Sally Rooney novels reset expectations of Ireland, says TV director

The Irish director behind Conversations With Friends and Normal People has said he loved depicting a modern and unencumbered Ireland in the hit TV programmes.

Lenny Abrahamson, who adapted Sally Rooney’s first two novels for the screen, said he noticed striking differences between the Ireland of Rooney’s generation and his own.

“I found it fascinating to visit the lives of people in pretty much the same place that I had been. I went to Trinity College, I remember my feelings walking through the gate for the first time, so I can directly compare those two generations,” he told the Radio Times.

“I found that really exhilarating and positive. I thought: God, these people and the world that they’re inhabiting is so much less encumbered by some of the stuff that Irish people had on their backs when I was that age. So, recognising this is an opportunity to show this culture and this place in its new form.”

Abrahamson, 55, best known for his 2015 film Room, which received four Oscar nominations, said he believed cliches of Ireland were still out there. “Sally’s work is like a massive palate cleanser, it resets your expectations,” he said.

Both Normal People, Rooney’s searing tale of teenage first love, and Conversations With Friends, which focuses on the relationships between a group of young Dubliners, broke out of the online-only, youth-focused BBC Three to become huge BBC One hits. They propelled the careers of the actors Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal (Normal People), as well as Alison Oliver who stars alongside Joe Alwyn in Conversations With Friends.

Abrahamson said he felt a responsibility for younger actors when filming the sex scenes prevalent in both shows. One such scene in Normal People lasted more than nine minutes, making up a third of the episode.

“The intimacy in these series is an essential part of the story. It’s not decorative. We did feel great responsibility, so within the filming [we had] an intimacy coordinator. We created a safe environment and we showed the actors the episodes before they were broadcast, to make sure they were happy,” he said.

After the release of Normal People, clips of intimate scenes were taken out of context and distributed on porn websites. At the same time, callers to the RTÉ Radio 1 show Liveline voiced complaints about the sex scenes in the show.

Abrahamson said everyone involved with the show felt confident that their work was “good and important” and could be defended. “I don’t think any of that [the repurposing of footage on porn websites] hurt any of the actors.”

The production team were quick to get any clips taken down from porn sites, he said. “I think that’s all you can do, otherwise you’re letting the worst people in society determine what you can do because of how they’ll construe it.”

Abrahamson said the viewer complaints reflected Ireland’s historically Catholic culture. “But ultimately I think it was a positive experience. That Liveline episode became iconic precisely because it doesn’t represent the country now. We could look at it and shake our heads, whereas before that was the dominant view,” he said.

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