Appellate Judge James A. Stewart didn't drink any green beer on St. Patty's Day, but he did watch a couple of episodes of Ballykissangel.
Our reviews of Ballykissangel: Series One (published February 14th, 2004), Ballykissangel: Series Two (published February 14th, 2004), Ballykissangel: Series Five (published March 7th, 2007), and Ballykissangel: Series Six (published September 12th, 2007) are also available.
"I think this place is the beating heart of Ballykissangel…You'll
kill this place stone dead with your fine wine and fine food and fine
In Ballykissangel: Series Three, one major character died in a freak accident and another crept away into the mountains. Thus, as Ballykissangel: Series Four begins, the quiet mountain town is having a repopulation explosion. With one of the newcomers unwelcome, another skirting legal problems, and an attractive woman turning out to be too welcome, the tranquil town's atmosphere really could become explosive—or at least as explosive as a modern-day Brigadoon in a gentle BBC comedy-drama can become.
Facts of the Case
"All Bar One," the first episode in this season set, opens with a car speeding toward Ballykissangel, nearly crashing into a sign post as Liam and Donal paint over it to obscure the town's name. It pulls up in front of the Dillon farm fence, blocking the road as its owner gets out to open up the fence that hasn't been opened in years. Caught waiting is Niamh Quigley Egan (Tina Kellegher, Scarlett), who's returning from market with her young son.
"Nobody lives there," she tells the man as he opens the fence.
"That's right. Nobody does," he answers.
The village of Ballykissangel is abuzz, since the auction of Fitzgerald's Pub is slated for today. Will it remain the mainstay of the small Irish community, or become "an interior designer's idea of an Irish pub"? The crowd of potential bidders is making the villagers nervous—particularly one Mrs. Mooney, who has some decidedly upscale ideas for the place. They're even rooting for Brian Quigley (Tony Doyle, Band of Gold), a businessman whose brash ideas normally make him an unpopular personage among the villagers.
One person isn't rooting for Brian—Niamh's husband Ambrose (Peter Hanly, Braveheart). If Brian wins the pub bid, Niamh will end up running Fitzgerald's. Aside from the demands on her time, it also will mean living above the pub, which is bad for Ambrose's image as village constable.
Ballykissangel is also getting a new priest, Father Aidan O'Connell (Don Wycherley, Scarlett), who has been living in a self-sufficient monastery and isn't used to dealing with his basic needs or the needs of a flock of congregants, especially one as quirky as this one. He's proceeded by his sister Orla (Victoria Smurfit, About a Boy, Bulletproof Monk), a head-turning blonde who has been out hiking the world and developing some New Age ideas. She's also, as Niamh puts it, developing a legion of "adoring fans" among the menfolk in BallyK (as fans call the show and its village).
Back at the Dillon farm, the newcomer turns out to be Sean Dillon (Lorcan Cranitch, Rome, Dancing at Lughnasa), who left town at age 16. "When I left here, there were very few sorry to see me go. And there are fewer still happy to see me back," he says. It seems his father was an unscrupulous businessman who ran up people's debts and took their land. Some Ballyk residents see his land as their land, and were hoping he'd never return to reclaim it.
That's not even the complete roster of newcomers. Episode Three, "Bread and Water," brings Emma Dillon (Kate McEnery, Hollyoaks), Sean's daughter, to a village where she can't even buy smokey bacon crisps. She's having a tough time getting used to the lack of electricity and other hardships until Sean gets the farmhouse up and running.
If you've read the cast list, you'll note that Episode Four brings a now-famous visitor to BallyK. In 1998, however, movie star Colin Farrell (Phone Booth, Daredevil) was TV newcomer Col Farrell. He played Danny Byrne, who rides into the village on a horse he's hiding from the government because he has no place to stable it. It's no spoiler to point out that Danny and Emma will soon be a twosome, despite the grudge against the Dillons that his Uncle Eamon (Birdie Sweeney, Space Truckers) nurses.
Ballykissangel: Season Four has 12 episodes of 48 minutes each—a good run, considering that British shows have been known to deliver as few as six segments in a set:
• "All But One"
Whether you're new to BallyK, or a Fitzgerald's regular, it's best to watch these episodes in order. Some situations are resolved in each episode, but it's easier to keep track of the characters (more than 20) and situations if you watch them as they originally unfolded.
Wondering how Col Farrell did in his first major outing? He plays the typical troubled teen who rides into town to shake up an aging TV series. Not quite the Fonz with a brogue, but Danny Byrne is cast from the same moldy mold. As the character softens, viewers will see a likeable presence. But if you didn't know how Farrell turns out later, he wouldn't stand out here.
