Seamus Heaney; Single Handed; Secret of the Stones

by John Boland

Much as some of us cherish the poetry of Seamus Heaney, RTE’s celebration of his 70th birthday seemed just a teensy bit over the top. As someone who contributed his own tuppence worth to the occasion in this newspaper, I still couldn’t credit that the people in charge of RTE radio set aside one hour on Saturday, another on Sunday and 16 hours on Monday in honour of the event. Who did they think he was – Bono or maybe Blathnaid ni Chofaigh?

RTE television contented itself with a 90-minute documentary and placed it in the reliable hands of Charlie McCarthy, a proven dab hand at arts profiles. Thus, Seamus Heaney: Out of the Marvellous (RTE1) was never less than suave and seamless, though I’m not sure if it told us anything we didn’t know before.

That, of course, would be difficult given that Heaney, being a sensible man, only tells interviewers what he wants to tell them and anyway had spent the previous weekend already telling it – to Marian Finucane on Saturday morning and to Vincent Woods on Monday evening.

And so the TV documentary retold the story he’d already related to Finucane and Woods (and to Dennis O’Driscoll in his volume of interviews Stepping Stones) about how, when his children were being enrolled in a Wicklow school in 1972, the headmaster wrote down their father’s occupation as “file,” the Irish for poet. That obviously meant a lot to Heaney at the time, but I didn’t need to hear it repeated three times in three days.

The poet himself, of course, is aware of such pitfalls, observing in Charlie McCarthy’s film that whereas once upon a time the publication of a book was a matter for the writer, his reader and the reviewers, nowadays it’s a major event that necessitates “self-presentation and self-invention” – unless, as he said, the writer adopts “a Beckettian or Frielian stand-off.” I have to say that “Frielian” was a new one on me, but maybe it will stick in the same way as “Pinteresque.”

But even such openess to self-presentation has its limits and one of the most telling moments in the film was of Heaney after a Boston reading, contemplating with weary dismay the long queues that still sought his autograph on copies of his book and being forced to stand up and announce to them all that he’d only be signing his bare name for them, with no dedications. “I’m sorry about that,” he told them, “but I have to get home, and so do you.”

Later, his wife Marie acknowledged the increased demands of publicity in the wake of the 1995 Nobel prize. The poet had described this as like “being hit by a mostly benign avalanche” and she confirmed it: “It certainly is life-changing.”

This led to another of the film’s most intriguing moments, with Heaney saying that he’d have to be an idiot to think that his winning of the Nobel award “wouldn’t cause distress, complication, rage, jealousy, whatever.” About whom was he speaking? Not his family or friends, obviously, or all those who admired him and genuinely wished him well, and not such poet friends as Paul Muldoon, either. So who? Typically, he wasn’t saying, but perhaps he was mischievously encouraging viewers to hazard a few guesses.

Mischievousness, indeed, is part of the man’s personality, which shone through here as it always does, along with the courtesy and kindliness that are among his other treasurable qualities, and it was cheering to spend 90 minutes in his company, even if it wasn’t over a few jars in a cosy snug.

There weren’t many cosy moments in The Drowning Man, the third outing in RTE1’s annual Single-Handed crime drama series. We were back in familiar west of Ireland territory, with local garda sergeant Jack Driscoll going his own dogged way in the face of murder and corruption. This time around, an anti-drug undercover operation was the plot’s motor, but what distinguished the film were the taut lines of Barry Simner’s script, Anthony Byrne’s unfussy direction and expert playing by all concerned, not least Owen McDonnell as the upright but troubled hero. A sense of place was arrestingly captured, too, and overall this was a very superior drama.

A detective story of another kind was told in The Private Life of an Easter Masterpiece (BBC2), which recounted the long and tortuous journey that brought Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ from a Roman palace in the early 1600s to a Jesuit meeting house in Dublin in the 1920s, where it hung on the walls for 70 years before its discovery by an Italian art restorer.

Now, of course, it hangs in our National Gallery and one of the film’s many virtues is that it observed and described the painting so lovingly that only a fool wouldn’t want to dash into Merrion Square immediately and stand before it.

By contrast, Secrets of the Stones (RTE1) wouldn’t have me hurrying off to Newgrange or any of the other burial sites visited in this dreary documentary. Great revelations were promised at the outset, with narrator Phelim Drew assuring us that “the truth about our distant past” would be revealed. But hold on – didn’t Diarmuid Gavin say he would be doing just that in a similarly hyped archaeological investigation some months back? And did anyone care then?

Perhaps I should have stuck with it, but I’m afraid that after 15 minutes the flash graphics, fussy editing, breathless narration and overwrought soundtrack did for me and I could hardly find the energy to locate the remote control.

The remote came in handy, too, about 20 minutes into the new season of Hell’s Kitchen (ITV/TV3). Up to then, I’d  listened to chef Marco Pierre White’s ridiculous macho posturings as he ranted contemptuously about the celebrities he’d be humiliating throughout the series – as if he wasn’t one of the same ego-tripping breed himself. It was enough to give you heartburn in the arse, though I didn’t see that on the menu.

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