Having bid an emotional farewell to Wallander BBC Four and Arrow Films steadfastly refuse to rest on their laurels and are continuing their quest to reward fans with exciting and innovative quality popular drama sourced from every corner of the continent. The remainder of 2014 will be packed with more examples of Nordic excellence in the form of 1950s detective series Crimes of Passion and costume drama 1864.
Resolute in their determination to source the finest foreign language programming for UK viewers this partnership is moving beyond Scandinavia’s frontiers and has already acquired the intense Israeli drama Hostages. With a commitment from the BBC to maintain its world drama slot for the foreseeable future continent hopping and genre, shifting is the order of the day in the quest for thrilling and emotionally potent shows which push back the boundaries of what is expected from a specific type of programme whilst offering glimpses of other cultures. Exemplifying the core ethos behind this daring form of broadcasting is the brave and poignant Irish series Amber.
With the notable exception of Channel 5’s acquisition Love/Hate, in recent years Irish drama has been under-represented on British screens. Redressing this imbalance BBC Four’s screening of Amber affords UK viewers the opportunity to see first hand an example of the vital and powerful drama regularly being produced by our neighbour.
A massive hit when it first aired. Screened over four evenings, according to overnight figures Amber was watched by forty-two percent of the available audience. Filmed in 2011 whilst the country was in dire economic turmoil, Irish broadcaster RTÉ instantly realized that it had something very special on its hands that deserved to be awarded a prestigious slot. Determined that this provoking drama would not be buried under a sea of competing programming the network elected to wait until it could find a window in the schedule enabling Amber to be stripped across a single week. Generating a social media frenzy and column inches in the national press, this show became part of the national conversation. Before crossing the Irish Sea it was exported to Australia, Canada, Denmark, Israel, Latin America, Portugal, and Sweden. Critically acclaimed in each territory, international audiences responded favourably to the show’s universal themes of love, pain and the lengths parents will go to in order to protect their children.
One evening fourteen-year-old Amber Bailey (Lauryn Canny) fails to return home after visiting her friend. Over the next two years, her parents are thrown into a whirlwind of chaos and confusion as they try to discover what happened to their daughter and come to terms with the possibility that she may have been murdered. Presenting the same events from four different perspectives, the story is told in a non-linear format that leaps forward and then back on itself revealing fresh layers of meaning with the addition of each new vantage point.
An uncompromising and unsentimental approach to the subject matter, Amber paints a picture of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland in which people vanish every day and investigations are curtailed due to a lack of resources. Caught up in the whirlpool is a diverse cast of characters including a feature journalist, a prisoner, and an economic migrant. Practically demanding the viewer pay close attention to the on-screen action, each sequence is written so that every reprise either adds to the viewer’s existing interpretation or forces the audience to reevaluate everything they think is known about what has happened.
The series was inspired by a personal tragedy. Producer Rob Cawley’s brother-in-law went missing (sadly he was later found to have taken his own life). Knowing all too well the near insanity experienced by a family when a much-loved member vanishes he drew from that painful moment in his life when devising the show with screenwriter Paul Duane. Unshakeable in his dedication to communicating the many emotions experienced when confronted with such an inexplicably incomprehensible traumatic moment Cawley was firm when stressing he would not be dramatising something that will always remain painful for his immediate loved ones but instead used it as a starting point for a drama focusing on a suburban household and the many people they come into contact with.
With such an emotionally charged subject matter the tendency to be either exploitative or sensationalist is hard to fight against and yet against all odds in every single scene Amber remains grounded in reality due to some very well researched writing and a succession of truthful performances. Eva Birthistle (Waking the Dead) who played Amber’s mother, Sarah Bailey, won the IFTA award for Best Actress. Equally breathtaking in its depth and range is a sublime screen masterclass from David Murray (Silent Witness) portraying a father trapped by feelings of impotent rage and the knowledge he will forevermore be denied closure.
At each stage of the writing process, Amber‘s ending was a fixed point in the plot. Controversial and thought-provoking, the ambiguous nature of the conclusion positioned the viewers so that they would momentarily experience the confusion and anger endured by the family of the missing teenager. Brave, arresting, and stimulating TV seemingly tailor-made for DVD. The show’s intensity is magnified when watched in a single sitting. Highly recommended.