CHARLIE BIRD / DESPERATE ROMANTICS

by John Boland

RTE1’s new half-hour series, The Big Story, began by promising us that we were about to relive “some of the major scoops that have occurred in the career of Charlie Bird.” This was a pleasure most of us had been eagerly awaiting for years. After all, we had accompanied Charlie on his epic voyage down the Amazon (or was it the Dodder?) and feared for his wellbeing as he exposed himself to the Arctic (or maybe Athenry), so what more exciting way to spend a summer evening than to be reminded of his overall journalistic greatness?

Narrator Michael Murphy recalled that when Charlie set out on the road to immortality in the early 1980s “Ireland was in recession and people turned to television for information and inspiration” – no   one apparently being more inspirational than the fledgling newsman from Goatstown, whose coverage of the Father Niall O’Brien story in the Philippines “made him a household name in Ireland.”

But more of that later because first there was Charlie’s momentous background to be considered – a father in the merchant navy and a great-great-grandfather who’d fought at the Nile with Nelson, all of which contributed to the wanderlust that made Charlie hanker to become a roving reporter. Before that, though, he’d “dabbled in politics” and we saw footage of him fearlessly bucking the status quo at Young Socialist and Labour Party meetings.

So what makes a great journalist? Well, as Charlie sees it, it’s “something that’s inside you – you have a passion for something.” More than that, however, “I get a kick out of it,” though one should never forget “the most important element” about news broadcasting, which is “getting the facts across.” Searing insights, indeed, though you’d hardly expect less from someone who’s spent three decades pondering his hugely important role in journalism.

Less palatable, though, is the unwelcome attention that fame can bring because, as Michael pointed out, “there’s been increased media interest in Charlie and at times his life off camera can become as big a story as the stories he reports for the news.” Michael didn’t go into any details about this “life off camera,” but Charlie acknowledged the bother it can create. “Yeah, you do make an impact,” he modestly conceded, “and with that come difficulties, and I have to take them on the chin.”

Then it was back to the Niall O’Brien story, the one that made Charlie “a household name,” as Michael reminded us yet again, even if anyone under the age of thirty-five will have no memory of how an Irish priest was charged with the murder of a local mayor or of Charlie’s impassioned coverage of this miscarriage of justice. But, Charlie assured us, “it was a very big story.” More than that, “it had a missionary priest who was going to be hanged, an Irish priest, it had a jail, and in the end it had an amazing outcome. It was just one of those enormous stories.”

So was that the big story promised in the title of the series? Ostensibly, yes, but in reality the half-hour was all about Charlie, the Father O’Brien case being notable mainly for marking “a major turning point” in the RTE man’s career. Now he’s in Washington, from where, at the programme’s end, he revealed to us that Barack Obama was a “remarkable man.” Where would we be without Charlie?

BBC2’s new costume drama, Desperate Romantics, is about the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood and if that doesn’t set your pulse racing, maybe all the nudity, sex and boozing will, not to mention the rock soundtrack. Indeed, we first encounter Rossetti, Millais and Holman Hunt swaggering down the high street in frockcoats, puffy shirts and gaudy waistcoats, looking like the poncy cousins of Renton and his pals in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting.

However, they introduce themselves in the time-honoured fashion of Hollywood biopics. “I’m Dante Gabriel Rossetti,” the Laurence Llewellyn Bowen lookalike informs influential critic John Ruskin at a Royal Academy opening, adding helpfully “Artist, poet, half-Italian and half-mad.”

As they search for models in a house of ill-repute, an enthusiastic accomplice announces “These gentlemen are the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood and they’re looking for girls just like you.” Indeed they are, but they’re also looking for the approval of Ruskin, who thinks that if art is to be great it must “penetrate” nature. Sadly, Ruskin’s own penetrative powers aren’t up to the demands of the marriage bed, as his frustrated wife frostily informs him. He’s adept, though, at spouting aphorisms.

The whole thing is complete tosh, with no pretence of seriousness and no feel for period or style. But who needs such fripperies when  you’ve gorgeous young models only too eager to strip off at the pointing of a paintbrush?

Painting also featured prominently in BBC1’s Imagine: Art in Troubled Times, with Alan Yentob earnestly enquiring what happens to the arts in times of recession. This first instalment of a two-part investigation focused largely on the public funding of artistic endeavour during the American depression and it proved to be very informative.

Some artists resented the copious federal grants (“When someone pays you, you have to give them what they want,” Woody Guthrie wryly observed), but it was fascinating to learn how much government money, enterprise and ingenuity went into helping American artists survive in the cash-strapped 1930s. Obama is promising similar initiatives for the arts today, though only time will tell if he’s able to deliver.

Up to now I’ve resisted the comedic blandishments of Dara O Briain, but I was won over by Dara O Briain Talks Funny BBC2), recorded at a live gig in the Hammersmith Apollo. His humour is benign rather than confrontational, which is fine by me, but what impressed me most was the way he interracted with the audience, spinning very funny spontaneous riffs from encounters with an electrician and a cobbler in the front row.

Flesh and Blood (RTE1) detailed the relationship between writer Carlo Gebler and his troubled and troubling father, Ernest Gebler, whose contempt for his son was only exceeded by his jealous hatred of spouse Edna O’Brien. I knew the story already from Carlo’s striking memoir, Father and I, but he brought it vividly to life in this arresting documentary.

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