Memories of the past, ideas for the future

Reverse crashes and porridge repeats

Jim Bartley has been playing Bela Doyle in RTÉ’s 'Fair City' since the early days in 1990. He joined the station’s first urban drama, 'Tolka Row', as an 18-year old in 1963, in the role of Sean Nolan.

“Everything has changed utterly during the last 50 years. I’ve seen RTÉ go through all these stages of evolution with technology. It was a lot more challenging back in the sixties. Things are a lot easier now.

“In ‘Fair City’ the cameras are on a set all day, say in McCoy’s, shooting all that week’s scenes. They would be out of sequence but they’re edited later. In the sixties we didn’t have that editing facility. Everything was done in order on ‘Tolka Row’ as if it was live.

“Once you started filming you had to film every scene as if it was live before you got to the commercial break at the end of part one. If anything went wrong even in the last scene you’d have to go all the way back twelve minutes. You had to start filming the whole programme all over again from scene one because you couldn’t edit on video tape.

“Those were the times when everything had to work absolutely right. I don’t think a lot of people now would be able to cope with the tension. You had to know every line, every speech. There was no saying ‘Ah if I make a mistake we can go back and do that and start from where we left off’. It would have taken a whole day to shoot the eight or nine scenes of one episode. The great thing was there was an air of adrenaline and tension about it, which made it really exciting.

“One of the things I learned from ‘Tolka Row’ was when to eat food on screen and when not to. The first scene I had was at the breakfast table - soaps usually start off in the morning - and I had to eat a bowl of porridge. Something went wrong about eight times before we got to the end of part one. We finally get to the end, I’m full of eight bowls of porridge and the floor manager yells ‘Lunch break!’ I learned from that to always look like you’re just finishing whatever you’re eating.

“On ‘Tolka Row’ there were three sets on one side of the studio and three on the other side, with an aisle up the middle where the cameras glided between scenes. It was very rare we got outside the studio. I remember one time we got to shoot in the Phoenix park where Sean Nolan had crashed his father’s car. We couldn’t actually film a crash because you couldn’t afford the cars back then. We started off with the bonnet of the car up against the tree with me slumped forward over the wheel. So when the camera started to roll I’d rise up from the steering wheel, I’d have the car in reverse, and I’d reverse away from the tree back onto the road. When they got into studio they showed the film in reverse so I was shown hitting into the tree. You couldn’t tell that I’d reversed back. It looked really well on screen.

“Brenda Fricker played one of Sean’s girlfriends, Joan Broderick. She was lovely; we’re still mates. She left Sean to go off on a cruise ship. We filmed her getting on the train in what was then called Kingsbridge, now Heuston Station, and as the train was pulling out with Brenda hanging out the window, looking back at me, there was Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’. That was one of the first times that kind of background music was used in a soap.

“I left ‘Tolka Row’ in 1968 before the series ended because I wanted to start a theatrical stage career. Instead of killing me off, if anybody asked for Sean his mother used to say ‘He’s upstairs’. I was upstairs for nine months. When Bela appeared for the first time on ‘Fair City’ where did he go first? Upstairs. I said ‘I hope I won’t be spending another nine months upstairs’.

“Outside of professional memories, when I think of the last 50 years on RTÉ the moment that stands out for me was the English rugby team in Croke Park. I cried with pride that we could do this; that we had a dignity and a pride that we allowed the English players to come and to express their nationality in their anthem. I was very proud of that moment.”

Jim Bartley was in conversation with Jan Battles