Questions & Answers; Lemass…

by John Boland

For a television critic, Questions and Answers, which ended its 23-year run this week, was that weird combination of the unmissable and the frequently unwatchable.

It was unmissable because, as RTE television’s main forum for political and social debate, it always offered the possibility of controversy. And it was often unwatchable because the politicians who were its main panellists invariably used it as a platform from which to trot out their tedious party lines – often at sleep-inducing and uninterrupted length.

For this reason, I seldom watched it on the night but invariably recorded it. That way, I could fast-forward through the platitudes of Dermot Ahern or Willie O’Dea or Gay Mitchell or whoever (insert your own betes noires here) and linger over the occasional livelier and more contentious exchanges to which I’d been alerted  by friends who’d seen it the previous evening.

In truth, there weren’t too many of these. Indeed, in the final valedictory show last Monday night, host John Bowman conceded that the furiously eloquent intervention less than two months ago by audience member Michael O’Brien on how he’d been abused as a child by clerics was “by far the most memorable moment” in the programme’s history.

There were other striking moments down through the years, too, and we saw some of them on Monday night – Brian Lenihan’s ill-fated appearance as a presidential hopeful in 1990, former Sinn Fein vice president Pat Doherty refusing to condemn the murder of Garda Jerry McCabe in 1996, the same party’s Mitchell McLaughlin similar refusal in 2005 to call the killing of Jean McConville a crime – but they were few and far between.

That was for the reason I mentioned earlier – the opportunity afforded to politicians to utter tedious platitudes at inordinate length (as well as the show’s policy of cramming the audience with vested interest groups – unacknowledged as such until recent times). For this John Bowman himself must take some of the blame because, through a meticulously researched and scrupulously fair host, he lacked the combative compulsion of a Jeremy Paxman, Brian Farrell or Olivia O’Leary to tell these public representatives to cut the crap, stop grandstanding and answer the question.

Indeed, many of the programmes most engrossing moments came from panellists who were disinterested outsiders, many of them journalists – people such as David McWilliams, Gerard Colleran, Eoghan Harris, Alison O’Connor and Eddie Hobbs, who have always been only too happy to inform politicians bent on evasion that a spade is a spade and not an implement whereby one might technically perform certain qualified functions in a garden.

There were fifteen panellists, plus the Taoiseach, on Monday night’s farewell show. That should have made it three times more tedious than in regular editions of Questions and Answers, but reminiscence rather than recrimination won through and the programme was genuinely engrossing, which is more than I could usually say about it.

Far from engrossing was Lemass: The Man Who Made Modern Ireland (RTE1), a hackneyed and tedious trawl through the life of one of this country’s main political architects. There was nothing here that wasn’t familiar to anyone who’d watched the relevant sections of Sean O Mordha’s Seven Ages series or, indeed, who’d seen a previous (and very poor) profile of Lemass shown on RTE some years ago.

Indeed, when the film wasn’t being dutiful, dogged and dull, it was perverse. We were told of Lemass’s part in killing a British officer in 1920 and that this happened on “Bloody Sunday” but there was no mention of other similar executions that morning and of the lethal reprisal by the British in Croke Park that afternoon.

There were good contributions from a number of historians, most of them refreshingly unfamiliar to viewers, but the man who was being talked about remained a cipher. The title of John Horgan’s biography of Lemass refers to an “enigmatic patriot.” Well, he certainly remained that after this lack-lustre hour.

The four-part ITV crime drama, Father and Son, made in association with our national broadcaster, began on RTE1 and did its best to deter viewers with its glum tone and murky look. Dougray Scott was the ex-gangster trying to start a new life in Ireland but forced back to Manchester, where his 15-year-old son had been accused of a murder he didn’t commit.

Cue furrowed brows, tight-lipped talk, contemptuous policemen, sinister prisoners and grim urban landscapes. I wasn’t expecting to get a laugh out of it but I hadn’t imagined it would be quite so determinedly downbeat. 

There were no laughs at all in Dispatches: Terror in Mumbai (Channel 4), but only a fool would have expected this to be anything but hard to watch. Taking as its subject last November’s terrorist massacre in the city, the film availed of gruesome footage, eyewitness recollections, accounts by victims, recorded phone messages by those who controlled the perpetrators and a filmed interrogation of the one terrorist who survived.

He wasn’t meant to.  He and his nine boy comrades were told over the phone by their Pakistan-based manipulators that God “is waiting for you in heaven” and that “for your mission to end successfully, you must be killed.” And there was on-the-spot practical advice, too: “Sit them up and shoot them in the back of the head. Do it. I’m listening. Do it!” Then we heard them doing it.

After that, the adoption antics of a billionaire pop singer were especially hard to stomach. Madonna and Mercy: What Really Happened? was the title of Jacques Peretti’s probe for Channel 4. “It’s a story you couldn’t make up,” he promised the viewer. Or bother to watch, either.

As for the ludicrous days of coverage devoted to Michael Jackson, all I could think of was that if an Irish priest or any other middle-aged male anywhere forked out $20 million dollars to hush up a child abuse accusation, there’d be justifiable uproar. Instead, Jackson is celebrated as a genius and a legend. As Jacques Peretti said: you couldn’t make it up.

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