Sunday 4 December 2016

Television review... '1916': The Corporate Video

* 1916 (RTE1)
* Rebellion (RTE1)

Published 29/02/2016 | 02:30

Illustration Jim Cogan
Illustration Jim Cogan

The general response of the critics to the lavish documentary series 1916 would suggest that it was wildly good.

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But I wouldn't be that wild about it.

And the general response of the critics to the lavish drama series Rebellion would suggest that it was wildly bad.

But it was not bad at all.

I am happy as always to clear these things up, and since my view on this is not the most popular, I suppose I should offer some explanation.

I would have thought that the problems with 1916 were clear enough, that no explanation would be required, but evidently not. These problems partly spring from the fact that 1916 was so aware of its own importance, it felt at times like a corporate video.

There is a large industry out there making corporate videos, and there's nothing we can do about that, nor should we be bothered with such trivia. They are often quite luxurious productions, which can look and sound quite beautiful in their own way, and, sure enough, 1916 was faultless on that level - if it was a book it would be a richly illustrated 'coffee table' ornament, the narration by Liam Neeson was superb, the music by Patrick Cassidy was exemplary.

There was nothing wrong with it by any of these conventional measurements, just as a corporate video with lovely pictures of rivers and lakes and mountains can be quite pleasant after a very big dinner, accompanied by a selection of fine wines.

But there is one weakness you will find even in the finest of corporate videos - you'll always be wondering if they are, shall we say, leaving things out.

And, of course, nobody minds that, because generally nobody sees them apart from those who are already signed up for the corporate mission, whatever that is. They are not setting out to seek the truth, these guys are not Werner Herzog making Fitzcarraldo, they are just putting together some confection that will soothe the nerves of their own people and of clients they are trying to impress.

More is expected from a grand three-part production such as 1916, and yet from the start it seemed to be presenting itself not to viewers who would know this story already and who might have questions about it, but to some international client who knows little of these things, who just wants some kind of historical tale "based on real events".

Early doors we were told that "in time, the Rising would inspire freedom movements around the world". And while this may or may not be true of the rebellion, again it seemed like a nod to what our corporate friends would call its "global reach".

By contrast, there wasn't much about the influence of these "poets and teachers, actors and workers" on those who still espouse the "physical force tradition" in what Ross O'Carroll-Kelly would call "actual Ireland".

That would come near the end, after a quick sweep through the 20th century which only darkened my view of these grand historical projects - indeed, I recalled that great old chancer's question in the Leaving Cert history paper, in which you were asked to write an essay on Henry Ford's statement that "History Is Bunk".

When you see the Troubles wrapped up in roughly the amount of time it takes for Barcelona to sweep up the pitch to score against the Arsenal, you know where old Henry was coming from.

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Rebellion, meanwhile, has been taken out by most commentators, and shot. Which is starting to look like an injustice, and which in the fullness of time may be regarded as something worse - that the 1916 crowd were hailed as heroes, while the bravery of Rebellion was spurned.

It was no flawless masterpiece, Rebellion, but it really did try to get past the officially approved version of Irish history, the one-dimensional droning of the academics. It had some of the feel of life as it might have been in "actual Ireland", you got the impression that they had struggled in a serious way with the complexities of the material, there was a kind of honesty in it.

I suppose you could say that they were in the proverbial GPO, risking all, while the other crowd were discussing the issues over a long and excellent lunch.

With a selection of fine wines.

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