TV Review

by John Boland

Everything’s a reality show on RTE these days and now you can’t even go to school without being forced to run a gauntlet of camera crews.

School? We’ve all been there. It’s got teachers, it’s got pupils, it’s got classes. It can be dreary, it can be enlightening. Some pupils do well at certain subjects, some don’t. Some teachers are inspiring, some shouldn’t be let near children. It can be the happiest time of your life, or maybe the unhappiest. But why am I telling you this? After all, having spent much of your early life there, you know only too well what it’s like.

Except that RTE thinks you don’t. Why else would it commission The School (RTE1), in which a production company plonks its cameras down in St Peter’s College, Dunboyne, and records every dreary interchange it comes across between pupils and teachers, while also handing out cameras to the students so that every inanity between these teenagers can also be saved for posterity?

And the fact that the pupils’ awareness of the cameras leads to them behaving accordingly rather undermines any pretence of spontaneity or basic honesty that the makers will undoubtedly offer in defence of the series, but this built-in phoniness seems negligible when set against the sheer invasiveness of the exercise.  

Near the outset, I was an unwilling eavesdropper as deputy principal Maureen Murray corrected the spelling and syntax of dyslexic student James, and a little later I had to endure principal Eamon Gaffney reading the riot act to young Adam over some footling matters of dress code and social behaviour.

These are incidents that occur every day in schools, but they’re personal and I’ve no right to be watching or hearing them. So what’s going on here? Has our dependence on celebrity culture become such that matters of time-honoured trust and privacy between teachers and pupils are blithely jettisoned for the tawdry opportunity to grab fifteen minutes of fame on the telly?

Yes, yes, I’m aware that all concerned undoubtedly consented to the screening of this series, and I certainly don’t blame the schoolkids, many of whom must have thought this chance of exposure something of a thrill, but what about the institution’s authority figures who enthusiastically deliver the series’ frequent scoldings and humiliations to their identified victims – four in the opening programme alone? Have they no shame or even, as educators, a basic sense of the confidential bond that’s supposed to exist between teachers and children?

And what did the filmmakers think they were up to with footage of a pep talk given by Darren Sutherland to the pupils on the importance of education and hard work? The young boxer was found dead in his London apartment last September after suffering from depression, but nowhere was his death alluded to here, not even in the end credits. In the circumstances, inclusion of this footage seemed grotesquely inappropriate.

But there’s nothing good to be said about this misconceived series, which was also so lacking in narrative focus as to be incredibly tedious.

Music Changes Lives is the rather dubious title of another RTE1 school-based series(RTE1), but here the makers evince a genuine fondness and respect for the young pupils they’re filming. And, unlike The School, it’s also got a point to it and an actual story to tell.

St Agnes’s in Crumlin and St Ultan’s in Cherry Orchard are both located in what sociologists call disadvantaged areas, though there’s probably a new term for them now. Both also provide weekly violin lessons for their primary school pupils and more consistent musical instruction for those who wish to join the school orchestras.

The first episode of Mike Casey’s series deftly evoked the social landscape in which these schools exist, while also introducing us to the budding young musicians, most of them brimming over with an exhuberance that can’t be faked, and also to their teachers, none of whom snarled at or rebuked their young charges.

Indeed, the approach was determinedly upbeat, though not cloyingly so, and the result was that the viewer quickly became engrossed, while also feeling affection and admiration for the young enthusiasts and their dedicated teachers – dedication being something of a necessity, given that the Government provides no funding for musical education in primary schools.

Elsewhere, you couldn’t escape Michael Portillo. The Tory’s lost leader has reinvented himself as a television presenter of real seriousness and genuine flair, and he was to be seen all over BBC screens this week – embarking on Great British Railway Journeys for BBC2, hosting a dinner-party discussion on political diaries for BBC4 and returning to BBC2 for a This World investigation into why Barack Obama hasn’t fulfilled his pledge to close down the Guantanamo detention centre.

He was at his gravest in this last, wondering how a democracy can reconcile civil liberties and national security, while confessing that, as a former defence secretary, he believed in “a robust response to terror and other threats.” Or, as he also put it, although he was very uneasy about the very idea of Guantanamo, he wasn’t “the bog-standard hostile liberal European.”

In an effort to tease out what he felt, he visited the infamous detention centre and spoke to those in charge of its upkeep. He also spoke to former inmates and to representatives of civil liberties organisations.

At the end, fretting about Obama’s failure to keep his promise, he wondered if he would he have done differently himself. “As a political animal, I doubt it,” he finally conceded, adding that “for what it’s worth, I think he’s made the right call.” That certainly won’t endear him to liberals, but his honesty was impressive.

Kenneth Branagh’s ponderous turn in the new series of Wallander (BBC1) just made me yearn to revisit Swedish television’s terrific versions of Henning Mankell’s crime stories. However, there was nothing ponderous about the first episode of US import FlashForward (RTE2), in which everyone on the planet blacked out for two minutes and seventeen seconds and had visions of their futures, some benign and some very scary. The special effects were spectacular, the performances less so, but the basic premise is intriguing. So, of course, was that of Lost, which went on to become so impenetrable and silly that I wanted to put my foot through the screen.

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