Reeling in the Years


With the recent release of Reeling in the 90s, Conor Barry met up with one of the creators and producer of the show to get a history lesson on the show itself

Reeling in the Years is a bit of a televisual oddity. Popular across generations, it uniquely provides a type of entertaining history lesson. It is strange to think that it is one of RTÉ’s most popular programmes, but the broad audience demographic and general interest factor goes a long way to explaining this.

Reeling in the Years imageProducer John O’Regan describes the show in as straightforward a way as possible: “Reeling in the Years takes a year, takes some of the major events in news, current affairs, sport, politics, culture, entertainment and it combines them together with a soundtrack of pop music, hits from that year and with text captions to keep the viewer informed as to the content of what’s happening on screen.” His explanation is similar to the show: simple, but effective.

Condensing a year into half an hour is a significant undertaking, one that O’Regan is all too familiar with. “The basic way in which we make a programme hasn’t really changed since the beginning. On paper at least, you start out by looking at the major events of a given year. And you just make a list of the Irish and international events. I would also scan the charts for every single week of that year and pick the music that I think might be relevant, or massive hits that people will obviously know. But in particular I look for music that might match the story. RTÉ obviously owns a lot of its own footage and that would be drawn, like I say, from news, music, sport, entertainment.”

“We always thought that it was very important to include international stories to give a balance and a context to what was going on in Ireland at the time, so we buy in the rights to transmit footage. There’s obviously a limited budget on what you can afford. We hold the view that that’s a very important and desirable part of the programme to be able to include, [and] being able to show what’s going on internationally does balance the Irish material.”

With internet forums bursting with pleads for DVD releases of the different years, there is clearly a dedicated fanbase. I was curious to see if O’Regan had any theories for why it is such a hit. “I don’t think there’s any one reason. I think Reeling in the Years is quite a modest programme and I would be quite modest about it. It doesn’t use a presenter; it doesn’t use talking-head guests who interrupt the footage to tell you about their memories.”

“The strength of not having the presenter or guests for this kind of programme is that you don’t really get in the way of people’s own memories or their own experience of the moment that you’re showing them on television. Whether or not you remember it directly and where you were when you saw that happen or whether you can sit through it and say ‘crikey’ this is what my parents would have seen that night if they’d been watching television of that event.”

One of the most notable points about the show is the fantastically ironic use of music, providing this history show with a kind of comedy. “The music provides a pace,” explains O’Regan. “It provides a mood and a context, and it allows you to combine events that you normally wouldn’t combine together. For example, we don’t just stop the show to say ‘well, it was a big year for sport’ and do all the sport in one go and do all the politics in one go. If you have the right tune you can combine politics, sport and entertainment all in one go, and it gives you a different pace. Then the unseen hand, if you like, is the script which I would personally spend a long time writing.

“The script is to me the critical thing because it has to be very concise but, at the same time, if you don’t have your own personal memories or you don’t know what’s going on this is the key. This is the minimum of what you need to know to understand what’s going on in front of you. That to me is critical; the role of the script is to tee up the sequence of events. So I think because it doesn’t have a presenter or guests it doesn’t age in the same way. So programmes that were made in, say, 1999 or 2000, can still be shown again, because the year 1987 doesn’t fundamentally change, no matter how far away you get from it. Your view of it will. Another layer of events and time will have come upon it and it may affect your view of certain events, but the events themselves, a lot of them, are exactly as they were, and people’s view of them are exactly as they were. It can become your own programme, in a way, because certain years will mean certain things to certain people.”

With only half an hour to cover each year, clearly some stories will have to be left out. So how do the producers choose which parts to leave in? “It has to be selective and it’s done largely on instinct. There are some events you’ve just go to put in because they’re obvious. How we make it is we start with notes on paper and think that maybe this will fit with this and that will fit with the other. Or, because of the nature of hindsight, it can be something that was inadvertent at the time that has acquired significance beyond it.

“For example, a clip that is often talked about is Charlie Haughey discussing what he would do if he won the lottery in 1987, which is a perfectly reasonable comment to make at the time, he says, ‘Well, I’d give a bit to charity, I’d give a bit to sporting organisations and I’d keep a bit for myself.’ Obviously, because of events and revelations subsequent to it, it has a significance that goes far beyond what was transmitted in 1987. So sometimes it’s small things, and what you’re looking to do by assembling this is to balance entertainment and information, to balance Irish with international, to balance lighter with more serious content. You don’t really know how that’s going to work out until you put it together and see how the music in particular works with certain images.”

Clearly there’s an audience hungry for some more edutainment. What, if anything, is the future for Reeling in the Years? “Sometime next year we will go into production on a new series that will cover the noughties, the years 2000-2009. My view is that you can only make a series at the end of a decade.”

Having brought so much nostalgic joy to Ireland for years already, let’s hope RTÉ keeps up this tradition for many decades to come.

Reeling in the 90s is out now on DVD.