Michael jackson; Hector at Ballydoyle…

by John Boland

At Tuesday’s memorial concert for Michael Jackson, Motown founder Berry Gordy described his former employee as “the greatest entertainer that ever lived,” a judgment clearly endorsed by all those television channels which opted to jettison normal programming in order to accommodate live coverage of this funereal love-in to a dead singer.

If you grew tired of listening to Marty Whelan as he sat in his RTE2 bunker trying to identify which self-styled member of black showbiz royalty was on stage at any given moment, you got the same visual feed from TV3. You also got it from Sky News, Euro News and CNN, and if those weren’t enough, BBC was providing it on three channels simultaneously – BBC2, BBC News 24 and BBC World.

I thought it grotesque overreaction by media organisations which have become so enslaved to the diktats of celebrity that standing back, taking a deep breath and putting events such as this concert in perspective are no longer an option. And so we had the spectacle of the once proudly rigorous BBC surrendering three of its channels for three hours to the preening antics of celebrity mourners at a tainted pop star’s memorial.

Such craven submission to tawdry fame deserves the beady eye of a Swift or a Pope, or maybe even a Charlie Brooker, whose viciously funny Screen Wipe column in the Saturday Guardian has long been required reading for anyone who loves sparkling prose and breathtaking putdowns. Few celebrities have gone unskewered by Brooker down through the years, and he even managed that dodgy transition from print journalism to television when he hosted a BBC4 variation on his column – dodgy because you can easily end up as that creature your truer self always despised: a self-serving, second-rate television personality.

That fate wasn’t avoided by Clive James, who in the 1990s ended up fronting too many trashy TV shows before wisely going back to his real job as peerless essayist, and I fear for Brooker, too, who’s now gone mainstream with a Channel 4 confection called You Have Been Watching, in which various current television shows are laughed at by the host and a panel of guests.

On the evidence of the opening show, which spent most of its time ridiculing BBC1’s early-evening The One Show and ITV’s wretched Come Dine with Me, Brooker is contenting himself with targets so easy to hit that they’re hardly worth the effort. And the format is uneasy, especially with guests as charmless as this week’s trio.

In contrast to Michael Jackson’s demise, RTE1 contented itself with two reruns in marking the recent passing of famed horse trainer Vincent O’Brien – Hector at Ballydoyle, which dated from last year, and The Master of Ballydoyle, which was originally screened in 1974.

What was fascinating here was the disparity of styles and assumptions underlying the two films. In the 2008 documentary, Hector O hEochogain not only got his name into the title (it’s probably in his contract) but was given at least as much visual attention as Aidan O’Brien, who was the film’s supposed main subject. In the 1974 film the narrator and interviewer was Noel Reid, a cherished colleague of mine in recent years. What, I wondered, did Noel look like 35 years ago? However, I never found out because this film was made before presenters were deemed more important than their subjects, and thus my only glimpse of Noel  was a fleeting shot of the back of his head as he put a question to Vincent O’Brien.

For what it’s worth, Noel’s film was a good deal more absorbing than Hector’s, despite all the latter’s antics, or maybe because of them.

Having failed to commission a  documentary on child sexual abuse for at least a fortnight, RTE compensated for its uncharacteristic oversight with the first instalment of the new series of Flesh and Blood, though for once there wasn’t a priest in sight.

However, the ogre here was in some ways even more sinister – a mild-mannered father whose very matter-of-factness led his six-year-old daughter to assume that her friends underwent similar invasive attentions at home. In fact, as she later found out, some six other girls were also the victims of this quiet-spoken monster, who was jailed for five years eighteen months ago.

Her story was shocking and she articulated it very well, but after a while I began to wonder what exactly I was supposed to be feeling – apart from the revulsion and disgust and pity that I’ve felt while sitting through scores of documentaries about child abuse. So how many such films am I required to watch before I can say that I’ve  seen enough and not sound heartless?

The Silver Surfari (RTE2) was a loving evocation of the joys of surfing around the Irish coast, a practice unheard of until about forty years ago when some enthusiastic pioneers discovered that the sport wasn’t just the exclusive preserve of those who lived on  Bondi Beach or the Big Sur.

Now in their late 50s or early 60s, these original local wave riders reconvened to reminisce and share stories, aided by some wonderful old cine footage taken at Lahinch, Easkey and points north by northwest. All very nostalgic and charming, though I guess you had to have been there to really know what they were on about.

By contrast, the issues at stake in The Oz Factor (RTE2) were blindingly clear. AFL sports agent Ricky Nixon was in Ireland promising pots of cash to local GAA talent if they signed up for the Aussie Rules league Down Under. “They call me the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” he cheerfully confided.

Actually, they were calling him worse. “A pillager,” fumed Tyrone coach Mickey Harte. “A second-hand people salesman,” broadcaster Tom McGurk snarled, adding in disbelief: “He’s offering them a new life! What’s wrong with the one they have?”

I don’t know, Tom, you’d have to ask them – which maybe the series will get round to doing next week.

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