Television - Ignore the republican rebellion and enjoy the romance, advises Andrew Billen

If the Telegraphs and tabloids were hoping for screams of horror from their readers over Ronan Bennett's Rebel Heart (Sundays, 9pm, BBC1), they have been disappointed. No one in their right mind - not even Bennett - confuses the freedom fighters of 1916 with the Omagh bombers of today, and it is considerably easier, even for the most virulent unionist, to sympathise with the former rather than the latter. In ratings terms, the problem is not antipathy towards Irish republicans, but apathy. The day after the first episode, the papers were not full of stories about BBC switchboards being jammed: the gloomy reading for the new BBC1 boss, Lorraine Heggessey, came in an e-mail from the audience research board, the BARB, suggesting that ITV's rape caper The Innocent had thrashed Rebel Heart by nearly six million viewers. So it is good of the BBC to stage this four-part serial for the likes of us NS subscribers, who might just be (a) sympathetic and (b) interested - and graceless to note that between Neil Jordan's Michael Collins in 1996 and Roddy Doyle's novel A Star Called Henry in 1999, even we have had our fill of 1916-22.

The star of Rebel Heart is Ernie Coyne, a socially and sexually timid braveheart, played, a little quietly so far, by James D'Arcy. Unlike Doyle's Henry who rose, in his own phrase, from Dublin muck, the 18-year-old Ernie comes from a big house and a well-to-do family which may not even be Catholic. We first meet him on a tram, apparently on his way to work. When he emerges, however, we see he is carrying a rifle; he is on his way to join the assault on the city's GPO. Inside, like Doyle's Henry (who loses his cherry on a Consignia sorting counter), Ernie loses his heart to a girl, the mysterious Ita Feeney, who looks more like an Italian beauty than a lass from Belfast, and who becomes his tutor in the ways of sex and terrorism.

In the first episode, on 7 January, the drama pulled in the opposite directions of realism and romanticism. From the start, the morality of the 1916 revolt is called into question when the sergeant figure James Connolly, played by the always watchable Bill Paterson, mutters, like a Great War general: "We are going to our slaughter." The Marxist cynic, Tom O'Toole (Vincent Regan), says that, for him, the real issue is not the colour of the flag, but the colour of the ruling class's money. The plotters certainly do not have the undivided support of the population, least of all the wives of the soldiers on the Western Front, who are queuing up at the post office to get their benefits. One harridan tells Ernie to "piss off back to your mammy". The divisions within the republican movement became even more pronounced in the second instalment.

But the fighting, which filled 80 per cent of the first episode, was filmed in lush, rain-deepened blues and greens, and was accompanied by the usual ghastly pipes and harps that serenade anything Irish on television. By the time Ernie emerged from jail last Sunday, the uprising was already a romantic legend, with boy members asking Ernie if he had actually been in the GPO. This undoubtedly reflected the actual process of myth-making - it was greatly helped by the British army's brutal execution of the coup leaders (and we were not spared the firing squad) - but does not quite excuse the director, John Strickland, for earlier romanticising the violence on our behalf.

The great cheat here is to make Rebel Heart as much about heart as rebellion and to let the love story sell the history. Between bursts of rifle fire in episode one, Ernie and Ita exchange lusty glances. By episode two, they are canoodling on a park bench. He is not just pleased to see her: there really is a gun in his pocket. Ernie becomes Michael Collins's messenger. He is also Ronan Bennett's. Bennett assumes we will trust the pro-republican message because we like the envoy. The paradox is that the romance may be all we end up watching for. After all, we know how the history turned out.

Where the drama is succeeding is in creating a series of contrasting domestic milieus for its central characters. Ernie comes from a home of starched shirts and starched table-cloths, where even double voting is considered beyond the pale. Tom's family home, by contrast, is dark, noisy, chaotic. The happiest house, a synthesis of the two, is Ita's in Belfast, where Ernie is doomed to be teased by her sister as he takes his first meal with her family. The warmth generated by this family dining scene was so intense that, when later that night the police broke into the house to massacre the men, I wondered for a moment if we were not in a dream sequence. Rebel Heart shocked me out of my complacency at this point.

This curiously British exercise in self-flagellation is not about to ask us to waste our sympathies on the English forces. Even on the parade ground, the troops are filmed in a series of brutal short takes, quite unlike the reverential pans awarded the rebels. But the scaremongers can relax. To inspire a new generation of IRA recruits, Rebel Heart would itself have to be inspired.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the great cover-up