Haunted by this ghost of a drama

by John Boland

‘I realise I’m a little overwhelming,” Nicholas admitted to Lena about a third of the way into The Eclipse, RTE’s much-trumpeted St Patrick’s night drama, co-written by Billy Roche and Conor McPherson from a story by the former and directed by the latter.

Overwhelming was one way of putting it — he could also have said overwrought, over-the-top and just plain ridiculous. Presumably the character — a bragging best-selling author — wasn’t reducible to cartoon mode in the authors’ intentions but as played by a scenery-chewing Aidan Quinn he might as well have had Obnoxious Shit stamped on his forehead.

Still, he provided some moments of merriment in a drama otherwise notable for its unearned solemnity — a solemnity that was encapsulated in the stricken countenance of Ciaran Hinds, playing a widowed father mourning his wife’s passing and haunted by ominous visions of his father-in-law, even though said gentleman was ensconced down the road in a nursing home and thus couldn’t quite be considered a ghost.

So what was going on? I’m not too sure, except that the Hinds character, Michael, who was required to transport Lena, author of supernatural books, around a literary festival in his home town of Cobh, fell for her but also fell foul of aforementioned obnoxious shit Nicholas, who had the hots for Lena.

That makes the drama sound exciting, or at least eventful, but it wasn’t. Part of the problem was that the director couldn’t distinguish between slow and sluggish, which resulted in countless supposedly meaningful camera compositions being extended for 15 seconds longer than the mood (or, indeed, the viewer) could bear.

Just as damaging was the decision to opt for available light, which meant that in interior or night-time shots, the actors registered as no more than dark silhouettes, their facial expressions obscured from scrutiny, so that the viewer couldn’t gauge their reactions to what was happening or what was being said. Perhaps this was meant to add to the overall ghostly aura, but if so it was counter-productive and deeply annoying.

And I’m afraid that Fionnuala Ni Chiosain’s intrusive musical score was a killer, too, alternating angelic choirs with an insistent piano motif that was one part Micheal O Suilleabhain to one part Richard Clayderman — not a happy combination.

It gives me no pleasure to write any of this. I’ve long admired Billy Roche, whose Wexford trilogy is among the finest Irish dramatic achievements of our time, while Conor McPherson has been an outstanding dramatist, too. But this was misconceived in mood and undecided in pacing and it left its performers adrift, though Ciaran Hinds brought his formidable presence to an underwritten part.

Even more sketchy was the role of his young daughter, Sarah, though Hanna Lynch brought to it such an affecting sense of troubled concern for her father that her performance was the only truly haunting thing about this drama and remained in the imagination long after it had ended.

Liz Mermin, director of Horses (RTE1), was so in love with her equine subjects that they were the only creatures on whom she bestowed identifying captions, as if they alone were worthy of such formal recognition.

That posed problems for the viewer, who had to guess at the identity of the humans looking after their welfare, and a good half-hour of this 90-minute film had passed before I surmised that the most prominent human involved was Wexford racehorse trainer Paul Nolan, on whose premises most of the action was filmed. Looking like a rogueish hero from a Thomas Hardy novel, he had a considerable presence, as — in a gentler fashion — had an older man (Tommy, I think), who clearly adored the horses he was minding.

The film focused on three of these geldings and it was a measure of the director’s affectionate attention to them that their individual personalities soon became apparent even to a racing ignoramus like myself — to the extent that I worried about them and urged them on as they participated in various meets over a racing year.

This was a fine documentary, as was BBC2’s Requiem for Detroit, which opened with an arresting montage of a broken-down, almost deserted city — looking, as one of its residents observed, “as if a phone call was made and everyone left what they were doing at that moment and walked away for good”.

Indeed, these images, straight out of I Am Legend or The Road, offered a portent of what the narrator warned could be “the post-industrial future that awaits us all”.

It wasn’t always like that and the film harked back to Detroit in its heyday as the motor capital of the world, with fond reminiscences from assorted locals set against today’s bleak reality. It made for a sobering documentary.

Sober wasn’t quite the term applicable to Fat Man in a White Hat (BBC4), or at least to its presenter, writer Bill Buford, who seemed to be on speed. His mission was to learn the secrets of French cuisine, but after a half-hour of enduring this motormouth as he spewed out superlatives I suddenly felt very weary and hankered for the good old days when frontmen weren’t quite so in front of their supposed subject.

RTE isn’t having much luck with its recent US imports. The Mentalist (RTE1), which is third-rate crime fodder, has a ridiculously preening lead actor in the main role. Nor is The Good Wife (RTE2) anything out of the ordinary — in fact, it’s the usual buttressing of social and career stereotypes, as I observed when it began on Channel 4 a few weeks ago.

And now comes Cougar Town, which RTE2 has been tirelessly — and tiresomely — plugging over the last couple of weeks. Courteney Cox, the latest Friends star to attempt a solo comedy, plays 40-something divorcee Jules in search of post- marital fulfilment.

In other words, here’s another version of The New Adventures of Old Christine, starring former Seinfeld alumnus Julia Louis- Dreyfus. That wasn’t up to much, and this is even less funny.

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