Duty calls: Belfast producer Emma-Rosa Dias on filming Adrian Dunbar's Coastal Ireland during pandemic

Belfast TV producer Emma-Rosa Dias chats to David Roy about capturing Adrian Dunbar's Coastal Ireland during a pandemic

Adrian Dunbar's Coastal Ireland airs on Channel 5 tomorrow evening

ANYONE afflicted by the cabin fever of lockdown – ie, pretty much everyone reading this – should tune in to Adrian Dunbar's Coastal Ireland tomorrow night on Channel 5 for an hour-long therapeutic dose of the great outdoors.

Filmed last September as travel restrictions eased, this visually stunning two-part travelogue from Belfast's Afro-Mic Productions finds the Co Fermanagh-bred Line of Duty star touring the periphery his homeland from Mizen Head in Co Cork right around to the Mournes in Co Down overlooking Warrenpoint.

"I'm Adrian Dunbar – and it's great to be home," Dunbar advises viewers at the start of his epic 600-mile journey, which sees him freely exploring the coastal sights and attractions we all once took for granted for far too long, as well as enjoying mouth-watering local cuisine and calling in for a good chin-wag with a few old friends along the way.

Highlights doled out across this handsome two-parter include; a visit to Skellig Michael, where the actor fulfils a lifelong ambition by putting in at Blindman's Cove after a turbulent sea crossing to receive a tour of the Unesco World Heritage Site from local expert Des Lavelle (86), a stroll along historic Streedagh Beach in Co Sligo followed by a slap-up seafood lunch courtesy of Sardinian chef Piero Melis in nearby Kinlough, a poetry recital at WB Yeats's grave in Drumcliffe Churchyard at the foot of Ben Bulben, a trip to the Giant's Causeway in Co Antrim followed by more mouth-watering grub at Glenarm and a tour of the spectacular grounds and gardens at the National Trust property Mount Stewart House in Co Down.

As you may have gathered, Adrian Dunbar's Coastal Ireland feels very much like a visual tonic for our times – and it's kind of a miracle it got made at all, given our current pandemic afflicted circumstances.

Afro-Mic were originally commissioned to make an Irish travelogue show for Channel 5 at the start of last year, but as the spectre of Covid-19 related restrictions began to loom during pre-production in February and March, its future seemed uncertain – even after Dunbar became attached to the project, as Afro-Mic founder/managing director and series producer Emma-Rosa Dias explains.

Adrian Dunbar at The Giant's Causeway

"Ben Frow, the Channel 5 controller, is a massive fan of Ireland and their commissioning editor, Daniel Pearl, is a huge an of Adrian Dunbar and Line of Duty" she tells me of how the show came about.

"So, when we brought them together, they were absolutely delighted – and, as a small indie [company], we were just overwhelmed that we could showcase our emerald isle in our first ever prime-time network slot.

"But then, with Covid, I honestly thought, 'Oh, how are we going to do this?!'"

As events unfolded, a planned filming slot for spring/summer was hastily rescheduled to late summer after the end of the first lockdown once mask wearing became commonplace. Working closely with Tourism Ireland, Northern Ireland Screen and screen-production trade association Pact, the production got under way in September using a skeleton crew and adhering to strict Covid-safe rules.

"We worked really closely with First Option which is the leader in [TV/film] health and safety," explains Dias, who founded Afro-Mic Productions in 2014 having first caught the TV production bug when she was a contestant on Channel 4 reality series Shipwrecked in 2000.

"Usually we would have a crew of maybe six or seven people, but for this we had a skeleton crew – I wasn't even allowed to go, so I am very jealous of my team and all the places they got to go.

"I was at home watching the rushes as they came in and the breathtaking images that the crew were sending me on WhatsApp."

Of course, another factor affecting the show's already pressurised filming schedule was Adrian Dunbar's commitments to Line of Duty, which was getting up and running again in the wake of halting the production of its hugely anticipated sixth series during the first lockdown in March. Thankfully, the two projects were able to accommodate each other, as Dias explains.

Adrian Dunbar at Mizen Head in Co Cork, Ireland's most southerly point

"It worked really well with Line of Duty," she tells me. "Adrian had to go straight on to their set after filming with us, so there was lots of isolation, lots of bubbling up and lots of testing.

"But we got there in the end and everybody was kept very very safe.

As viewers will discover for themselves, the programme offers a heady and at times bitter-sweet mix of once familiar Irish sights and 'bucket list' local locations we'd maybe always planned to get to, one day, across its two-hour running time.

"I'm very, very jealous of the fact they got on to the Skelligs", admits Diaz of the spectacular sights her crew captured on the ancient Co Kerry islands, which featured in the recent Star Wars films and include the 1,400-year-old ruins of a monastic settlement.

"When I met up with the crew after they came back, they were all gobsmacked. It was the one place that they couldn't put into words. Hopefully, that comes across in the programme."

It does, along with the nervous anticipation of Adrian Dunbar himself as the crew's boat circles Skellig Michael on rough seas and the possibility looms that he might yet fall frustratingly short of fulfilling one of his life's ambitions.

"They thought right up until they actually got there that it might not happen," Diaz reveals. "One of my team was texting me to say that that the swell was so big that they might not be able to dock. And then the signal was so bad out there that I heard nothing more until a couple of hours later, when the text came through that they actually had made it onto the island, which was brilliant.

"The footage they got is just gold."

Visiting The Skelligs was one of Adrian's highlights

Indeed, quite apart from all the extra challenges thrown up by Covid, it seems that sometimes more traditional problems also hampered the Afro-Mic crew on their quest to capture Adrian Dunbar's Coastal Ireland.

"The first day of our shoot, Storm Ellen hit," recalls Dias. "The hotel where the crew were staying in west Cork lost power and they woke up to trees falling around them.

"But actually, the more they worked their way around Ireland, it turned out that Northern Ireland was the sunniest of all the places they filmed. Our weather is always unpredictable, but even in Malin Head where they had storms and really heavy rain, it still looks breathtaking."

If you're bored of the view from your living room window, now you know what to be watching instead.

:: Adrian Dunbar's Coastal Ireland, Thursday February 4, Channel 5, 8pm.

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