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John Boland: Absorbing memories of that dark, dark day

The Ashes of 9/11 RTÉ one Surviving 9/11 RTÉ one 9/11: The Day the World Changed BBC ONE AND RTÉ ONE The Rise and Fall of Fianna Fáil TV3 Behind the Walls RTÉ ONE Paul Connolly Investigates: Ireland's Sham Marriages TV3

Published 17/09/2011 | 05:00

Written, produced and directed by Anne Roper, The Ashes of 9/11 (RTÉ One) was an arresting documentary among almost a score of films marking the atrocity's 10th anniversary, and it would have been even more arresting if a Late Late Show item screened two nights earlier hadn't stolen some of its thunder.

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Why does RTÉ persist in undermining its better programmes (and, God knows, there are few enough of them) with extended advance puffs that rob them of their impact? In this instance, the film's most affecting interviewee, Cork-born Ron Clifford, had already related the same experiences and emotions to The Late Late's Ryan Tubridy, and in much the same words, too. That also went for journalist Conor O'Clery, who was another of The Late Late guests.

The upshot was that viewers who'd seen The Late Late felt somewhat cheated when they sat down to watch the subsequent documentary, feeling that they'd heard it all before -- an unmeant though inevitable disservice to Roper's fine film, which focused on some Irish victims and survivors of the New York attacks.

Ron Clifford's story was especially moving given that, on surviving the impact of the first plane, he learnt that his sister and young niece were on the second plane -- and also given that he recalled the details of that morning with wrenching eloquence. All the more a pity, then, that RTÉ's mania for self-promotion diluted the power of his recollections.

I didn't get round to watching all the 9/11 commemorative films, though two that I did see had considerable force. Surviving 9/11, which followed Roper's documentary on RTÉ One and was produced by National Geographic, focused on a handful of people who'd just about escaped with their lives and got them to recall their experiences. The very simplicity of this approach made for an absorbingly direct film.

A brilliantly simple idea also distinguished the more ambitious 9/11: The Day the World Changed (BBC One and RTÉ One), in which senior members of the US administration, military and other official departments reconstructed the morning of the attacks as experienced by them on a minute-to-minute basis. Although almost two hours long, this sped along like an especially compelling thriller.

All of these films, incidentally, felt they had the licence to show horrific images -- the second plane crashing into the south tower, the people who jumped a hundred storeys to their deaths -- that have hardly ever been seen in the last 10 years. A generally agreed if unwritten protocol seemed to have dictated this, but such footage was crucial to the impact of these commemorative films.

Firefighters, police personnel and ordinary people matter-of-factly revealed their better angels in all these documentaries, leaving the second instalment of The Rise and Fall of Fianna Fáil (TV3) to disclose a less ennobling view of humanity -- if our political class can be so described.

As I listened to the backbitings and recriminations and self-denials of these Soldiers of Destiny -- all of them intent on distancing themselves from the calamity they brought upon themselves and on the nation -- it was hard not to see them as a truly pathetic lot: not so much a ship of fools as a boatload of idiots.

This didn't stop some of them from trying to dignify their plight by hilarious references to Greek mythology. "We were like Icarus," Martin Mansergh declared with side-splitting solemnity, "we flew too close to the sun." O brave new world that has such people in it.

Mary Hanafin, for her part, defied me not to chortle when she regarded the whole debacle as simply that of a "very unlucky" government who were "dogged by ill-health and death and an international economic situation", but I burst out laughing anyway.

Among others contributing to this it-wasn't-me-guv comedy line-up were John O'Donoghue, Willie O'Dea and Sean Haughey, though the undoubted stars were Bertie Ahern and his former paramour Celia Larkin -- the latter dispensing profound nuggets of political wisdom (yeah, right) and the former abandoning any pretence of party solidarity (the one thing that kept Fianna Fáil together) as he turned on his former colleagues, declaring of the economic catastrophe that "the enormity of the problems was beyond them all". Ah, them.

The first instalment of Behind the Walls (RTÉ One), Mary Raftery's two-part series on Ireland's psychiatric institutions, was a somewhat laboured history lesson, but at least it largely kept to the subject.

Unfortunately, the final instalment, though promising a more riveting contemporary relevance, was a structural mess and got entirely derailed halfway through with an extended account of the activities of a Waterford-based psychiatrist who'd assaulted some of his female patients.

This particular case might have made for an interesting stand-alone half-hour film, perhaps in RTÉ's Scannal series, but the story of one rogue medic merited no more than a mention in a film purporting to deal with larger, more general and indeed more important issues. Instead, the emphasis it received was so disproportionate that many of these larger issues went unexplored.

I was 30 minutes into Paul Connolly Investigates: Ireland's Sham Marriages (TV3) before I learnt the basic reason for these phoney nuptials, but at least the film was about something, unlike the same reporter's recent probe into bogus beggars, which turned out be completely hollow.

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