Saturday 25 March 2017

TV reviews: Game of Thrones, University Challenge, Get the Numbers Write, Inside Harley Street, ESB Feis Ceoil: In Time

Stannis Baratheon and his army move north in series 5 of 'Game of Thrones'
Stannis Baratheon and his army move north in series 5 of 'Game of Thrones'

John Boland

Did you know that there were 456 onscreen deaths in the first 40 episodes of Game of Thrones (Sky Atlantic)?

This information comes courtesy of the Washington Post, which clearly has not been resting on the investigative laurels it acquired when Woodward and Bernstein exposed the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.

Gosh, 456, and most of them very gory. Well, you can now make that 457, this latest occurring at the climax of an unusually restrained fifth-season opener in which there were lots of bare bums, most of them male (there's a thesis in that), but oddly little violence.

Oddly little of anything, really, though I felt for the death-by-fire torment of Mance Rayder (played by Ciaran Hinds) at the episode's close, if only because, like the 456 other victims, it meant the abrupt termination of his Game of Thrones pay cheque.

Perhaps that revelation of his demise is a spoiler for those who haven't yet seen the episode, but surely the trillions of devotees of this sex-and-sorcery blockbuster don't expect any of the characters, even the most prominent, to survive for very long anyway. Remember Sean Bean? And Charles Dance?

You may have gathered by now that I'm not a devotee. Indeed, I concurred with the young girl in this week's episode who derisively told a supposedly malevolent witch "You're not terrifying, you're boring".

That's a good line and in fact it's the smart dialogue that distinguishes Game of Thrones from all the other fantasy dramas. I especially liked this week's exchange between vertically-challenged Tyrion and his eunuch adviser Varys, the latter extolling the former's compassion.

"Compassion?" Tyrion protested. "I killed my lover with my bare hands, I shot my own father with a crossbow". "I never said you were perfect" responded Varys.

Yet the drama seems to me to be largely targeted at a Harry Potter audience, or at least the sizeable segment of it that fantasises about Harry graphically disembowelling his opponents and Hermione just as graphically having it away with all and sundry.

In other words, it's kids' stuff - gory and rude kids' stuff, admittedly, but then that's what kids love, and just as I'm wary of any adults who boast of being in thrall to Harry Potter (aren't there any grown-up books to be read?), so I'm suspicious of seemingly mature Game of Thrones addicts.

I'm in a minority because surely the trillions of viewers in 170 countries who waited last Monday night for the one-day later broadcast of this season's opener can't be wrong. They're probably not, but I'm happy to let them at it.

Gonville and Caius sound like the names of two Game of Thrones characters, but in fact Gonville and Caius are the names of the Cambridge college that wiped the floor with Magdalen Oxford in this week's final of University Challenge (BBC2).

Even sardonic quizmaster Jeremy Paxman was impressed by their bravura performance, most of it accomplished by eerily encyclopaedic law student Ted Loveday, who successfully answered 12 of the competition's "starters for 10".

Among these was the Greek term used to denote an expression that's found only once in an author's literature, and Ted immediately came up with "hapax legomenon". I bet no one in Game of Thrones knew that. I certainly didn't, though Wikipedia subsequently informed me that the word "satyr" was a Shakesperean hapax legomenon, making only a single appearance in the Bard's plays. You can save it for a dull night in the pub.

Mind you, I'd prefer a dull pub night than having to watch some of this week's programmes, TV3 in particular having supplanted RTE as purveyor of the sort of worthy fare that can bore holes in rocks.

Indeed, I had put off reviewing Sheana Keane's adult literacy series, partly because its title, Get the Numbers Write, was itself illiterate (though someone clearly thought they were being clever) but largely because it was both so painfully do-goodery and so crammed with silly gimmicks. And thus it remained.

The first instalment of Islanders was somewhat more interesting, though not half as "dramatic" or "emotive" as its pre-publicity liked to suggest. Inishturk in Co Mayo, Whiddy in Co Cork and Arranmore in Cork are the islands that have been chosen for the series, and in this week's opening episode we got to meet the main participants, none of whom, I'm afraid, provided much in the way of drama.

However, there was lots of it to be encountered in the opening instalment of Inside Harley Street (BBC2), most of it coming from film-maker and interviewer Vanessa Engle, who wasn't shy about asking direct questions, mainly about money.

"If someone asks me how much I earn," one consultant responded, "I've got nothing to hide. I earn X". But she pushed for a figure and he mumbled "£500,000". And when she asked patient Ellen how much her procedure was costing, Ellen loftily replied: "That's like asking David Cameron how much is a pint of milk".

The film was crammed with such good soundbites and if Engle initially seemed intent on being withering about privilege and private medical practice, it all got more complicatedly human and engrossing as it proceeded. I look forward to the final two instalments.

And I liked, too, Ian Whelan's little film, ESB Feis Ceoil: In Time (RTE1), in which former Feis competitor and current Lyric FM boss Aodan O Dubhghaill argued that Ireland "would have been a much poorer place" without this 118-year-old institution.

Violinist Vyvienne Long concurred, asserting that without the Feis, "the standard of classical music in this country wouldn't be as high as it is", while comedian and actor Risteard Cooper recalled that his mother won the soprano competition while his father won as a tenor.

Lots of young hopefuls featured as well, and it was all very charming and interesting, but really this subject demands a series and Ian Whelan is clearly the person to make it.

Life's a beach for backpackers

"You ever seen The Wicker Man?" a young backpacker asks his chum near the outset of Tatau (BBC3). "I think this is the sequel".

Actually, this new drama series is more like a cross between Home and Away and The Beach, with tanned and bland young English backpackers experiencing spooky events on the sun-drenched Cook islands.

There's a young woman who appears to hero Kyle after he ingests some hallucinogens, and the next morning he finds her dead and chained to a rock under the waves.

Or does he? The police don't seem to think so, and the viewer hasn't a clue what's going on.

This is BBC3's last drama before the channel is axed. Will it be a fitting farewell?

Well, if you're an aficionado of wooden acting and have the patience to learn whether this develops into something creepy, you can find out for yourselves.

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