Wednesday 20 September 2017

Television: Never mind Alaska and Vietnam, it's up the lazy river with John

Lonesome boatmen: Colin Stafford-Johnson and John Creedon at Lecarrow on RTÉ’s Creedon’s Shannon
Lonesome boatmen: Colin Stafford-Johnson and John Creedon at Lecarrow on RTÉ’s Creedon’s Shannon

John Boland

Some people get none of the breaks. During a week in which Liz Bonnin marvelled at the stupendous landscapes of Wild Alaska Live (BBC1) and Francis Brennan continued flying the flag in exotic Vietnam, John Creedon stared into a muddy hole in a Fermanagh field.

Then two scientists poured green dye into the hole and waited to see if it would emerge from an underground stream a few miles away in Co Cavan. "This is really exciting", said folklorist Aideen, who'd been regaling John with stories about the supposed source of Ireland's longest river.

Aideen's criteria for excitement are clearly less severe than mine. There are various words to describe John's televisual treks throughout Ireland over the years, but pulse-quickening has never been among them, and so it proved yet again in this first instalment of Creedon's Shannon (RTÉ1).

You couldn't, though, fault the man's enthusiasm. "This I need to hear more about," he declared as some boffin told him about the country's climate 320 million years ago, and he gamely donned pit boots and helmet before descending into the depths of the Arigna mines and chipping away at a coalface.

He also danced at the crossroads with comely young maidens, went birdwatching with Colin Stafford-Johnson and pike-fishing with someone called Sean, and dawdled along the Royal Canal in a barge - and I kept wishing that I might find it all even remotely interesting.

John Creedon's a likeable presenter, but there are limits to amiability and I kept thinking instead of the late lamented Dick Warner and of how his trips down Irish waterways were informed by real knowledge and love of place.

In the week when the High Court refused to extradite Ian Bailey for trial in France, Philip Boucher-Hayes' documentary, The Du Plantier Case, was rushed into the RTÉ1 schedules on Monday night. It made for riveting viewing.

I hadn't expected much from it and indeed no new facts emerged about the violent murder of Sophie du Plantier in west Cork more than two decades ago, but the reporter's stark close-up interviews with Bailey and his partner Jules Thomas were both trenchant and compelling.

At one point Bailey insisted that the former acts of violence against his partner had to be "taken in context", leading Boucher-Hayes to inquire: "Is there a context for domestic violence?" and to wonder if it was not "a bit pat" to simply blame drink for the assaults.

"Have you forgiven him?" he then asked Thomas, and when she replied: "Of course I've forgiven him," he asked: "Why, of course?"

These arresting interviews were interwoven with an account of the circumstances of the killing and of its 20-year aftermath, from which the gardaí came out badly in their botched attempts to nail their only suspect.

The victim's family haven't thought well of them, either, and there was a dogged intensity to her son Pierre-Louis as he declared his intention to find justice while insisting there were "too many strange things about Mr Bailey" to be ignored.

The film's most touching moments came when Pierre-Louis, who was 15 when his mother died ("my last day of being a child"), visited her parents in their Paris apartment and noted that his mother would be nearly 60 if she'd lived. "For us she will never be 60," his grandmother said. "Sometimes I might see a little girl in the street who reminds me of Sophie when she was young, and I get a pang."

At the end, Bailey insisted he "would welcome" being tried for the murder here rather than in France, while Pierre-Louis maintained that "justice will be done one day for sure". The viewer, though, could only worry about his certainty.

There's lots to worry about in the new Netflix thriller Ozark, whose 10 episodes can be binge-watched if you so desire. Friends who've already done so tell me that it gets even more unsettling and unpredictable as it progresses, but after a mere two episodes I'm already hooked.

Jason Bateman is smooth-talking Chicago financier Marty, whose partner has been laundering money for a major drug cartel and gets murdered near the outset for skimming off millions. Marty begs for his own life by promising to relocate with his family to the Ozark lakes and continue working for the cartel. But clearly his problems are only beginning.

Bateman, who also acts as the show's executive producer and director, is persuasive as the terrified but quick-thinking anti-hero, with Laura Linney also compelling as the spouse who's just as frightened, but also equally resilient.

With eight episodes still to watch, I've no idea what twists and turns this series will take, though I'm not expecting too many happy outcomes. But it's plainly a winner for Netflix.

Accidental Anarchist (BBC4) was in the 'Storyville' strand and told how boyish British diplomat Carne Ross became so disillusioned with his Foreign Office role that he chucked it in and became an active opponent of all he'd formerly espoused.

"We were the good guys, making the world a better place for democracy". That's what he felt when working with the UK mission at the UN Security Council in New York. But then came the Afghan and Iraqi wars and "I no longer believed in the cause I signed up to".

So he resigned, gave evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry about how the British government had misled the public, and set himself up as "independent diplomat" advising various regions about their real interests.

There was no doubting his new-found idealism, though his espousal of a ground-led anarchism that rejects state control and other hierarchies all seemed a bit woolly.

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