MIRIAM O’CALLAGHAN

by John Boland

For a brief period back in the 1990s, though it now seems like the 1890s, Clare McKeon was RTE’s chosen presenter of girl-talk shows. I can’t recall whether this was before or after our national broadcaster’s equally fickle infatuations with Bibi Baskin and Carrie Crowley, but for a while Clare was its darling, fronting a succession of shows in which women fretted about love, pain and the whole damn thing – and in the process talked an awful lot of twaddle.

Now Miriam O’Callaghan has inherited Clare’s mantle. Already well-known as Conscience of the Nation on Prime Time, she’s also familiar to us as coquettishly skittish summertime chat show host and as fearlessly probing weekend radio interviewer (“I made you cry, Minister,” she proudly told Brian Lenihan on Radio 1 recently – inducing tears being the most-cherished achievement of any self-respecting broadcaster these days).

But it wasn’t until last Monday night’s Battle of the Sexes (RTE1) that we saw her in full girly mode, beaming with happiness as she surrounded herself with a studio of the sisterhood and talked about (what else?) men.

Three soundbites let viewers know from the outset what to expect. “We’re stuck with the very worst the planet has to offer,” opined IT consultant Michelle. “A lot of Irishmen would walk over ten naked, very beautiful women to get to a pint,” offered romance novelist Belinda, while glamour model Claire, who really should start dating a different class of guy, was aghast that “He starts picking his nose in front of you – when did that start to become acceptable?”

By this early stage, the viewer was already fearing a slow, smothering death from an avalanche of unexamined cliches, and so it turned out to be. Men, Miriam assured us, had “forgotten how to treat women properly” and, to further this assertion, she introduced someone called Tanya Sweeney, who in a filmed clip strode around Dublin informing us that “the Irish male likes to put the sassy lassies back in their boxes”, that “heaven forfend if you are funnier or more successful than a man,” that men “expect women to hang on their every word” and that “chivalry is very much with O’Leary in his grave.” Tanya also asked how we could tell that Jesus was an Irishman, the answer being that “his mother thought he was the son of God.” Tanya seemed to think that was a new joke.

Tanya also had searing insights into men’s sexual attitudes. For instance, even when men have cajoled  a woman into bed, if they find her there the next morning “they act as though you’ve somehow sullied them with your rampant sluttiness.” And though their notion of a compliment is “Nice tits, love,” if you don’t thank them for such gallantry, “you’re a frigid, uptight bitch.”

At the end of Tanya’s spiel, Miriam commented “That was really interesting,” though all this particular male viewer could think was that he’s never personally known any man with such attitudes or behaviour towards women. But why should reality intrude when stereotypes were to be indulged? And so we heard Claire, already traumatised by her plague of nose-pickers, being able to identify Irishmen abroad by their “belching and hair coming out everywhere” and we wearily listened as Tanya trotted out the old rubbish about men thinking “they’re doing you a huge service just by sleeping with you.”

Miriam, who had made a “survey of the nation,” then proceeded to ask if the role of men had diminished, if women were better at rearing children and if equality had been attained and occasionally the odd sensible thing got said, but the overall thrust of the show was so superficial and silly and dated as to make such contributions merely incidental. 

Is this what RTE’s recently appointed director of television Steve Carson (Miriam O”Callaghan’s husband, by the way) thinks good viewing? And how does he regard Val Falvey TD, which already, after just one instalment, is clearly yet another of Montrose’s disastrous forays into the perilous realm of comedy?

Co-scripted by Arthur Mathews and Paul Woodfull, this haplessly conjures up memories of Father Ted, not just because Mathews was co-creator of that classic series but because of Ardal O’Hanlon’s presence in both. The crucial difference, though, is that whereas in the Channel 4 series O’Hanlon had a brilliantly realised character to play around with, here you’ve no idea who or what he’s meant to be.

A TD on the make, he’s a bit dim, though not so you’d notice. In fact, the scriptwriters haven’t given him any definable personality traits, beyond an obsession with the Eurovision Song Contest, which isn’t funny in itself and is certainly not so here. Owen Roe, who plays his election agent, hasn’t been given a character, either, and it’s painful to watch two talented performers being cast so adrift that they’re left floundering in a sea of nothingness.

I sat poised to write down the funny lines but there weren’t any. “Being a Falvey is the most embarassing thing imaginable,” the main character’s teenage daughter said at one point, but the viewer’s plight was worse – indeed, watching this first episode was as embarassing an experience as I can recall.

The first episode of The Savage Eye (RTE2) was a good deal better, even if comedian David McSavage tweaked much of it from a half-hour programme that was screened last year. Still, I laughed out loud at some moments in this piss-take about Ireland’s pre-eminence in the arts. Especially good was his send-up of Seamus Heaney meandering through a bog while musing on the sonorous magic of the word “turf”, but there were also droll skits about the oral and theatrical traditions, while Beckett, Bono and Michael Flatley were amusingly skewered. And McSavage’s Mary Robinson was a hoot, if by now somewhat irrelevant. I’d like to see his version of the current Mary.

In Imagine: The Girl from Tiger Bay (BBC1), Alan Yentob made sure not to ask Shirley Bassey anything about her private life, as apparently she takes such impertinent questions rather poorly. But the 72-year-old diva was in fine fettle as she rehearsed songs written in her honour by such admirers as Gary Barlow, Neil Tennant and the Manic Street Preachers. By heavens, she can still belt them out.

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