Tuesday 25 October 2016

Television: Smalltown drama tackles some big social issues

John Boland

Published 04/09/2016 | 02:30

Big themes: Pat Shortt in TV3’s new drama, Smalltown
Big themes: Pat Shortt in TV3’s new drama, Smalltown

It's probably damning with faint praise to say that the first episode of TV3's Smalltown was honourable and heartfelt rather than urgent or exciting, but it certainly provided a welcome addition to the mostly barren landscape of home-produced television drama.

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Yes, there was RTÉ1's ambitious Rebellion earlier in the year, but that quickly declined into silly soap opera, while the less said about the previous year's farcically implausible crime drama from the same station the better for all concerned.

This new series, written and directed by Gerard Barrett, began persuasively as small-town slacker Conor was advised by his farming parents to escape his drink-fuelled torpor by leaving home. "Move on", his mother told him. "Isn't that the whole thing about being in your early twenties?"

So he joined his best pal in London, acquiring a new girlfriend over the years, and was finally being offered a more senior post in the company that employed him when news came that his mother was very ill. The episode ended with his reluctant return home.

In terms of drama, that was about it, and there were times when the episode moved very slowly indeed, not helped by some clunky silent sequences seemingly inserted to convey a dreamlike sense of loss and longing. But the dialogue was unforced and natural, while most of the playing was very good, especially from Pat Shortt as the decent but taciturn father - "Dealing with emotions isn't in his DNA," his wife wryly observed. And while Charlie Kelly in the main role registered as too mopey for his own and the viewer's good, there were indications that he may yet take command of a character who so far has mainly been required to look passive and soulful.

There were big themes being raised here about displacement and duty, family and freedom, but they were implied rather than underlined, the drama's emphasis commendably kept on the characters rather than on larger concerns. It will be interesting to see how the story develops.

As for the same channel's other main programme of the week, Murder Unsolved: Who Killed Sophie? (TV3), we already knew how the story developed and thus also knew that the question raised by its subtitle was not going to be answered. Still, this retelling of the brutal 1996 murder of Sophie du Plantier at her West Cork home and its controversial aftermath was well recounted, and thankfully without the lurid sensationalism to which such TV3 crime chronicles have often succumbed.

There was no sensationalism, either, in the first instalment of RTÉ1's much-hyped Keeping Ireland Alive: The Health Service in a Day, but not a lot of drama, either, in a programme that seemed more intent on cheerleading than on confronting notorious inadequacies in our health system.

Perhaps that's yet to come, but this opening programme mainly focused its cameras (75, the voiceover excitedly told us) on a series of individual patients who required specialised treatment and on the health professionals who were providing it. Yet while these cases were interesting in themselves, there was little sense of the urgency and risk and occasional calamities that have been so well conveyed in such cross-channel series as Channel 4's 24 Hours in A&E or BBC2's An Hour to Save Your Life.

The opening feature-length episode of Victoria (UTV Ireland) was spiffing stuff, with gleefully-drawn villains and stalwart heroes hovering around 18-year-old ingénue Alexandrina as she ascended to the British throne.

Chief among the former was a horrible uncle (Peter Firth) and a loathsome lord (Paul Rhys), both of them plotting her immediate downfall, while the episode's hero was undoubtedly prime minister Lord Melbourne, who was lent such wit, warmth and sexiness by Rufus Sewell that it was easy to understand why the teenage monarch was so smitten by him.

Jenna Coleman, formerly Doctor Who's sidekick, not only looked infeasibly pretty but also acted with amusing spirit and grit as she saw off some of her detractors and enemies. Yet while the whole thing was also visually splendid, I came to the conclusion that this 90-minute opener had delighted me enough and I felt no need to bother with the following night's second episode.

Such is the fickleness of reviewers, though fickleness wasn't required in recoiling from BBC1's bizarre remakes of '70s sitcoms Porridge and Are You Being Served? The latter was performed by actors who looked and sounded exactly like the original cast members, though the script was crammed with even more innuendo than in the original - Mrs Slocombe's pussy predictably being the main source of gags.

The rebooted Porridge was a bit better, though Kevin Bishop's playing of Fletcher's grandson only reminded you how funny Ronnie Barker could be. Indeed, the whole exercise seemed entirely pointless.

Not that the two new BBC2 sitcoms are much better - or, indeed, much less dated. In The Coopers vs the Rest, nice black husband Toby and testy white wife Tess are raising three adopted children in suburban London, but there isn't a laugh to be had in a half-hour that can't make up its mind whether it's supposed to be funny or addressing social issues.

Meanwhile, in Home from Home, Johnny Vegas and Joanna Page fail to wring any laughs from a duff script which requires them to be lower-class parents coping with posh new neighbours at their Lake District holiday park. The intended gags are all about class issues, and it's both very dated and very depressing.

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