TV InteReview: You’ve Got Me, Copper


How It’s New York: The show is set in NYC, in Five Points in 1863. Its story is quintessential New York: immigrants jammed together hustling to get by.
How It’s Irish: Irish music, Irish-American cop(pers) abound!

Are you watching Copper, on BBC America yet? If the music sounds familiar, it’s because it’s serious trad: Joanie Madden and Eileen Ivers and John Whelan, among others! The show airs on BBC America Sunday nights at 10. We spoke to composer Brian Keane, and to coppers Tom Weston-Jones and Dubliner Kevin J. Ryan.  

Watch for our PODCAST with music from the show, and interviews!

“…they’re tough bastards. The Irish, Scottish, Celts, are just grafters – hard workers, who know right from wrong, and they’re tough guys. ” -Kevin J. Ryan

An earlier version of this article was first published in Irish Examiner USA, Sept. 18, 2012.

Think Law & Order: Civil War Era Unit. Or CSI: Five Points. 

The new show Copper, which had its fifth episode air on BBC America this past Sunday, is not just a period drama and not just a cop show, but an original blend of both genres.

There is even forensic evidence: the mandatory doctor-discovers-clues-from-dead-body scenes are there too, only the doctor in question, Dr. Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh) is an African-American man struggling to maintain dignity in a world racked by war and riot.

The time is 1864. The American Civil War is still raging.
In Five Points, the worst part of New York, a slum area made famous this century by Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York (2002), Detective Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), an Irish-American cop pursues justice – as well as clues to his the whereabouts of his missing wife and child.

Five Points seems to be trending lately. Larry Kirwan’s musical Hard Times, which recently opened at The Cell Theatre, takes place in a bar in Five Points during the Draft Riots of 1863.  Banished Children of Eve, adapted by Kelly Younger from the novel by Peter Quinn,  takes place during the same period, was presented at Irish Repertory Theatre in 2010.

@BBC America/Cineflix

But Copper takes place after the Draft Riots. The war has not yet ended. That’s a very interesting place to start. “This isn’t going to be a re-tread of some western or a pale imitation of that Scorsese movie,” writer Tom Fontana states in press notes. “It’s going to look different, smell different, sound different. Fontana points out that while the show takes place over a century ago, it deals with issues that are very current:

“Big, big social issues like immigration, racism, the distribution of wealth – the “1%-ers” vs. the “99%-ers.” We also deal with more personal issues – falling in love, falling out of love, death, birth, and people living a very basic daily life where they’re trying to do what’s best for their families and be true to themselves. Those things never change.”

The show, which airs Sunday nights at 10 p.m., comes from some of the sharpest minds in television: it was created by Fontana (Homicide, Oz) and Will Rokos (Monster’s Ball, Southland) and executive produced by Barry Levinson (Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man).

Copper’s high stakes, quick reversals and fast-moving plot appeal, but the Irish cop at the center fascinates.
Corcoran is a reluctant hero, a boxer who fought in the Civil War and became a detective to fight for right.Like the best of heroes, at least fictional ones, he has a dark side, and will sometimes cut corners to see that justice is done.

Corcoran’s backstory is that he returned home after serving under Captain Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), a wealthy son of a robber baron, whose life he helped to save, to find that his wife and daughter are missing. A detective in the Sixth Precinct, he works with his friend Irish immigrant Detective Francis O’Brien (Kevin J. Ryan) to protect the helpless-and find answers.
There are gaudy whorehouses, fancy uptown apartments, gritty slums, in this 19th-century New York.

Sounding the Scene

If the sound of the whistle tears at your hearts in one of the show’s tender moments, it might be because it’s played by Cherish the Ladies’ Joanie Madden. Composer Brian Keane assembled some of the best trad players to put together some of the score: blue fiddler/Riverdance star Eileen Ivers, bodhrán player Anna Colliton, uillean piper Jerry O’Sullivan and box player John Whelan.
They are not only great players, they are also people you might bump into at a session at O’Neill’s or 11th Street. Keane plays the Irish bouzouki. 