Lorcan Cranitch, Tina Kellegher, and Don Wycherley take center stage as the villagers around whom the series revolves. As the center of conflict, Cranitch portrays Dillon as a good guy with a touch of steel. He's believable as both a black sheep and a concerned, overprotective father. Kellegher's Niamh usually is caught between the conflicting demands of her father, her husband, her pub, and her generally good nature that gets her involved in adventures, like her emergency stint as a midwife. Wycherley's curate seems childlike but isn't a fool. When dealing with parish problems, he's initially baffled, but he shows a core of honesty and compassion. He still can't call bingo and has to be bailed out by his sister, though.
Tony Doyle gets the show's most caricatured material as Brian Quigley, the plotting businessman who always has a vision of change and progress, but often sees the error of his ways by the end of an episode. While Ballykissangel bears a lot of similarities to the American Northern Exposure, Brian is the only character who is written too close to his Alaskan counterpart (Maurice, of course). Like many an actor playing Ebenezer Scrooge or his many cinematic cousins, he doesn't seem completely realistic, but works in moments that make his Brian human and even likeable. Victoria Smurfit's Orla isn't defined that well, either, but she makes the New Age wanderer into a friendly character, showing her maternal side as she fusses over kid brother Aidan. Watching these two characters in action as Orla quickly becomes a confidant to Brian is entertaining, but leaves me thinking that their alliance is too much like "reel" life.
Throughout the season, supporting characters get their chances to shine. Peter Caffrey as Padraig O'Kelly is memorable as he tries to piece together an evening lost to drink in "Rock Bottom." Diedre Donnelly as vet Siobhan and Gary Whelan as Brendan are touching as the couple who become accidental parents at middle age. Even Frankie McCafferty as Donal, a comic relief lackey to Brian's blustering schemes, gets a star turn in "The Odd Couple," in which he seems to be hiding a romance, but turns out to have had a soft spot for a circus bear about to be put down.
Like Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon in A Prairie Home Companion monologues, Ballykissangel has a subtly etched dark side that you wouldn't expect. Out-of-wedlock births, alcoholism, horse theft, drug dealers, vandalism, and family feuds all are resident in Ballyk. Still, the villagers band together when someone's in need and their problems generally have happy resolutions.
The look of Ballykissangel is gorgeous. Characters ponder and reflect, looking out over the beautiful terrain around BallyK all the time—and no wonder. The rippling water, meadows, mountains, and sandy beaches will make most viewers dream of Ballykissangel—or rather Avoca in County Wicklow, where the series was filmed. The colors are soft and gentle, helping to shape the show's dreamlike image of the coastal village. Although I'm not sold on the idea of widescreens for TV shows, the scenic backdrops on Ballykissangel, in HDTV-friendly 1.78:1, are even more panoramic and picturesque in the wider format. A gentle score comes through equally well and helps paint that picture of BallyK's tranquility with music.
The eye for detail in the camera work, while usually put to use in showcasing the Irish scenery, turns up elsewhere as well. Take Father Aidan's first visit to a supermarket after years in a monastery, in which he's stumped by the fruit scale and shocked by the high prices. Panoramic POV shots make the market feel massive, letting the audience into Aidan's feelings of panic. Dark, shadowy shots were effective as contrast in the episode about Padraig's bender, even though the colors bled slightly on this transfer.
The main bonus here is a brief BBC interview with Victoria Smurfit from 1998. Turns out she was a Ballykissangel fan herself, and, she says, had to tell herself "this is not Quigley, this is Tony. This is not Niamh, this is Tina" when she went for a reading. She also got teased a lot in school, since her name's a Smurfs swear word. The chipper host suggests that her Orla was the new character who most resonated with fans during the initial BBC airing of these Ballykissangel segments. There are also bios on key cast members, including Colin Farrell (just in case you don't know who he is) and the late Tony Doyle.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I spotted a subplot lifted from Northern Exposure in one of these. Don't the scenes where the pub staff becomes addicted to a foreign soap when they get a satellite dish look awfully familiar?
Sometimes Ballykissangel gets a little sudsy itself, by the way. During Series Four, I found myself looking forward to each episode to see what happens to these people next, but was disappointed at the end by the sad tone of a finale that sets up conflicts for Series Five.
Did I miss anything? Probably. There's a lot unfolding in the village of BallyK. Enjoy, but be careful: The plots look shallow, but there's a deep undercurrent here and there.
Not guilty. Perhaps it would be best to start with Ballykissangel: Series One, but this season of change seems like a good place to jump in as well, and a patient viewer will learn to recognize the large cast quickly. The scenery doesn't hurt, either.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Cast Biographies
Review content copyright © 2006 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.