Friday, 9 January 2015

Sightings of Bono before the ban

Sightings of Bono began life as a short story by Irish writer Gerard Beirne in the Sunday Tribune in 1995. It went on to be anthologised, and read by Pauline McGlynn in BBC Radio 4's Late Story slot in 1998 and 1999.

It also became a short film. One that's already beginning to show its age, in the nicest possible sense...

It's a tight little tale, revolving around a young woman who keeps seeing Bono everywhere. And why not, what with Dublin being a small enough town where...

Anyway, the poor woman doesn't even own any U2 records, yet becomes obsessed by these apparitions. It's like he's stalking her. She tells her mate and scribbles notes about the sightings in her diary, and that's more than enough of the plot spoilers for the moment.

In 2000 Beirne's story was turned into a modest little movie featuring Bono as, er, Bono (inspired casting, that). It was directed by Peter Kavanagh, with a script by Kathy Gilfillan (her husband, Paul McGuinness, was U2's manager at the time). You can roll it there, Colette...

The locations...

The video is seven minutes long and less than 15 years old, yet it crams in plenty of tiny details about how much the city - or at least its southside - has changed during that relatively short time of the boom-bust cycle.

For example, when was the last time you saw a newspaper stand across the road from Trinity College? Nowadays that patch of pavement (at about 1:00 in the video) is more likely to have street artists doing splendid chalk renditions of classical paintings.

Back in the Dark Ages that same spot was one of the few places in Dublin where you could buy the NME. Even up to the mid-1980s rock and pop were still considered somehow "outsider" and "dangerous".

Nowadays many of those same pop and rock sounds are so ubiquitous that you are highly likely to catch a golden oldies pop station in your local bank (if your branch hasn't been closed down yet). And the same bank's radio and TV commercials  probably have an indie band soundtrack to hook young consumers.

The turn of the century was also still a time that cars could take the left turn at Trinity into Nassau Street. Don't laugh: I've read enough contemporary crime thriller where traffic flows the wrong way on one-way streets. Anyway, where was I?

And there is no 13a bus any more (at 1:07 in the video). That route is long gone.

Cafe society...

Ah yes. A cafe in the indoor scenes is credited as Coffee 2 Go. Presumably it's the place on Mespil Road that would have only recently opened up back then, around the start of Ireland's coffee shop boom.

The cafe's title is telling. Not that we didn't have coffee bars before that decade, but the traditional sit-down Bewley's of this world hadn't yet been overtaken by all the coffee-to-go chains that were beginning to sprout around our towns and cities back then.

One or two outside shots are also taken in the general vicinity of the Mespil end of the canal towards the iconic St Stephen's Church, better known to locals as the Pepper Canister.

This is a bit of a guess, but Bono's horse and trap are probably traipsing around the north side of Merrion Square; on the other hand, the film soundtrack (and one TV shop scene) features U2's Sweetest Thing, which was shot around Fitzwilliam Place, Upper Fitzwilliam Street and Fitzwilliam Square.

In these horse-and-cart sequences the film cuts to the heroine against the green grass of a park, though it could be any of several.

The clothes shop where the heroine works seems to be Joan Woods's Platform Eile in South William Street. I'm no fashion expert but I guess the area is still quite a hub of the city's rag trade.

I've also been told that some exterior shots were taken outside Abrakebabra on Stephen Street. It's in the credits too, but now the outlet is called Zaika, and has gone slightly more upmarket:
"We recommend you sample the delicious 'Mediterranean Lamb', which is 2 skewers of tender lamb sirloin seasoned with spices, onions & peppers..."

The pub culture...

But it's the pub scenes where the changes are the most noticeable. The hostelry in question is Smyth's - the Smyth's Bar of Haddington Road rather than the Smyths of Ranelagh. or JJ Smyths in Aungier Street.

Its male customers are drinking pints of stout. What else are they doing? Smoking and reading newspapers. The heroine, too, is drinking a glass of stout (in Ireland "a glass" is a half-pint measure). And not a mobile phone in sight.

And here's another change: in those days the pub wouldn't have had any furniture or patrons outside. Around 4:00 there is no sign of any outside tables and chairs, or awnings and umbrellas and partitions.

That's one of the biggest things you notice. It's easy enough to date fiction and films from Ireland by a very clear historical dividing line: whether they were produced "before the ban" or "after the ban".

On 29 March 2004 Ireland introduced the smoking ban. It became the first country in the world to institute an outright ban on smoking in workplaces (including pubs), with on-the-spot fines of up to €3,000.

So smokers and furniture tended to migrate outside. They became street furniture. Ireland tried to become a "cafe society" without the Mediterranean weather. And inside, there wouldn't have been any ashtrays and smoke any more.

And the cast...

As for the cast, it was a full year before Marcella Plunkett went on to star in her first major role. Yep, she played Alison in  Bachelors Walk, which was described by one newspaper at the time as "the first home-produced drama to reflect the Dublin of the Celtic Tiger back at itself".

Maybe that's a slight exaggeration, as Sightings of Bono and Gerry Stembridge's About Adam are just two examples of films at the time that were venturing into similar boomtown territory.

Each in its own way was trying to capture a modern, metropolitan, middle-class world, a changing universe of coffee bars and department stores and city-centre leisure and shopping zones such as Temple Bar and Grafton Street - all a far cry from the old thatched cottage stuff of The Quiet Man, Angela's Ashes and Richard Harris's fields and Brenda Fricker as a nun or your mum.

But it was still 2000. Claudia Carroll, who plays the shop supervisor in Sightings of Bono, still had to join (and leave) the cast of Fair City as Nicola, and hadn't begun her career as a best-selling writer.

As for Paul McGuinness? He's mentioned in the film's dialogue but is no longer on the U2 scene of course.

But there's one other "character" that is sort of in this story yet is no longer with us: the Sunday Tribune. The weekly newspaper closed down in February 2011, another casualty of the recession and the media revolution.

And who knows - if the Sunday Tribune hadn't existed, neither would many a story. Maybe this short story about Bono mightn't have seen the light either. Who knows...