Northern Ireland

What happened next after groundbreaking BBC NI documentaries?

Deirdre Kee
Image caption Deirdre Kee allowed the BBC to follow her tragic journey through breast cancer in the 1990s

In the art of documentary film making, there are some programmes which really make an impact and which have repercussions in our society long after they have left our screens.

But have you even wondered what happens to those who take part in such programmes, and how their lives are affected by the decision to lay themselves bare to the viewing public?

A new BBC Northern Ireland television series has been attempting to find out.

What Happened Next? catches up with the contributors from three award-winning programmes which documented one woman's journey through breast cancer, one primary school's experience of taking the 11-plus exam, and a cross-community football team, which included the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands among its players.

'Social change'

The series producer, Stephen Douds, and his team have been trawling through BBC Northern Ireland's extensive archive of "powerful single documentaries" which were made over the past 40 years.

He said the purpose of the series was to "chart social change - to find out how much has changed between the making and transmission of the original documentary and Northern Ireland in 2012".

The first programme in the series was inspired by the 1996 documentary, A Woman in Twelve, which told the story of breast cancer sufferer Deirdre Kee.

"Very very unusually, Deirdre Kee came to the BBC and said 'I've had this diagnosis and I want you to follow me'," Mr Douds explained.

Image caption Deirdre Kee's decision to share experience of breast cancer helped to widen understanding of the disease

He said Ms Kee's decision to allow cameras to record her battle against the disease helped to raise awareness and widen understanding about breast cancer throughout Northern Ireland.

Mr Douds said: "Deirdre's bravery and courage had a big, big impact on the viewing public."

Sadly, not long after the documentary was broadcast, her cancer returned and Ms Kee died in June 1998, during the making of a follow-up documentary titled Just My Time To Go.

Fourteen years on from her death, What Happened Next hears the reflections of the director of the original programme and that of Ms Kee's sister Brona, who now lives in Oman.

"We heard from the family's perspective what it was like to see your sister, to see a relative expose herself - literally expose herself because at one stage she takes her top down. She'd had a double mastectomy, both her breasts removed," Mr Douds explained.


The second programme in the series looks back at Put To The Test - a documentary which followed a group of children as they sat their 11-plus examination in 1997.

The children were all pupils at Ballysillan Primary School in north Belfast, and the man behind the original film, Carlo Gebler, recounts how it was the only school approached by the BBC which was willing to take part in the programme.

The What Happened Next team also caught up with the principal of the school, who talks about the difficult decision to allow the cameras in, to show people the pressure children were put under throughout the exam process.

The team has also tracked down three of the seven children who were featured in the documentary.

Mr Douds said all three failed the exam and it "seemed as it the road to success - the kind of grammar secondary thing - was blocked for them".

However, the series producer said that there was "no sense of regret" among the former pupils, who all went on to study at high schools in the city.

"They are now all about 25, and interestingly the three kids that we featured have all in some way gone back to education, they've gone back to further training in their 20s, while in the original programme it didn't look as if their prospects might have been that bright," he added.

'Critical stage'

Mr Douds added that before the original programme, the exam had always been discussed from politicians' perspective, whereas the Put To The Test gave a "kid's eye view of the 11-plus".

Image caption The series tracks down former football team-mates of Bobby Sands

The final programme in the three-part series tracks down members of a cross-community football team from Newtownabbey in County Antrim, which once counted Bobby Sands among its players.

The original programme, Old Scores, was broadcast in 1982 - the year after Sands became the first of ten IRA prisoners to die on hunger strike in the Maze Prison.

Sands, who had served five years of a 14-year sentence for possessing a gun, was elected as the MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone just weeks before his death.

Mr Douds said the original documentary revealed a side to Sands which is now rarely discussed, in among a group of teenage footballers who played together in Rathcoole "at a critical stage in the late 1960s" - the very start of the Troubles.

He explained that "while the team itself split up, and while Star of the Sea disappeared and the cross-community nature of that football team in Rathcoole disappeared, the friendships formed have endured".


One of those who took part was the victims campaigner, Raymond McCord, whose son, a former RAF man, was murdered by loyalists in 1997.

Mr McCord told the What Happened Next team that he doesn't view "Sandsie" as the MP, or the face on a mural, but simply as the guy he used to play football with.

Another three of Sands' former team mates travelled from Guernsey to take part in the programme, having left their native country a time of intense unrest.

The original reporter, Olenka Frenkiel, also returned to Northern Ireland for the first time since making Old Scores.

She visits the team's old pitch in Rathcoole and reflects on the impact the programme had on her own journalistic career.

Mr Douds explained that it was on the strength of that single documentary that Ms Frenkiel moved to the BBC's flagship Today programme and then onto its network current affairs department as an investigative reporter.

"In many ways that was her calling card," he said.

What Happened Next will be broadcast on BBC One at 22:30 BST every Monday night for the next three weeks.

Viewers will also get a change to see the original documentaries which will be broadcast on Wednesday evenings

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