Sunday 4 December 2016

Television review: Take this 5 from 2015

* Mad Men (Sky Atlantic)
* Wolf Hall (BBC2)
* The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson (BBC4)
* Charlie (RTE1)
* RTE Investigates (RTE1)

Published 28/12/2015 | 02:30

Illustration: Jim Coogan.
Illustration: Jim Coogan.

You know the last episode of Mad Men, in which Don Draper is sitting cross-legged communing with some higher power, and in that moment he forms the vision that will eventually become the famous Coca-Cola ad of the 1970s, I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing.

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I think they got it wrong, that they made a mistake of historical dimensions. I think they should have ended it with the penultimate episode, which had a final scene of the most perfect beauty - it had Don giving his car away to some young grifter, deciding that his next journey should begin at a bus stop somewhere in Oklahoma, under a blue sky, all his possessions in a Sears bag, smiling as if at peace, and then the sublime soundtrack of Buddy Holly's Everyday ...." Every day, it's a-getting closer/going faster than a roller coaster/ love like yours will surely come my way".

Not only do I think they got it wrong, I think I know why they got it wrong -- they had imagined the Coca-Cola ad scene for so long, and it was indeed such a smart scene, they felt obliged to make the story get to that place eventually. Which involved a final episode "wrapping up" the stories of other characters, even though they had already been wrapped up, to my satisfaction at least.

So I feel that if they had stopped it at the bus stop under that blue Oklahoma sky with Buddy Holly playing, they could have claimed Mad Men as the greatest of all TV dramas, the one that always set its own standards, that never pandered, all the way down to that perfect final frame.

Instead it is just one of the greatest.

* * * * *

Everyone used to look to the BBC for such greatness in TV drama, and now the BBC looked to itself, to its own heritage, for Wolf Hall.

At the time there was much consternation over the fact that Midsomer Murders was getting bigger ratings than Wolf Hall, suggesting that the multitudes are less interested in viewing the interior of a man's soul, than the interiors of various charming cottages in the West Country.

But Wolf Hall will endure long after everyone in Midsomer and its lovely hinterland has been murdered in puzzling circumstances, not least because of the absolute stillness at its centre, in the person of Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell.

To have Rylance in your cast is a bit like having Lionel Messi in your team, it's almost impossible to tell if the whole thing would fall asunder without him.

Thankfully we never find out.

* * * * *

I would also place The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson in the pantheon, though the fact that Julien Temple's film of this seminal British artist was on BBC4 is a poignant reminder that such superior work used to be shown on BBC2 or even BBC1, where normal people might see it by accident and have their lives transformed.

Because apart from changing the course of rock'n'roll with Dr Feelgood, Wilko has been changing the way that we view the whole business of living and dying, with the story that he was "dying" of inoperable cancer and doing a farewell tour in which he seemed ecstatic just to be alive, only to be told eventually that in fact they could operate after all - a process which was filmed all the way by Julien Temple, prompting us to wonder if Wilko, like Don Draper, might actually have preferred to go out in the penultimate episode, as it were.

But hey, you can't always get what you want.

* * * * *

I would have been happy with a lot of Charlie, and certainly with the big performance of Aidan Gillen, if only it had been quite different. As I correctly argued at the time, there was so much going on, so many distressed Fianna Failers coming in and going out, it might have been better in every way to concentrate on just one episode in Haughey's life, perhaps the all-encompassing story of the John Waters interview for Hot Press.

* * * * *

But RTE Investigates did leave us with an image of Irish public life that everyone could recognise, that of Hugh McElvaney "filling his pockets" like some mime artist who had been trained personally by Marcel Marceau.

McElvaney doesn't care how it ends as long as it's in sterling.

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