by John Boland

At the outset of Charlie Bird’s American Year (RTE1), Barack Obama was being inaugurated as US president, and our intrepid Washington correspondent was wondering what lay ahead for the man. “This time next year,” he mused, “where will the journey have taken him? Who knows? And who knows where the journey will have taken me?”

Two journeys, then, but there was no doubting which was the more significant, a feeling confirmed by RTE’s decision to make a two-part, two-hour series on Charlie’s latest gig, while deeming Obama’s trifling achievement to be unworthy of such extended exposure.

Watching the first hour of this extraordinary film, this viewer had to keep reminding himself that Charlie’s job, along with that of hundreds of other Irish journalists, is to report on the news – the only difference between himself and his colleagues being that he makes an awful lot more money than them. Good for him, but he’s still just a reporter whose job is to gather news and relay it to the public. As for the personal thoughts, feelings or problems of such news providers – honestly, who cares?

Unfortunately, Charlie doesn’t see it like that. Instead, he plainly regards himself as a star, not just a purveyor of stories but the actual story itself – a delusion no doubt encouraged by the celebrity he’s acquired from decades spent on our screens as RTE’s chief reporter. This misapprehension had already served him ill in a couple of previous series – whingeing up the Amazon, moaning his way through the Arctic – but at least those excursions were ostensibly about something other than the presenter, whereas in this American exercise the subject is simply himself and it constitutes cringe-making viewing.

There’s possibly an interesting documentary to be made about the travails of an ageing reporter confronted by an unfamiliar assignment in a foreign land, but in the first hour of this series the reporter’s insights were so paltry, his powers of self-examination so deficient and his bleatings so insistent as to forfeit any sympathy from the viewer.

“I was starting from scratch,” he complained near the start, “and it was all beginning to seem a little daunting.” A while later, the lament had progressed to a wail, as he bemoaned a career “in reverse – most people take a challenge like this when they’re young, but here am I at just about 60 years of age coming to Washington. The loneliness I feel…” So why didn’t he stay at home then? Or had RTE decreed his exile? We weren’t told.

Instead, we saw him in uneasy badinage with his American camera man and we watched him grimace as he attempted to describe colleague Lesley, who’s been working in RTE’s Washington office for years: “Yeah, she’s enthusiastic and she’s, eh…you know.” We didn’t get to learn Lesley’s evaluation of him, which might have been worth hearing, and were left to make what we would of his glum summing up: “The three of us will have to get on.”

Then it was back to more griping about his general situation. “I can ring anyone in Dublin and they know who Charlie Bird is, but no one gives a flying fiddlers who Charlie Bird is in Washington.” Or, again, “I don’t know anyone in Washington and I’m finding it really lonely.”

This should have been poignant but it registered as simply embarrassing, and excruciatingly naïve too – though the most excruciating scene showed him at a St Patrick’s Day reception trying to locate Obama’s appointee as ambassador to Ireland, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that he hadn’t a clue what the man looked like. “Is that Dan Rooney?” he cried constantly as he ran about the room. “Is that Dan Rooney?” he asked various strangers. “I’m looking for Dan Rooney,” he said imploringly to a tuxedoed Micheal Martin. “Oh, yeah, ha, ha, ha,” the minister smirked before turning away. By this point I was watching the film through squirming fingers.

Every so often, he abandoned his bleatings to introduce us to the America in which he’d found himself, but unfortunately it was mainly the wearisomely familiar America of gun clubs and rednecks, while a trip to Guantanamo Bay displayed the reporter at his gauche giddiest. As for the routine working life of a foreign correspondent in a complex capital of power – we got no sense of that at all. But we did get a nakedly exposed Charlie Bird and it made for distressing viewing.

Watching Newsnight at 30 (BBC2), I tried to imagine Jeremy Paxman revealing himself in such a fashion, but the image simply wouldn’t come to me, though this most feared of interrogators did manage the occasional smile during his engrossing look back at three decades of the Beeb’s flagship current affairs show.

Nor can I picture Pat Kenny letting down his personal guard in the Charlie Bird manner. Like Paxman, he knows that the real story lies elsewhere and on this week’s The Frontline (RTE1) he was bracingly in control as he solicited and shaped audience accounts of ghost estates, negative equity and the refusal of government, county councils, planners or developers to accept any responsibility for the horrific predicaments of those house-buyers currently facing financial ruin and blighted lives.

Mrs Mandela (BBC4) was a fine and absorbing drama about the troubled and troubling life of South Africa’s most notorious ex-wife, with Sophie Okonedo riveting in a performance that didn’t invite any easy sympathy but earned a degree of pity, anyway. And David Morrissey was deeply unsettling as a sadistic interrogator.

Julianna Margulies, late of ER, has just won a Golden Globe for her starring role in The Good Wife (Channel 4), though the accolade seems unwarranted. Certainly, there’s nothing about the show’s basic set up or general tenor to suggest anything above the routine. Philandering Peter (Chris Noth, even smugger and smarmier than when playing Mr Big in Sex and the City) is jailed for corruption, so put-upon wife Alicia has to return to her long-abandoned legal career in order to pay the bills. And guess what, she triumphantly wins her first big case.

The series has received many plaudits in the US, but if one is to judge from this first episode, no soap opera cliché has been left unturned.

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