THE COURIER: NOT TONIGHT, JOE SAVINO

The 1988 Irish film ‘The Courier’ hasn’t aged at all well. And certainly, nowhere as well as some of its cast, among which were Gabriel Byrne and Patrick Bergin, newcomer Padraig O Loingsigh and Cáit O’Riordan, a one time-member of The Pogues. Written and directed by Frank Deasy and shot on location in Dublin, the threadbare script and basic storyline, alongside a couple of woefully wooden performances, just don’t serve its cause. But for all that, ‘The Courier’ is still an interesting, independently made piece of work that’s worthy of consideration: for our purposes here, it’s loaded with contemporary music references and popular cultural asides.

‘The Courier’ – not to be confused with the recent Dominic Cooke film of the same name, starring Benedict Cumberbatch – is a crime thriller with notions of grittiness. With a nod to Mickey Rourke’s character in Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Rumble Fish’, a reformed drug user with a conscience, Mark [O Loingsigh], is now working Dublin city’s streets on a motorcycle, picking-and delivering packages, in and out of local businesses on the drop. He discovers that the company for which he works, D-Day Couriers, is a front for a drug distribution network run by his boss, Val [‘the junkies’ pal’], played by Byrne. After which he plots revenge for the over-dose of the brother of his love interest, a gormless bank teller, Colette Adams [O’Riordan], with whom he has been re-united. The film ends when Val is taken out by a trigger-happy detective from the Drug Squad with menace in his eyes played, in the great traditions of these things, by Leo from Fair City [Dave Duffy].

That ‘The Courier’ managed to attract the likes of Byrne and Bannen into its number speaks for the powers of persuasion of the small production company behind the film, City Vision. Distributors Stephen Woolley and Nik Powell, the British businessman who, in the early 1970s, set-up Virgin Records with Richard Branson, are credited as Executive Producers alongside Neil Jordan. The Sligo-born director had, by this stage in his own career, already made ‘Company of Wolves’, ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘Angel’. In Padraig O Loingsigh [sic], ‘The Courier’ brought another emerging male lead from the ranks of Dublin’s burgeoning fringe theatre circuit, which is worth a broader over-view of its own. And with Elvis Costello across the original soundtrack, which was scored by Fiachra Trench, it’s not as if the film isn’t without promise, at least not on paper.

At a remove of thirty-odd years it’s easy to be cynical about how ‘The Courier’ looks and sounds: for starters, the credits list reads like a typical social column in the Sunday Independent in the late 1980s. But there’s an unflinching honk of optimism from it too. Despite the economic cliff over which the country had been driven blindly, this decade was as productive and industrious for Irish film production as it was for fledgling theatre and popular music: the 1980s ended with Jim Sheridan’s ‘My Left Foot’ snaring a couple of Oscars. But even by comparison with some of the other notable Irish movies of the time, like ‘Lamb’, ‘Cal’ and even Joe Comerford’s ‘The Reefer and the Model’ and John Kelleher’s ‘Eat the Peach’, ‘The Courier’ fades badly.

Back in 1984, myself and a friend fetched up at the Classic cinema on Washington Street in Cork to see Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads’ live concert film, ‘Stop Making Sense’. And our under-nourished teenage minds were blown by how the music came to life so spectacularly – courtesy of a captivating David Byrne performance captured magnificently by his director – and then washed all over us from the big screen and outwards onto the sticky floor. We’d both dabbled with Talking Heads since we saw the ‘Once In A Lifetime’ clip on Top of the Pops years previously, but ‘Stop Making Sense’ just consummated the affair: David Byrne had now assumed the status of a deity.

Bizarre as it sounds but I felt much the same after I saw ‘The Courier’ in, I think, the narrow confines of the Lee Cinema at the top of Winthrop Street. Wrapped up with what, at the time, I thought to be an excellent home-grown soundtrack, and with a decent enough cast on-screen and off of it, I couldn’t believe how glamourous the whole thing was. Here was an actual big-screen feature film that show-cased the sights, sounds and smells of a world I absolutely wanted into. A world that was a three-hour train journey away. 