Clearly, Keane, who spoke to us from Connecticut, knows what he’s about when it comes to trad. The day we spoke, Joanie had just sent him a track from Ireland. Keane has some strong trad credit among his achievements: he produced Joanie’s Song of the Irish Whistle; the CDs Celtic Twilight and Celtic Twilight 2; and scored Long Journey Home: the Irish in America.
“It turned out the reason the producers were interested in me had nothing to do with that,” said Keane.

“One of the things I’m most known for is doing the scores for feature documentaries. I guess Barry Levinson was a fan for a long time. You put this stuff out there and you don’t know who’s watching it.”

One day, Keane said, the phone rang and it was Levinson.

When he watched the pilot, Keane said, he knew he would want music to complement the grittiness of the slum setting: “It’s in the era where there’s no cars or air conditioning, or just about anything sanitary.”
The music would have to use instruments that would have been around then, rather than the synthesizers so many television series said.
That said, there’s an electric guitar in the title, Keane said with a laugh.

There are snippets of Irish songs that characters sing, said Keane, and some of the music he composed himself. “We’re originally from a little town outside of Kilkee in the Southwest,” said Keane. “My great-grandfather emigrated in the late 1800s.”  As a boy, he grew up listening less to trad than to “Songs from Tin Pan Alley,” such as “Danny Boy” and “Rose of Tralee” that his father would sing.

His mother, said Keane, was an avant-garde composer who was friends with John Cage.
Keane loved rock and roll. After college, he played jazz for awhile, falling into film scoring when he was asked to score a little film “about taking care of your teeth. Like one of the things you watch in elementary school.”

Tanya Fischer as Molly Stuart (@BBC America/Cineflix)

A twist of fate led him to work with the producers again when the producers happened to film the Mariel boatlift. Against Wind and Tide (1982) was nominated for an Academy Award.

But much as he wants the music to be good, it is there to serve the story, said Keane, not overshadow it.

“My view of film music is that it’s the rhythm guitar of film. If you don’t notice the music but the film draws you in and it’s really compelling, I’ve done my job.”

But the Irish music in Copper is just so good you can’t help notice it. That’s OK, said Keane, who acknowledged that they milk the music for emotions in later episodes.

“People can be culturally naïve, but everyoby is intelligent when it comes to emotional nuance. We’ve survived on the planet for millions of years by developing those senses.”

Apart from the snippets of song, everything is original, except the tunes played on the whorehouse piano, said Keane. “We made it sort of the jukebox of 1864.”  Research into what was popular in that context showed that in upscale whorehouses pianists would play almost constantly.
Occasionally, that allows for some dark humor, as when the song “Aura Lee” is played during what looks like a prelude to child abuse.  Contemporary viewers know the song as Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender,” but it’s period. Keane also chuckled at how Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” is heard during the murder of a bad guy in the whorehouse.
There may be a soundtrack coming later this year. It should be a keeper.
The humanity in the music shines through:

“A real player brings heart and soul into it, you can’t get that from a machine.”

Playing the Coppers

The actors who play the two lead coppers, on Irish but raised in America, and the other from Dublin, found common ground with their characters.

Detective Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan) and Detective Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones) © BBC AMERICA/Cineflix (Copper) Inc.

For Weston-Jones, who spoke to us by telephone from London Corcoran is someone

“who’s always been the underdog. He’s able to recognize that quality in other people. Morehouse, in his social standing, is a drunk and a one-legged fool. Matthew Freeman is a black doctor. These people are all on the back foot. He’s able to see their potential, to know they have that fire within them to create change.” 

Weston-Jones is part Welsh and part English, and was brought up in Dubai.
His international background has come in useful to him in creating Corcoran, he said.

“It’s always quite a good thing to be able to get out of your comfort zone and feel something very different and knew. I’ve bee around such a variety of people. It helps to be able to assess what motivates people.”

Weston-Jones said that when he went to University, he actually had an Australian accent, which he’d picked up from his best friend. To play Corcoran, Weston-Jones uses an American accent with a bit of an Irish lilt. Corcoran was born in Ireland but brought up in the U.S., Weston-Jones explained. Yet the character is unmistakably Irish. 

