Friday 30 September 2016

Television: Profile leaves us in dark about Haughey's handler

John Boland

Published 22/05/2016 | 02:30

Around the table: Brendan O'Connor returned to our screens with cutting edge.
Around the table: Brendan O'Connor returned to our screens with cutting edge.

Monday night's political profile on RTÉ1 was called PJ Mara: A Legacy, though by the end of this shallow portrait it was impossible to guess what that legacy might be.

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After all, Mara's most famous boss, Charles J Haughey, died in 2004 and last wielded power in 1992, making him no more than a vaguely-recalled name to anyone now in their thirties. And though Mara later continued as adviser to Fianna Fáil, it was in connection with Haughey's despotic rule that he's mainly remembered by older followers of the political scene.

So what was his legacy? Well, the same older generation may fondly recall the comic persona created for him in RTÉ Radio's Scrap Saturday, but that persona was the brainchild of others - specifically Gerry Stembridge and Dermot Morgan, whose weekly satirical skit made Mara a household name among listeners who otherwise knew little about the shadowy corridors of Fianna Fáil power. But what else did he leave behind?

He certainly didn't invent the role of political handler (even staid old Fine Gael was full of such fixers as far back as the early 80s), nor did he leave any speeches or memoirs or diaries to be studied by future generations. And as far as soundbites go, "Una duce, una voce" and "There will be no more nibbling at my leader's bum", are occasionally trotted out by veteran hacks as evidence of his wit, but that's about it.

He was a suave operator, as I recall from amusing chats with him in the Horseshoe bar at the Shelbourne Hotel, but for all his blithe bonhomie he never really told me anything, which I suppose was the whole point as far as he was concerned. And though he had a coterie of pals and admirers with whom he drank and shared quips, they were almost exclusively male. Indeed, he seemed to me to be the epitome of the man's man, and this was borne out in the RTÉ film.

There was little mention of his wife Breda, who had predeceased him, and none at all of the relationship which provided him with a child in his last years. Instead we heard eloquent testimony from U2 manager Paul McGuinness, who deemed him both "an expert practitioner of the dark arts" and "a great friend"; from Eamon Dunphy ("a great and wonderful friend"); and from Denis O'Brien, who recalled that among the people he knew "everybody cried" on the day of Mara's funeral last January.

Journalist Matt Cooper described him as "a great character, though not necessarily always a good one", but that was the nearest the film came to an adverse, or even sceptical, comment - with no questions raised about his compliant role as loyal defender of the often indefensible Haughey. Indeed, this was a skin-deep portrait of the man.

Wild Cities is the name of RTÉ1's visually arresting current series about animal life in our main urban centres, but the title would have been an even better fit for The Guards (RTÉ1), a two-parter that sets out to show just how wild human life can be in our capital.

This week's opener about "the reality of front-line policing in Dublin" focused mainly on efforts to cut down on drug-dealing north of the Liffey. These efforts, we were told, have been quite successful, though largely because dealers and users dealt with unwelcome garda attention by promptly moving to the other side of O'Connell Bridge, thus making it a southside problem.

The star of this absorbing hour was Detective Sergeant Ciaran Whelan, who heads up Store Street's anti-drug unit and who had such screen presence that I can imagine him fronting other such documentaries in the future.

Brendan O'Connor has been a very good broadcaster, both relaxed and engaged, when standing in for Ryan Tubridy on his weekday radio show, and perhaps radio would have been the better medium for the new RTÉ1 panel show, Brendan O'Connor's Cutting Edge.

This week's opener saw the host seated at a round table with news broadcaster Chris Donoghue, broadcaster-entrepreneur Norah Casey and comedian Pat Shortt as they discussed everything from Donald Trump and the leadership ambitions of Labour's Alan Kelly to online dating apps and nudist beaches.

At the outset we'd been promised a show that "takes a scalpel to the week", though what transpired was a rather blunt blade - did I really care what Pat Shortt thought of mothers who wished they'd never had children or what Chris Donoghue felt about the new Eurovision voting procedures? Indeed, at one point O'Connor himself wondered about viewer interest in the views of "four vaguely liberal people".

I could have done without some of the determined jollity, too, not to mention a few of the gimmicky interludes (George Hook making a soapbox speech about meeting his mother in heaven was an especially odd insertion), but perhaps the show will find its feet as it continues, though that will largely depend on the quality of the panellists. This week's were an amiable rather than interesting bunch.

In Firetrap Homes (TV3), Mick Clifford looked at housing developments that were "bywords for shoddy and dangerous work" and wondered who's being held accountable. This was old-fashioned journalism at its least fussy and best.

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