Shane McGowan; Alan Bennett…

by John Boland

RTE seems to have reached the sorry stage where the mere notion of celebrity is enough to get a programme made. How else to explain Tuesday night’s RTE1 documentary, Victoria and Shane Grow Their Own?

The Shane in question was Shane McGowan and the Victoria was Victoria Mary Clarke, and whereas the former is deservedly celebrated as a singer-songwriter of distinction, the film was less about him than about Clarke, whose sole claim to fame is that she’s his girlfriend.

That seems to have been sufficient for RTE, which commissioned an hour of tomfoolery in which Clarke’s supposed interest in growing her own vegetables never matched her eagerness to be centre-stage for the cameras.

Shane meanwhile pottered about in the background, mumbling incoherently as his missus purported to fret over the task in hand – a task made problematical by the fact that, as her “best friend” Marina Guinness observed, “you don’t actually know what you’re doing at all.”

But did that inhibit her? Of course it didn’t, not with a film crew there to slavishly record her every inanity. Confessing to Buddhist leanings, she confessed that she was “slightly into Hinduism as well, but only because it’s colourful.” And she could talk to angels, too, this ability coming from what narrator Stephen Rea solemnly revealed to be “a dark period in Victoria’s life” – a period  when “I just wanted to be a success” but no one, alas, knew who she was. This period, she confided, was “hideously depressing,” though it led to her “ability to contact angels.”

She also believed in music as an encouragement to vegetable growing.”I want you to sing to the plants,” she told Shane, and he duly, if slurringly, obliged, though not before falling off a rocking chair. But what do such indignities matter when you’re helping to further your missus’s obsession with self-publicity?

There was much visiting of posh country houses, where everyone spoke in plummy accents, and there was an extended segment in which, as Rea informed us, “Victoria’s rock and roll lifestyle has forced her to abandon her tomatoes” and so she toured Norway instead with McGowan’s band. Then it was back to the landed gentry and their kids, four of whom were “first cousins of Lily Allen.”

At the end a harvest party was thrown in Marina Guinness’s impressive pile, though Clarke had  nurtured so few edible vegetables that her toff farming friends had to bring their own. So was organic gardening the way to go, she wondered. “It would be if you came out once a month, her best friend Marina snapped. But how can she possibly do that when there are so many other opportunities to be in the limelight?

I’ve no idea why RTE thought this charmless, tedious film worth screening. Well, I do, but I’d rather not think about it.

Alan Bennett was 75 this week and BBC2 celebrated him handsomely, not least in Being Alan Bennett, in which the Yorkshire man visited Oxford’s Bodleian library (which now houses all his manuscripts), talked to a local women’s meeting and made various shrewd and droll comments about his life and his work.

Bennett’s now regarded as a national treasure, and with good reason – he’s a wonderful writer and performer, with an air of self-deprecation that doesn’t quite mask the pleasure he takes in talking about himself. But he’s always worth listening to, while the work speaks for itself, though in case you needed reminding of that, the BBC screened the Talking Heads film in which Thora Hird heartbreakingly played a woman in an old people’s home. Even more bracing was a rare screening of An Englishman Abroad (still not available on DVD), with Coral Browne playing herself and Alan Bates as Cambridge spy Guy Burgess, stranded in Moscow and inveigling her to order clothes for him from his Savile Row tailors. Directed by John Schlesinger and running to just under an hour, the film is a masterpiece of wit and poignancy.

The Imagine film on Joan Baez (BBC2) promised us the frankest interview yet given by the folk singer, but she hadn’t a lot to reveal and the viewer was left pondering that earnest activism, no matter how impeccably liberal, was no substitute for the excitement of art – Baez may still have a beautiful singing voice, but her politically feckless former lover Bob Dylan had the genius, so while she remains mired in the past, his music remains as potent as ever.

The two-part Small Island (BBC1), adapted from Andrea Levy’s novel about Jamaican immigrants in  the London of the 1940s, is a loving recreation of the book, with outstanding performances by Naomie Harris and Ruth Wilson. No one does such dramas with the unfussy assurance the BBC brings to them and I’ll be eagerly watching next week’s closing episode.

Prime Time Investigates (RTE1) was revelatory about social welfare fraud, though its fondness for  pursuing miscreants down the road  and demanding answers from them was overdone, especially as they’d already been identified as guilty parties and weren’t about to confess anything that we hadn’t just been told by reporter Paul Maguire. And I wasn’t the only viewer to wonder at the programme’s timing, which must have left anti-welfare bigots applauding Brian Lenihan’s cutbacks two days later.

BBC4 is rescreening David Dimbleby’s series on Russia, and it makes a useful complement to Andrew Graham Dixon’s The Art of Russia, which began this week. This engaged and alert critic is always worth heeding and, unlike many arts presenters on television, seems more interested in his subject than in himself.

Wednesday night’s first instalment began in medieval Kiev and there was much to be absorbed about social history, political upheavals and   religious iconography. Too much, perhaps, but I expect the series to become engrossing when it gets to considering 19th century and Communist art and the tyrannical regimes that sought to outlaw the best of it.

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