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How Normal People took lockdown by storm

Normal people. Picture: Enda Bowe - Credit: BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu

Although nobody is coming just yet, Ireland is preparing itself for a flood of new fans who have become obsessed with the Emerald Isle through watching global television hit Normal People during lockdown.

Tourism Ireland has been frantically working on producing a video and an official map of the show’s locations following thousands of inquiries about the beaches, buildings and streets featured as the backdrop to the on-off love story of Marianne and Connell in the BBC Three series which gained millions of viewers as it rolled out on various viewing platforms across the world, including Hulu in the United States.

Normal People’s post Covid-19 pilgrims will find themselves travelling from the village of Tobercurry and Streedagh Beach in Sligo to Dublin’s Trinity College, the Ussher Library and out into the city’s bars and pedestrian precincts.

‘It’s not something we thought about at all during filming so the response has been overwhelming,’ admits the show’s producer Ed Guiney, founder of the production company Element Pictures. ‘We were actually concerned that we’d made it too Irish, but in the end, that’s exactly what made people all around the world fall in love with the show.’

Let’s be honest here – the sex scenes might also have had something to do with it. Certainly the on-screen chemistry between actors Daisy Edgar-Jones and debutant Paul Mescal has propelled the pair to international stardom.

‘It’s funny,’ says Guiney. ‘This was the first TV of Paul’s life and he was unknown. He left us at the end of filming to go and live in his first little flat, in east London and he got there literally as lockdown was announced. So while he’s been confined in this new flat, the show came out and he’s become huge – a couple of weeks ago, he was the most searched person on the internet – and when it all eases, this lovely lad from Ireland is going to come out of his London flat and be one of the biggest stars in the world. It’s like a Richard Curtis movie – he goes in a total unknown and comes out a superstar. That’s crazy.’

So, to answer the question on every Normal People fan’s lips: will there be a second series?

‘We never intended it to be more than it is,’ says Guiney. ‘We’ve been very faithful to the book in making the show and the author Sally Rooney was so key to the adaptation, co-writing every script, so nothing can happen without her writing it, and if she wants to make it a novel first, then that’s her decision. We will happily work with her on then making that into the next series. Of course, it’s been a hit and fans want more and broadcasters want more, but, no, we haven’t yet planned on another.

‘But in years to come if Sally, and Paul and Daisy were up for it, then, yes, we could do one, so you never say it won’t happen but it would depend so much on them.’

However, fans of writer Rooney will be cheered to know that another of her works is in the pipeline from the same outfit. Guiney says: ‘We are adapting Sally’s first book Conversations with Friends with practically the same team of producers, writers and hopefully director and it’s set among students and young people in Dublin. It’s not the same but, if you’ve read it, you’ll know is definitely a close cousin and that should satisfy that audience demand. It’s got the same vibe and, yes, just as much sex.’

Guiney says he is waiting for the lockdown to ease and the industry to work out how to proceed under the social distancing guidelines and that, such is the demand, Conversations with Friends will go into production as soon as these details are ironed out. ‘But this is the big question across the film and TV industry all around the world,’ he says. ‘I’m sketchy on the details at the moment, but big on optimism that we can make it work. It’s honestly all everyone’s talking about and everyone’s sharing ideas and protocols about it.

‘For me, it’s all about PPE and testing – so you test every morning to see if they’re well enough to work and then you can get on with the day. It’ll be about pods involving different teams keeping tighter and more together, so those on camera and close to the shooting, stick in one area and those on set less directly involved work in another zone. It’ll be about re-designing the workflow of sets and getting all that in place first before we can even start filming again. And of course for the film business, the other element is insurance: can we get that? We can’t proceed without it and it’ll be tricky but workable, I’m sure. For years on porn movies they’ve been testing, and it
never seems to have inhibited their work.’

Normal People employed ‘intimacy coordinator’ Ita O’Brien to help with the sex scenes. It’s a job that has become more common on film sets in the era of #MeToo but was new to director Lenny Abrahamson and to Guiney. ‘We were concerned it would get in the way of what the actors wanted to do, but in fact, it was like using a choreographer or stunt director and made us able to recreate the intimacy in the book.

