Normal People seduces soap lovers

Over 20 countries worldwide have signed up to Normal People following its screening on the BBC and Hulu in the US. The 12-part, 30-minute drama, based on Sally Rooney’s story about painful love and produced by Element Pictures, was co-directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald. It will now be seen from Latin America to Australia.

The deals were secured by international distributor Endeavour Content.

Rights to the series have been bought by broadcasters in Canada, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia, Scandinavia, New Zealand and Japan. Element Pictures co-founders Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe said the response from audiences in the UK, the US and Ireland has been “overwhelmingly positive”. There have been over 3.3 million streams on the RTÉ Player.

The previous record was held by season four of Love/Hate, which earned 1.2m streams in 2013. On RTÉ One, Normal People ended with an overnight average of 319,000 viewers and a 33 per cent share, an increase of 20,000 viewers from the previous week. The BBC iPlayer recorded 16.2m streams in the first week alone and 21.8m in all.

BBC Three had its highest number of requests ever, with 5m from 16 to 34-year-olds.

The series has been hailed a success with a celebrity fan base which includes Mia Farrow, Kourtney Kardashian, Katy Perry, James Corden, Niall Horan and Liam Payne. Normal People catapulted lead actor, 24-year-old Paul Mescal (and his chain necklace), to fame as Connell. He previously fronted a TV ad for Denny sausages, created for Kerry Foods by Rothco.

“I’d play Connell until the cows come home” – Paul Mescal

Guiney, the series’ executive producer, was not surprisingly highly critical of Pornhub for putting explicit footage from the drama on its site. “We’re hugely disappointed that excerpts from the series of Normal People have been used in this way,” Guiney said in a statement to the media. The series was filmed on location in Sligo, Dublin, Italy and Sweden.

The burning question now: will there be a second series of Normal People?

Hulu screened sequels to The Handmaid’s Tale, starring Elizabeth Moss (above), 34 years after Margaret Atwood wrote the novel. Guiney is now focused on adapting Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations with Friends, for TV. When asked if there might be another Normal People series, Abrahamson said he hoped to revisit the characters in 10 years’ time.

The lead actors may wish to follow up on the characters. Mescal told “I think what’s glorious about it is that the book definitely feels final about their lives. They’re still existing in the world somewhere. I think that’s probably a question for Sally and everybody else. But I put my hand up and say I’d play Connell until the cows come home.”

“Same. Yeah, very much so,” added Edgar-Jones.

Sequel or no sequel, to discover what people in adland thought of Normal People, read on…

Eoghan Nolan, Brand Artillery

“I like to think that in our household I approached Normal People with the most objectivity, having neither read the book nor attended Trinity College, while my missus did both. I did however spot a number of familiar young faces among the cast. Since 2013, I’ve done an annual two-part workshop, on the theory and practice of voiceovers, with the final-year acting students of the Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity.

We focus on theory in week one, then follow it up with a practical session in Mutiny studios. The Lir students are generally a pleasant and talented lot, so it was good to see several of them cast in the series. Paul Mescal (24), who played Connell, was the class of 2017. For a young actor starting out, this would be a nice one to have on the CV, even for a minor role.

Lenny Abrahamson has always had an exquisite eye for cast and detail, setting the direction style for the series with the English director Hettie Macdonald taking his lead. Like James Joyce, Lenny appears to believe that “in the particular is contained the universal” and his gift for creating intimate moments between observer and observed was there in his ads.

                                               Paul Mescal as Connell in Normal People  

I’m thinking of the wobbling face of Tom Murphy in the brilliant Jason McAteer Carlsberg spot by Owens DDB. He went on to star in Lenny’s Adam & Paul before sadly dying from cancer at 39. Lenny showed again in What Richard Did that inobtrusive direction that acts like a matchmaker between the actor and the viewer; a skill ably deployed in Normal People.

The drama followed its own rules and moved at a pace that in early episodes was slow for the Game of Thrones generation, yet its sheer confidence and dream-like quality soon won over the viewer. The whole production, as we’ve come to expect from Element Pictures, had a world-class quality and has been justly rewarded with world-class sales.

Not sure what got Liveline listeners so exercised, given that there are often more langers on the Nine O’Clock News. The writing by Sally Rooney, Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe was top-drawer, bar the odd bit of clunky dialogue. Great performances all round, even if I’m still not quite ready to accept the luminous Sarah Greene as any leading man’s mammy.”

