Michael J. McDonagh talks to Sé Merry Doyle, acclaimed Dublin documentary maker now lynchpin of an Irish arts radio station in London
“Bright Side Of The Road is now in its third season and I’ll tell you its backstory.” Those were the words of Sé Merry Doyle speaking about the Irish Cultural Centre’s radio project. He was speaking about the highly successful community radio broadcasting enterprise in Hammersmith, and how it began. And also how he, a filmmaker from Dublin, got involved with a radio station in in Hammersmith.
But first, a little bit of background.
Sé Merry Doyle started his career in the Project Theatre working alongside people such as Jim and Peter Sheridan, Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson. After a very successful period as a lighting designer and stage director, he switched to the medium of film.
Starting as a trainee editor with Windmill Lane, Sé went on to become a film editor on many productions, including Our Boys and Pigs for Cathal Black, and the award winning, Reefer and the Model for Joe Cumerford.
Eventually he set up his own company Loopline Films, in 1993, specifically to make documentaries.
Sé's most personal film Alive Alive O - A Requiem for Dublin traces the plight of Dublin's street traders as the scourge of heroin and an onslaught of commercialism destroy their fragile culture.
Sé was now emerging as Ireland’s foremost documentary maker, and other films followed. The award-winning Patrick Kavanagh - No Man's Fool won 'Best Documentary' at the 2005 Boston Film Festival, while John Ford - Dreaming the Quiet Man' focused on John Ford's 20 year quest to make his most personal film was widely acclaimed as a masterpiece.
So with such an exemplary record in film work, what drew Sé to the radio waves?
“Basically, a number of years ago, Rosalind Scanlon from the Irish Cultural Centre invited me over to show my 1982 film Looking On, about a collective of community activists who resist the housing and urban redevelopment of Dublin’s north inner-city. It got a terrific reception.
“Then pretty much the next day the pandemic arrived and they had to close down the Irish Cultural Centre totally. So I said, ‘Why don't you start a digital platform so some of the musicians who can’t work now — cancelled concerts and so — can still get to play and be seen.
“That ultimately led to seven lockdown concerts in the ICC all filmed safely from a distance with clean, clean gloved hands and masks. They were really popular and although I don't even make radio shows — that was the first incarnation.
“Then me along with Piers Thompson, who runs Portobello radio, decided to broaden this out a little bit more and get into an arts format to cover all the bases.
“So really, Bright Side Of The Road is the only major Irish arts radio show in Britain — and it's now being picked as a winner.”
“Our latest episode of Bright Side Of The Road was 28 in the global charts.
“Adrian Dunbar is a regular supporter of ICC and has been a guest and he has a huge audience who listen in. It's always in the top 20 of radio listenership to regular streaming.”
The output is varied, but runs along familiar lines
“Usually we cover what's happened previously or what is coming up at the ICC, and we focus on news. Like for instance the Good Friday Agreement Anniversary that would have been addressed with the Belfast Protocol.
So we have high political end, and then great music and discussions with great writers. So you're basically trying to create a menu for a two hour show, once a month.”
I knew Sè from back in the 1980s at Windmill Lane studios in Dublin so interesting to hear how he made the transition from film director to radio producer.
“I'd never done radio before. But as people know, I talk a lot and radio suits talking or conversation. From being a documentary filmmaker. conversation is natural to me.
“I didn't go to university. I just went to school in Dublin. I was an actor for a while and ended up working at the Project Theatre in Dublin when it first started to do gigs.
“I did the lighting for Friday night late shows, which used the sets of whatever play was on but you got reviewed in the Irish Times. That was the most important thing for us because you played a part in the arts.
“When I did the Boomtown Rats they weren't in any way famous. Normally, I would just put gels in and go to the pub but they wanted a spotlight on the piano player, Johnny Fingers. And then Bob would walk out in a spotlight. And I said, OK, I’ll do the lights for twenty quid. I can't remember if it was 20 quid.
“I did the gig then they off and they cleared off and didn't pay me. Then years and years later, I ended up editing a Southbank Show special on Irish music for Bob's company”
“Then I made a documentary during the long summer about an old part of Dublin they were knocking down and it became a little bit of a hit. . . . .
And I've been doing that ever since, making documentaries.. But now I’m here making Arts radio with Bright Side of the Road.”
Bright Side of the Road is broadcast on Portobello Radio Hammersmith. It is presented by Piers Thompson, with regular guests Sé Merry Doyle and Rosalind Scanlon. The show is produced by Sé.