‘It’s very much about the intellectual and emotional connection between Marianne and Connell and their physical connection is an extension of that, so we wanted the sex scenes to be just like a continuation of the conversation, of their dialogue and that’s what our intimacy coordinator did so brilliantly.

‘It made it all so much more grown-up and professional and allowed us to really get on with filming. It puts everyone at ease, I think. We’re very proud of it because it’s something fresh and not seen before on TV, and I’m thrilled we went there and pulled it off.’

I let the obvious innuendo go. However, the series’ sexual nature and reputation will not be passed over lightly. Last week, Guiney was shocked to find the show’s sex scenes made into a compilation and posted on the Pornhub site. Although these were quickly taken down, it wasn’t before other adult-content sites picked up on the footage.

Normal People’s emotional intensity and physical intimacy found an audience no one could have predicted. Perhaps, during the advent of social distancing, the weeks of no hugging and no touching, watching Marianne and Paul come together had even greater resonance. Certainly, lockdown led to the larger audiences than could have been imagined and to people watching it under different circumstances, drawing out reactions the makers weren’t quite prepared for, from all ends of the viewing spectrum.

‘Yes, we had a shock reaction in Ireland,’ admits Guiney. ‘There’s a show on RTE here that had 50 complaints and callers were outraged and called it a porno and if we thought there was an Ireland that had long gone, this made you realise it is actually still very much alive, you know, the moralistic, conservative Ireland.

‘But I think it’s also partly due to the unusual situation of people who wouldn’t normally watch it landing on Normal People – there was no sport, no news other than coronavirus, no new TV or celebrities getting drunk, so we got this tsunami of reaction we’d never experienced before.

‘It was a perfect storm of situations – there was quite a trend in lockdown of younger people going home to live with their parents and of them all watching TV together, so of course it’s going to spark conversations and arguments among generations. It became a kind of family programming, but the kind that’s not been done before.

‘I think, overall, it’s done a lot more to bring the generations together than to separate. In the end, people love a great love story and that’s what’s at the heart of it, and we never wanted to forget that while we were making it. I also think we’ve done a lot for the young men of Ireland – I’ve seen conversations on Twitter suggesting legions of American women are about to come here and find themselves a Connell.’

Guiney – and his company Element Pictures – has done as much as anyone to put Ireland on the map as a film-making hub over the last few decades. His friendship with director Abrahamson began at Trinity College, a key location of Normal People and a focal point of Dublin life.

Since making their first short films at college the pair have worked together on arthouse films such as Frank (starring Michael Fassbender in a papier-mâché head), and the Oscar-nominated Room, which earned Brie Larson Best Actress.

Element also made local hit The Guard, worked with Ken Loach on Palme d’Or winner The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and struck gold with 10 Oscar nominations for The Favourite with Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, scooping the award for Olivia Colman. Guiney also made acclaimed arthouse hit The Lobster with Lanthimos, starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz.

It must have been a source of pride, then, for Guiney and Abrahamson to put Trinity College at the heart of Normal People, I suggest, given the role it has played in the producer and director’s own lives?

‘It’s actually even stronger than that – the last time Trinity was a major star in a movie was Educating Rita, with Michael Caine and Julie Walters and the location fee that production gave to the college was used to set up a fund for the visual and performing arts – and would you believe that’s the fund I applied to for my first funding to make short films with Lenny over 30 years ago. So, yes, we owe that place a lot.’

Trinity is a living and breathing part of Dublin (or was until lockdown). ‘I cycle through it every day on my way to my office, so I’ve never forgotten about it. It’s an atmospheric and beautiful place that’s part of my life and city life, and any visitor to the city will pass through it, so it was important to feature it in Normal People, as it stars in the book, too.’

Does Guiney feel he’s put a more modern version of Ireland on the world map with his films and through the choice of stories he’s made? ‘Well, I didn’t want to keep showing the classic themes of Irish cinema – you know, the IRA, the Catholic church, the rural communities, all of that stuff.

