Interview: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor on Love/Hate

Interview: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor on Love/Hate

***Spoiler alert. Interview references all three seasons of Love/Hate***

ITS the most-talked about Irish TV show and last month Love/Hate finally aired on British screens for the first time

In Ireland, the exploits of Nidge, Darren, Tommy, Fran and the raft of other fictional gangland criminals have dominated the Irish public’s attention and filled newspaper column inches as enthusiastically as social media newsfeeds over the past three years.

Producers in Britain are, of course,  hoping that audiences on Channel 5 will respond to the first series in the same manner - and to date numbers have been good with three quarters of a million tuning into episode one in the series.

Irish audience are now preparing for the fourth season of the show following the huge success in particular of the third series, which aired in Ireland last November.

As a work, Love/Hate, created and written by former Today FM producer and ‘Navan Man’ creator Stuart Carolan, is a testament to the rewards a television broadcaster can reap when they stick by their writing talent and allow time to develop a show in the face of early criticism.

When the first series aired in Ireland in October 2010, Love/Hate was initially condemned for glorifying gangland violence and was met with general indifference (and in some cases disdain) by critics.

Many criticised the casting of actors Robert Sheehan, Ruth Negga and Aidan Gillen for being “too attractive” to be taken as believable crime world figures.

By series two, however, and because RTÉ stuck with it, the series started to turn a curve and find its rhythm.

Viewing figures for the first season jumped from an average of 454,000 to 659,000 by the time season two concluded. Those figures swelled over the course of its third series.

Some 820,000 viewers tuned-in to watch the whole of the fourth episode of season three, while a staggering 1.13million were watching the show at some stage over the duration of that particular broadcast.

Many more viewers, particularly in the show’s target demographic, are likely to have tuned in at their leisure on the RTÉ player, the broadcaster’s online and on-demand service.

On that platform the series has consistently been the most-watched show, with one episode streaming more than 34,000 times in a little over 12 hours after the original broadcast.

Such high viewing figures bring lucrative financial rewards. The success of Love/Hate — particularly with the 18-45 demographic — has sparked an increased spend by advertisers.

One advertising slot on Love/Hate is reportedly making RTÉ €10,000, up on the €4,500 it would normally receive for a similar standard slot.

“It’s pretty incredible,” says softly spoken Love/Hate actor Tom Vaughan-Lawlor of the show’s phenomenal success as he takes a break from looking after his young son in his adopted hometown of Whitstable, on England’s south-east coast.

“I haven’t been back to Ireland since this series went out, so I’ve just been hearing little bits back from people and seeing the impact it’s had on social media and that, but it seems to have really struck a chord,” he adds.

“Each series of the show has just been getting more and more popular, but this time around it’s really tapped into something.”

Vaughan-Lawlor has been with Love/Hate since day one and has seen his profile rise as steadily as that of his character Nidge. Now arguably the show’s biggest star, he’s surpassed more recognisable, and internationally successful, stars as Robert Sheehan (Misfits) and Aidan Gillen (The Wire).

Now, he says, when he does return to Ireland he’s instantly picked out in public places by the show’s fans.

“I get a lot of the King Nidge thing,” he says of the character that has risen in the ranks, from gangland foot soldier to crime boss.

“People have been great to be honest. It’s very interesting to hear people’s association to that particular character and the way in which they respond to them.

"It’s really interesting to hear their reading of the character — and to see how involved they’ve become in the show. There’s not many professions you do where people come up to tell you what a great job you’ve done! It doesn’t happen to doctors and nurses, and other professionals that often, so it’s great to be honest.”

Vaughan-Lawlor puts the success of the show down to the strength of both Carolan’s writing and director David Caffery’s fluid style of directing, as he constantly keeps the camera moving and the tension at a knife-edge.

Vaughan-Lawlor is also quick to acknowledge that a lot of Love/Hate’s success has come from RTÉ letting Carolan and Caffery “off the leash”.

He says the writer and director were “only given a certain amount of leeway in terms of what they could do” during the first season of the show which, although peppered with moments of extreme rage, was bereft of any of the raw, visceral violence that  has risen to the fore in the third season.

“I remember reading the first draft of the first series,” he says, “which was completely different to how it turned out because RTÉ, understandably, had to go ‘well hold on, we don’t know what this is, we don’t know what’s going on, we need to be very sensitive, Dublin’s a very small place; Ireland’s very small and we need to be very careful about what we portray here’.

So they had to rein them in.

“But because the first series was a success, the second series they let them off the leash a bit. I think subsequently they’ve done that again.

"You know, I met a real Dub who said that the show is really, really violent; it’s really tough, but it’s the real world. He wasn’t saying that it’s glamourising violence, just that it’s the real world. And it is.”

This true-to-life and honest depiction of gangland Dublin runs through Love/Hate and Carolan’s writing.

Many of the show’s storylines mirror real-life gangland incidents and it’s the production’s attention to detail — from its use of locations to the way the characters are dressed and the language they use — that has contributed to its success.

It’s also made it easier, Vaughan-Lawlor says, to slip into the often psychotic and “endlessly fascinating” character of Nidge, a role he refers to as “possibly a once-in-a-lifetime part”.

“Do you know, it’s written so well and we’re dressed so well, and our make-up and our hair is so good that you just have to look at yourself in the mirror and you’re good to go,” he says of getting into character.

“I always think as an actor that the hardest parts to play are the ones that are very close to you — where there’s not that much of a gap between you and the character.

"Whereas when there is a big gap, between me and the character and because your imagination has all this space to play with, it’s not that hard to get into.

"That makes it sound like this is such a piss easy job (laughs) but it’s just because it’s so well written and the production is so good, especially the locations, especially this year.

“The locations that we’ve been using are the real deal. We’re living in the world so much, whereas in the first series, I suppose, we were in much more middle-class communities.

"This year we’ve really hit the streets. I have to say what has amazed me this year, apart from people’s appetite for the show is how welcoming people have made us in their communities because we go in and say that ‘we’re going to be here for a day or two, I hope you don’t mind’. And it’s all based on good will. We don’t pay anyone. People have been so warm to us.”

Amid such acclaim at home, Love/Hate looks poised to find further audiences internationally. The show has been optioned from RTÉ by an unnamed US production company who are tentatively planning to remake the show for a US audience.

Also, in America, on-demand service Hulu, a direct competitor to Netflix, acquired seasons one and two of the gangland drama, and showed the first two episodes to the US last December.

Internationally, the series has also been broadcast in Australia, New Zealand, Asia and the Middle East, as well as the current Channel 5 run.

“My wife is an English actress and she’s constantly said to me ‘this deserves to be shown internationally’ — that the standard is so high, it should be shown in Britain,” say Vaughan-Lawlor, who will next year be seen on the BBC opposite Cillian Murphy as an early 20th century IRA man in upcoming gangster drama, Peaky Blinders.

“Others have said it to me too, and it would be great if it is shown elsewhere, but really I’ve come to thinking that it’s an Irish show. It’s set in Ireland, made by Irish people, about Irish people and by an Irish cast and crew.

"As long as it goes down well in Ireland, that’s the main thing. If it remains the success that it has become — and continues to hit the standard that its set — that’s really the most important thing.”

Love/Hate: Series One is currently airing on Channel 5 at 10pm on Wednesday nights.