The numerous general views of people, places, buildings and streets in and around the middle of Dublin city only amplified its lustre: even the old double-decker buses whiffed of something exotic. But of course, in the cold light of morning, ‘The Courier’ only really reminds us exactly how brutalist, and perhaps just plain brutal, the capital city actually looked during the late 1980s. This was a period immediately before the state invested so heavily into the development of an Irish Financial Services Centre and the eventual re-imagination of the whole area around Sherriff Street and down into the docklands. And when the height of architectural sophistication in Dublin city was The Irish Life Shopping Mall that connected Talbot Street with Abbey Street, where one of the scenes in ‘The Courier’ is shot. Whip away the music and what, really, is left?

Notwithstanding my own biases in this regard, the film borrows several stylistic cues from Gerry Gregg’s timeless promo for Philip Lynott’s ‘Old Town’ and, like that short television clip shot six years previously, ‘The Courier’ uses the city as a central character. The sunlight-kissed scenes shot in The Swan Bar on Aungier Street mirror those captured by Gregg in The Long Hall – located literally down the road – in the Lynott clip. Gregg’s closing shot on the pier at Dun Laoghaire – and the sense that, somewhere out there, but not here, dreams do come true – is replicated in Deasy’s closer here, which is a tracking two-shot along Dollymount Strand. And in which the male and female lead ponder one of the most relevant questions of the day: emigration and the search for a better life somewhere else.  

So too the use of general views of Dublin and the numerous faces that are scattered throughout the eighty-odd minutes of ‘The Courier’. The film opens with a series of shots of young locals going about their business, many of them replete with the mullet-and-tache combo that was, sadly, all too familiar a sight across Ireland during this time. Under shots of the twin stacks at Poolbeg, the imposing Liberty Hall and a spartan-looking docklands, a sinewy, brass-led track by Lord John White – trading these days as Sack – leads us into the first interior scene at D-Day Couriers. ‘Jimmy McCarthy … is having a party’, sings Martin McCann over a bouncing soul riff that pre-empts a stylistic tone that would hall-mark Alan Parker’s film, ‘The Commitments’, when it was released three years later.

‘Inching closer and closer to the Number One spot in The Irish charts’, intones a peculiar sounding radio presenter: ‘Lord John White … ‘Kill the One You Love’. The voice is Dave Fanning’s, then as now one of the least likely disc jockeys in the country, forever resident on the outer fringes of the national radio schedules where he has long championed emerging new music. For reasons not immediately apparent – it’s either an in-joke that falls flat or some because of some legal or copyright reason –Fanning’s voice has been distorted in the dub to sound like he’s over-done it on the helium balloons. Deasy uses the vacuous waffle of a typical, mid-morning radio host to drive the film’s narrative at key points and Fanning makes a number of off-camera appearances throughout the film: in one scene he reads the day’s horoscopes. Elsewhere, a host of Irish popular music’s best-known outfits, all of whom would have enjoyed the patronage of Fanning’s show on late-night national radio, are having their moments.

‘The Courier’ showcases the work of a number of then-emerging Irish groups – Wexford’s Cry Before Dawn, Too Much For The Whiteman from Tuam and Dublin’s Something Happens and Hothouse Flowers among them – and the official soundtrack was given a general release by Virgin Records. To which U2 provided ‘Walk To The Water’, an airy, low-key cut recorded by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois as part of the ‘Joshua Tree’ sessions – and released as a B-side to ‘With Or Without You’ – that added a sense of glamour and no little critical heft to the soundscape.

Elsewhere, another well-known group from the same part of Dublin, Aslan, contribute ‘The Courier: A Dangerous Game’. Aslan were one of the best-known of the numerous Irish bands who followed in U2’s slipstream and had recently released a fine first album, ‘Feel No Shame’, for the EMI label. Given the film’s plotline, it’s worth noting that Christy Dignam, Aslan’s lead singer and spiritual leader, had already been sacked by his bandmates because of his drug use before the film opened in Irish cinemas.  

