by John Boland

Midway through the Arts Lives documentary, Gilbert O’Sullivan: Out on His Own (RTE1), the singer-songwriter explained to his wife his stance regarding the promotion of his music and his image. “I’m not talking about myself,” he told her. “I’m talking about Gilbert O’Sullivan.”

The “myself” in question was Raymond Edward O’Sullivan, who was born in Waterford in 1946, and though he alluded in the film to his Irish birth and upbringing, he was intent on distinguishing that person from the public persona he had created when seeking fame and fortune in pop music.

To complicate matters, Himself had been the title of his first album, though it was clear even then (1971) that subterfuge and disguise were being employed to distance the private person from the public performer – the sleeve presented him as a Bisto Kid in cloth cap and braces and he encouraged this fantasy construct in his television appearances and stage performances at the time.

Almost forty years later, the real man, whoever he might be, remains just as elusive. We learned from this documentary that his parents took the family to Swindon when he was seven years old, that his wife (whom we fleetingly saw) is Norwegian and that he has two daughters who live in London, but the biographical facts went no further than that.

Indeed, anything to be inferred about the man behind the mask came courtesy of the mostly sardonic asides he made throughout the film, as in his observation that “the first people to ignore you are those who praised you the most.”

His problem seems to be that, although he insisted he’d no interest in “living in the past,” he hasn’t got over the fact that his greatest success came at the outset of his career and that he’s never achieved anything like it since.

That success had been phenomenal, and though it had been bolstered by the quirkiness of his image, it was largely attributable to his extraordinary gift for marrying elaborately inventive lyrics to extended melodies of instant memorability – encapsulated in such songs as Nothing Rhymed, We Will, Alone Again Naturally and Clair.

However, the lyrics to the last of these, though no doubt innocently intended, sound even dodgier to 2010 ears than they did at the time  (“I don’t care what people say to me, you’re more than a child, oh Clair” and “Why, in spite of our age difference, do I cry? Each time I leave you I feel I could die”), and time has not been kind to such later songs as A Woman’s Place (in the home, of course), while the simplistic lyrics to a new song called Talking of Murder could have been lifted from a Daily Mail rant about violent crime.

The sense is of a man who’s out of sync with the contemporary world and whose gift for irresistible melody has largely deserted him, and maybe it’s a recognition (subconscious or otherwise) of these things that led to the sourly defensive tone he adopted throughout much of this film. Or maybe he just doesn’t like being followed around by a prying documentary crew – “the intrusion seemed awful to me,” he said at the end.

But he should console himself with the fact that a few of his songs have endured for forty years and look likely to remain in the affection of listeners for another forty. Not too many singer-songwriters have managed that.

Growing Up Gay (RTE1) is a two-part series that takes as its subject the lives of young people who have discovered their sexual nature since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993. Four gay teenagers were profiled in the opening instalment and though they were all engaging I’m afraid the law of diminishing returns kicked in for me quite early on.

Each of them had been fearful about confessing their sexuality to their parents, but in every instance the parents – some immediately, others after a period of agonising – had proved to be sympathetic. This led to a somewhat wearying sense of the same story being retold too many times, and to no obvious social, psychological or dramatic purpose. Perhaps next week’s programme will provide some fresh perspectives.

In last week’s much-trumpeted television debate, Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats scored over his opponents by looking audience members in the eye and addressing them by name – a very basic trick, though one that obviously hadn’t occurred to Gordon Brown, David Cameron or their advisers. Maybe for their next outing they’ll have learnt a few tips from Michael Cockerell’s highly entertaining How to Win a TV debate (BBC2), which began with the famous 1960 confrontation between Republican vice-president Richard Nixon and Democratic upstart John F Kennedy.

“No one’s going to package me,” Nixon had bragged in advance. “I’m not an actor – I’m just going to be myself.” That was his downfall, along with a five-o-clock shadow, a tendency to sweat and a light-coloured suit that made him fade into the backdrop. Kennedy, by contrast, had acquired an impressive suntan simply by lying on the roof of his hotel beforehand and he sported a dark jacket that made him look serious and statesmanlike.

Ronald Reagan won votes by chuckling “There you go again” whenever Jimmy Carter strove for earnestness, and in his debate with Bill Clinton, George Bush Senior was fatally observed consulting his watch while Bill was wowing the studio audience. Interviewed in later years, Bush said: “Was I glad when the damn thing was over? Hell, yeah.” As for his watch-checking: “Maybe that’s why I was looking at it – only ten more minutes of this crap.”

And more recently, John McCain’s contempt for Barack Obama was such that he was advised not to look him in the eye during their TV confrontations. Viewers quickly picked up on that and decided they didn’t like it.

The three-part Welcome to Lagos (BBC2) is screened too late in the week for immediate comment here, but last week’s opening film was brilliant. As a group of men scavenged in a vast municipal dump for cast-off items – clothes, copper wire, whatever – that  might provide them with a basic livelihood, the viewer could only marvel at their resilience, ingenuity and exhuberance in the most soul-destroying of environments.  The human spirit’s an extraordinary thing.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: