25 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland, from director James Bluemel and Keo Films, will give voice to the people who lived through Northern Ireland’s violent past by sharing intimate, unheard testimonies from all sides of the conflict.

Signed on 10th April 1998, the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement brought an end to the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles.

Due to air later this spring, the five-part series will combine unfiltered personal accounts with archive footage to tell the story of the people and communities that had to live with conflict daily – and are still dealing with its legacies today. A new trailer, due to be released this week, will feature several of these voices for the first time.

Commissioned for BBC Two, BBC Northern Ireland, iPlayer and PBS, the series comes from Bluemel and the team behind the series Once Upon a Time in Iraq.

Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland runs chronologically from the beginning of The Troubles in the late 1960s to the Belfast/ Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Interviewed at length about their experiences over a number of hours or days, it features men and women whose lives were changed forever by the conflict. From the son whose widowed mother is kidnapped by the IRA, to the man from a loyalist estate whose family secret challenges his beliefs, and the woman who agrees to plant firebombs, the contributors recall historic events and personal memories.

When the British Army arrives in Fiona’s hometown she’s initially excited. But that changes when her republican family are subjected to terrifying house searches by soldiers looking for hidden IRA weapons. Her world is decimated by Bloody Sunday and a decision made by a family member leads to tragedy.

In the 1970s there are few options for teenagers like Greg and Yvonne, as Belfast city centre is a no-go zone at night. They meet in a dilapidated pub where the punk scene offers an escape from the relentless violence. Greg forms his own band and goes on to marry Yvonne, despite their different religious backgrounds.

For many years June’s village in rural Northern Ireland seems a world away from the violence of Belfast. She marries her teenage sweetheart Johnnie but his decision to join the police force (Royal Ulster Constabulary) has devastating consequences.

Director James Bluemel explains why he chose Northern Ireland for his next project: “Hearing stories from Iraqis of how their friendships, families and neighbourhoods were ripped apart by sectarian killings, made me think about another sectarian conflict, one which was much nearer to home.

“Northern Ireland was always on the news when I was young – bombs, violence, murder and pain seemed to be ever present there. As an adult, I might have understood the broad politics behind the events, but I realised I had no idea how anyone in Northern Ireland really felt about living through that turbulent history.

“While interviewing for this series, I did not feel like I was hearing another well-worn rendition of The Troubles. I was hearing a spectrum of human emotions, contradictory and confusing but also real and searching. This was very different to how I think most of us outside of Northern Ireland have heard or understood this conflict before.

“Perhaps it’s the staging of the interview that is conducive to this deep dive into memory; the room is dark, the lights are unobtrusive, there is an informal quality to the interview space with little distinction made between where the interview begins and ends. Time in this room runs differently to the world outside, and contributors have the space to journey back into the past at their own rate.

“The people I interviewed for this series wanted to talk about their lives this way, they wanted this history to be told and they want to be heard. And I think it’s our job to listen.”

Eddie Doyle, Head of Commissioning, BBC Northern Ireland, says: “This extensive series puts a fresh lens on the legacies and events of The Troubles. It is a challenging subject that continues to affect everyday life for people in Northern Ireland. James Bluemel has approached the stories featured with great care and made a series that is both considered and compelling. With the 25th anniversary of the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement, it is a timely and important addition to other BBC programming on The Troubles.”

Clare Sillery, Head of Commissioning, Documentaries, says: “No matter how well you think you know the story, however close to home, a great documentary can bring a new perspective to the most jaded eye. In Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland James Bluemel – one of our most skilful film makers – has tackled the most complex of subjects by drawing us right inside the human experience. For decades we have heard about the conflict from the politicians, historians and journalists. Now, despite living for years under the received wisdom, ‘whatever you say, say nothing’, the people who lived it are sharing their stories.”

Bill Gardner, Vice President of Multiplatform Programming and Head of Development for PBS, says: “Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland is an extraordinarily intimate and affecting portrait of how events and actions of the past are measured in individual lives and collective memories. At the heart of every conflict are the people involved, and we are grateful to the courageous men and women who shared their personal stories with us. PBS is honoured to partner with James Bluemel, Keo Films, Walk on Air Films and our colleagues at BBC Two and BBC Northern Ireland to bring this deeply impactful and deeply human series to audiences across platforms.”

Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland (5×60) was commissioned by Clare Sillery, Head of Commissioning, Documentaries, and Eddie Doyle, Head of Content Commissioning, BBC Northern Ireland. The five-part series is a co-commission between BBC Northern Ireland and BBC Two for BBC and PBS in partnership with The Open University, co-produced by Keo Films and Walk on Air Films, and distributed by BBC Studios. It is due to premiere in all markets simultaneously later this spring.

The BBC Commissioning Editors are Hamish Fergusson and Mary McKeagney, the Executive Producers for Keo Films are Will Anderson and Andrew Palmer and the Series Producers are Vicky Mitchell and Rachel Hooper. Bill Gardner is the Executive in Charge for PBS.

Image: Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

Pippa Considine

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