Tuesday 6 December 2016

Television: Do we really have to learn about a nation once again?

John Boland

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

Dramatic: Aoife Scott, Danny O' Reilly and Roisin O' Reilly perform at Kilmainham for RTÉ's extravaganza Centenary.
Dramatic: Aoife Scott, Danny O' Reilly and Roisin O' Reilly perform at Kilmainham for RTÉ's extravaganza Centenary.

Please let it be over. Easter Week has come and gone and already we've had three continuous months of television programmes about the Rising, so can RTÉ now show us a bit of mercy and move on to something else?

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During those three months we've learned quite a bit about our history, which is all to the good if the history lessons are good, and some of them were excellent - notably the three-part documentary series 1916, which was narrated by Liam Neeson and was a model of narrative clarity (BBC4 screened a truncated version of it a few nights ago).

We've also been encouraged to indulge our fondness - or at least RTÉ's fondness - for navel-gazing, which is not so good, especially when it means wallowing in self-pity about the most distressful country the world has ever seen. Shall we be thus forever?

But we've also been invited to take pride in our maturity as a nation of new-found tolerant diversity, whether that be social, sexual or racial - a black Cú Chulainn featuring in last Monday night's theatrical pageant Centenary on RTÉ1.

The problem, though, with pride is that it risks becoming indistinguishable from self-congratulation, and I couldn't help feeling during Centenary that when the audience in the Bord Gáis theatre were cheering the historical antics on stage, they were also applauding their own sense of enlightened distance from what was being portrayed.

Maybe you had to be there, but I thought this theatrical extravaganza so self-importantly solemn, so stagey and so darkly-lit as to be almost unwatchable on television, with singers hamming it up, actors chewing the scenery and old pieties being rehashed in a manner that seemed more appropriate to a 1966 commemorative concert than to any Ireland of most people's experience.

And I couldn't fathom the inclusion of Ewan McColl's 'Schooldays Over', a marvellous song but written about a boy about to enter the English collieries in the 1950s. What was the relevance there?

A frock-coated Jack L belted out 'The Minstrel Boy' as if there were no tomorrow, and the same song was also sung in the previous night's 16 Letters (RTÉ1), which was filmed in the GPO and which featured Ryan Tubridy chatting to the descendants of people who had put pen to paper before, during and after the Rising.

The presenter handled it all with his customary polish and friendliness, and the stories that he elicited were mostly interesting and often quite poignant, though at 90 minutes the programme became just one tale after another and the viewer (this viewer, anyway) stayed watching it out of a sense of duty rather than true interest.

That was true, too, of the same night's Children of the Revolution (RTÉ1), with the added problem that, whether on radio or in book form, Joe Duffy's fascination with the fate of children during the Rising was so well-known that it was as if we'd heard it all before.

In the event, the film itself was quite interesting while never managing to surmount the fact that, yet again, what was being told was just one awful tragedy after another, with all the repetitiveness that such storytelling entails.

Still, all three programmes were notable for not employing the services of either the ubiquitous Diarmaid Ferriter or the equally go-to Miriam O'Callaghan - the former instead offering his historian's insights during the Sunday morning parade and the latter hosting the same afternoon's rain-drenched A Nation's Voice concert in Collins barracks.

But enough already. Or have we yet to experience Kathryn Thomas hosting an Operation Transformation special on obesity during the Rising, Marty Whelan introducing a selection of 1916 parlour tunes and Daithi O Se re-enacting chats with a bevy of beauties from the barricades?

The third episode of Inside Obama's White House (BBC2) was subtitled "Don't Screw It Up!" and concerned the US president's successes and failures in dealing with international conflicts - mostly failures, especially concerning outcomes in Egypt, Libya and Syria.

Produced by American documentary-maker Norma Percy, this has been an absorbing series, but then that's been true of most of her films, including The Fall of Milosevic, Endgame in Ireland and The Death of Yugoslavia.

The last-named, which was first shown in 1994, was what made her reputation and it was an astonishing tour de force, featuring onscreen interviews with all the main participants, including Milosevic and Karadzic, and edited so that it had the inexorable pace of a ghastly thriller - though one that hadn't yet reached its murderous conclusion.

All the main players are interviewed in the Obama series, too, including the president himself, along with his defence secretary, national security advisers, former secretary of state Hilary Clinton and current secretary of state John Kerry.

It's unfinished business, of course, even with Iran, which Obama regards as his most successful intervention in foreign affairs, and there's a sense when watching the series of an awful lot not being said, but it makes for a riveting watch.

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