Saturday 23 September 2017

Television: Who needs 'Downton'? Well, not UTV Ireland

Ploughing on: Nicky Byrne hosts Four Heads with celebrity team captains Majella O'Donnell and Marty Morrissey. Photo: Andres Poveda
Ploughing on: Nicky Byrne hosts Four Heads with celebrity team captains Majella O'Donnell and Marty Morrissey. Photo: Andres Poveda
Joanna Vanderham in The Go-Between

John Boland

What's the point of UTV Ireland? It offers a 5.30pm news show so lacking in either urgency or personality that viewers are encouraged to wait 30 minutes for RTÉ's news bulletin. The night-time news is just as lacklustre, comes an hour after RTÉ's and directly competes with BBC1's 10pm bulletin, which for most viewers is no contest at all.

In terms of other home-produced programmes, it has provided an interviewing platform for Pat Kenny so stilted in its format that it's done the veteran broadcaster absolutely no favours (and was subsequently axed). And that has really been about it in terms of domestic output.

Even more damagingly for its image and ratings, it has either stopped or delayed broadcasting those shows that were a staple both of ITV and of the old UTV - the latest example being the non-appearance last Sunday night of the new (and final) season of Downton Abbey.

I'm not a fan of Julian Fellowes's stately-home soap opera, but millions of other viewers feel otherwise and it seems positively suicidal of UTV Ireland not to ensure its availability - especially when BBC1 were offering another stately home period drama, The Go-Between, in direct competition at the same time on the same night.

Not that RTÉ was offering much excitement this week, unless you're a disciple of Marty Morrissey, in which case you must have been in seventh heaven, though the unconverted may wonder at his current ubiquity, both on RTÉ television and radio. Is it the 56-year-old's eerily cherubic face? The lilting Clare brogue? The earthy charisma?

It's probably not the general knowledge, as Four Heads, RTÉ1's latest attempt at a quiz show, made clear. Marty was a team captain in this Sunday night pilot, and when asked to identify a chess piece named after a member of the clergy, he opted for "duke".

And although a former maths teacher (as host Nicky Byrne mischievously reminded him), he was of the view that 600 months amount to 87 years, which means that in the enchanted world inhabited by Marty, there are 6.89 months in a calendar year.

"We'll see you soon", Nicky chiriply told us at the end of this dire show. Not if I see you first, Nicky.

But that wasn't the end of our national broadcaster's infatuation with Marty, who popped up three nights running as co-host, with Aine Lawlor, of The Ploughing Live (RTÉ1).

There was mischief here, too, as Aine informed us that she had asked viewers "to tell Marty where to go" and that among the tweeted and texted responses were "Trim my sheep" and "Walk my pig", which was at least less troubling than the recent allegations that David Cameron has wisely chosen to ignore. In the event, Marty carried out a tweeted request to "Strut your stuff" by jiving with dancing teacher Catherine.

Signing off at the end of this first ploughing programme, Aine announced that "you at home can tell Marty where to go for the next few days". So I did.

The previous night, Ireland's Great Wealth Divide (RTÉ1) was being exposed by economist David McWilliams - or the "ginger whinger", as Oliver Callan's Michael Noonan termed him on Sean O'Rourke's Tuesday morning show.

There was nothing really new here (the rich get rich, and the poor get children), but the statistics were nonetheless depressing. A thousand people who were polled thought that, in our current ongoing recession, the richest 20pc owned 60pc of Ireland's wealth and that the poorest 20pc owned 11pc, whereas in reality the richest own 73pc and the poorest a mere 0.2pc. "These are not just economic statistics," McWilliams observed, "these are people", and he proceeded to enrage us further by talking to a woman who provides the lavish catering on private jets and by chatting to the MD of Bulgari watches, who revealed that the rich Irish will pay up to a million quid for a wrist adornment.

The presenter conceded that he was no socialist. "Don't get me wrong, I believe in capitalism," he said, though not in the "winner-takes-all" capitalism, where the assets that make the wealthy even richer are not available to the "coping classes".

It was all riveting stuff, even if by its end it left the viewer just fuming.

I'm not sure what I was supposed to make of the Reality Bites film, Born Addicted (RTÉ2), except that apparently a mother's use of Methadone usually doesn't have an adverse effect on the foetus she's carrying.

Otherwise, though, the documentary was profoundly depressing about the lives of unfortunate people about whom I know next to nothing.

One addicted woman, who's still on Methadone, now has seven children and stoutly defended her recurrent pregancies: "Just because you're on Methadone doesn't mean you're not able to look after a child''. Who am I to say she's wrong?

Meanwhile, TV3's Rugby World Cup coverage is so fluent that you don't really miss RTÉ's presence, though there's no Brent Pope, and no George Hook to chuckle helplessly at either his grandstanding fulminations or his daftest ­metaphors. But Matt Cooper's a fine anchorman and a good interviewer.

Foreign concerns occupy the BBC

UTV Ireland having opted for a rerun of an old Sharpe over the new season of Downton Abbey, BBC1 had Irish viewers to itself with its adaptation of LP Hartley's The Go-Between.

The 1953 novel, with its famous opening line (''The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there''), was made into a somewhat arid 1971 movie, directed by Joseph Losey from a Harold Pinter screenplay and with Julie Christie as the turn-of-the-century aristocrat who embarks on an affair with a lowly tenant farmer played by Alan Bates.

In this new version, Joanna Vanderham (inset)was less obviously starry than Christie, though more believable as a flighty young woman committing a social taboo, while Stephen Campbell Moore was genuinely poignant in the thankless role of the cuckolded war-maimed fiancé. But the adaptation's heart lay with young schoolboy Leo, who was tasked with delivering letters from one illicit lover to the other, and who was very affectingly played by Jack Hollington.

The period was gorgeously evoked and there was a chillingly good turn by Lesley Manville as the girl's snobbish mother, though I wasn't sure about the filmmaker's decision to bookend the story with Leo in old age, though Jim Broadbent was very fine as the man whose life had been blighted by his hapless involvement in events more than 50 years earlier.

Over on BBC4, the week's most engrossing documentary was John Simpson: Stories from the Frontline, in which the veteran foreign correspondent mused about that role with three other distinguished practitioners: Max Hastings, Christiane Amanpour and Jon Snow.

Here were four brave and experienced journalists discussing the physical dangers of their job, the striving for impartiality in their coverage and the changing nature of such frontline reporting.

''Now it's a new game'', Hastings said of the rise of Isis, with Snow noting that now reporters were often direct targets.

After the Falklands war, Hastings opted for the quieter life of a newspaper editor and then a historian, and Amanpour found more fulfilment in marriage and motherhood than she'd imagined, though Simpson couldn't see himself abandoning his stressful career. Anyway, he wondered who'd want to employ him behind a desk.

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