BBC Diversity on Screen: The Venus De Milo Instead
by Katy FIELD for the Northern Ireland Foundation
27 July 2014
The Venus De Milo Instead originated as a 1987 television drama produced by local writer, Anne Devlin, about the experiences of a young Catholic teacher working in a Protestant school during the 1980s. The screening, shown at the Ulster Museum last Sunday, was held in conjunction with the museum’s current Arts of the Troubles exhibition.
The first drama of the series, The Venus De Milo Instead could be appreciated on two levels. Firstly, as a painfully accurate portrayal of secondary school life, filled with teenage pranks, crushes on the opposite sex and smoking in the cleaner’s cupboard. Secondly, since the theme of the Troubles was omnipresent, the drama acted as a snapshot of the pervasive, casual sectarianism in our society.
The Venus De Milo Instead was prompted by Devlin’s own teaching experiences as a Catholic teacher working in a Protestant secondary school in Bushmills during the 1970s. Born in Belfast in 1951, and the daughter of Paddy Devlin, the founder of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), politics was an ever-present aspect of Devlin’s childhood and adolescence. Her experiences in education suffused the drama, and were particularly apparent in the dialogue, which encapsulated both the tedium and humour of school life. Over the course of 60 minutes, The Venus De Milo Instead included moments of great hilarity. The audience – whose ages ranged from those of college age to those whose schooldays were a distant memory – were united by their outbursts of laughter.
The story culminated in a school trip to Paris, its bright lights and culture intended to open the eyes of these unsophisticated North Antrim teenagers. The journey was not without its mishaps – the pupils spike the teachers’ drinks with poitin and a union jack is flown from the back of the coach. The story also captures the gaucheness of youth. Aboard the Rosslare to France ferry, two of the Protestant schoolgirls appear unaware that their new friends ‘Gerry Adams’ and ‘Martin McGuinness’ may be using pseudonyms.
Addressing the audience before the drama, Anne Devlin described how education, travel and art were vital components in breaking down cultural barriers. All these elements are contained in The Venus De Milo Instead. The narrator, Tracy, reflects on how her experiences in Paris are so unlike those of her mother, who works in a chicken processing plant back in Northern Ireland. Yet, once again, Devlin approaches these broad topics with humour and dexterity. Unable to see the Mona Lisa, Tracy is resigned to see ‘the Venus De Milo, instead’.
Throughout the play, a relationship slowly develops between Mrs Grey and her class of particularly challenging pupils. Prompted by both their intolerant parents and local gossip, the pupils initially believe the new teacher to be ‘a spy sent by the IRA’. However, over the course of the year, a grudging respect develops for Mrs Grey, and in turn, the country-dwelling pupils instil an appreciation of nature in their new teacher.
The Venus De Milo Instead will be shown again on 20th August and 24th September. It is just one of a number of film screenings being shown at the Ulster Museum this summer. To find out more about forthcoming events, visit: https://nmni.com/um/What-s-on/Events/Diversity-on-Screen–BBC-Archive-Events—The-Venu