Irish Musician Survives

"Murder, She Wrote"
What it's Like to Tape a Television Show

by Dennis Doyle

"Are you atmosphere?" the young pretty woman asked me, as I stepped into the side door to Stage 21 at Universal City Studios in California. While I was feeling rather spacey from the early hour. I cautiously answered, "no, I'm with the band".

"Band over there; atmosphere over here!" she barked. And so began the taping phase of a three day adventure of performing as part of the "side band" in an episode of "Murder, She Wrote" entitled in a typically Irish compact way: "To the End I will Grapple with Thee".

"Atmosphere", I later discovered were those poor faceless people, the extras, who always hover around in crowd scenes behind the big stars. Our job was to provide a taste of real Irish music in a made-up pub built right on the stage called "Fenian's Chase".

We had all come in the day before and prerecorded the tracks at Universal's huge airplane hangar of a music studio. The room was obviously designed for large orchestras; our "orchestra" which consisted only of me on the Celtic harp, fiddler Cait Reed, piper Richard Cook, guitarist Mark Romano, my wife Paula Doyle on the bodhrán and the union accordionist who had originally contacted me for the job. The idea was for us to prerecord the two reels, one jig and one planxty in the music studio, then on the days of the actual video taping, we would "act" like we're playing. The sound people wanted total control of the mix of dialogue with music, so we had to be absolutely silent when we were appearing to be having a grand time. Have you ever tried to "act" like you're playing an instrument, a drum for example, and not actually touch the instrument?

The next day we had to be in the studio at 7AM, an impossible hour for Irish musicians. After a check of our wardrobe and a little brush-up, we began our routine of "hurry-up and wait", followed by "wait and hurry-up". It wasn't until 10 AM when were were called to get up on the little stage set up against one of the removable walls of the "pub".

It was the cleanest, nicest pub you've ever seen. No smoke; no drunks spilling drinks; everyone paying attention to the music,-in short a totally unreal situation. Instead of Guinness in the glasses, they had root beer (we sampled it) and the pub grub looked good, but was mostly plastic. When the star of the show, Angela Landsbury, arrived on the set, she remarked on the how great the set was but noted that "every pub I've been in is usually full of smoke." The set dressers offered to fill the place with smoke, but the extras rebelled chanting "no,no,no".

Though Angela is British born, she raised her family in Ireland, so she should know what a pub should look like. Angela is like she appears, -a very classy and nice lady, though stage etiquette forbade people from actually going up to talk to her. She mostly hung out in her trailer until needed. She remarked favorably on the band, as did the director .

After an eternity adjusting lights and cameras, they rehearsed and rehearsed again, then they did the shot, then did it again, then did it again.

Then they moved the camera, changed the lights and shot the same scene again and again from three other angles. By this time, we all had the dialogue memorized.

After lunch in the commissary (we saw Andy Griffith who was shooting his show in the nearby stage), we had to hang around waiting in case they needed us, but we weren't called again until 5 PM. For most of the time there was nothing to do but to sit and eat (there were always snacks and treats spread out). It's a wonder everyone who works there isn't fat. Fortunately, I had a new recording coming out and I had to fold a few thousand little paper inserts to put in with my cassettes. We finished them all as we waited.

Suddenly, quick, quick, quick, we had to change. (They were shooting the "next day" of the teleplay and we couldn't be wearing the same clothes.)

After the rush-rush-rush, then they decided that the lighting wasn't right and it took another forty minutes while they adjusted them. And so it went on like this through to the next day and evening.

Taken all in all, the whole adventure was a combination of moments of excitement followed by hours of intense boredom. When we finally saw the show, which aired on CBS on March 15, 1992 and has since been rerun many times usually on St.Patrick's Day, our three days of work amounted to three or four seconds here and three or four seconds there during the first half of the show and we were featured in all the previews of the show that week. But I was happy to notice that they did use our music throughout all the pub scenes, even when we were not in the shot.


atmosphere: usually the air or the surroundings, in this case the extra actors who hang around and form crowds in movies or plays.

barked: to make a loud abrupt sound like a dog.

bodrhán: a single headed Irish drum.

brew: in this context, an alcoholic beverage.

Celtic: referring to the region of Ireland, Scotland, Wale, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and Brittany.

chanting: repeating a phrase over and over a again, usually as in a prayer.

commissary: the cafeteria.

dialogue: the talking part of a movie or show which involves two or more people speaking.

episode: a single show or performance of a long running program.

etiquette: proper behavior.

faceless: unimportant, unrecognizable.

Fenian: an Irish revolutionary, named after the mythological Irish hero Finn. A follower of Finn.

grapple: to fight with violently.

Guinness: a dark stout beer which is the national drink of Ireland.

jig, planxty, reel: different types of Celtic dance music.

pub: a bar, originally and abbreviation for "public house".

set dresser: a person who makes the set in the studio look as authentic as possible so the viewers believe that the program actually took place in the place it appears to be.

the "shot": the film, to make a video recording, to film something.

spacey: confused, inattentive or sleepy.

taping: recording a video or audio performance on tape.

teleplay: the written script of the story along with dialogue.

tracks: the music or sound part of a television program.

wardrobe: the clothes worn in the show

whiskey : blended fermented spirits with a high alcohol content. from the Irish Gaelic "uisce bheata"="the water of life".

Murder, She Wrote
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