Thursday 8 December 2016

Television: Inane reality docs are totally in Vogue on RTÉ...

John Boland

Published 06/12/2015 | 02:30

’L of a ride: Fred Cooke (left) in his learning-to-drive reality show
’L of a ride: Fred Cooke (left) in his learning-to-drive reality show

Is there a clunkier title in television history than Operation Transformation, RTÉ1's long-running series about the agony and ecstasy of shedding excess weight? How about Operation Transportation (RTÉ2), a one-off reality doc in which comedian Fred Cooke learned how to drive?

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At the outset, the 35-year-old confided that there were two things we should know about him: "I come from Kells and I can't drive." He might have added a third - he's not funny.

Maybe it's just me, but I didn't raise a titter during any of the stand-up sequences with which the film was punctuated, though that was partly because Fred himself was so enamoured of his jokes that he constantly chortled while delivering them.

The documentary, though, was far from a joke, padded out to an interminable hour as it indulged Fred's penchant for being pleased with himself and for having in-jokey, and mostly irrelevant, chats with Ardal O'Hanlon and other celebrity acquaintances from the comedy circuit.

Why does RTÉ imagine that we might want to watch stuff like this - or, indeed, like the same channel's Vogue's Wild Girls, in which a presenter whose claim to fame has more to do with modelling and the tabloid headlines that come with marriage to a pop star than with any interviewing experience or prowess?

But then it's hard to puzzle out what RTÉ's up to these days, not least in its decision to commemorate the Easter Rising four weeks before the centenary year even begins, as if we're not going to be worn out by navel-gazing national pieties come next April.

And so we're now being offered the four-part Ireland's Rising (RTÉ1), which in the next three weeks will entail "a journey through our shared past" by Fiona Shaw, Jim McGuinness and Ryan Tubridy - the last-named promising to reveal a family connection to Roger Casement, as if his much-vaunted relation to the British royal family wasn't enough. Who does he think he is?

This week's opener featured former news anchor Anne Doyle taking the train down to her native Wexford, which apparently was "at the forefront of Ireland's fight for independence". Well, it was certainly that in 1798, though not so much in 1916, unless you count as significant the few hundred people who gathered in Enniscorthy for a public reading of the Proclamation.

Anne then travelled to Ferns, near where she grew up and where up to 50 men did their bit for the Rising by chopping down trees on roadways and generally making life difficult for the British.

But the filmmakers seemed less interested in these titbits than in Anne herself, who was filmed in a variety of arresting poses: looking enigmatic as she surveyed the landscape from a grassy knoll, wistful in a parlour armchair as she listened to an old wireless broadcast, leaning on the arm of a sofa as she stared sadly out a window, or reflecting on momentous historical events as she gazed pensively from castle battlements towards the far horizon. Oh, the poignancy and poetry of it all.

The only poignant aspect of RTÉ Investigates: Sex for Sale (RTÉ1) had to do with the lives of the young prostitutes being transported around Ireland for the financial benefit of Irish and East European criminal gangs.

Interviewed near the film's outset, the strikingly beautiful Alexandra from Romania had been duped as a 19-year-old into coming to Dublin, whereupon she was promptly taken to a Sligo hotel and kept in her room until one of the clients who'd been forced upon her allowed her use his mobile phone to call down to reception, who alerted the gardaí.

I mention her beauty only because her gravely luminous presence leapt off the screen and you wondered how someone of such grace and obvious intelligence could have been so cruelly tricked. And though the film didn't say when this happened or reveal her current circumstances (she was interviewed in a midlands refuge), you felt that she was one of the few lucky women - her ordeal ended after five days.

The film was a follow-up to Profiting from Prostitution, which aired on RTÉ1 in 2012, and it hadn't an awful lot more to say. However, a situation in which prostitutes are convicted and deported back to their own countries while the brothel owners and criminal gangs mostly get away scot-free is so deplorable as to be barely credible - the film told of one criminal ringleader taking legal action against the state when his social-welfare payments were stopped and being awarded €35,000 of taxpayer money. You couldn't make it up.

The World's Most Famous Train (Channel 4) was an entertaining film about the Orient Express and its £2,000 one-way trip from London to Venice. For that 36-hour privilege you get a cabin and your food, though not your drink, and you have to share toilet facilities with everyone else in your carriage.

Some 11,000 passengers are quite happy to do just that each year on a mode of transport that's been rebranded as the "train of love", including a German couple who celebrated their honeymoon on the train 22 years ago and have been repeating the experience every year since then. And why not?

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