Tuesday 26 September 2017

Last Night's TV: A bumper night on TV

Diarmuid Doyle had a busy night in front of the box: with a new BBC drama to watch, the Murdochs in the Commons, and a documenatary following Obama's visit to Moneygall

New BBC Drama 'The Hour'. Photo:
New BBC Drama 'The Hour'. Photo:

Maybe it was the group of men racing down a greyhound track in their shorts; or perhaps it was when the pole dancing hen party arrived in town on a specially designed bus.

Was it the local woman marvelling at the numbers of visitors to her town and the possibility that “there was a couple from Toomevara” amongst them? Or maybe it was when the main character announced his “total objection” to having “Tullamore” decide what goes on in his home place.

Whenever it happened, at some point the realisation will have dawned: Moneygall is one peculiar place.

The Road To Moneygall (RTE1) purported to be the story of Henry Healy’s ultimately successful struggle to meet his eighth cousin, the president of the United States, without having to set foot outside his home town. “Hopefully, we’ll have him over to open Obamapark for the soccer club,” he says at one point.

But mainly it was the story of how a small Irish village on the brink of worldwide fame embraced its lunatic side and made the most of its good luck. It had elements of Father Ted and Local Hero, was both funny and sad and, for the first 30 minutes was very dull indeed.

The documentary appears to have started out as a piece on Healy’s discovery that he was a distant relative of Barack Obama, in 2007 a relatively unknown Senator for Illinois. (If The Road To Moneygall is to be believed, Healy was the only person in the village who had heard of him back then).

It was all a bit of fun in those days until, against all the initial odds, Obama won the presidency.

Healy and a few friends, including Canon Stephen Neill, who had discovered the Healy/Obama connection, went to Washington for the inauguration and were portrayed there as stalkers without the courage of their convictions, pointing their cameras through the railings of the White House and musing about how great it would be to let in.

They met a few locals who agreed that Healy had Obama’s ears, but there was no purpose or point to this early section. You imagined the documentary makers looking at their footage when they got home and realising that they had nothing. And then, in March this year, Enda Kenny went to Washington. Suddenly, the visit was on.

Just as suddenly, The Road To Moneygall found some life. Looked at in a certain light, there’s a kind of gormless, innocent Fr Dougal quality to Henry Healy, but he’s anything but stupid. Kilkenny had at least as strong a claim as Moneygall for a presidential visit (one of Obama’s Irish ancestors, a former Bishop of Ossory and provost of Trinity College is buried there), but Healy and his village simply wanted it more.

Canon Neill suggested that Healy was a politician in the making and you could see how his mixture of easygoing bonhomie, niceness, determination and cute hoorism would translate easily into a career in Leinster House. But for a while in the build up to the visit, his status as Mr Popularity in Moneygall was sorely tested.

A parish meeting became quite heated over who would and wouldn’t be meeting the president, sparking Healy’s comment about the perfidy of Tullamore, where the country council seemed to be getting a little too big for its boots.

In the end, it was the US secret service which made the rules. Anyone who wanted could apply for a ticket. It seemed that nobody in Moneygall would miss out in a chance to see the president.

Well, almost nobody. There’s a great movie in Henry Healy’s story, but there may be an even better one to be made about his great-aunt Julia, the real star of The Road to Moneygall. Julia had embraced Henry’s vision from the very start, flying Obama flags in her pub (one of just two in the village), putting talking Obama dolls on her counter and being genuinely, touchingly, infectiously excited about her chance to meet the president.

She was aware enough of her mortality to make a few jokes about it and about the fact that she would never see the like of this again in her lifetime.

But she never got to meet the president. The Road to Moneygall didn’t properly explain why but its final scene, in which Julia was interviewed in her empty pub, doing her best not to look heartbroken (all the excitement having happened up the street) was the saddest thing I’ve seen on television in a while. Somebody, somewhere, forgot about her. She’s owed a big apology.

Were it not for the behaviour of some of his media outlets over the years, you’d almost feel sorry for Rupert Murdoch too, after his grilling by British MP on live television yesterday.

Looking like a cross between Mr Burns from the Simpsons and a particularly hubristic lizard, Murdoch coped well enough with the inquisition, mainly by passing himself off as somebody on day release from a home for the bewildered. His weakness made his son James look strong, and the foam attack on her husband gave Wendi Murdoch the chance to win a few admirers. It wasn’t the worst day the Murdochs have had recently.

If they were watching television last night, they’ll have found much to admire in Freddie Lyon, the main character in BBC2’s new drama series, The Hour. Freddie is passionate about his job as a journalist and big into accountability. He is determined to shake up the establishment and the whole way of presenting news, qualities Murdoch claimed for the News Of The World during his testimony. Freddie also bribes policemen to help him.

The Hour is set in 1956 as Freddie and some of his work colleagues in the BBC embark on a new hour-long news programme. It has been described as Britain’s Mad Men, but happily there aren’t too many similarities.

Dominic West as Hector Madden, the new show’s presenter, looks just a bit too like Don Draper for comfort, and the institutional sexism of the era also has echoes of Mad Men, but mainly, The Hour goes its own way.

It’s much more political, full of pre-Cold war paranoia. There are dark references to a “they” who oversee and decide everything, as well as a mysterious murder and a suicide which may turn out to be anything but.

The Hour took a while to untangle itself, but by the end of its first episode had us eager to see what happens next. And In Ben Whishaw, who plays the aforementioned Freddie, it has an almost guaranteed Bafta-nominee next year.

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