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Saturday 19 April 2014

Does RTé know its arts from its elbow? I'm only asking. . .

On Today With Pat Kenny last Wednesday morning, Niall MacMonagle and the host resumed their weekly discussion of Dickens's novels with a consideration of Bleak House, which I've never read. It made for an engaged, informative and enlightening 20 minutes or so and I immediately resolved to acquaint myself with the book.

In general, though, RTé has two other ways of approaching the arts. One of these, which can be heard nightly on Radio 1's arts show, is to adopt a stance of awed, unquestioning reverence, characterised by interviews in which poets, painters, dramatists or whoever are mainly required to acknowledge the brilliance and profundity of what they've created.

These programmes function largely as slavish PR jobs and though the artists themselves must be thrilled at the easy ride they invariably get, the intelligent listener hankers for a degree of scepticism, or even basic scrutiny, that's just not there. (Displays of basic ignorance don't help, either, as in last week's bizarre discussion of cult movie The Swimmer, which culminated in an inability both by the film's advocate and by the presenter to identify lead actress Janice Rule, the latter finally informing us that her name was Shirley Rule).

RTé's other approach, especially in the few television programmes it devotes to the arts, favours a dumbing down that seems to stem from a terror of elitism, as if art by its nature isn't inherently elitist and as if frightening the populist horses is the worst sin that could be committed by an arts programme.

And so on Tuesday night's WB Yeats: No Country for Old Men (RTé One), there seemed to be a fear that contributions by Seamus Heaney, John Montague, Paul Muldoon and Roy Foster might prove alienating to a general audience. How else to explain footage near the outset of a young Dublin guy called Colm Keegan (described in the caption as "poet") walking down the middle of a busy motorway while offering us his tuppence worth on The Second Coming, a poem that's "just ambiguous enough to be sort of disturbing, you know the way, we all know what he's talking about, but we don't, and I think that's the power of the poem".

There was no answer to that, nor to the insights of Stephen James Smith, another young Dub (also "poet"), whose views on September 1913 were deemed worthy of transmission: "It shocked me how relevant it was and that kinda annoyed me – it annoyed me that our society hasn't moved on". Indeed, even though Yeats was "long dead, he still has his finger on the pulse".

The film, written and directed by Maurice Sweeney, got better as it proceeded, with eloquent insights from Yeats scholar Margaret Mills Harper and witty observations by John Montague, who recalled meeting Maud Gonne and noting that "she rejoiced in her own myth – she was part of history and she knew it".

But I couldn't quite make out the intended audience for this biographical and artistic profile, which offered nothing unfamiliar to those of us who've always loved Yeats. Still, it will have served a purpose if it leads anyone to become acquainted with the greatest English-language poet of the past 120 years.

George Lee's Tax Return (RTé One) was yet another exercise in recessionary doom-and-gloom as Montrose's economics guru travelled the country explaining to various hard-hit people what the Government is doing – or not doing – with their hard-earned cash.

In Balbriggan, mother-of-three Susan was struck by the fact that the €2,000 she took home each month as a financial analyst was the same figure she spent on a creche to mind her children. Would she be better off chucking in her job? Meanwhile, up in Donegal, laid-off worker Alan was trying to exist on a Jobseeker's Allowance; while in Finglas, widowed Maureen pondered the relative costs of home help and nursing home career.

George discussed their various options without (as far as I could discern) coming to any definite conclusions, and he also sat around a kitchen table chatting to a financial journalist and a union representative. Nothing got resolved there, either, and I was left mystified about the point of the film.

Why poverty? That was the question asked by three BBC4 films that left me feeling more depressed than when I started watching them. First up was Give Us the Money, which examined the efforts of Bono and Bob Geldof to alleviate starvation in Africa.

At the outset it raised a few dissenting questions about the efficacy of such celebrity interventions, but it didn't really pursue them and the overall tone was so admiring that by the end you felt the programme should have been retitled 'How Bob and Bono Saved the World'.

Stealing Africa was more interesting and more disturbing, too, as it examined the mining exploits in Zambia by the publicity-shy company, Glencore.

Just as depressing was Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream, which contrasted poverty in the South Bronx with the billionaire lifestyles being enjoyed by a privileged few just 20 minutes up the road in Manhattan. And yet Romney was nearly elected president. What's wrong with ordinary Americans?

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