When in Rome

by John Boland

Irish Independent, March 16, 2013

Like any self-respecting broadcaster, RTE was on the spot when the new pope was introduced to the world last Wednesday evening and it provided engrossing coverage of this extraordinary ritual – no matter what one’s religious persuasion, there’s nothing to beat pomp and ceremony when staged by experts at putting on a good show.

The problem, though, was that RTE had been on the spot for the previous four weeks. Ever since Pope Benedict announced his retirement a month ago, you’d be forgiven for thinking that RTE’s news department was based in Rome rather than Donnybrook, with round-theclock bulletins from Bryan Dobson, Eileen Dunne, Sean O’Rourke, Miriam O’Callaghan, Joe Little, Fergal Keane, Tony Connolly, Fran McNulty, Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

Indeed, for the last four weeks it sometimes seemed that the only RTE people not enjoying the clement weather, charming hotels and culinary delights of the Italian capital were Marty Whelan, Blathnaid ni Chofaigh and the cast of Fair City.

It was all a bit strange. We’re constantly being assured by earnest pundits that – in the wake of clerical sex scandals which have eroded respect for the Church – we’re now living in a post-Catholic Ireland, but no one seems to have told RTE. Indeed, whenever the station is not getting into trouble for libelling blameless members of the clergy it reverts to its traditional stance of dutiful genuflection towards a troubling institution and its Roman masters.

However, for those of its viewers who are no longer so tolerant of the Catholic church, a month in the Eternal City has seemed an inordinately long time to be spent by a state broadcaster that should be more intent on addressing domestic problems which seem just as eternal and an awful lot more pressing.

One of the most pressing issues in the United States, or so it would seem to the majority of non-Americans, is the easy access to lethal weaponry, a subject of some fretting by reporter Hilary Andersson in Panorama: America’s Gun Addiction (BBC1).

She began at the scene of the recent Sandy Hook school massacre, and indeed spent too much of the half-hour detailing the ghastly circumstances of that slaughter of innocents, and in truth came up with nothing new or startling afterwards, though declarations by the National Rifle Association that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” still manage to take the breath away with their dogged insistence on entirely missing the point.

Guns were also at issue in Oscar Pistorius: What Really Happened? (BBC3), which was a question that, despite the teasing title, the hour-long film signally failed to answer. The investigative reporter here was a tall, bearded bloke called Rick Edwards, who, in the absence of revealing facts, quickly resorted to cliche.

Thus we were twice told that Pistorius had been “the poster boy for the Paralympics”, while Reeva Steenkamp, the girlfriend he fatally shot, had “photogenic looks” which were “rocketing her to stardom”.

The experts and acquaintances whom Rick interviewed were no more enlightening. We learned from Reeva’s tattooist that she was an “amazing person” who had requested him to etch a poem on her torso, while a friend revealed that she was not only a “breath of fresh air” but also had “a beautiful soul”.

Yes, but what about the killing? Rick disclosed that “a darker side” of Pistorius was now “starting to emerge”, though in fact stories about rages, threats and car crashes had been circulating long before Rick got round to rehashing them. As for the whydunnit, Rick had nothing to impart, so we’ll wait for the trial.

Maybe I would have treated Rick’s investigation with a little more respect if I hadn’t just switched over from E4 where, lo and behold, he was presenting a show honouring the 100th edition of The Big Bang Theory.

I’m quite a fan of this US sitcom about a quartet of socially inept geeks and the beguilingly sassy young woman across the hall – it doesn’t insult the intelligence, it’s often very funny and it enshrines a droll and sexy turn from Kaley Cuoco. She was equally winning in this tribute show, though Rick was a gauche and somewhat gormless interviewer and was overly content to puff everyone in sight.

Parks and Recreation (BBC4) has elicited a critical esteem in the US that hasn’t been afforded to The Big Bang Theory, but I don’t think it’s half as engaging. There’s too much of The US Office about its mockumentary style, while Amy Poehler’s central performance as the eagerly upbeat town council official aims for a blend of humour and pathos that doesn’t quite come off.

Still, there’s a certain charm to it and perhaps increased familiarity will breed a degree of contentment.

In Dushlan 1881: Living the Eviction (RTE1), an Irish and an American family volunteered to spend three days and nights in conditions similar to those endured by Inishowen families who couldn’t pay their rent 130 years ago.

Well, that was the plan anyway, though the thatched cottages in which the volunteers were accommodated looked like weekend getaway homes for a Celtic Tiger generation. That didn’t stop the visitors from moaning about cramped conditions, but for the viewer it removed any notion of hardship.

A bigger problem, though, was that no one who featured in the film had anything of interest to say. “I think it will be really boring”, a young boy had predicted at the outset, and how right he was.


The problem with the two-part mystery drama Shetland (BBC1) was that it was full of dour Scotsmen harbouring dour grudges and muttering dour threats while moping around a dour landscape. If it’s gloom I want, I’d rather find myself in Scandinavia, where at least the killings are baroquely gruesome and the cops wear riveting woolly jumpers.

Riveting was not a word you could apply to Douglas Henshall, who was the main cop here, trundling around the island in very slow search of whoever had murdered a local woman. Instead of action, there were lingering shots of furrowed brows, shifty silences and dark scowls against a backdrop of dank crofts and sullen skies. If that’s Caledonian noir, you can keep it.

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