I’m left pondering the meaning of Rte

by John Boland

Gay Byrne returned to our screens on Monday night with a second series of The Meaning of Life (RTE1), but having spent the three weeks since New Year’s Day waiting for our national broadcaster to transmit one programme of real substance, I feel more like pondering the meaning of RTE.

In his role as the station’s chief publicity officer, Ryan Tubridy has been attempting to persuade us of the merits of recent RTE offerings, all of which have been “fabulous” or “marvellous” or whatever superlative leaps automatically to The Late Late Show host’s lips — this week he devoted an entire edition of his morning radio show to an entirely unquestioning celebration of the RTE1 series The School, a tawdry, personally invasive and ethically dubious reality show that masqueraded as serious social comment.

Meanwhile, RTE’s Irish competitors have been screening programmes that actually merit viewing — TG4 has been putting out some characteristically quirky documentaries as well as the ambitious if somewhat over-egged supernatural mystery drama Na Cloigne; while TV3 has been making good on its promises about home-produced output, especially with Taoiseach, a series screened too late in the week for immediate critical comment but notable for its engrossing seriousness. And even Ursula Halligan’s indulgent interview with Eamon Dunphy on the same channel was more riveting than anything recently shown on RTE.

Indeed, The Meaning of Life was about as riveting as RTE got this week, if only for guest Gabriel Byrne’s account of his Christian Brothers schooldays, which he described as “full of fear”. This was not just because of the regular beatings he suffered but because of sexual abuse, too, which was also perpetrated on him when he joined a Catholic novitiate in England.

“I was unlucky in that way,” he said with remarkable matter-of-factness. As is usual in this series, his namesake kept pushing him on matters of orthodox religiosity (“What do you think Jesus was? Do you believe he was divine? Do you believe he rose on the third day?”), even though he had already declared himself an unbeliever in traditional faith, but thankfully the questioning shifted and the actor was very good when speaking of the depression that has haunted him for much of his adult life and also of the spuriousness of celebrity: “Fame is a delusion — it doesn’t help you to go to sleep at night or get up in the morning.”

Still, the obsession with religion persisted. What if the actor got to the pearly gates and encountered God? In that eventuality, what would he say to him? “Well,” he replied, “if that happens I think he’ll have some explaining to do.” I don’t know what his host thought, but it seemed a sensible answer to me.

The actor also spoke earnestly of advancing years and of mortality, but over on BBC1 Northern Ireland Jackie Fullerton was being more upbeat about such things. Indeed, the continuity woman introducing Jackie’s Jaunts confided that though he “reckons he’s getting old, he’s still got that twinkle in his eye” and was intent “to show us that life beyond 60 can still be a blast”.

God preserve me from ageing Northern Irish TV presenters with those trademark twinkles in their eyes and their pledges to have a belated blast, and so I remained immune to Jackie’s coaxings as he set out along the highways and byways of Ulster with some “fellow wrinklies” to discover if old age can lead to “the time of our lives”.

Instead, I accompanied Rory Stewart as he set out to explore The Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia (BBC2). Stewart has already been deputy governor of two Afghan provinces, is currently a Harvard professor and is about to run as a Tory candidate in Cumbria, even though he looks about 12, 14 at tops, and you’d worry about letting him into town on his own.

But in his 20s he walked for 10,000 miles through Afghanistan and he’s clearly at ease riding a camel, sleeping out in the desert and conversing with Bedouin tribesmen. He also appears to know an awful lot about the history of the Middle East.

This made him an ideal, if perhaps overly admiring, guide to the intricacies of Lawrence’s career and the complexities of the man. The final part of his exploration is screened tonight and there was enough in the first episode to make it unmissable — not least the comparisons he drew between Lawrence’s experiences and today’s Western debacle in the region. Lawrence’s dream of a new Arab nation ended, as Stewart pointed out, in “catastrophe and shame”, and the same outcome seems probable after this latest blundering intervention “into a culture so alien to our own”.

Meanwhile, on No Frontiers (RTE1) reporter Fionn Davenport was blundering into Berlin, where he found sandcastles, sauerkraut, confectionery and clubbing. “One thing’s for sure,” Fionn confided, “they know their sausages.” He also revealed that “Germany is the land of chocolates” that “Berlin’s a very stylish place” and that this “endlessly fascinating” city is not only “cutting-edge” but also “steeped in history”.

I’m hoping to pay my first visit to Berlin in the coming months and was thrilled to gain such illuminating insights from Fionn. Where would we be without No Frontiers?

Veteran broadcaster Joan Bakewell used to be known as “the thinking man’s crumpet”, or at least Private Eye deemed her so. Now that honour has been bestowed on Kirsty Young, she of the comely figure, come-hither quizzical smile and husky voice. A pity, then, that in The British Family (BBC2) those dulcet tones are uttering sweeping generalisations and pious platitudes. The archive footage is fine and the interviews are arresting, but I’m afraid that Kirsty’s catechism of cliches wins the day.

While TV3 may be offering Taoiseach, they’re also succumbing to their lurid tendencies in Lawless Ireland, which is crammed with CCTV footage of criminality that’s designed to scare you stiff. And the commentary is just as bad. “The Celtic Tiger may be no more,” reporter Brian O’Donovan solemnly intoned this week, “but there are still plenty of wild animals out there.” And lots of ghastly soundbites, too.

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