Weston-Jones, pointing out that he is also a Celt, described the Irish as people who “will put a smile on throughout, while getting whipped. They will find humor in the darkest places, because that’s how they cope.”

Tom Weston-Jones as Det. Kevin Corcoran(@George Kraychyk, BBC America/Cineflix)

The Irish ability to cover things up, he said, can be “crippling. Someone told me that the Irish are the only people who aren’t susceptible to psychoanalysis, because they just cover everything up.”
So Corcoran has thrown himself into being a detective as a way to avoid feeling pain, as well as to find his wife and daughter. “Authority figures don’t mean anything to him,” Corcoran said.

“I think it’s part of him being a boxer, and thrown into this gladiatorial world. In a lot of ways he goes completely over the line but that’s through our modern eyes. In this period violence had a very different flavor.”

It’s not so much that authority is flouted, as the authority figure.

Kevin J. Ryan, who plays Corcoran’s pal Detective Francis McGuire, suggested that the Irish have been involved in Police and Fire Departments because of the

“political gang structure. And they’re tough bastards. The Irish, Scottish, Celts, are just grafters – hard workers, who know right from wrong, and they’re tough guys. Breaking it down is that they were gangs, in a political gang, and it just so happened they got power. You’ll see in the series, sometimes we get overrun by other gangs and other police forces.”

Kevin J. Ryan as Det. Francis McGuire(@George Kraychyk, BBC America/Cineflix)

Ryan, who has been voted one of Ireland’s Sexiest Men, said his character is motivated by the same goal that drove so many immigrants to these shores: the American Dream.

“Hope for a better life, hope for love, to balance structure and security. All of us look for that don’t we?  said Ryan by telephone from Los Angeles. “It’s like me coming over from Ireland to do what I want to do. I came over to achieve a better life.” 

Ryan comes from a family of stonecutters, eight generations of them. He began working with his father at age 12. He also became a professional dancer – not an Irish stepdancer, but a breakdancer who went on to do hip-hop and jazz. He went to L.A. to study with an acting coach, but continued to do some stonework to support himself.

I ended up doing the counters in the restrooms in the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) building,” Ryan said with a laugh. “There I was trying to get in to SAG, and doing their bathrooms.”

A Dub, Ryan went a bit heavier with his own accent for McGuire, he said. I gave him a bit of a growl.” McGuire is the only fully Irish character in the show.

Tom Weston-Jones as Det. Kevin Corcoran(@George Kraychyk, BBC America/Cineflix)

But Irishness pervades the series, which Ryan describes as “gritty, raw, real, sexual, violent, disgusting. I was hooked on the first two pages.”

Asked what he loved about his character, Ryan replied “Blind in one eye?” and laughed.
  Every actor loves a challenge and a bit of dress up. Ryan also loved that McGuire has “demons going on inside of him. He struggles a lot with love, friendship. You’ll see as the series unfolds, his life gets very complicated.”
In the show, Ryan wears a contact lens instead of an eye patch, which allows the character’s emotions to show through.

For both Weston-Jones and Ryan, the best thing about playing the coppers is, well, playing cops and robbers.
“I’m a man with a gun shooting people. It’s great fun,” said Ryan. “When you’re in your character, in your wardrobe and doing these action scenes, it’s the most fun in the world.”
“I really love doing fights,” said Weston-Jones. “Firing the guns and riding the horses, and beating the s**t out of each other.” 

Tom Weston-Jones as Det. Kevin Corcoran(@George Kraychyk, BBC America/Cineflix)

Weston-Jones did his own stunts, except the one at the end of the second episode where Corcoran jumps out of a window.
The stunt coordinator, Weston-Jones said, “asked if they could keep me in my trailer while they did that, because he knows I would have wanted to do it.” 

We’re glad they kept him in one piece, and Ryan too. Copper is an unusual, smart, gripping television show.

Here’s hoping it survives beyond Appomattox. Because Law &Order: Reconstruction Era would be fascinating too.

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.