Friday 9 December 2016

John Boland: The day barack supped with a star called henry

The Road to Moneygall RTÉ1
Climb For KidsRTÉ1
The HourBBC2
Who Do You Think You Are USA?RTÉ1

Published 23/07/2011 | 05:00

The content of some documentaries is so strong that what's being told takes precedence over the manner of its telling.

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For instance, although two recent television films about Cambodia -- Pol Pot's Executioner (BBC4) and Voices from the Killing Fields (More 4) -- were superbly shaped and narrated, their riveting substance would have survived humdrum presentation.

When the substance isn't so compelling, style and tone become much more important, and the main weakness of this week's The Road to Moneygall (RTÉ1) was that its makers didn't discover an interesting way of enlivening a storyline -- how Henry Healy got to meet distant cousin Barack Obama -- that was both too familiar and too thin to warrant the time it took to relate.

It didn't help that the affable Henry lacked the charisma to command centre-stage. The makers sought to counter this problem by opting for a jauntily jocose tone, but they appeared uncertain how far to take it and they weren't helped by a script, narrated by Tom Hickey, that occasionally seemed eager to take surreal flight but instead remained nervously earthbound.

There were some nice moments. "There's an offer I wasn't expecting," Henry told us after answering the phone in his kitchen. "Dulux wants to come and paint the village." And I enjoyed, too, the bemused/amused reaction of pub owner Julia Hayes when a hen party from Mayo descended on her premises just prior to the Obama visit.

But what could have been an Irish version of an Ealing comedy (Whiskey Galore, perhaps) or of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero -- with our own brand of wily natives agog at the prospect of American largesse -- didn't materialise, and so the film never managed to be more than mildly amiable.

Mind you, it didn't annoy me in the manner of Climb for Kids (RTÉ1), which purported to accompany 28 Irish people as they scaled Kilimanjaro for a children's medical charity but was really only interested in the so-called celebrities among the group.

These included such yawn-inducing RTÉ stalwarts as Kathryn Thomas and Síle Seoige and comedians Alan Shortt and Karl Spain, all of whom moaned and whinged their way up the mountain, while in a ludicrously over-the-top voiceover narrator Colin Farrell kept reminding us of their epic and gruelling endeavour, as if thousands of people don't climb Kilimanjaro every year.

At the end, a few of the ordinary people who had made the climb were given cursory soundbites, after which it was back to the celebs to reflect on their ordeal, Kathryn Thomas breathlessly describing it as "four-and-a-half days of intense physical and emotional drama". For the viewer, though, it was 50 minutes of intense tedium in the company of the self-regarding.

Screened on Tuesday night, the first episode of BBC2's much-hyped drama series The Hour was somewhat upstaged earlier in the day by a more arresting media drama, and certainly there was no character in The Hour who could compete for attention with Rupert Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks or a kung-fu-fighting Murdoch wife.

The Hour had to make do with fiery young reporter Freddie, whom everyone else in the cast kept insisting was a brilliant journalistic talent, even though the viewer was granted no evidence of his genius. But there was enough that was intriguing in the basic set-up to warrant staying with the series, while the lovingly recreated London of the 1950s was a feast for the eyes, as was Romola Garai in the lead female role.

I'm also quite partial to Gwyneth Paltrow, who's a much better -- and more adventurous -- actress than you'd guess from listening to her detractors, of whom there are many.

Actually, it's her life choices rather than her performances that seem to get up their noses, though why they should scoff at her for being married to the leader of a dreary Brit band beats me.

Are their own marriages so wonderful?

Unfortunately, she got up my own nose in this week's edition of Who Do You Think You Are USA? (RTÉ1), exhibiting all the emotional over-reactions that are plainly encouraged, indeed demanded, in this American spin-off of the BBC original.

"Oh, no, that's so awful, that's so sad!" she emoted on hearing that one of her great-grandmother's children had been run over by a tram a hundred years ago. Lesser castastrophes elicited similar responses: "Oh, that's terrible!" "Oh, my God, that's horrific!" "Oh, it's going to make me cry."

Towards the end she learned that her ancestors on her father's side had been rabbis in Poland. "Wow! That is so cool!" she exclaimed. "It's kind of blowing my mind!" This, she disclosed, was because "I have a very spiritually curious soul." Then she descended into psychobabble: "I've come to understand all these pieces of myself, and that's very impactful to me."

Oh dear, but I still love watching her.

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