by John Boland

Baz Ashmawy is RTE2’s intended answer to Louis Theroux, except that the BBC has never required its man to co-host a cringe-inducing reality contest. But then again, on those occasions when he’s not being smirkingly faux-naif, Theroux can come up with programmes of insight and substance, whereas Ashmawy was all too suited to the ghastly Failte Towers, gurning and bellowing his way through the mayhem with the manic air of a guy who didn’t care what he was asked to do just so long as he got his mug on TV.

Subsequently, and seemingly encouraged by his thirst for exposure at any cost, RTE then granted him another series, this one set in Los Angeles, where the Montrose protege attempted to establish a reputation for maverick antics by confronting a motley crew of tiresome tossers on the fringes of Hollywood. Yet again, the presenter contrived to offer himself as the inimitably off-the-wall star of the show, though it wasn’t a persuasive act.

And now, in Baz’s Extreme Worlds, RTE2 is enabling him further in his delusion, even though, by surrounding himself with hardened criminals, he merely revealed his limitations both as frontman and interviewer. But then that’s what tends to happen when presenters think they’re of more fascination than the subject they’re covering or the people to whom they’re talking.

Allowed access to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Ashmawy found himself face-to-face with a man awaiting execution, but he couldn’t think of anything to say to him beyond a mumbled query about the crime he’d committed and the duration of his time on Death Row. And there were similar awkward silences and gaucheries with other inmates.

So what was Ashmawy doing in the penitentiary if not gaining for the viewer some insight into the backgrounds and crimes of the prisoners and the harsh regime in which they found themselves? Instead, he spuriously focused on an upcoming prison rodeo, which allowed him to contemplate truckloads of wild bulls, assert that he wouldn’t get up on them and then add charmingly: “And you know me, I’d ride anything.”

For this we pay our licence fee.

Prisons also featured in Mental: A History of the Madhouse (BBC4), though here they largely housed people who’d never done any harm to anyone, except perhaps themselves. Even as late as the 1950s, such asylums in England  incarcerated 150,000 patients – the majority of whom, as a psychiatric nurse observed,  were “just socially inadequate – they weren’t wanted and were dumped by their relatives.”

One such person was Joan, whose agoraphobia, which she developed in her late twenties, resulted in panic attacks. “There was nothing much wrong with me,” she told the programme, but that didn’t stop her being committed by her parents to an asylum in Aylesbury, where she was incarcerated for over thirty years.

There she was subjected to electric-convulsive therapy and damaging insulin injections, though she escaped the fate of being lobotomised, which was the other barbaric psychiatric fad of the time.

This was a sobering and sometimes distressing film and you reflected that a similar film about asylums in Ireland would tell much the same terrible stories. I kept thinking of the hapless, haunting Roseanne in Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture.

Stephen Fry has spent time inside as well – a remand centre in his case after he was arrested for theft as a teenager. These were his wild years when he was, by his own account, truculent, overbearing and obnoxious. He didn’t know then that he was a bi-polar manic depressive and it wasn’t until 1999, when he famously walked out of a West End theatrical production, that the world learned of his mental problems.

Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive (BBC4) was his attempt to explore the cause and nature of his illness but the film spent an annoying amount of time concerning itself with Stephen Fry the celebrity with famous pals rather than with Stephen Fry the private sufferer.

Thus we found him schmoozing with Robbie Williams, a fellow sufferer, in Los Angeles and with Carrie Fisher, also in LA. The former, Fry informed us, was “manic only as a performer – I’m manic in real life.” As for the latter, he told us that she was “not mad enough to be committed but not sane enough to lead a normal life.” She certainly seemed alarmingly hyper, and Fry, while assuring us that she was on medication, added: “You’d have to picture what she’d be like if she weren’t.”

More interestingly, he pondered the possible upside of his bipolarity. “Would I have had success without it?” he wondered. This viewer, making his own instant diagnosis, thought probably not.

Another troubled soul is singer, songwriter, cross-dresser and former heroin user George O’Dowd, aspects of whose flamboyant life were dramatised in Worried About the Boy (BBC2). “I’m not a drug addict, I’m a drag addict,” he snapped at one tormenter, but that was good as the dialogue got in this superficial drama.

Mind you, it looked sensational – all those daft New Romantic clothes and hair-dos, not to mention the director’s self-consciously artful compositions – and Douglas Booth was gorgeous as the man himself, but ultimately it was a rather hollow triumph of style over substance.

In my absence last week, David Robbins wrote warmly about the RTE1 Aftershock film, Ghost Land. But this week’s Aftershock offering, Rising After Redundancy, wasn’t nearly as impressive, chiefly because it couldn’t make up its mind whether to be a serious film about newly unemployed people or an ongoing reality  show, with lots of breathless vocal intrusions from narrator Tina Kellegher.

And I wasn’t quite sure why self-styled “career coach” John Fitzgerald was being afforded such slavish publicity. Still, he was adept at winning round his six guinea pigs to his methods. Near the outset, one spirited man scoffed at them for being “too touchy-feely” but by the halfway mark he had succumbed to the discover-your-inner-self mantras being propagated.

For myself, I’ll wait until a couple of instalments have been shown – indeed, until I learn whether any of the participants find alternative employment, which is surely the point of the exercise – before I make a verdict.

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