Another distinctive local curiosity also makes a short but memorable cameo: Toni O’Neill, the Dublin housewife and mother-of-two who performed exotic dance routines at pubs around Dublin to fund music lessons for her children. Known more commonly as Toni the Exotic Dancer, her exploits in Dublin suburban boozers were covered regularly in the pages of The Sunday World newspaper. Here, Toni frenzily shakes her ample chest for leering punters in a dimly lit public house as a violent assault breaks out around her.  

Gabriel Byrne’s character, Val, also takes us into the seedier side of Dublin’s nightlife. Val is a gay man with a fondness for rent-boys, a fact not lost on his nemesis, a drawly detective, McGuigan, played by the late Scottish actor, Ian Bannen, who turned up in several Irish productions during this time. Val’s sexual proclivities aren’t lost on McGuigan, drawn in the hangdog likeness of Jim Taggart. In one late-night scene, Val picks up a young male prostitute, played by another emerging Irish actor, Aiden Gillen. Last year, Gillen himself played the role of a local drug lord, Frank Kinsella, in a high-profile RTÉ crime drama series called ‘Kin’. Frank Kinsella too was a gay man who consorted regularly with prostitutes before over-dosing in a cocaine frenzy.

No review of ‘The Courier’ is complete, though, without reference to a most bizarre role played by Joe Savino, then a young local actor who often turned up playing piano in one of the late-night wine bars off of Grafton Street. Savino plays a film editor and keen drugs enthusiast and, in the two scenes in which he appears, his character – credited as ‘Editor’ – is clearly off his gourd, frantically spooling through timelines as he cuts a couple of pop promos. ‘Video never sleeps’, Editor tells the courier, who disturbs him at work in a neon-lit cutting room as he’s busily patching together a music video for ‘Love Don’t Work This Way’, the breakthrough single by The Hothouse Flowers. ‘The next U2’, he quips to his visitor, ‘except they have chicks’.

Editor is a creative young tyro in demand and, pumped up on bump, is also cutting a promo for ‘Burn Clear’, the excellent debut single by Something Happens. In another scene, he provides a pithy critical assessment to his courier, who has just completed another snow drop. ‘Great body, great rhythm’, is his frank, four-word review of Something Happens, although it isn’t completely clear if he’s referring to ‘Burn Clear’ or to the band’s vocalist, Tom Dunne.

Something Happens also contribute a second track to the score: as our hero, Mark – the avenging courier – is busily applying fake bruising to his arms before he attempts to pull off a deceptive coup on an unsuspecting dealer, a driving Happens cut, ‘She Came From There’, plays in the background. Elsewhere, the soundtrack is completed by an Elvis Costello-composed suite of instrumental material, credited to his real-name, Declan MacManus.

At a distance of almost 35 years, the joins in ‘The Courier’ are far too apparent, a reflection of a lack of budget and, it has to be said, more pressing issues with scripting and casting. Like much of the television produced in Ireland during this period, it just hasn’t lasted the course. But it’s a spirited film in its own way too and it certainly can’t be faulted for ambition. It’s also an important companion piece to the breadth of emerging new music in Ireland at the time. And as a big-screen capture of much of the country’s creative under-belly during what was, on many levels, an appalling decade, ‘The Courier’ is another useful piece of popular cultural archive.

2 thoughts on “THE COURIER: NOT TONIGHT, JOE SAVINO

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  1. Thanks for that. Was talking to my mate about that film earlier in the year. Didn’t think anyone else would’ve remembered it. Part of it was filmed down the road from us. By the time it had come out we were in London having joined everyone else in the great emigration – we went along to the cinema somewhere round Earl’s Court one bleak afternoon in March and watched it in an otherwise empty house. I like The Commitments (daft as the film was) for its excellent recording/depiction of how Dublin looked, dressed and behaved. Must look this one up to see if this does the same trick.

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