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a look back

Plaudits for Normal People continue the rise and rise of director Lenny Abrahamson

The first time we may have seen Abrahamson’s work on TV might not be what you expect.

the-canadian-press-2020-01-17 Lenny Abrahamson (left) during a press tour ahead of the release of Normal People Richard Shotwell / PA Images Richard Shotwell / PA Images / PA Images

THE STRATOSPHERIC SUCCESS of Irish television drama Normal People was confirmed yesterday when it was announced it was nominated for four Emmys

The adaptation of Sally Rooney’s popular novel has seen Emmy nods for the lead actor Paul Mescal, director Lenny Abrahamson, Louise Kiely for casting and Alice Birch and Rooney, herself, for writing.

For Abrahamson, it’s the latest accolade to come his way, building on a stellar career to date.

irish-film-board-launch Brian Lawless / PA Images Brian Lawless / PA Images / PA Images

The Dublin-born director’s early career was characterised by Irish-set films such as Adam and Paul, Garage and What Richard Did – all three of which netted him Irish Film and Television Awards.

These were followed by more international acclaim for the likes of Frank and Room, the latter of which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director. His success isn’t confined to the Big Screen, however.

Normal People arguably stands as one of his biggest successes to date, but the first time one of his works hit our small screens may come as a surprise to some.

Abrahamson was actually the director behind some of the famous Carlsberg ads of the early 2000s – such as the iconic pre-World Cup 2002 ad where Ireland won the whole thing with Jason McAteer scoring the winner in the final.  

John McGlone / YouTube

He told the Irish Times in 2007 that the McAteer ad was his best but he also liked the one “where the guys are going to a nightclub and looking really scruffy, and the one with the catch line about Carlsberg not doing flatmates, but if they did they would be the best flatmates in the world”. (Rewatching this advert has made me shudder thinking of how much a room in that place would cost to rent now.)

Another TV project of Abrahamson’s – that is perhaps overlooked – of the mid-2000s was an RTÉ series called Prosperity.

Released in September 2007 – at the height of Celtic Tiger hubris – it told the story of four people on the fringes of Irish society over the course of a single day. 

Screen Scene / Vimeo

Going against the idea that “all of us partied” at this time, it looks at people as they struggle to cope with the difficult situations they find themselves in due to social circumstances and other factors.

Abrahamson said at the time: “We made Prosperity to show that there are people who have been very much left behind by the changes that have happened in Ireland.

And we’re not saying those changes are all bad – neither of us are that naïve. In many ways they’ve been fantastic and many people have benefited. But there is a huge section of society that hasn’t and they rarely get talked about.

While Prosperity netted the director another IFTA, it wasn’t until his later films that Abrahamson’s stock rose to the heights it has since reached.

The success of Normal People is very much an Irish success with Abrahamson at the helm and funding from Screen Ireland. Like many of his previous projects, Normal People was Irish-funded with Irish talent at the core both in front of and behind the camera.

normal-people Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar Jones in Normal People RTÉ RTÉ

Across the world, audiences tuned in to see how the complicated relationship between Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) developed as they left school and went to university. 

The show’s portrayal of sex was praised, as were the strong performances from the two leads. 

Dr Annie Doona, the chair of Screen Ireland, told that there is a strong sense of pride in what this show has been able to achieve, and it was built on a solid grounding for many involved.

She said: “Key Irish talent were involved in the show at every level, and this creative talent -from casting to cinematography – has cut their teeth on Irish productions over the years, developing skills that are internationally recognised around the world. 

Lenny’s career has of course gone from strength to strength, and we are delighted to have been able to support him from the very early stages of his career.

Dr Doona said investment in creative talent in the early stages of an artist’s career pays huge dividends and Abrahamson’s work is an example of that happening.

“Not only in terms of their own progression but also from the perspective of the return we get from him nationally – from our enjoyment of the work created, the national conversations it creates, and the worldwide profile given to our beautiful filming locations,” she said.

But is the future positive for Irish-set TV and film now – even post-Covid – to follow on from what’s gone before?

Screen Ireland’s chair said: “Earlier this year we announced increased funding for TV production and we also recently appointed a TV Project Manager. Andrew Byrne is the first person to hold this position in Screen Ireland and he will work across TV drama and TV animation projects supported by Screen Ireland, from initial concept and development stage through to production.

We have had strong TV successes in the past, but the way in which people are consuming content has changed rapidly and the global appetite for high-end, original TV drama is at an all-time high, so we are keen to ensure that we do what we can to support Irish creative talent to realise their potential in that area.

Covid-19, however, remains the elephant in the room when it comes to progress and Screen Ireland is hoping increased funding can help to support the sector going forward. 

Dr Donna said: “Last month we launched a €1 million COVID-19 Production Fund, which is designed to partially offset additional production costs associated with implementing the new guidelines, and the Department of Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht last week committed to a pilot Performance and Production Support Package, €5 million of which will be allocated to the audiovisual industry, as well as an additional €3 million in TV Drama funding.”

With TV productions here now able to resume under public health guidance, the industry is hoping that the success of Normal People – and of its popular director – can be replicated into the future. 

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