When it comes to cinema, stories about loyalists have been few and far between.
The situation has been slightly better, though, on the small screen.
Graham Reid’s ‘The Billy Plays,’ Mike Leigh’s ‘Four Days in July’ and Gary Mitchell’s ‘As the Beast Sleeps,’ all brought loyalist voices to primetime TV drama over the years.
Those plays, however, were only watched outside of Northern Ireland by audiences willing to engage with dramas about a conflict most people in England, Scotland, Wales and the Irish Republic found alien and depressing.
Dramas about nationalist and republican characters also struggled to find mass appeal.
However the success of Lisa McGee’s ‘Derry Girls’
has suggested British and international audiences are willing to engage with sitcoms that are not afraid to poke fun at the ridiculousness of the divisions in this society.
The acclaim McGee’s sitcom has received has undoubtedly prompted Channel 4 to take a punt on a sitcom pilot set in a Belfast loyalist housing estate.
Dave Elliott and William Thompson’s ‘William of Orangedale’ has arrived on the channel’s All 4 streaming service, ready to be road tested under its Comedy Blaps strand.
Could this be East Belfast’s answer to ‘Derry Girls’?
Will it be able to hit on a winning formula that can appeal to audiences beyond Northern Ireland?
Can the show also rescue loyalism from the jarring caricatures of Uncle Andy and Red Hand Luke in the execrable BBCNI Hole of the Gang sitcom ‘Give My Head Peace’?
‘William of Orangedale’ begins predictably enough, with director Eoin Cleland giving his viewers establishing shots of the Harland and Wolff cranes, the King Billy mural on Sandy Row, painted kerbstones and Union flags.
But from the off, it is clear that Elliott and Thompson are not setting their sights on it being the loyalist answer to ‘Derry Girls’.
If anything, their pilot is more focused on creating the East Belfast equivalent of ‘The Young Offenders’.
Like that show, it’s a tongue in cheek contemporary tale about working class youths getting into scrapes with colourful characters on their housing estate.
And like that show, one of the main characters, Thompson’s cerebral palsy sufferer William is the narrator, guiding his audience through the quirks of life on the Orangedale estate.
William’s narration is full of attitude, with him declaring: “The Orangedale estate in the sweaty a**e crack of East Belfast, everyone says it’s a s**thole – which it is.
“But doesn’t everyone love their own sh**hole?”
Realising how weird that observation sounds, William catches himself.
“Wait no, no, that didn’t come out right…”
When we first see him, he is hanging out in an alleyway at night, trying to catch the attention of his best mate, Parnell Scott’s Matty.
As Matty demonstrates his silky football skills, William’s brother, Louis McCartney’s Nathan, is also mulling about.
Nathan ridicules his brother’s pleas to Matty to pass the ball to him, arguing he is hardly going to give the ball to someone with a “club foot”.
Matty, who is well meaning but not very bright, is appalled and tells Nathan off for denigrating someone with Downs Syndrome.
When William corrects him and tells him he cerebral palsy, Matty thinks he has a new condition.
When the ball is eventually passed to William, he hoofs it into a neighbouring house and they sneak into the back yard to retrieve it.
As they do so, they spot their former babysitter dancing inside the living room and are unsure how she might react if she sees the three of them wandering around the back yard like Peeping Toms among the gnomes.
Eventually frustrated by Matty and Nathan’s inaction, William decides to takes control of the situation and grabs a stone to catch her attention.
However he breaks an upstairs window.
Panicking, the trio leg it with the outraged owner of the house roaring after them.
The following morning at the breakfast table while William and Nathan bicker, their dad, Paul Garrett’s Davy enquires what they got up to the previous night.
It soon becomes clear that Davy knows exactly what they did, as he reveals the owner of the house with the shattered window was Shane McCaffrey’s Tommy the Tank, who he describes as a “mean b**tard back in the day”.
Referring to a local character called One Ball Paul, Davy explains: “Before he met Tommy, he was just Paul.”
Producing Nathan’s football he blames him for the broken window, refusing to believe William was responsible because he doesn’t have a foot like Ronaldo.
Davy threatens to have Nathan grounded from attending the Eleventh Night bonfire.
After Nathan’s appeals to him to reverse the decision, Davy relents on condition his son volunteers to build the under-10s bonfire.
Nathan is depressed, believing hanging about a kids bonfire will open him up to local ridicule.
Every cloud has a silver lining, though, with Carol Moore’s nan Sadie noting Nathan’s story that the bonfire supervisor has a store of Buckfast and WKD under lock and key.
Pulling Nathan aside, she hatches a plot where he will steal the key from the bonfire site and they will claim credit for finding it.
Still grumbling about being made to build the under-10s bonfire, Nathan ropes Matty into the endeavour while Gerard McCabe’s bonfire supervisor Eddie Sausage berates William for not getting involved.
After being shamed into helping his mates build it, William gets tongue tied when Eimear Bailie’s Hayley, who he is smitten with, turns up.
Can William impress Hayley enough to win her over?
Will Nathan and his nan’s plan to swipe the key succeed?
Can the lads avoid falling foul of Tommy the Tank?
At a running time of just 13 minutes, Elliott and Thompson’s sitcom barrels along at a frenetic pace, powered along by a pulsating rave music soundtrack.
Thompson, McCartney and Scott turn in lively performances as William, Nathan and Matty.
As William, Thompson, in particular, has a rough hewn, wiseass charm and handles the character’s gaucheness well.
Garrett, Moore, Bailie, McCabe and McCaffrey also provide decent support.
While audiences outside of Northern Ireland may be intrigued by its loyalist setting, the basic elements of Elliott and Thompson’s story are universal enough in their appeal that the antics of William and his gang could easily unfold in a Bradford, Glasgow, Swansea or Limerick housing estate.
And thanks to Cleland’s lively direction, it’s not that difficult to see how with the right nurturing ‘William of Orangedale’ could be turned into a ‘Shameless’ or ‘Young Offenders’-style sitcom.
There are smart lines like William’s observation that being bonfire supervisor to Eddie Sausage is “the most important job in the world… To everyone else, it’s weird that a 49 year old man spends his day around kids.”
The pilot also feeds off its cast’s clear enthusiasm for the project.
And while there are no massive belly laughs, the ingredients are certainly there for a six episode sitcom, with enough quirky characters that could be developed.
With the right guidance, ‘William of Orangedale’ might just work as a sitcom.
And it can do that without resorting to panto depictions of loyalism.
Dan McGinn is a journalist who was previously the Ireland Political Editor and Ireland Deputy Editor of the Press Association and has worked for the Irish News, Belfast Telegraph and other publications and for TV and radio. He currently works in communications and public affairs and is also a film and television critic with his own blog They’ll Love It In Pomona which covers the latest cinema and television releases.