TV Review

by John Boland

Having written last Saturday about the programmes I had most admired in the past twelve months, it was with some degree of interest that I tuned into Ireland’s Top TV Moments, a compilation of what 3e deemed to be the most riveting television occasions of 2010. Puzzlingly, nothing that I had singled out featured in the two-hour show, but then I hadn’t favoured anything transmitted by 3e’s big sister TV3, whereas eighteen TV3’s “moments” featured in 3e’s Top 30. Funny that.

Many of these were TV3 imports (Big Brother, Coronation Street, The X Factor, I’m a Celebrity, etc), but there were home-produced “moments” too – such as Ursula Hannigan reducing Eamon Dunphy to tears (me, too, Ursula), and the same reporter confronting Brian Cowen about that morning’s tired-and-emotional RTE radio interview, which she had accomplished amid scores of other reporters who were asking the exact same questions of the Taoiseach.

In fact, 3e’s Top 30 offered only one programme that I might have mentioned as among the year’s best – Henry McKean’s sympathetic and engrossing documentary about a Traveller wedding. But then Henry went and spoiled it all by popping up in this end-of-year ragbag as a talking head and announcing that “the country was devastated, absolutely devastated” on hearing that Gerry Ryan had died. “It was like losing a brother, a son, a father,” he declared in a tone even more desolate than that of the late presenter’s own RTE colleagues. “The guy was an absolute icon,” was his awestruck conclusion. No, he wasn’t, Henry, he was a 2fm DJ with a drug problem. Let’s keep things in perspective.

Among 3e’s other 2010 “moments” were the release from prison of favourite tabloid monster Larry Murphy (apparently only covered by TV3), the Big Freeze (ditto), the rescue of the Chilean miners (ditto again) and the series Boozed Up Irish Abroad, one of the least edifying things I’ve ever had the misfortune to watch.

The same channel started the new year in its usual wallow-in-the-mire fashion with the first instalment of Cocaine Wars, a four-part series about the murder and mayhem that’s been caused by criminal gangs from Crumlin and Drimnagh. Presented by Mick McCaffrey and based on a book he’s written about these thugs, this was actually less trashy in tone than many other such TV3 exercises, yet after 30 minutes of the hour-long opener I asked myself if I would learn anything worthwhile by spending more of my precious time with the scumbags on display. So I switched off.

Happily there were arresting alternatives, by which I don’t mean Channel 4’s Father Ted night, a desultory celebration of the classic sitcom’s 15th anniversary. Sandwiched between the favourite episode of viewers (the Pat Mustard one, would you believe) and the favourite of the show’s writers (Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse, if you must know) was the documentary Small, Far Away: The World of Father Ted, the most intriguing moment of which was the on-screen caption declaring that “Pauline McLynn declined an invitation to take part in this documentary.”

No doubt, she’s sick to death of the Mrs Doyle association and thus couldn’t be arsed, a feeling seemingly shared by co-writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, who did turn up for the occasion but behaved as if they’d wished they didn’t. Indeed, only Ardal O’Hanlon got into the supposed spirit of the occasion, and it was he who, not incidentally, came up with the film’s only interesting reminiscences and insights.

The Arts Lives profile of Dermot Healy (RTE1) was subtitled The Writing in the Sky, the sky in question being that above the Maugherow headland in Co Sligo, where the Westmeath-born writer has been living for more than two decades, and where hundreds of barnacle geese arrive for half of every year before returning to the Arctic.

These are the subject of Healy’s new 100-page poem, A Fool’s Errand, and the viewer also learned that a new novel, Long Time No See – his first since Sudden Times in 1999 – is also on the way.

This is good news for those of us who have long admired Healy’s work, yet I found Garry Keane’s documentary oddly unsatisfying. The writer himself had interesting things to say, there were fine tributes to him by Seamus Heaney and others, and the photographed landscapes and seascapes were very striking, but there was something self-consciously earnest and awed about the film’s whole approach, as if the makers felt that art precluded anyone letting their hair down, which is not the Dermot Healy I fondly recall.

Much better was Who Is Dervla Murphy? (TG4), an hour-long profile of the great travel writer. Among those who know of her (and the title depressingly suggested that nobody does), Dervla Murphy has always had the reputation of being a reclusive oddball whose privacy you’d violate at your peril, but she certainly opened up to director Garret Daly in this engrossing and exhuberantly entertaining film.

Now 78, she spoke with nonchalant candour of her unhappy childhood – at loggerheads with a father  for whom she felt an affinity that never materialised and with a mother who became a truculent invalid in her twenties and the care of whom drove her young daughter to alcoholic excess. “It’s a good thing she died when she did,” Dervla remarked, “because at the rate I was going I could have drunk myself to death.”

Instead, at the age of 31, she went on her bicycle to India, sent the resulting book, Full Tilt, to a London publisher and achieved sudden fame. A brief affair with Terence de Vere White, then literary editor of the Irish Times, followed, and the result was Rachel, now 42 and speaking in the film with the same frankness as her mother.

“I think it was outrageous to have a child in those circumstances,” Rachel said of the mother who dragged her all over the world when she was a child. Subsequently, Rachel was sent to boarding school, which Dervla now regards as “a huge mistake” and which to this day makes her daughter dubious about forgiving her. “A very good friend” was Rachel’s mature verdict, “but not a great mother.”

The books are great, though, and so was this film.

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