Saturday 21 October 2017

Television review: Driven by this need to drive

  • Too Old For The Road? (RTE1)

101 year-old John gets to grips with an electric car
101 year-old John gets to grips with an electric car
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

In The Book Of Poor Ould Fellas, based on pieces which first appeared in this paper, I wrote that "from Roscommon, word reaches us that a poor ould fella who took the same route into town for 50 years, who endured much in what was not an easy life, had finally been defeated by various roundabouts which have effectively barred him from ever entering his home town again under his own steam..."

"Increasingly one hears disturbing tales of poor ould fellas deeply traumatised by their experiences on bypasses, ring roads and roundabouts. Gripped by a rush of fear that their short journey to Roscommon town will bring them ultimately to Dublin city centre, swept along by forces beyond their ken, they panic... So they drive around the roundabout, round and round, frozen with fear..."

I would like to think that my researches into this matter informed at least some of the work which went into the documentary Too Old For The Road?, because it was excellent on its chosen subject of the driving habits of the elderly, but equally strong on our old friend, the meaning of life.

Producer and director Shane Hogan realised that the ability to keep driving was so important to these people, for their own various reasons, it represented the most basic need to keep some control over one's life in general - as the astonishing 101-year-old John put it, "when I have to give up the driving, I hope I die fairly quickly".

There was the immortal image of 86-year-old Joan trying to camouflage the dents on the side of her black car with black paint because, "sure, nobody will know the difference". By her wicked laughter you realised that she knows perfectly well her painting will hardly stand up to much scrutiny, and yet the act itself provided her and the people of Ireland with some entertainment. She was not going to surrender to the inevitability of a battered-looking car, without making at least a token protest.

There were scenes too of tremendous poignancy, such as Michael from Kilkenny who is 83 and who has "age-related macular impairment" which means he will soon be disallowed from driving to visit his wife in a nursing home. Or there was John Taylor who still drives his ice-cream van, which in the 1960s must have looked like something from another planet, a far better planet than our own, and which now looks like a very interesting antique. Though he still sells ice-cream out of it, because he has no pension.

Back in the 1980s, there was a legendary BBC documentary made by Molly Dineen called Home From The Hill, featuring one Hilary Hook, an old soldier of the Empire, and his extraordinary efforts to adjust to life in modern England after all his adventures in India and Africa.

For a while, Hilary Hook became the most beloved poor ould fella in Britain, because like many poor ould fellas, his analysis of the decline of our civilisation was searingly accurate, and yet his own helplessness to do anything about it created this wondrous combination of deep hilarity and equally deep sadness.

Too Old For The Road? is in that neighbourhood, the way it hardly ever strayed from a tone of understatement, even when bringing us moments of great profundity. Joan could move from her car-painting to talking about the death of her son in a drowning accident in New Zealand... "why didn't he listen? But he was a bit like his mother, his mother don't listen either".

The way it was done, it seemed to emerge naturally from a long conversation the director had been having with Joan, so that it captured the drama of the tragedy without being "dramatic". And then she was off in the car again for some socialising.

I would probably have liked another Hilary Hook, drinking whiskey as he dismisses some ridiculous character on the English telly. But with all the driving, by leaving out the whiskey they probably called that right too.

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