Nuala O’Faolain

by John Boland

Irish Independent, March 24, 2012

Last Monday night’s Nuala was the third documentary about the late Nuala O’Faolain that RTE1 has screened in the past six years. That makes it at least one too many, and though in substance and general interest this new film was vastly superior to its predecessors, it suffered from the same basic problem as the others.

“Unearned poignancy” was the phrase I had used to describe the woefully indulgent, if unintentionally revealing, 2006 ‘Flesh and Blood’ documentary, in which the journalist and memoirist came across as so self-absbored it was as if no one else had ever suffered from a dysfunctional childhood or had endured an unhappy adulthood – which, after a certain age, is usually of one’s own making.

Of the 2009 Cloch le Carn tribute, screened eighteen months after her death, I wrote at the time that it was undermined by its determination “to smother her in a shroud of sainthood”, which is precisely the aura that Marian Finucane has been tirelessly perpetuating over the last few years, mainly on her weekend radio show but now also in this lengthy television profile.

And so, even though the new film was a lot more rounded than the other two, with space found for unflattering observations, nonetheless it asked viewers to take for granted that its subject was possessed of such extraordinary qualities, both personal and literary, that her life story was worth a hundred minutes of their time.

As it happened, the first fifty minutes, detailing the journalist’s early life, were absorbing, though Finucane seemed so obsessed with what O’Faolain’s diary columnist father, Terry O’Sullivan, earned (peanuts by RTE presenter standards) that she brought it up three times in two minutes.

This haughtily remote figure, whom I well recall from my years as a young Evening Press colleague, caused havoc at home, as did his alcoholic wife, and the film was most affecting in the bleak reminiscences of their surviving daughters, notably Grainne, who was an arresting contributor throughout.

Omitted, however, from a chronicle of O’Faolain’s younger self that focused more on destructive relationships than career matters, was any mention of her time as English literature lecturer in UCD, when myself and other students found it hard to credit that such a young woman (not much older than ourselves) could be quite so cranky and bitter when simply tasked with imparting knowledge to us. What’s eating her? we used to wonder. I suppose we found out later.

Still, this part of the film was never less than engrossing. All the more a pity, then, that in its later stages we were asked to keep faith with someone who sometimes seemed almost monstrous in her me-me-me petulance, though it was left to the alert viewer to infer the full extent of her self-regard.

And am I the only viewer who baulked at the film’s protracted conclusion, an emotionally coercive account of her last weeks, as if no one else has ever died or has had to suffer the distress of watching loved ones dying? That had caused me a problem, too, when she gave that famously bleak interview to Finucane just weeks before her death, though her raging against the dying of the light was affecting to many listeners at that moment.

However, the passing of four years required a more dispassionate approach to be taken here, but such distancing seemed beyond a film that was intent less on assessing a life and a talent than on the furtherance of myth-making.

By contrast, in Mark Lawson Talks to Terry Wogan (BBC4), the Irish broadcaster seemed hell-bent on assuring us that luck rather than ambition or brilliance was the secret of his success. He was being disingenuous, of course, but that, too, has always been key to his persona as the amiable everyman with an unrehearsed gift of the gab.

His observations weren’t as arresting as those he had made on RTE1’s The Meaning of Life to Gay Byrne – to whom he here paid fine and due tribute – but Wogan’s always been more interesting than he lets on and this hour-long chat was full of amusing and shrewd insights into his profession.

And he was cheeringly matter-of-fact about his broadcasting job: “I do it and then I go home and have my dinner”. Indeed, he insisted that family always took precedence over everything else. “Nothing else really matters,” he said. Which doesn’t explain how he became the most famous and best-loved broadcaster in Britain. Luck, you say? No, that’s a bit too Irish.

Recycling old material is a bit Irish, too, though that’s what David McSavage was doing in the opening instalment of this season’s The Savage Eye (RTE2). And thus, though there’s a new President in the Aras just asking to be lampooned, McSavage chose yet again to resuscitate Mary and Nick Robinson, who left the Park fifteen years ago.

As for the other sketches, a politician informs an old woman that she smells of “piss and biscuits” before telling her to “fuck off and die”, while the same character visiting a hospital rants that “all you nurses are gettin’ the hole ridden off you every night of the week by bigheaded guards”.

RTE assures me this is a comedy series. Am I missing something?

Panel

Torture-loving Jack Bauer as caring dad to a boy genius? No, I don’t buy it, either, but that’s the premise behind Kiefer Sutherland’s new series, Touch, which began this week on Sky One.

Well, one premise, anyway, the other being that we’re all somehow interconnected and that if we could only find the crucial cosmic link we’d stop being miserable and murderous and start singing in a global Pepsi commercial or something like that.

This twaddle is one-part Paulo Coelho to two parts Babel and it’s full of shots of Kiefer looking concerned and soulful, which is actually quite creepy.

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