Charles Haughey was a politician possessed of enormous talents and fatal flaws, whose impact for good and evil on Irish society is still a matter of debate.
Producing a television drama that conveyed the multifaceted character of the man was a tall order but, going by the first episode Charlie shown on RTÉ last night, writer Colin Teevan and his directors have pulled it off.
The first episode, titled The Rise and dealing with the ascent of Haughey to the taoiseach's office in 1979, was riveting and made a real effort to get to grips with Haughey's complex character.
A northside Dubliner with a chip on his shoulder against those born to more privileged backgrounds, he aped the style of the lord of the manor at Kinsealy while dispensing largesse to his working-class constituents. He also played on the nationalist fervour of the Fianna Fáil faithful to propel him into the leadership. The scene where he entered his first ardfheis as taoiseach to the pounding rhythm of A Nation Once Again powerfully conveys his appeal to the ordinary party members who lapped up his crude nationalist rhetoric.
The manner in which he pushed Jack Lynch into early retirement and took over the leadership through a mixture of charm, intimidation and bribery is neatly captured.
Much of the tumultuous political background will be known to those who lived through the period, but where this drama scores is that it adds two extra layers which were invisible to most people at the time.
One is the relationship between Haughey and journalist Terry Keane which was known to an inner circle of politicians and media people, but not to most people.
The other, more significant layer, even less well known, was Haughey’s financial dependency on a coterie of wealthy supporters which was organised by his accountant Des Traynor.
The three strands of ruthless political activity, a personal life at odds with his public image as a family man and his lavish lifestyle are woven together to create a compelling narrative.
Aidan Gillen not only manages to look like Haughey, but he conveys his ruthlessness and charm effectively.
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor does an equally good job as Haughey's loyal servant and fixer PJ Mara, although the character is given more power and influence than he actually had at this stage in Haughey's career. Lucy Cohu is excellent as Haughey's mistress, Terry Keane, and Gavin O'Connor looks like Seán Doherty as well as nailing his character.
Haughey’s opponents are not nearly as well portrayed. His main rival George Colley does not come across as the cultivated and gentlemanly character he was, and neither does the Des O’Malley character come to life as the able and tetchy opponent he was.
The main focus is on Haughey and his circle, and the drama largely remains true to life while capturing the excitement and menace that was in the air.
The famous Haughey television address to the nation telling people they were living beyond their means is neatly counterpointed by scenes of revelry at a posh party in Kinsealy.
The impact of the hunger strikes on Haughey’s Northern strategy is also true to events, as is the way he initially charms Mrs Thatcher to get her to agree to examine the totality of relationships between the two islands while allowing the opportunity to slip, mainly because his minister for foreign affairs, Brian Lenihan, oversells the achievement.
The over-ride on the phone system in Haughey’s office and the rigging of the budget estimates in 1980 are also given their due, as is Haughey’s interest in social partnership through his relationships with some trade union leaders.
But there are some small quibbles. Throughout the episode Haughey addresses his ministers and civil servants by their surnames, as he did in reality. However, he is shown addressing his loyal assistant as PJ when in fact he almost always addressed him as Mara. This was something the RTÉ satirical radio programme Scrap Saturday got right. Another quibble is that journalist Geraldine Kennedy is described as a Sunday Tribune reporter when Haughey gave her his first interview as taoiseach. She was actually working for this newspaper, which she later edited.
Overall, though, the drama is probably as close to the facts as it is possible to get while keeping the narrative flowing coherently. It will be interesting to see if younger viewers find it as riveting as their elders but for those who lived through the Haughey years Charlie is unmissable. Charlie continues on RTÉ One next Sunday