Memories of the past, ideas for the future

Communities calling the shots

In 1983 a radically new type of programme appeared on RTÉ. ‘Access Community Television’ gave ordinary members of the public the chance to make documentary programmes about their own communities. It was the brainchild of Michael Murphy, who joined RTÉ in 1971 as a continuity announcer and became one of the station’s best-known newsreaders. After working as a television producer/director on series including the award-winning ‘Access Community Television’, he left RTÉ to become a full-time psychoanalyst, but still works as a weekend newscaster for the station. His best-selling memoir ‘At Five in the Afternoon’ dealt with his battle with cancer.

Jan Battles: Can you explain the concept of Access Community Television, for those who weren’t around in the ‘80s when it aired.

Michael Murphy: The idea was to take an Outside Broadcast unit around the country and to enable mostly young people to make their own programmes, a forerunner of reality television. It was a means of getting people involved in the television production process in their local communities. So a crew of about forty people from RTÉ travelled all over the country and joined with a team of locals to create more authentic programming, which had the flavour of the Irish regions. The communities were in charge of the production process and they used our professional expertise in RTÉ to bring their programmes to the screen.

JB: Where did you get the idea from?

MM: I happened to be in the RTÉ Administration building one day, and I saw the Controller of Programmes, Muiris Mac Conghail, pass by. I told him that I had this mad idea for making television programmes, and without slackening his pace, he called out over his shoulder “Do it!” Years later, when I was helping one of his students complete a thesis on the programmes, I asked him why he had agreed so readily, and he said that he wanted something innovative for his schedule.

JB: What was the thinking behind facilitating communities to make their own programmes using professional crews?

MM: At the time, I felt that television programme-making was dominated by the conventional thinking from Dublin 4, and I wanted to democratise the television process. It had many innovative effects, not least on the traditional way that we approached programme-making. For example, the convention that you never see microphones in shot; we dispensed with that, and showed the microphones, or caught sight of the cameras. It brought a greater freedom to be more truthful, in addition to the ground-breaking topics that we covered.

We travelled out on a Monday, made the programmes over three long days, and travelled back on the Friday. It was such a shock to the system that we used to refer to this as “re-entry”! The following week, representatives of the communities would join us in the editing suite to oversee their programme, and then the process would begin all over again.

JB: How long did it run?

MM: There were three series of about twelve documentary programmes, covering such diverse topics as life in the Irish Navy at Haulbowline in Cork, the addiction treatment process in the Rutland Centre, the Irish Gay community, and a drop-in centre in Limerick. By the end of the second series, I realised that what we were doing in fact was creating dramas. So the third series was devoted to programmes where people wrote a half-hour drama deriving from the local community, which was then acted by the local amateur dramatic society on location.

JB: Having come up with the concept, what was the actual experience when you went out into the communities to make the programmes? Was it more difficult than envisaged?

MM: There is an adage in television “belt and braces”. You never leave anything to chance, so these programmes were planned meticulously, hour by hour. I can remember being about to film a concert in UCC as part of an Access programme with four cameras, and three of them went down. So I went ahead and used the one camera which was available: you had to, because people were waiting at the next location.

JB: What was the most challenging aspect involved in making the series?

MM: The RTÉ crews were tremendously committed because we all understood that we were making innovative programmes in ways which had never been done before. Normally the Outside Broadcast Units would go to a venue, say to cover a football match, and then return home. But we were moving this huge lorry from place to place several times during the day, hauling cables, setting up, then dismantling and moving on.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect in making the series was to truly hand over control. For example, we were doing a programme with some people who were unemployed in Dublin, and on camera the then Minister for Labour, Ruairi Quinn, was challenged to live for a week on what people got on the dole. And he agreed: he said he’d do it! I could see that it would be a very important sequence in the programme, a great conclusion, but the programme makers decided otherwise, and we had to lose that opportunity.

JB: How much input and control did the communities actually have in making the programmes and in the final product that was broadcast?

MM: Months before the programmes got underway, the production team would visit the programme-makers and set up a schedule with them, in order to achieve what they were hoping for. The communities had total control and they had the final say. The process is very similar to using any professional, be it a plumber or electrician. You employ their expertise. The communities employed professional programme makers to make their programmes for them. This obviated the need to learn how to operate cameras, or how to record the sound. But the Outside Broadcast van was totally open for people to engage with the RTÉ crew, which they did. They stood beside them and learned and saw how things were done professionally.

JB: How did you choose what locations or communities featured?

MM: We invited submissions through advertisements in the RTÉ Guide, and on television and radio. Depending then on the programme ideas we received, we tried to give a spread of documentary programmes throughout the whole island of Ireland.

JB: How was the series received by viewers?

MM: It generated some controversy, primarily for the new television methods we were using which some people found strange. As producer and director of the series, I even remember engaging in a correspondence with Lelia Doolan in the television columns of ‘In Dublin’ magazine about the nature of television, and whether democracy in the programme making process was really possible.

JB: And what was the critical reaction?

MM: The first series won a Jacob’s Award for my presenter, Ciana Campbell; a Prix Jeunesse at Munich for a programme we made in Derry about young people and the Troubles, where we beat programmes from all over the world; and a Jacob’s Award for me as producer/director for the third series, when people made their own dramas which the RTÉ crew filmed.

JB: How important was it for the people of Derry during the height of the Troubles in 1983 to be able to make a programme like ‘Access Community Television’?

MM: It was very important. Against the background of the Troubles, we filmed young people from both sides of the political divide going about their normal activities and showing how similar they were in outlook. We took an Outside Broadcast Unit from the South, and brought it north of the border during an acute period in our history. There were many fears and anxieties about doing this, and we had to get special permission from RTÉ and also from the authorities in the North. We visited what was a divided community at that time and we were made welcome, flying the RTÉ logo. It had never been done before.

JB: Why do you think ‘Access Community Television: Derry Young People’ won the Prix Jeunesse?

MM: Primarily because it showed the ordinariness of young peoples’ lives continuing on. There had been many documentaries made which showed the political angles to the Troubles. But here were engaging young people talking about their lives in Derry and showing what they were involved in, like playing in a band. The programme finished with a short discussion where the participants, both Protestant and Catholic, came together and talked. I think by not talking about the Troubles directly, the programme pointed up the sadness and waste of the violent conflict which was going on as a background to their lives.

JB: Why did ‘Access Community Television’ come to an end?

MM: There were two reasons. Irish Actors’ Equity objected to amateur drama groups being used in the third series, and they wrote to the authorities in RTÉ laying out their objections. And a new Controller of Programmes was appointed, and he told me he didn’t want the series in his schedule. So there was pressure brought to bear. It’s what happens when conservative forces reassert the status quo.