Eoghan Nolan is founder of creative agency Brand Artillery;


Helen O’Rourke, Spark Foundry 

“There has been lots of talk about what made Normal People such a phenomenal success, with some episodes attracting almost 600,000 Irish viewers and appealing to international fans like Andrew Lloyd Webber and a Kardashian. Many people put it down simply to lockdown, but for me it had all the ingredients to make it a hit, global pandemic or not.

Great writing, a fantastic director, beautiful cinematography and two breakout stars in the lead roles were always going to attract attention. So, while it’s been funny to see non-Irish friends discussing the Debs on social media, it’s not surprising. For Irish people though, I think it goes a little deeper. Remember it succeeded in defying last month’s incredible weather – normally the bane of any TV buyer trying to get summer ratings away.

The drama tapped into two things that have helped us all get through this pandemic – pride and nostalgia. Most Irish people are proud of how our people and our Government have handled things and how we have been represented on the world stage. Having a hit TV show globally that shows off our island to the world is an extension of this pride.

Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne in Normal People 

Nostalgia has also been a big trend during the pandemic, whether it’s getting Don Conroy out of retirement to draw one more owl or baking the treats we remember from childhood. Normal People takes us back to our school days, when the Debs and the Leaving Cert instilled equal amounts of anxiety. Hopefully the success of the show gives Irish broadcasters an incentive to seek out and invest in more of this home-produced talent in future.

The pandemic is going to be around for a while, brands have a real opportunity to tap into pride and nostalgia. Of course, the scandalised listeners to Joe Duffy and Paul Mescal’s modest appearance on the Late Late Show certainly helped build the hype. As with anything topical in Ireland, a bit of scandal on Liveline didn’t do it one bit of harm.

Let’s make our reputation for producing quality drama another unshakable institution.”

Helen O’Rourke is deputy MD at Spark Foundry;

   Sex and the shitty                 

Neal Davies reviews Normal People from the perspective of the lockdown and the mental health problems in adland

“What began with an initial, visceral intensity, an intensity based on brooding passions and naïve fumblings, soon became repetitive, boring and without hope. No, that’s not a critique of the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, I’m talking about the period of lockdown in which the nation viewed it.

That’s the thing: it is almost impossible to consider the show without the Covid-19 context within which it was broadcast. For many, the most shocking things were not the sex scenes, but the reminders of a cramped, sweaty world without social distancing. The pubs, the clubs, the parties. That was intense. Writing in The Irish Times, Róisín Ingle inadvertently expressed sentiments that apply as much to Normal People as to the lockdown she was addressing.

Ingle wrote: “A deadly adrenaline buzz underpinned the first part of the pandemic… (but)… everything is different now. It feels as though the primal tank is empty. Like I’ve run out of road.” That feels just like the way that Normal People played out: from adrenaline to running out of road, albeit with more full frontal nudity on show.

Personally, I was bored and frustrated pretty quickly with Normal People.

Once the sex-shock wore off, it betrayed a fine line between intensity and drudgery. I found myself shouting: “Oh, would you just say something, Connell?” at the TV screen on more than one occasion. Now, I’ve worked with some pretty talented-but-moody writers in my career, but that lad takes the broody biscuit.

                           ‘Normal People is a series we dived into during abnormal times’ 

The sheer weight of what was unspoken between Marianne and Connell made me think that if they ever did get married, they would end up like John and Mary, the couple who own the shop on Craggy Island. Besides the sex, what did they share as a couple? In fact, besides the sex, what else did Normal People have as a TV drama?

Well, actually, its brave foray into the world of mental health is one that should be applauded and perhaps provides the best parallel with the advertising industry. We have it bad in adland. A couple of years ago, Paychex, a US payroll software company, surveyed 2,000 full-time employees about stress at work, and advertising topped the list of 15 industries that reported the highest levels of work-related stress.


It’s always worth highlighting IAPI’s Smash programme, which now seems more appropriate than ever. Stress has only worsened over the course of this pandemic. The adrenaline of the early weeks of the lockdown has worn off, revealing only the grim reality of endless Zoom calls. Our people need to know that it’s ok to feel shitty and that they can get help.

Normal People is a series we dived into during abnormal times and the new normal that follows should be one where we can openly talk about mental health.

