packed half hour show.

“Even in this decade, you’ll easily say the same about 2016 or 2011,” he said. “2011 has a general election, a Presidential election, the visits to Ireland of Queen Elizabeth and Barack Obama, the Arab Spring, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the riots in London… these are just a few of the stories I can think of.”

He also referenced 1968 as a particularly news-filled year that proved a challenge to translate to an episode of Reeling in the Years.

“The Aer Lingus Viscount aircrash off Tuskar Rock, the Civil Rights marches in Northern Ireland and effectively the beginning of the modern Troubles, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and of Martin Luther King in the US, the ‘Prague Spring’  in Czechoslovakia smashed by the Soviet invasion, the war in Viet Nam, the Mexico Olympics with the ‘black power’ salute, Bob Beaman’s 29-foot long jump record, Manchester United winning the European Cup ten years after the Munich air disaster, the ‘Paris uprising’ led by students and trade unions, the anti-immigrant marches in England and Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech, Richard Nixon’s election as US President– and all that before you even consider a soundtrack of the songs of that year.”

If it came to making one for 2018, they’d find a way to fit it in, alright. 

How it’s done

O’Regan said the inspiration for the show came primarily from the BBC show, The Rock and Roll Years, that were broadcast in the 1980s. And while working for Granada TV in the UK, the producer worked on a show called the Rock and Goal Years, that featured the big football stories and music from any given year.

When he got taken on at RTÉ in 1997 to direct Kenny Live, he pitched ideas including what became Reeling in the Years. 

But how do the events of each year get condensed into one episode? 

While there is no rigid process as to what gets picked, there is a certain way of going about it.

Preparing the programme previously has involved two researchers at the outset – alongside O’Regan in pre-production.

He said: “We’d start on paper, with newspaper reviews, TV and online reviews of a year, looking at different areas – news and sport, TV shows, commercials, maybe pop promos, music performances, other bits and pieces.

As we prepare the programme, there are two researchers and me in pre-production. We’d isolate about 60 to 70 items or stories, of which about 30 to 35 will probably make the cut. We search up the footage, and work out how much international footage we can afford within the budget.

Alongside that, the producer goes through the Irish, UK and US music charts for every week of that year and lists the songs he thinks might work with the stories they have.

A finished programme will have around 10-12 songs once it’s been through the edit, but that will have been whittled down from around 80-100 songs.

The production then gets intense at the editing stage. This is all about working out what songs can tie stories together, balancing Irish and international material, and how the text-captions can provide enough information without being too distracting. 

“We’ve made 48 programmes in the series, and every time we come to the end of an edit, there are stories, footage, songs that I look at and think ‘that should be in’ – but they can’t all fit,” he said.

The balance of information and entertainment is key, as is the music. Some stories even make it in because they fit a song really well in an edited sequence that just works.

Two things, however, remain consistent with every single show – showcasing Irish music talent and showing the All-Ireland hurling and football finals.

O’Regan said: “I come from Cork and I know many people who will identify a year by the GAA events – they’ll say ‘oh, that was the year of the three-in-a row’ or ‘that’s the year of the goal in the last minute’.”

Enduring appeal

While his day job sees O’Regan planning and producing big events such as elections, Budget coverage, and State events, he often finds himself thinking of what could make the show.

“There have been a few occasions, even live on air, when a moment has struck me ‘that might be one for Reeling’, but at the same time you dismiss the thought because your focus has to be the live output,” he said.

He recalled recent events such as the 1916 commemorations at the GPO, Katie Taylor’s Bray homecoming following the Olympics in 2012, and Queen Elizabeth’s speech at Dublin Castle.

O’Regan did say, however, that it’s usually best to wait until a decade is over before beginning to compile a show like this, given how the passing of time can give new context to that year’s events.

The producer said the ending of a programme is the “vital part”.

He said: “Some years will end with an interesting line or quote that has maybe acquired a new level of impact because of events since then: but others will play out on a song – like 1973 with Thin Lizzy on Top of the Pops.

Again we’ve found the best way is to look at all the year, to absorb all the songs and stories, the many bits and pieces  - and usually the right ending will suggest itself.

And what about the enduring appeal of the show?

It’s likely to feature a bit around this time of year on RTÉ schedules, and is a regular during the summer and other holidays. 

O’Regan said no-one involved with the pilot programme in 1998 could have thought it would still find the audience it does, 20 years on. 

“I think that maybe because we don’t have a presenter, the programme allows viewers to watch in a different way,” he said. “If you lived through a given year, you can maybe ‘join the dots’ of your own experience to the events you see: if you weren’t around at the time, or if you didn’t live in Ireland at the time, ideally the programme is accessible enough to engage your attention, because of the pace, the music and the text captions.

My favourite line about the success of the programme is from the late Michael Dwyer, the film critic of The Irish Times. He once wrote that ‘Only the Angelus is repeated more often on RTE’. I love that line because it’s what you’d like Reeling to do sometimes – it’s a nice  compliment but it’s also a clever dig at the same time.

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