Young Irish & Wealthy; Riviera Cocktail

by John Boland

In July last year, just as the country was heading into economic meltdown, RTE chose to rebroadcast a programme it had first screened the previous winter. Presented by Craig Doyle, it was called Ireland’s Top Earners and I wrote at the time that “with spectacular disregard for the sensitivities of the down-trodden public, this 100-minute celebration of the nation’s obscenely wealthy was a hymn to bling” and that RTE’s decision to air it was indefensible.

This week RTE replicated the same outrageous trick with a rescreening of Young, Irish and Wealthy (RTE1), a companion programme to Ireland’s Top Earners, in which the same Craig Doyle drooled over the richest people in Ireland under the age of thirty. Given the fact that thousands rather than hundreds of people are now losing their jobs every week, this was even less defensible, leading one to surmise that our national broadcaster doesn’t give two hoots about the people it’s supposed to be serving.

In fact, this paean to unfettered wealth had so little regard for viewers that its makers couldn’t even be bothered updating it from when it was first screened –  Robbie Keane, we were informed, currently plays for Liverpool. But do the people in charge of RTE care about such howlers? Obviously not, though they’re quite content with the notion of Craig Doyle gushing that membership of an exclusive golf club can cost up to €85,000, that Nadine Coyle of Girls Aloud is “sitting pretty on €1.8m” and that “there’s no stopping” a trio of siblings who run a video rental outfit and who career around their Monaco holiday pad in fast cars.

And the Montrose  moulders of taste plainly see nothing amiss in Doyle furrowing his brow over a Robert Fisk book on the Middle East (“It’s just so dramatic, so moving, it just shocks you”) before laughingly tossing it aside in favour of a chick lit novel by Cecelia Ahern, about whom “ten million people can’t be wrong.” At that point, I just wanted to throw up.

Instead, I applied myself to the week’s nine programmes about photography in Ireland, heavily puffed in advance by RTE as a major new series. That, though, was false advertising because what some bright spark in RTE had actually done was to cobble together a series mainly out of old programmes – including a profile of the late Fergus Bourke, first screened in 2007; a 2005 film about three generations of Cork amateur photographers; a 1997 compilation of Father Browne pictures; and  documentaries from a few years back about Harry Thuillier Jnr and John Minihan.

There was nothing at all to link any of these programmes beyond the fact that RTE had a schedule to fill and decided to spuriously pass them off as a series. However, I was glad to catch up with one of them, a Swiss-made film called Riviera Cocktail about Dublin-born Edward Quinn, who began adult life as a jazz musician and then worked a an RAF radio navigator before taking up photography in the south of France and spending the rest of his life taking pictures of Hollywood stars.

In the 1950s and early 1960s he had considerable access to them – as narrator Cathal O’Shannon pointed out (in a commentary that seemed tacked on for Irish viewers), this was a time when “a casual relationship between photo-reporters and celebrities was not yet obstructed by PRs or press agents.” And certainly Quinn got some remarkably informal shots of Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Picasso and others.

Quinn died in 1997 but his wife Gret lovingly preserves both his memory and his archive, which is full of astonishingly evocative black-and-white portraits of a vanished generation of stars. This portrait of him was far too mannered (I could have killed the jazz quintet who kept intruding on the narrative), but it was memorable for the photographs it showed.

Quinn worked as a hack for Paris Match and other publications and would probably have blushed if anyone had described him as an artist. By contrast, David Farrell regards himself as an Artist with a capital A, and a Very Serious one at that. This was clear right from the opening seconds of David Farrell: Elusive Moments (RTE1), as he marvelled at one of his own photographs and explained its significance.

A couple of minutes later he was lecturing a young woman at the opening of a Gallery of Photography exhibition, solemnly informing her that “we’ve moved away from the Church, so money is now our new religion.”

After this blinding insight, we encountered him in rural Ireland on a quest for the burial sites of “disappeared” IRA victims. He revealed to us that he wasn’t so much photographing the landscape as having “an engagement” with it, and a little later we found him in rural Italy having a similar engagement there. Indeed, he wanted the viewer “to engage in a dialogue” with his pictures – this the viewer could do by “excavating” them and “finding a meaning” in them.” In general, as he confided, his work as an artist (sorry, Artist) was “an attempt to connect an inner psyche to an outer form,” whatever that meant.

As it happened, some of his photographs were very striking indeed, but I tend to recoil from people who are so up themselves that when they’re not obsessing on the funding and commissions and projects that they deserve they’re droning on and on about the “meaningfulness” of what they do. At which point here I felt like snarling: You’re a snapper, get on with it, and let us be the judge of how good your stuff is.

I’ve no space left to say much about the engrossing Hair of the Gods (RTE1), in which the craving of western women for flattering hair extensions was counterpointed with the story of a poor Indian family who, for reasons of Hindu belief, made an arduous pilgrimage to a temple, where their hair was shorn from them. Such families get no material reward for this brutal practice, but  their hair is sold on to dealers, and eventually it ends up on the head of a Hollywood star – or, as shown here, of an aspirational middle-aged Dublin woman who was dimly aware where her extension originally came from but didn’t let it bother her too much.

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