Tribute to doomed flight beset by heavy baggage

by John Boland

On the Saturday before the November 1984 Beaujolais air crash I met Evening Herald editor Niall Hanley at a rugby international in Lansdowne Road. As a journalist with the Evening Press, I had been belatedly invited on the plane trip, which was scheduled for the following Tuesday, but hadn’t confirmed my acceptance.

Niall, whom I didn’t know very well but liked a lot, seemed similarly unenthused by the prospect of the jaunt.

However, he had committed himself to going, and over the course of a few post-match drinks he persuaded me to do likewise, telling me to phone organiser Francois Schillebaum early on Monday morning.

But when Monday morning came, and despite having told my friends and colleagues that I was going, I kept putting off making the call.

Finally, at lunch-hour, I did so and Francois confessed himself delighted, saying he’d come back to me with exact details of the flight. But when he called back it was to tell me regretfully that his boss, hotelier Pat Gibbons, had assumed I wasn’t going and had just given my seat to fellow journalist Kevin Marron. He’d make it up to me, Francois assured me.

Such is the thin line dividing life and death. Indeed, when the plane crashed the following night, many of my colleagues thought I was on it, and one of them was asked to come in from home to write my obituary, which she had half completed before the list of the nine men who’d died arrived at the news desk. There’s even a ghostly photo of me as one of the dead in an early edition of the London Evening Standard.

Thus I had a special interest in watching this week’s Disaster (RTE1), which dealt with the crash.

The film, though, was a mess, never making up its mind whether it was about a ghastly accident and its possible causes, or about the phenomenon of such excursions in the Ireland of the time, or about a particular social scene in Dublin (there was much archive footage of nightclubs and wine drinking) or about journalistic reputations or indeed about the impact of such calamities on the loved ones left behind.

These last, with the exception of Maria Cassidy, who spoke very movingly of the loss of her husband Cormac, were absent from the film, while some of the victims were only mentioned in passing. (It wasn’t even made clear whether Pat Gibbons was on the plane.)

Instead, most of Doireann Ni Bhriain’s narration was devoted to the columnists who died, as if the others somehow mattered less, and somewhat extravagant claims were made for their media importance.

Was John Feeney really “the most controversial journalist in Ireland at that time”? (He was writing a social diary.) Did the Sunday World’s Kevin Marron really “create” tabloid writing in Ireland and did he honestly leave “a fantastic legacy”, as the paper’s Paddy Murray insisted?

Somehow, though, it was fitting that in a film overly skewed in favour of the journalistic victims, the narration left no cliché unturned.

Speculation was “rife,” disaster “struck,” wine was “exotic”, the victims had “enjoyed life to the full,” and the crash “robbed Irish life of much of its colour”. Those who knew them will continue to mourn the men who died, but a film on the tragedy should have had far more balance and coherence than this one managed.

By contrast, the first film in Philip King’s three-part series The Living Bridge (RTE1) had real purpose and was very satisfying. Knowing little about Eimear Quinn, beyond the fact that she has a beautiful voice and that, with Anuna, she was the 1996 Eurovision Song Conest winner,.

Knowing hardly anything at all about Belfast piper and cellist Neil Martin, I had no expectations of this film and, to be honest, was prepared for an hour of desultory viewing. My expectations, though, were confounded.

This was due in considerable part to King’s skill in shaping a film that stylistically was all of a piece with its subject — the merging of two musical talents and traditions.

But that would have gone for very little if the two protagonists hadn’t been so engaging and engrossing; each of them clearly in love with the music they were making, whether independently or together, and neither of them ever confusing seriousness with solemnity.

Eimear Quinn’s a lovely singer, with an astonishing purity and range, and she came across as a lovely person, too; and Neil Martin was just as unpretentious and winning.

There was a touching scene in which she got to sing the main soprano part of Allegri’s Miserere with that great choir, The Sixteen, in St Bartolomew’s in London, while her colleague listened from a pew in the nave. “It’s music beyond words,” he marvelled, and indeed it was.

RTE’s always banging on about supporting the arts and sometimes the boast seems hollow, but in entrusting King with this series that’s precisely what it’s doing here, and in a most absorbing and illuminating way.

Mention should be made, too, of Playing for Time: The Ulster Orchestra (BBC1), which took us behind the scenes and let the players speak candidly about their vocation and about their relationships with their colleagues and with visiting or resident conductors.

Less music was played here than in the King film but the result was very enjoyable

Music was also the subject of this week’s Day Out With Daly (BBC2), in which presenter John Daly accompanied Radio 3 presenter (and former news broadcaster) Sean Raftery to Covent Garden and to his idyllic retreat in Donegal.

Daly’s a bit too fawning for my taste, but Raftery made for an interesting subject — a loner who was quite revealing in some ways but with an essential guardedness that the interviewer couldn’t quite penetrate, not that he tried very hard.

BBC2’s The Culture Show celebrated The Simpsons with an over-reliance on comments from Ricky Gervais.

The more I watch this comedian being interviewed the more I dislike him — David Brent may be full of self-loathing but his creator loves himself inordinately, and that’s not a pretty sight.

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