Sunday 4 December 2016

Television: Neeson's right about this high-class history lesson

John Boland

Published 14/02/2016 | 02:30

Hollywood glamour: Neeson narrates the latest Rising offering on our TV screens.
Hollywood glamour: Neeson narrates the latest Rising offering on our TV screens.

It's only mid-February and already some of us are suffering from Easter Rising fatigue, though if we must have more commemorative programmes let them be in the manner of 1916 (RTÉ1) rather than that of the same channel's risible drama Rebellion.

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A three-part factual series, 1916 has arrived with great fanfare, not least from its narrator Liam Neeson, who assured the Marian Finucane's radio show last weekend that it was an extraordinary achievement - indeed, one of the finest documentaries he'd ever seen and one with which he was proud to be associated. And certainly, this week's first instalment was very fine.

The brainchild of Briona Nic Dhiarmada, an Irish language and literature academic at Notre Dame university, and co-scripted by herself and director Ruan Magan, this opening episode was a high-class history lesson which set out with exemplary clarity more than 700 years of Ireland's sad story as the most distressful country the world has ever seen.

With an obvious eye to the international market (it's already been bought by PBS for screening throughout America), it presumed no foreknowledge on the viewer's part, though Neeson's voiceover left you in no doubt as to who were the perennial victims and who the aggressors - even if, against the "might of the empire", the "poorly-armed rebels" of 1916 would nonetheless "inspire freedom movements around the world".

The narrative, though, was mainly level-headed and I was reminded of Sean O Mordha's superb Seven Ages series in the deft use that was made here of various historians and of strikingly used and often unfamiliar archive footage to further the action.

The film was full of arresting observations and insights: Catriona Crowe evoking a declined late 19th century and early 20th century Dublin as the "biggest slum in Europe"; Roy Foster alluding to Russia when deeming Countess Markievicz to be among the "repentant gentry"; and Thomas Bartlett noting that "never a day passed" when John Devoy of the Irish Republican Brotherhood "wasn't contriving the destruction of the British empire".

But it was the film's command of narrative sweep that was most impressive, offering, if not quite a dummy's guide to Irish history, something that nonetheless was instantly accessible to the uninitiated.

The next two instalments, covering both the Rising itself and its aftermath, will necessarily be more detailed and specific. But if they're as good as the first episode, the Coco-produced series (backed by US funding) will indeed have been memorable.

More recent history was the subject of The Docklands Bomb: Executing Peace (BBC1 Northern Ireland BBC4), screened to mark the 20th anniversary of the IRA's Canary Wharf outrage. Again, this was expertly told, though from an Irish perspective its choice of contributors seemed lopsided - apart from some reminiscences by Sean O hUiginn of the Government's Anglo-Irish division, no Irish input, whether official or hardline republican, was sought by the filmmakers. Instead, nearly all the contributions came from an RUC officer and from members of the John Major and Bill Clinton administrations.

The film was never less than interesting and was quite engrossing about the subsequent tracing and capture of the bombers, but the absence of an Irish dimension to the narrative remained unsatisfactory. Was the then Taoiseach John Bruton's phone number not available to the makers?

Gerry Adams has confessed himself appalled by the past week's gang murders in Dublin, while on Tuesday night's Prime Time (RTÉ1) Mary Lou McDonald spoke of the need to put "these thugs and criminals behind bars". It must nice to be in Sinn Féin these days, with blithe amnesia about the murderous past of the IRA's thugs and criminals clearly now the party norm.

Eternally boyish traveller Simon Reeve, whose recent two-part visit to Ireland was a very hit-and-miss affair, found himself covering harsh realities in the opening instalment of Greece with Simon Reeve (BBC2).

He's no stranger to such fraught situations, as his admirable series on Central America demonstrated, but he seemed totally unprepared when, in the midst of filming idyllic seascapes on the island of Lesvos, he spied boatloads of Syrian refugees making their precarious journey towards the shore.

What followed, he confessed, was a "surreal" instance of how "world collide" as the refugees made their weary way into the tourist-packed local town. And after offering a lift to an exhausted young woman and child, his car was stopped by a group of Syrian men, who ordered her out of the vehicle on the grounds that she hadn't sought their permission to travel unaccompanied with a male stranger. So much for integration. O brave new world.

Elsewhere, Simon went sponge-diving in the now polluted waters of Kos, witnessed the "environmental disaster" of a gigantic landfill site in Crete and heard an angry local compare Angela Merkel to Adolf Hitler.

But it was the images of worlds colliding on Lesvos that remained with the viewer.

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