Amid a furore over RTE hit Normal People, Tanya Sweeney looks back at our most scandalous TV moments, from Glenroe to Tallafornia
Some have called it 'Fifty Shades of Sligo'. New York Times TV critic Emily Nussbaum tweeted about watching 'the horny Irish teens'. It's safe to say that Normal People's many, many sex scenes have gotten people hot and bothered. Yet a cohort of people found the adaptation of Sally Rooney's second novel too much for the small screen.
Last week, listeners to RTE Radio 1's Liveline discussed the series, currently showing on RTE One. One listener likened it to "something you see in a porno movie". Another noted, "it's filthy and I won't be watching the rest of it". Even the show's director, Lenny Abrahamson, was moved to tweet a screenshot of host Joe Duffy with his head in his hands.
Several viewers have praised sex scenes in Normal People between Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), noting the authentic feel of the content. Others have hailed the scriptwriters' healthy depiction of consent, although as anyone who read the book knows, things take a much darker turn in future episodes.
"We have to contextualise [the reaction]," observes broadcast historian Finola Doyle O'Neill. "We are in Covid country so people are under siege. A lot more people are watching TV outside of the show's target 15-44 age groups, and this is why it's taking on more reverberation than it might normally. People complaining about it are not the target audience, but are predominantly the highest viewerships in RTE."
Normal People is merely the latest in a long line of 'won't someone think of the children' moments on Irish screens. In fact, some of the most talked-about sex scenes in Irish televisual history barely had sex in them at all.
In 1966, Gay Byrne, who was largely credited with 'bringing sex to Ireland', kicked up a bit of dust in an infamous episode that came to be known as the Bishop and The Nightie. In a Mr & Mrs-style quiz, couples were asked questions about their partners.
Gay picked a married couple from the audience, Richard and Eileen Fox from Terenure in Dublin. One of the questions related to the colour of Eileen's nightie on honeymoon. Richard said it was transparent, while Eileen said she wasn't wearing any. It prompted Thomas Ryan, then Bishop of Clonfert, to condemn the show from his pulpit.
"Gay himself said, Irish people will look at the Sun and see a Page Three girl, but when they see something similar within an Irish context, people have a different reaction," notes Dr Doyle O'Neill.
Two decades later, there were also audible gasps when Gay opened a lone condom from a packet on the show in 1987, noting sarcastically: "That is the dreaded object." One viewer wrote in, enraged: "I have an 18-year-old daughter who I wouldn't want to see those things. If she had been in the sitting room with me last night, I'd have been very embarrassed."
Quite what this viewer would have made of The Spike, a drama set in a secondary school, is anyone's guess. In 1978, a nude model appeared for a live drawing class, but the seemingly innocent context did little to dampen the controversy. Far from letting the scene propel the show to infamy, RTE pulled the show from its schedule after just five episodes.
Soap opera has been the Trojan horse through which most of our sexual content has been explored on screens. Imports like EastEnders, Brookside, Dallas and Dynasty featured plenty of raunch, but weren't exactly holding a mirror up to Irish society.
"RTE have been very tentative about the way they curate sex scenes," observes Dr Doyle O'Neill. In the 1970s, The Riordans broached the subject of sexuality (in one scene between Maggie Riordan and a priest), yet by the 1990s, things had become slightly more outré in pre-watershed territory.
By 1996, Fair City viewers had already seen flings and affairs, yet a same-sex kiss between Liam Casey (Peter Warnock) and Eoghan Healy (Alan Smith), that never actually happened in the end, rocked the nation: "The episode became apocryphal, in that we imagine it actually happened," says Dr Doyle O'Neill. "Given that homosexuality had been decriminalised only three years before, it was brave for RTE… but not brave enough."
Viewers of a certain age will certainly recall the 1997 episode of Glenroe in which Miley had a chaste enough roll about in the hay barn with Fidelma, cousin to his wife, Biddy. The scene cut to the credits before the tryst got going. Yet if Glenroe's producers wanted to stir up a bit of sexy controversy, it was very much a case of job done. "People would say to me that their parents were disgusted and wouldn't watch the programme any more because I was a home-wrecker," actress Eunice McMenamin, who played Fidelma, noted after the fact. "But I was very proud of what we did, it pushed a boundary in its own way. It showed that people have sex in the country too."
Says Dr Doyle O'Neill: "Because Miley was the everyman, he was a man we never thought would betray for lust. In a way the whole nation felt betrayed."
People in Drogheda certainly have sex, if RTE's Love Is The Drug was anything to go by. During the boom years, RTE switched some of their energies to creating dramas about angsty twenty-somethings and their sex lives. The Big Bow Wow, Raw and Love Is The Drug featured plenty of youthful sex scenes and nudity, but by then RTE 2 viewers were seemingly too cool and urban as to kick up a stink about it.
And then Tallafornia arrived in 2012, and that was pretty much the end of being cool.
The TV3 fly-on-the-wall reality series had the honour of featuring the first ever actual sex scene on Irish TV. Nikita Murray and Phil Penny decided to make their way to the 'score room', where viewers are treated to much rustling of duvets. After just one episode, the Dublin-based show pulled a bumper 500,000 viewers.
It also caught its fair share of criticism. "This is a new low in broadcasting", one viewer tweeted. "Pure garbage... Ashamed to be from Dublin right now," read another online verdict.
"I knew the show would get a mixed reaction," the show's producer Fintan Maguire was quoted as saying. "But I wasn't expecting people to love or hate it so absolutely."
But why did Tallafornia cop so much heat, when other shows had fallen under the radar? "Tallafornia was trying to be a bit like Jersey Shore, but we don't have the climate nor the moral compass for it. The thing is, people didn't care about Raw at the time because they had lives. The reaction comes when you have a captive audience," asserts Dr Doyle O"Neill.
Love/Hate enjoyed a similarly healthy ratings boon, and the grisly depictions of cat-and-mouse violence were offset by some memorable sex scenes. Darren (Robert Sheehan) and Rosie (Ruth Negga)'s sex appeared earnest, passionate and loving, which is a lot more than could be said for Nidge's trysts with… well, anyone.
Nidge's fast and furious sex sessions with Janet (Mary Murray) and Linda (Denise McCormack), whether by accident or design, served as a sort of comic relief alongside a tart cocktail of gangland violence and darkness.
It has recently been announced that Element Pictures, who produced Normal People, have adapted Sally Rooney's debut novel, Conversations with Friends. A tangy love saga with a young glut of characters at its core, it's sure to sizzle on screen much like its forebear. Just don't tell Liveline's listeners.