Thursday 21 September 2017

Irish men abroad: from slumming it in NY to hamming it on way to Mandalay

Not a big fan: Ed and Dara are back on their travels, this time to Mandalay
Not a big fan: Ed and Dara are back on their travels, this time to Mandalay

John Boland

Who would choose to live illegally in the United States? That was the question posed by The Undocumented (RTÉ1) and one answer seemed to be: nobody female anyway, because Máire Kearney's film didn't come up with even a single woman who was doing so.

Mind you, the succession of Irish men, mostly in their thirties and forties, who were featured conveyed such a glum sense of life in the New York margins that you wondered why they didn't just pack their bags and come home. Indeed, even when they were being determinedly upbeat about their opportunities in this land of the brave and the free, it all sounded a bit miserable, though maybe that was because the right questions weren't being asked.

"There's a lot more options here", insisted Niall, while conceding that "nobody undocumented is comfortable here" and saying of his parents, "I miss them every day". And the same sense of regret seeped through most of other men's accounts.

But in a film that was as uninformative as it was dispiriting, I didn't learn what Niall or many of the others did for a living or whether most of them had wives, girlfriends, partners or children.

When Donald Trump rails against illegal immigrants, "he's talking straight to you", said New York-based journalist Ray O'Hanlon of the Irish who are living in the shadows, while immigrant Conor had learned that if you wished to remain undetected, "you stay out of trouble and you stay out of the hospitals". And, of course, you can't risk a visit to the folks back home.

But these were the only bits of information I gleaned from this unsatisfactory film.

By contrast, Who Runs Our Schools? (RTÉ1) was crammed with information, starting with the fact that, even in the supposedly more secular and enlightened Ireland of 2017, 96pc of our primary schools are still in religious control and that 90pc of these remain in the hands of the Catholic church, which also owns the lands on which they're built.

And, though education minister Richard Bruton is intent on lessening the religious stranglehold on our schools, previous ministers have caved in to the Catholic hierarchy's insistence on baptism as a prerequisite for enrolment in their establishments - a decree that has forced agnostic or atheistic parents to succumb if their children are to find an education.

Mick Peelo's report was made for the quasi-religious Would You Believe strand but maintained an admirable independence and was certainly no forelock-tugging advertisement for vested clerical interests.

Dara and Ed's Road to Mandalay (BBC2/RTÉ1) asks us to accompany two Irish comedians on a three-part trip through south-east Asia, but after the first episode I decided to let them at it.

Dara Ó Briain is a clever guy who likes to let you know it, though he can be genuinely amusing in his televised stand-up routines. However, I've never really got the point of Ed Byrne, while as a duo they don't produce any sparks, despite the fact that they profess to being best buddies. Indeed, their last televised excursion to foreign climes was so forgettable that I can't even remember where they visited.

Maybe their real-life friendship has made them so familiar with each other that it's blunted any possible cutting edge, but their opening hour in Malaysia conveyed nothing more than the spectacle of two middle-aged western white guys engaged in laboured badinage while blundering through a country of whose culture they knew little.

They went in search of a reclusive tribe that clearly wanted to remain that way, and they attended a market which featured dancing chickens ("hanging out, admiring the birds", as Byrne deemed it), and very soon I wearied of the duo's antics and wished instead to be in the company of Joanna Lumley, who brings both grace and an inquiring mind to her foreign excursions.

Or, if I want a real comic duo, there's always Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip to Spain (Sky Atlantic).

I got a few laughs from the first episode of Loaded (Channel 4), though this new sitcom seems more suitable for half-hour chunks than 50-minute episodes. But the premise of four guys finding that their silly cat app has made them overnight multimillionaires was good, and some of their repartee was rudely funny.

There's nothing funny about the Wales-set thriller series Hinterland (BBC4), which is back for a third season and which is so gloomy that it makes all those Scandi noirs look like Nordic versions of La La Land. But it's bleakly atmospheric and well plotted and played.

Babs (BBC1) had lots of atmosphere, too, though this biopic of Carry On and EastEnders star Barbara Windsor was rather hobbled by the fact that Windsor herself featured in it, thus precluding any real hard look at her character or messy personal life.

Now 80, she was persuasively played in ­middle age by Samantha Spiro, but Jaime Winstone was hopelessly miscast as her youthful self, and the narrative device it used was very stagey.

In Jamestown (Sky One), the young women who arrive in 17th-century America as promised brides for colonial settlers must have been reading The Female Eunuch and watching Sex in the City because they're all up to speed on patriarchal oppression and women's rights and they waste no time making their stance clear.

It would be cheering to think that this was true in the backwoods of Virginia four centuries ago, but I have my doubts.

Still, this eight-part drama from the producers of Downton Abbey certainly looks good and is very watchable in a soapy sort of way.

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