Thursday 8 December 2016

Irish history -- as already seen on TV

The Story of Ireland RTÉ 1, An Píopa TG4 Robinson BBC1, The Promise Channel 4, Outcasts BBC1

Published 12/02/2011 | 05:00

We've had Robert Kee's pioneering television history of Ireland. We've had Sean O Mordha's absorbing account of the nation in the 20th Century. We recently even had Diarmuid Gavin bringing all the weight of his gardening expertise to bear as he dug up our ancient past. And let's not forget Tom, Dick, Harry and Johnny Come Lately, all of whom have fronted lavish television series about the importance of being Irish.

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So the question must be asked: do we really need yet another backward look at our green and grievously over-analysed land? And the answer must be: not if it's anything like the first episode of Fergal Keane's five-part RTÉ/BBC co-production, The Story of Ireland, screened by RTÉ One on Tuesday night?

Keane is a fine journalist and an intelligent and thoughtful man, as was clear from Ryan Tubridy's interview with him on last week's Late Late Show. How, then, to account for the unrelenting dullness of this opening film? The blame, I'm afraid, must rest with the presenter, given that he was also the programme's writer and shaping force.

For reasons best known to himself, he decided to adopt the determinedly "educational" approach of those State-sponsored documentaries that everyone else on the planet stopped making about 40 years ago -- or maybe they're still making them for the edification of the people in Uzbekistan or North Korea.

Thus, he began at the beginning, with an academic on hand to dutifully explain what was known about our first settlers. Then he moved on to Newgrange, where another expert earnestly filled us in on its significance. Yet another academic (the film was coming down with profs) solemnly described Bronze Age artefacts in the National Museum, after which we were asked to consider the importance of a mummy unearthed from a bog.

Call me a muck savage but by this stage I was muttering "Who really cares?" at my television set -- mutters that went unheeded as I was taken through Roman Age Britain, the advent of Christianity and the monks of Clonmacnoise. By the end of the 70 minutes (was it really only that long?) the film had got no further chronologically than Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf.

Apparently, the BBC will be screening the series in the next few weeks and there's talk of global sales, but who on earth will be watching an enterprise so drearily structured, so doggedly delivered, so carefully measured and so unsurprising and unrevealing in its historical narrative?

There was nothing dogged or measured about An Píopa (TG4), Risteard O Domhnaill's award-winning documentary about the long-running anti-pipeline protests in Co Mayo. These had already been the subject of a documentary screened by RTE, in which Paul Williams left viewers in no doubt what he thought of the protesters.

It made for a fascinatingly lopsided film, and An Píopa was just as lopsided, though O Domhnaill's sympathies were entirely with the protesters. Indeed, both he and they portrayed this sparsely populated coast of Mayo as a place of almost prelapsarian beauty that would be paradise for ever if it wasn't being threatened by an evil modernity.

There were constant shots of beautiful landscapes and seascapes, while the local farmers and fishermen spoke accordingly. "I want my children to enjoy the same childhood as I did," teacher Brid Monaghan said, as if she, or indeed anyone, could somehow arrest all notions of time and circumstance. "No one will be living here in 20 years," she said at another point, "the area will belong to Shell" -- causing the viewer to reflect that, Shell or not, no one will be living there anyway if the area isn't developed in some radical way. But the film clearly endorsed her sentiments.

It was skewed in other aspects, too. Shell had refused to participate, but the filmmaker chose to exclude any voices other than those of the protesters, as if everyone in the area supported their actions, which the earlier film had shown was not the case. Nor did it acknowledge that the protests had attracted outside agitators, who were there for their own reasons.

Still, though deeply partisan, the film potently demonstrated the courage of people in taking on implacable forces which they felt were endangering their way of life. It also showed the depressingly heavy-handed response of the gardai in dealing with people they knew to be decent and sincere.

Peter Robinson always prided himself on being an implacable force, or at least he did until his wife's affair with a 19-year-old served to dent his armour-plated shell. However, Robinson (BBC1) suggested that there was always something more to the DUP leader and Northern Ireland first minister than a cold control freak and die-hard extremist.

Former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain recalled him as "warm, humorous, self-deprecating and witty", though he added that in public "he very rarely displays that". The man himself, by his own account, was "a very shy individual". In general, though, the hour-long documentary didn't provide any revelations and indeed didn't probe deeply into what what makes him tick, and by the end I felt I knew as little about him as at the start.

In the four-part The Promise (Channel 4), writer-director Peter Kosminsky tells the story of young Erin, a London student, who, on discovering the diary of her dying grandfather, goes with a friend to Tel Aviv in order to find out more about the time he spent serving in Palestine with the British military. The action seesaws back and forth between 2005 and the 1940s, with Erin -- and the viewer -- gradually learning more about a situation that led ultimately to the debacle that is the current Middle East.

Beautifully paced, well scripted and arrestingly performed, the first episode suggested that a drama of real power and substance is in the offing.

I didn't feel that with the first episode of Outcasts (BBC1), in which survivors of a doomed earth end up on the remote planet of Carpathia. Liam Cunningham is the leader of this futuristic commune, which is awaiting the arrival of new refugees. But all is not well: there are disaffected inhabitants, Cunningham may not be as benign as he seems, and who knows what lurks on Carpathia? Personally, though, I found it hard to care.

jboland@independent.ie

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