Meet Nancy Harris – the award-winning Irish playwright and screenwriter behind new TV series The Dry
01st Mar 2023
The Dry is like a warm, complicated hug … You’ll laugh, you may cry a little, and you’ll definitely cringe at times … but you’re bound to fall head over heels for the characters. The eight-part television series stars Roisin Gallagher as Shiv, a woman recovering from alcoholism who returns home to Dublin from London to face a family who are less than supportive of her sobriety (and have their own crosses to bear). Before it airs Wednesday night, Nancy Harris – the award-winning Irish playwright and screenwriter who created the show – talks to Meg Walker about this deeply personal project that took more than six years to bring to the screen.
Portrait by Lee Malone.
What are you hoping audiences will take away from the series?
That it’s not just about addiction, but about a family, and someone who is trying to change. While it was important to tell the addiction part truthfully and compassionately, I did think it would be awful if it just became a show about addiction. It’s about life, and we’re all in pain, we’re all trying to survive, and we don’t all make brilliant choices. I felt it was important that the older characters were as interesting and dynamic and alive and rebellious as the younger ones. I feel very lucky with the cast because they’re all craftspeople. Roisin Gallagher gives a phenomenal performance. I was thinking, are we going to find someone who can be funny and deep and sad and messy? Sometimes addiction can be there because you feel too much, and Roisin really brought that out. We see that in Shiv’s sobriety – her sensitivity and vulnerability. Part of me was wondering, was the drink a way of being able to cope and not feel so much? I think that’s a big part of addiction.
How do you find the writing process for TV versus the stage?
They are different, but it’s a bit like maths – you sort of use a different part of your brain. Playwrights can be as visual as anyone else. I just let the characters lead me in the story. The camera is so intimate – you can get something from an expression that you can’t get on the stage; but in terms of storytelling or character backstory, it’s probably the same process. You have to know the characters inside-out. Character is the thing that most drives me as a writer… character and image – I always start with an image when I think of a story.
You grew up in Dublin and live in London, and the series addresses that idea of coming back to Ireland having lived away…
That’s where the show becomes very personal to me. It’s about somebody who’s been outside for over a decade and has failed; the one success she has is this sobriety that is the very thing that doesn’t seem to be appreciated by her family. As an Irish person, I miss home so much; and yet, when I’m there, I’m no longer fully a part of it. I don’t really belong here and I don’t really belong there. You’re always an outsider. And I think, when you give up something like drink, when you can never be part of that again, you are an outsider. Whatever happens, Shiv can never drink normally. It’s almost banal, but it’s massive. Alcohol is everywhere, it’s part of everything. It’s how we commiserate, how we console, how we celebrate… and I don’t think we should be afraid to talk about it.
With Element Pictures and Paddy Breathnach behind the project, did you feel it was in safe hands?
The whole project was six years in development – I pitched it in 2016. I had been working with Element Pictures and had a strong relationship with them, particularly Emma Norton, the producer, so I pitched the idea to them and they were just amazing … they never gave up on it. Paddy [Breathnach] is one of Ireland’s greatest directors and to have all his experience, artistry and generosity was huge. I was so nervous about handing it over and then I just had the perfect person who’s the most wonderful collaborator. We talked in depth about the characters so that allowed me to know that he understood, and him to know that if he wanted to push something, I would be open to it. It was very intense because we had nine months before production. Because I’d been working on it for so long, it was the biggest thing I’ve ever had to hand over. And it felt very personal in lots of ways. I feel so lucky that it was Paddy and Element. Element have such trust in artists – they allow you to do the thing that might feel a bit dangerous… and they encourage it. It was important to find all the right people, so that it wasn’t going to be changed from what we wanted to make, which was essentially a show about a family… one that was unsentimental, but was funny and had a heart, but did have a dark humour. You might not love the characters initially, but then, hopefully, you get to understand them; and the more you understand the person or character, the more empathy you might have.
The Dry airs on RTÉ One Wednesday, March 1 at 9.35pm with all episodes streaming on RTÉ Player.