CHARLIE BIRD’S ARCTIC JOURNEY

by John Boland

So the first stage of an incredible, awe-inspiring adventure is now fulfilled – an adventure that has led one man from humble beginnings and years of sefless service on behalf of his community to the pinnacle of the world and all the challenges that represents.

No, I’m not talking about Barack Obama’s inauguration as US president but about Charlie Bird’s Arctic Journey (RTE1), in which, over the course of a few weeks, our valiant hero does battle with the elements so that you and I can sit by our firesides marvelling at his courage and stoicism and murmuring to ourselves: Jaysus, I’m glad I’m not there.

Instead, Charlie, who’s keenly aware that we all have a compulsion to discover what life is like at sub-zero temperatures, has made the sacrifice on our behalf, and never mind that his snow shoes are treading in the footprints already left by Michael Palin, Joanna Lumley and countless others – hey, this is Charlie we’re talking about and he brings his own unique personality to such occasions, doesn’t he?

Indeed he does. At the outset of this week’s first episode he spoke of “a journey that will push me to the very edge of my endurance,” but soon it was the viewer whose endurance was being tested. That initial cliché had been a warning of things to come and soon we were hearing about “rugged terrain” and “godforsaken” places” and “complete and utter darkness.”

Most of the time, though, Charlie seemed simply lost for words. Awestruck by an expanse of frozen ice at Grise Fjord, all he could muster was that this was “absolutely the most picturesque and the most stunning place I’ve ever seen in my life,” which didn’t really tell the viewer anything except that (after due contemplation of the scene) maybe Charlie should get out a bit more.

In Charlie’s last travel series – up the Amazon, as far as I can recall – he whinged a lot, which is not an endearing trait. Here, though, he was generally uncomplaining, making his one moany moment on a snowy tundra sound especially lame: “I was a bit cold for the last hour. My toes were absolutely numb, but they’re getting warmer now.” Ah, you poor lamb, come here and I’ll give you a cuddle.

Otherwise, as in other such travel programmes, the viewer never quite bought into the notion of the presenter bravely putting himself on the line in inclement or risky circumstances – if his journey was so difficult and arduous and potentially dangerous, why wasn’t that also true for the camera crew, who were usually ahead of him in the wilderness painstakingly waiting for him to come into shot? Of course they’re not celebs on a celeb’s salary.

Finally, though, I had the weary sense of being here before in the company of Palin and others and thus didn’t feel that Charlie’s earnest presence was sufficient reason for making a return trip.

Meanwhile, On the Street Where You Live (RTE1) is taking us on trips down memory lane. The first programme in the series focused on Dublin’s O’Connell Street and introduced us to a few interesting people, not least the quirky and garrulous Carmel Moran, who in 1973 moved with her parents to the top-floor flat above McDowell’s “Happy Ring House” and remained there until a few months ago. She has seen it all on the street, both the good and the bad, and she was spirited in reminding us about its 1960s highs and 1980s lows.

Pat Liddy, who worked in Aer Lingus’s O’Connell Street office, remembered the thoroughfare’s heyday as “the street of cafes, restaurants and cinema queues,” though he also recalled the “sense of poverty” that emanated from the nearby tenements. And I was thrilled to see that former Savoy cinema head usher Herbie Donnelly, a lovely man with whom I had many chats during my time as a movie reviewer, looked just as he did when he retired eighteen years ago. He spoke fondly about the street’s best years and vividly about the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in 1966. All in all, an evocative and winning programme.

Garda ar Lar (RTE1) returned with a vivid account of the 1985 cold-blooded murder of Gda Sgt Paddy Morrissey after a botched employment exchange robbery in Ardee. Sgt Morrissey had only been in the town by chance that day and the two pursuing gardai with whom he volunteered to chase the criminals spoke movingly about his death, one of them obviously still haunted by the “what ifs” of the situation as it unfolded.

This was expertly told, but if you wanted a true-crime story with a difference, Maru (TG4) left it in the ha’ppeny place. The first episode of a new series, this told of the savage attacks on a woman and a married couple in isolated farmhouses in the early 1960s. The culprit, a loner called Jimmy Ennis, was jailed after confessing to his frenzied knife attack on the woman, but on his release he revisited a couple who’d looked after him in the past and attacked them in their bed, killing the man and seriously injuring the wife.

That storyline may seem linear and straightforward but from it director Lawrence Gough made something truly strange – a nighmarish marriage of Brecht and Wes Craven, with dollops of Grand Guignol and an insidious narrator popping up all over the place offering his sardonic asides on the killer (“a belligerent psychopath,” according to one examining psychiatrist) and on his motives.

Facts were sketchily provided in this dramatised retelling, with context and background receiving similarly short shrift, and for much of the time you couldn’t help wondering if situations and events were being distorted or heightened for dramatic effect. But this was striking filmmaking and you couldn’t take your eyes off it.

On the night of the US inauguration, BBC2 reporter Clive Myrie presented Obama: His Story, a satisfyingly detailed account of the President’s life, with engrossing reminiscences and insights from former teachers, colleagues and friends. Over on RTE2, The Lucy Kennedy Show marked the occasion with a sketch in which the hostess and an Obama impersonator opted to talk about nipples, bushes and holes. Why did that not surprise me?

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