The Seahorseman; The Silence; The Dirty South; Maradona

by John Boland

I learned a lot from watching The Seahorseman (RTE1). I learned, for instance, that the female seahorse has a penis and that the male is the one who gets pregnant, which presumably means that the male is actually the female, and vice versa, though the filmmakers chose not to enlighten me on that.

But I also learned that in Chinese medicine seahorses are used to cure baldness, ward off depression, combat menstrual problems and arouse sexual appetites.  I learned, too, that on the international market seahorses are literally worth their weight in gold but that overfishing means they could be extinct in a matter of decades.

In short, I learned more about seahorses than I had any interest in knowing, but what I didn’t learn was why RTE saw fit to screen a series of four programmes about them over four nights this week.

The Seahorseman, which mainly concerned the blighted efforts of marine biologist Kealan Doyle to breed these cute little creatures in a run-down cottage in Connemara, would have made an intriguing fifty-minute documentary, but instead it ran for almost as long as The Sorrow and the Pity, while seeming twice as long again.

By the end of the first instalment, Doyle – a man who, according to former business partner Ken, “eats, sleeps and drinks seahorses” – had set up his tanks in Carna, watched helplessly as a voracious plankton killed off most of his stock and encountered various setbacks that were of less fascination to the viewer than to himself.

Indeed, Doyle’s driven demeanour didn’t encourage audience empathy, especially when his concern, and that of the narrator, seemed less focused on the global plight of seahorses than on their commercial possibilities – the latter informing us that Doyle aimed “to turn seahorses into cash sales” and Doyle himself reflecting “we were getting up to €200 for one seahorse – we thought we’d made it.”

In fact, only towards the end of the final episode (life being short, I gave parts two and three a miss) did Doyle evince a real passion for conservation rather than commercialism – taking a flight to Indonesia and lamenting how the poverty-stricken natives had fished seahorses to the brink of extinction, and then taking a further flight to China where  he expressed himself appalled that in any single street stall more seahorses were on sale than he had managed to breed in Connemara.

But why, I wondered, had it taken a marine biologist with a declared passion for seahorses a decade to become so exercised by such threats to the species? That remained something of a mystery, much like RTE’s decision to devote a whole week to this bizarrely overblown series.

Overblown, though, is the current BBC mode, too. Its recently acquired fondness for four-part crime dramas, to be run every night from Monday to Thursday, seems to be based on the hope that viewers will become riveted by the first episode and remain hooked for the rest of the week, but that depends on a mesmerising first hour, which hasn’t happened in any such ventures to date.

And it didn’t happen this week with The Silence (BBC1), even though directed by the estimable Dearbhla Walsh and featuring such impressive performers as Douglas Henshall, Dervla Kirwan, Gina McKee and Hugh Bonneville. The problem lay elsewhere, not least with the basic storyline – deaf girl in jeopardy after seeing a murder being committed – which was too reminiscent of too many other thrillers in which physically impaired or otherwise vulnerable people find themselves in peril, notably Rear Window, Wait Until Dark, Witness and Blink.

And all the familiar tropes of such scenarios were not just present but dwelt on at inordinate length. Indeed, I stayed with the first two episodes mainly because they were partly shot on the street where I live (Dun Laoghaire doubling as an English suburb), but after two hours of looking at my neighbours’ houses, I felt I’d had enough voyeurism.

Much more involving, and a lot more fun, was Rich Hall’s The Dirty South (BBC4), in which the North Carolina-born comedian employed a battery of terrific one-liners to explode the anti-southern stereotypes peddled by Hollywood.

Brought to a screening of Gone With the Wind when he was eight, all he could recall was that “Vivien Leigh goes from carriage to miscarriage wearing a pair of curtains.” And as for subsequent movies about the Deep South, the Hollywood rule is that “women will be fierce, independent and headstrong – quite often they will be Sally Field.” Indeed, the recent prevalence of “women’s films” set in the South was, he contended, “an ongoing retaliation for not casting any females in Deliverance.”

The zingers kept coming. Defending hillbillies from the standard cliché concerning fighting, feuding, drinking and general cussedness, he observed: “Actually the word you’re looking for is Scotsmen.” And gazing at a group photograph of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins taken in Memphis in the 1950s, he noted “If you were a religious scholar, that would be the equivalent of Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and Carl Perkins in the same picture.”

But there was more to his commentary than witty gibes and he was especially good on the rich vein of literature – from William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and others – that portrayed a more complex culture than received notions about rednecks and racists would suggest. A bracing film.

I’m not sure if the same can be said for True Stories: Maradona (More 4), a maddeningly self-indulgent profile by Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica in which the director afforded as much screen time to himself as to his subject.

The latter’s first words on camera concerned “that piece of human garbage, George Bush”, though he was soon reminiscing fondly about his Hand of God goal against England: “It was like stealing an Englishman’s wallet,” he chuckled. “It felt like getting away with a prank.”

Gradually, though not much thanks to the preening Kusturica, the viewer became intrigued by an intelligent, politically-engaged and engaging man too often portrayed by the media as a buffoon. And archive film of his on-field wizardry was a reminder, for those who needed reminding, why he’s always been cherished, not just in Argentina, but by anyone who loves football as it should be played.

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