We can partly thank the drama of our pandemic for that.”

Neal Davies is CEO at BBDO Dublin and a Middlesbrough FC fan;

Aoife Murphy, Boys+Girls 

“There are many reasons why Normal People, the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Man Booker Prize nominated book, has been a huge success. Its unconventional female lead, tingling sex scenes that feature consent, droolworthy real estate and, of course, Connell’s neck chain, are but a sample.

As a woman who came of age in the early 00s, at times I found it painfully familiar to watch, but the careful handling of the lead roles and their glaring flaws is one reason why it’s the most entertaining telly in years.

Like the book, the series doesn’t shy away from heavy topics like mental health, self harm and unmet expectations. From the deep issues of Connell’s battle with balancing traditional masculinity with raw vulnerability to the genuine awkwardness of an Irish debs, the drama embraces the blemishes that most modern TV and films tend to gloss over or grade out.

Unfamiliar with all the garish detail, it can make you want to shrink back into the sofa, but it also makes you feel deeply for the characters. So, how has a story that exposes so many human inadequacies become RTÉ’s most streamed show of all time? The answer lies in what many call the ‘Fleabag effect’. Pioneered by writer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and her director, Harry Bradbeer, in their cult Fleabag black comedy of the same name, they transformed what can be done in a 30-minute slot and how love stories are told.

Just like real love, Normal People is messy, cringey and full of mistakes.

                           Head turner: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag creator and star   

When much of the TV entertainment we see is fast moving thrillers or slapstick comedy, Normal People sticks out. It’s full of the elements that we’re starved of – complex characters, a sense of place and meaningful dialogue. It’s that realness that is perhaps missing from how so many brands communicate. If we sought to reflect the flaws and oddities in our customer’s lives would that garner more attention? If the stories we told were more honest, closer to real life would that be more entertaining?

Luckily for brands, love stories come in all shapes and sizes. Like the one you have with your hair… L’Oreal’s recent hair dye ad featuring a panicked Eva Longoria as you’ve never seen her before – with grey hair – is a step in a more ‘flawed’ direction.

TV and films are a proxy for the mood and desires of a society.

Since Covid-19, brands have been forced to occupy an empathetic stance with consumers. We’re all in this together, right? That line won’t last past a vaccine but the sentiment should. If creativity that’s informed by the truth of our clumsy lives produces gems like Normal People and Fleabag, let’s hope we see more brands inspired by the same.”

Aoife Murphy is executive strategy director at Boys+Girls;


Paul Holmes, Red Rage

“I had been very much looking forward to seeing the screen adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. My long-time friend and editor of episodes 6-12, Stephen O’Connell, had spoken a lot to me about the series. The show is beautifully made. The casting, locations, art department, cinematography, editing and most of all the delicacy of the direction stand out.

Lenny Abrahamson set a wonderful natural tone, which was adapted in later episodes with some nice touches by Hettie Macdonald. I loved when Connell came to Trinity and how the contrasting cultures of Dublin and Sligo were treated. The careful handling of the sensitive issues was flawless and seemed so credible and real.

While the local film industry has emphasised single independent feature film as the main medium, Normal People is a huge step forward for Ireland to produce a world-class TV drama largely comprising indigenous writers, actors and crew that has captured a global audience.

I was chatting recently to our Swedish director Tomas Jonsgarden who said how good Normal People was and how everyone in Stockholm was talking about it – which was wonderful to hear. Ed Guiney,  Abrahamson (above) and all at Element Pictures merit huge credit for making this show in the manner in which they did and deserve all the success that goes with it.

It is a big step forward to have Screen Ireland backing quality TV drama output pioneered on the BBC and Hulu. We boast a lot of talent in Ireland and with the right supports and mentoring we can go on to produce great work that can compete on a global scale.”

Paul Holmes is co-founder of commercials producer Red Rage;


Oilbhe Doyle, Carat 

“Having inhaled Sally Rooney’s book Normal People, I binge watched the TV adaptation and was utterly intrigued at the level of controversy, complaints and be-moaners it prompted. It made me think perhaps Ireland is not a haven of progressivism after all. Do we still have deep historical moral fault lines that have not yet become relics? Would some people rather sweep desires, sexuality and mental health issues back under the carpet where they supposedly belong?

