Saturday 23 September 2017

Censors working overtime -- but TV3's docs were not a cut above

At the outset of TV3's new documentary series, Paddies Down Under, the voiceover guy promised the viewer an "up close and personal" look at how recent Irish emigrants are faring in Australia, but then issued a cautionary note. "Be warned," he darkly advised, "it ain't for the faint-hearted."

To be honest, I couldn't make out who it was for. Certainly any suggestion that we were about to witness an antipodean instalment of Boozed Up Irish Abroad was entirely erroneous as all the film showed us were three groups of young Irish people in Sydney behaving quite normally.

Maybe the filmmakers hoped that the four lads from Firhouse who were working as labourers for a construction company would get raucously rat-arsed when out revelling over the weekend, but, if that was the case, they failed to oblige.

Similarly disobliging were the three young GAA-playing women who worked in the city's financial district and who were more interested in fine dining than vomiting outside nightclubs, while the eight backpackers were so skint that they couldn't afford to go berserk even if they'd wanted to -- though they seemed far too sensible to entertain such anarchic yearnings.

In fact, all 15 of the featured subjects seemed perfectly nice and appeared to be enjoying their Australian adventure, which must have been reassuring for their mammies and daddies back home but which left this disinterested viewer wondering what he was being asked to look at and why.

The voiceover guy must have felt the same because he kept hoping for something to happen. Thus, when Saturday night came round, he got all excited because "it only means one thing -- partying!" And when the backpackers finally found a house that would accommodate them, that could only lead to "partying well into the evening" -- maybe even until 10pm, if the neighbours didn't object.

Indeed, I felt so sorry for him that I felt like throwing a party for him myself, just so long as it didn't get out of hand.

Still, it was TV3's week, what with that film and three other new documentaries, two of them untainted by that channel's usual fascination with the tacky and sensational -- though the first instalment of Banned might have been more interesting if it had eschewed its doggedly earnest approach in favour of something more racy.

Its opening section on film censorship in Ireland was certainly a missed opportunity. Grotesque examples abound of the bannings and butcheries inflicted on great movies by a succession of Irish censors -- enough, indeed, to make for an absorbing hour-long documentary -- but the programme came up with none of them.

And though it went to the trouble of enlisting such knowledgeable and articulate contributors as film historian Kevin Rockett and former censors Sheamus Smith and John Kelleher (or James Kelleher, as the narrator kept calling him), it didn't ask them anything of the remotest interest.

The section on literary censorship was similarly shoddy and shallow -- ignoring the censorship board's shameful heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, when books by almost every Irish and international writer of note were prohibited, and focusing entirely on the 1960s banning of John McGahern's The Dark and novels by Lee Dunne.

Ireland's Litter Louts, from which I expected little, turned out to be the best of the TV3 documentaries. It was directed by Nicola Larkin and presented by Jim McCabe and between them they came up with a film that let the shocking facts and images speak for themselves without any gratuitous editorial grandstanding.

They were aided in this by their two main interviewees -- Stephen Kavanagh, a litter warden with Dublin City Council, and his Westmeath equivalent, Larry Murphy, both of whom were bracingly direct and articulate when describing and demonstrating jobs made unenviable (indeed, to many of us un-doable) by the flytippers and other rubbish dumpers who treat the landscape and the community with contempt. This was an arresting and shaming film which provided a genuine public service.

I'm not sure what service was intended by the makers of Behind the Crime: The Untold Stories, which purported to solicit sympathy for the families both of killers and their victims but which forfeited any high ground it sought to establish by its lurid approach both to the crimes themselves and to its interviewees.

These interviews yielded no insights whatsoever. "How do you feel?" reporter Alison O'Reilly asked Geraldine Black, mother of Una, who stabbed a man in a row over a dog, and of Nicola, who was jailed for cocaine trafficking. "I feel like shite," she said. And what was it like visiting Una in prison? "Like shit". It didn't get any more illuminating.

Derek O'Reilly, whose brother Joe was jailed for killing his wife Rachel, still doesn't believe he did it, arguing that "it's not in his physical or mental make-up to take anyone's life". Indeed, when Derek asked Joe if he'd killed Rachel, Joe got all affronted and replied "How could you even ask me that?"

That, apparently, is good enough for Derek, who blames Joe's incarceration on the media, given that they were "pretty much judge, jury and executioner". At which point I asked myself "Why am I watching this?" and couldn't come up with an answer.

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