‘I always wanted to show that we’re more contemporary than that and over the years it’s been a gradual, organic process until Normal People, you know, which is very European-looking in style and content, with them drinking coffee and sitting outside and smoking and, yes, having sex.

‘It’s a progressive Ireland, and a positive one that we show and we are proud to do that – people have clearly warmed to that from all around the world, and if it helps promote us as a tourist destination, well, then it also makes huge economic sense too, and the film and TV industry here is a big employer and economic driver.’

Screen Ireland’s last figures for 2018 suggest the sector is worth 692 million euros, with the audiovisual sector responsible for 17,000 jobs, spending more than 357 million euros on local goods and services and employment. Before the coronavirus crisis, the Irish government promised the continuation of the Section 481 tax break, and made a long-term commitment to film and TV culture in Ireland with a funding allocation of 200 million euros between 2018 and 2027.

In 2019, there were 38 feature films, 21 TV dramas, 39 animation shows and 26 documentaries officially registered for the tax incentive funding in Ireland. Some of that funding may be under threat now after the economic downturn of the corona crisis.

‘It was a healthy situation before the crisis,’ says Guiney. He lists productions such as The Vikings, The Tudors and Camelot and the lingering success of Game of Thrones which, although shot in Belfast, used Dublin as the international hub for its visual effects and post production. Apple TV’s series Foundation starring Jared Harris, was shooting in Limerick and shut down as the lockdown took hold. Meanwhile, Hollywood star Matt Damon has been spending lockdown in picturesque Dalkey, near Dublin, having stopped filming on Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel.

‘It’s a point of pride among Irish people that we don’t bother celebrities,’ laughs Guiney. ‘We don’t think one man’s better than another. That’s the theory, at least.

‘But it shows how busy things are and it certainly won’t hurt when, after all this lockdown is over, and we go out there looking for finance to get things going again, with projects like Conversations with Friends, that Normal People is foremost in people’s minds at home and around the world, as an Irish production. I’ll be shouting about it, showing them the hard fact and soft power of what the screen industries can bring to the whole economy.’

It should be no surprise, really, that European culture has so permeated Normal People. Marianne’s family own a Tuscan villa, setting for one superb summer episode, and she takes a year off for an Eramus programme in Sweden, the setting for another, rather chillier and sombre episode. Guiney’s education as a producer was forged, he says, on the many courses available through European funding programmes.

‘Honestly, I did all of them,’ he chuckles. ‘There was a lots available to young Irish producers. We didn’t have much of an industry here, so the European programmes and festivals offered us a lifeline. And what’s not to life about these – you spend a week or two in amazing European locations, meeting other young producers from around Europe, learning how to make and put together movies. So of course you get co-productions from these – I met people on these courses with whom I’m still doing business 25 years later, in distribution of my films, or in finding crew, or that last piece of crucial funding. Without a doubt, the current, healthy Irish film-making scene owes that European model of training and collaboration a huge debt.’

That sense of new Irishness has permeated the soundtrack too. Element created a Spotify playlist to accompany the show, featuring a number of Irish artists who feature on a burgeoning local music scene, such as Fionn Regan, Orla Gartland, Lisa Hannigan and Yenkee. ‘We didn’t set out to feature so many Irish artists but it just happened that that’s what the cast and crew were listening to during shooting and we realised it’s what the characters would be listening to, so we just had to put all these songs and artists in there,’ says Guiney.

The groundswell of activity in local artistic talent is something Sally Rooney’s novels have identified among Irish millennials. It is hoped the lockdown won’t have put an end to the creativity and thriving live arts scene.

Guiney also runs two popular cinemas, the Lighthouse in Dublin and the Palas in Galway, so he’s as desperate as anyone to see a return to the communal experience. He says: ‘Putting the locations on screen so evocatively and using the soundtrack, these are things we found we could do that actually improve on the ‘Irish appeal’ of the original book.

‘I hope this crisis was just a jolt and that the creativity will find ways to recover. It would be a huge shame for the whole country not to get the full benefit of the Normal People effect. I’m sure we will.’

Normal People is available on BBC iPlayer

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