The Billy Trilogy – Helena Sheehan DCU

The BBC are re-broadcasting the ‘Billy Plays’ by Graham Reed and starring Kenneth Branagh, 30 years after their first network broadcast. The triology focuses on the story of the conflict between a father and son set during the troubles in Belfast.  Prof. Helena Sheehan of DCU has kindly given critical media review permission to post an excerpt from her book Irish Television Drama: A Society and Its Stories  (Dublin 1987) on the trilogy.

Readers in the UK can view the trilogy on the BBC player here:

Kenneth Branagh – James Ellis – Reminisce about Billy plays:

The Billy Plays – Helena Sheehan

The really outstanding drama foregrounding the trials and tribulations of contemporary domestic life, against the background of the political turmoil of Northern Ireland, was Graham Reid’s Billy trilogy. The first play Too Late to Talk to Billy, set in 1977 in the Donegall Road area of Belfast, where the author grew up, introduced the Martin family. The Martins were a working class protestant family living in a bleak council house and caught in such a web of poverty, violence, alcoholism, disease and disillusionment that sheer survival required a constant struggle. It opened on the family living under the shadow of the mother’s imminent death in hospital. The father, coming and going in drunken rage, refused to visit her, in bitterness stemming from an extra-marital affair years before.

The second play, A Matter of Choice for Billy, set in 1978, traced the shifting relationships within the Martin family after the death of their mother and the emigration of their father. It fell to the two oldest, Billy and Lorna, to become father and mother to their two young sisters, Ann and Maureen. It centred on the tensions arising for Billy and Lorna in reconciling their prematurely parental responsibilities with the choices surrounding mating and the more normal activities of people their age. Both Billy and Lorna had it put to them by their respective partners. Billy had to decide about the nature of his commitment to Pauline, his ‘fenian nurse-friend’, once she had a job offer from Canada. Once she then decided that she would rather live in sin than Toronto, Billy moved in with her. Lorna was confronted with an old-fashioned proposal-cum-engagement-ring from John Fletcher, ex-UDA hard man. Although she tried to explain some of the feelings of a modern woman, he walked out in a huff and became the hard man on the street once again.

The third play, A Coming to Terms for Billy, set in 1980, showed the fragile stability that Billy and Lorna had achieved for the family thrown out of balance once again by the return of the errant patriarch with his new English wife.Norman, now dried out, and Mavis, a no-nonsense ex-schoolteacher, planned to make a home for the two younger daughters in  England, setting the family at odds and provoking a new crisis. Like many another play, much hinged on the coming and going between Ireland and Britain, raising all sorts of questions of identity. Between the two youngest daughters, with one wanting to go and other wanting to stay, the dialogue came up against it:

Maureen: “I don’t want to go. They hate the Irish over there.”

Ann: “But we’re not Irish. We’re protestant.”

It was the classic contradiction for Ulster protestants. Were they Irish or British? It was left for the audience to ponder. There were other storylines, interwoven through the trilogy as subtexts, raising many penetrating questions. One recurring theme was the construction of masculinity vis-à-vis the hard-man ethos of the paramilitary subculture. Even in the claustrophobic domestic scenes, full of the details of pots of tea, tins of beans, bottles of beer and Uncle Andy spitting into the fire, there was always the palpable presence of menacing paramilitary activity. Although neither Norman nor Billy ever joined the UDA, they lived within a network of tribal ties in which they were inextricably enmeshed. Billy was seen in strong contrast to his friend Ian, who was in the UDA and into its macho posturing, but was pathetically weak, easily manipulated and thoroughly henpecked. Billy’s fighting spirit was not the result of frivolous daring-do or false pride. He was abrasive, but there were reasons for his abrasiveness. When confronted by his would-be stepmother, he knew his anger was grounded in hard experience:

Mavis: “You’re very defensive.”
Billy: “I’ve had to do a lot of defending.”
Mavis: “It takes a big man to admit he’s in the wrong.”
Billy: “It takes an even bigger man not to be in the wrong.”

At the end of the third play, the quasi-oedipal tension between father and son climaxed in a bitter verbal row in the domestic sphere. It came to resolution in a physical confrontation in the public sphere, as they jointly confronted UDA heavies and proved themselves harder men than the hard men. It was more than an adolescent, macho ritual of male bonding, however. Their reconciliation was not achieved in an isolated bout of bravado, but in the hard-won humanity each had precariously achieved, as each had matured and mellowed in and through the events of the three plays.

Also interesting was the construction of femininity, amidst a subculture so full of stress and strain and macho men. The women came through as stronger, clearer, more competent, more hard working and more worldly wise than the men, all the more so for doing what needed to be done, without all the pomp and strut.

There was an edgy, electric, but well-earthed, humour running through it. There were no hilarious one-liners, but there was an ironic edge and an emotional charge in the tense, taut dialogue that often brought a feeling of wanting to laugh and cry at the same time.

It aroused a raw recognition and empathic involvement that challenged the viewer to come face to face with a gritty truthfulness that eschewed the easy answers. It never degenerated into slushy sentimentality.

The Billy trilogy had an exploratory edge to it that was far from exhausted by the end of the third play. Many a viewer wanted the trilogy to become a tetralogy and they were given their way, in a fourth play entitled Lorna. It centred on the struggle of Lorna to find her own place in the sun, in a situation in which she was no longer depended upon nor dependent.


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