I wonder was it really the flash of nudity that utterly unhinged these people to rant and complain or was it something much deeper, something actually quite ‘normal’? What Normal People lays bare is an intense relationship in a coming of age time exploring all that entails – experimentation, vulnerability, sexual promiscuity, insecurity and mental health.

All of these things actual exist in real life, this is no Hollywood fantasy.

Normal People does precisely what it says on the tin, it portrays the ‘normal’ and is beautifully relatable and mesmeric viewing. The series is a wonderful study of human behaviour. On the one hand you have Marianne, who in the early episodes is an unpopular and lonely figure, bullied in school and treated with casual cruelty at home.


Her intelligence is viewed as annoying, self-righteous, obnoxious and argumentative. On the other hand, Connell has brains to burn and is blessed in being Mr Sporty and Mr Popular. Connell’s insecurities with dating ‘ugly duckling’ Marianne combined with her self-doubt of her actual Swan-like worth means their relationship becomes secret yet insanely intense.

The chemistry is undeniable.

They are never quite boyfriend and girlfriend in the conventional sense, their own personal problems mean they break each other’s hearts repeatedly as they struggle to express their feelings. It is a stark reminder of how this stage of life can be painful and joyous. They are fragile and self-doubting, both struggling to figure out who they are and where they are going.

Surprisingly, when Marianne comes to Dublin, she fits in and seems to survive better than Connell, so the tables are turned, she blossoms into a swan and glides into the upper-class Trinity circles poncing around to the various high-brow cocktails parties and intense English literature debates. However, this superficiality hides her true character.

‘This is real Ireland, this is normal – young men do get depressed, they do get suicidal’

Marianne’s past cruelty never quite leaves her, without family nurturing, guidance and love – she again seeks what is familiar to her and allows herself to slip into abusive romantic relationships, she feels unfit to be loved and trapped inside her own body. For Connell, his move to city life, particularly without family financial backing, is a much harder adjustment.

All of his insecurities and his culchieness come to the fore. Connell never really finds his crowd. “I don’t think people like me that much, I thought I’d meet more like-minded people but that just hasn’t happened,” he remarked. He becomes depressed and isolated. The scene where he completely and utterly exposes himself to the counsellor and breaks down was one of the most powerful pieces of Irish acting I’ve ever seen – his vulnerability laid bare.

It’s newcomer Paul Mescal at his finest. This is real Ireland, this is normal – young men do get depressed, they do get suicidal, our rate of suicide among young men is high and the stigma needs to be dissolved. Normal People is a triumph in every way, exploring a twisting passionate relationship and multi-faceted underlying societal themes.

It is honest, raw, heartfelt, real – it is what happens in society, it is ‘normal’.”

Oilbhe Doyle is business director at Carat;


Carol Lambert, Publicis

Normal People? Well, firstly, I’m a huge fan of co-director Lenny Abrahamson (pictured below). I’ve made several commercials with him and absolutely loved the energy that he brought on to a set and his collaborative approach.

He has never been precious and genuinely always pushed to do the best work possible. It’s infectious and it rubs off on everyone around him. He deserves to be successful and I’m not surprised at all that Normal People has been such a hit.


Coming from an advertising background, I’ve always been trained to communicate one concept clearly. Make sure everyone understands that one selling point of a brand and keep the idea pure.

The more focused you are with your idea, the more people can understand and embrace it. That’s why I love Normal People so much.

It remains true and pure to the central love story throughout.

The two directors were not tempted to stray too much into developing other characters and so the focus  remains on following Marianne and Connell’s journey. The telling of that love story required an honest understanding of human nature and how people change as they grow. Lenny’s input represented it with a wonderful eye for observed detail.


                              Lenny Abrahamson has ‘a wonderful eye for observed detail’

The relationship between the two lovers is simple and yet complicated. Filled with moments of joy, setbacks, closeness and distance. The two are so different from each other, yet I get why they clicked. Each had something the other needed. In learning about each other, they learned about themselves. I get it. It probably represents of most of our lives.

Our normal lives – and the focus on telling that one idea and staying true to it, means I understood the story and could embrace it. Fully. Everyone could.

Well done Lenny, you’re a fab story teller.”

Carol Lambert is creative director at Publicis;

To read John Fanning’s article on Normal People novelist Sally Rooney, click on

To watch Paul Mescal in the Dennys ad, click on



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