A Cork man was instrumental in coming up with the concept for the popular RTÉ series Reeling in the Years.
The show, which is broadcast every Sunday night on RTÉ One, takes a nostalgic look back at a different year every week and is constantly amongst the highest-ranked shows on TV.
Its archive footage, a mixture of light and heavy stories both nationally and internationally, combined with well-known songs from each particular year all ensure it is a hugely popular show.
John O’Regan who joined RTÉ as a producer/director in 1998, pitched the idea to fellow Cork man, the late Kevin Lenihan who was Head of Entertainment and seeking fresh inspiration, as John recalls.
“My boss Kevin Lenihan asked me for a few ideas. I gave him a few and one of them was Reeling In The Years. I took the inspiration from a Granada programme called The Rock and Goal Years. This concept took the music from a certain year and mixed it with soccer highlights in a 30-minute programme,” he said.
“Kevin gave the go-ahead to a pilot in 1998,” he said.
“They liked it and we made the first series in 1999. We started with the year 1980. We have subsequently done all the decades going back to the 1960s. This series is bringing us up to the current era,” Mr O’Regan said.
The Lissarda native has worked in television for more than 30 years, making programmes for ITV, BBC, Channel 4, and RTÉ. John said he always had a love for films which intensified during his college years in UCC.
“I studied English and French in UCC in the mid-1980s. I was involved with the Film Society. I was also doing film reviews for the college magazine and I was working during the summer at both Cork and Dublin Film Festivals. In the late 1980s, I was lucky enough to get a job working for Granada Television in Manchester.
“My first week as a trainee director was on Coronation Street. I shadowed the main director, it was great to learn how all the process worked.”
The 56-year-old spent several years in Granada TV’s News and Current Affairs departments, directing live news and making documentaries for the World In Action and Network First series. He worked in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. He also directed ITV’s 1997 British General Election campaign debate programmes.
His other British TV credits include entertainment programmes like This Morning with Richard and Judy, The Krypton Factor, and The Russ Abbot Show. He has great memories of his time in the UK.
“I started off as a production scriptwriter making the 30-second trailers in between programmes. You learn how to make miniature sequences for TV and you learn how broadcasting works. It was a great experience. I got to train as a director with Granada. I worked on a lot of current affairs and news programmes. I worked on a lot of live TV. I worked in documentaries and I did light entertainment shows.”
The producer moved back to Ireland when he started working with RTÉ in 1998. His RTÉ credits include all six series of Reeling In The Years along with The Late Late Show (2000-01), You’re A Star (2003), and Tubridy Tonight (2004-06).
He said he loves working on Reeling in the Years.
“The programme resonates with people of all ages. I am amazed at its success. I would never have thought it would endure the way it has. It is very nice to see that people have a real affection for it. People connect with the events. The lack of a presenter and the way we use music is very important to connect events.
“There was a deliberate effort to make it accessible for different generations to watch the show. Children can ask their parents who are remembering the events themselves and grandparents are also on hand to help with any queries. The script and the captions are very important as they give the right amount of context.
“The viewing numbers have been very strong once again in this series. This is the first series we have broadcast in the summer, but thankfully the numbers have held up very well. It is nice to see there is a great connection with the audience,” he added.
Mr O’Regan said the editing process can be difficult due to the sheer volume of stories from a particular year on a global basis. “There are three of us working full-time on the show. Two researchers and I. We also have a video editor. The difficulty is what you leave out. At the end of every programme, I look at all the items which didn’t make it in and I am always surprised that we can’t get more in. There are significant stories left out every year. Sometimes we can’t find a tune to go with a certain story which is why a certain story was not included. The show is only 30 minutes long and you have to be conscious not to squeeze too much in. We need to keep the viewer engaged.
“It deliberately foregrounds Irish music. People have a connection to music and it resonates. For any given year, I make a list of 50/60 songs to start with. In an average show, we can feature eight to 11 songs and maybe 25 to 34 different stories. There is no fixed rule.
“We try to find a blend between Irish and foreign stories, between serious and non-serious stories and sporting highlights. It also comes down to the amount of footage we can afford. We use footage from dozens of different companies which involves licensing and copyright. By the end of this series, we will have made 58 episodes. I think it is popular because people can connect their life experience to the various stories which appear on the screen.
“We always strive to make sure people who have moved to Ireland or weren’t born when a certain year is broadcast are able to understand the stories which are unfolding. It is just a selection of events in a particular year. It works as it is an alternative to official history,” he added.
Mr O’Regan was appointed executive producer for Current Affairs Special Events in 2006, overseeing RTÉ’s planning and production of large-scale TV outside broadcast projects. This has included live TV results coverage for the last four general elections; party conferences, Budgets, and Referendum results coverage since 2007; the presidential elections and inaugurations in 2011 and 2018; Queen Elizabeth II and president Obama’s visit to Ireland; the state visit of President Higgins to the UK; and the 1916 Rising centenary commemorations.
The Cork man said he loves the flexibility in his job. “I would also direct in the studio on occasion. I have a great variety in my job. You have to be flexible.”
Mr O’Regan who lives in Dublin with his wife Georgina and their two sons Sean and Luke is looking forward to visiting his family in Cork now the restrictions are eased.
“My parents still live in Lissarda. I am looking forward to seeing them. I can’t wait to spend more time in Cork,” he said.