As some of you may know, I’m a big fan of Ballykissangel — the BBC show about a little Irish village filled with curious people. From an American standpoint, it is an Irish Northern Exposure — but without a tenth the annoyances. But here’s something that is very interesting: the show was on for six series, but I’ve only ever watched the first three. The third series ends tragically, with the two main characters leaving the show. It would have been as if Joel and Maggie left Northern Exposure. But not completely, because Ballykissangel does a better job of creating a sense of community as opposed to a collection of oddballs.
Over the weekend, I watched the fourth series — all 12 50-minute episodes. And the producers do manage to reinvent the show and make it compelling without destroying what was good before. Unfortunately, they do it in such a way that they still manage to harm it. The first episode, “All Bar One,” does an excellent job of acknowledging the past. But it does it with an awful clunky plot, and a change of the character of Niamh. In the first three series, she was the female beta to Assumpta’s alpha. But Niamh was always a strong character and turning her into some kind of vaguely discontented would-be business woman just seemed bizarre.
I understand the need glamorize her, so I had no problem when Niamh was given a proper haircut and shot in a way to highlight her beauty. Just the same, she was paired with the more traditionally glamorous Victoria Smurfit, playing Orla, the New Age liberal sister of the priest. And the show never quite figures out what it wants to do with her. She seems to be there primarily to set up the end of season with a conflict between Niamh and her husband, Ambrose, as she falls in love with new community member Sean Dillon.
If all this sounds confusing, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The series seems to be trying to do a lot of different things. The most obvious of these was to get rid of the Ambrose character. The actor who played him, Peter Hanly (who you probably remember as the very weak Prince Edward in Braveheart), may have wanted to leave the series. He certainly said he did. But it seems more likely the show was just trying to provide a relationship with some sexual tension to replace that between Father Clifford and Assumpta during the first three seasons.
But therein lies the problem. I didn’t notice any sexual tension until the last couple of episodes of the series. It seems more likely that a contract dispute took place between the producers and Peter Hanly. Maybe he didn’t like being sidelined in the series and they pushed him so they could do what they had long wanted. Regardless, the last couple of episodes seem to have been quickly rewritten to end that story line. Then claims were made that the whole thing had been brewing the whole series. Or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. I’ve never found the Niamh and Ambrose relationship particularly engaging.
Interestingly, after being the dominant force during the first three series, creator Kieran Prendiville disappears completely from the fourth series. And as far as I can tell, that’s true of the fifth as well. He does seem to come back to finish off the sixth series, writing almost all of the episodes. But I can’t help but think that he is ultimately what gave the show its heart. The fourth season is certainly good, and the actors are fantastic, but much of it comes off as wooden and formulaic.
One episode of the fourth series was especially good, “Births, Deaths and Marriages.” It brings together the wonderful sense of community that most defines the show. And in this episode, Niamh completely takes on the role that Assumpta did as community leader. It is somewhat spoiled by her breaking down in a clumsy attempt to set up the series finale. But that is small.
See also: Confused High Jinks on Ballykissangel.