Friday 20 January 2017

Love, war, sex and death

Published 29/01/2012 | 06:00

Never having read Sebastian Faulks's 1993 novel Birdsong, which managed the unusual feat of being both critically acclaimed and much loved, I didn't know what to expect from BBC One's two-part adaptation of it -- beyond the fact that it concerned World War One and that much of it was set in the trenches of northern France.

  • Go To

Too much of it, alas, and too frequently in this week's first instalment. I don't know how Faulks structured the book, but I'd be surprised to learn that he kept see-sawing every few pages between posh Stephen's hellish experiences on blood-soaked battlefields and his pre-war hanky-panky with poutingly alluring Isabelle, unhappily married to a swinish industrialist.

Sorry if that sounds disrespectful about what's clearly meant to be un grand amour, but the constant leaping back and forwards in time made it impossible for the viewer to give the lovers their proper due.

One minute they're gazing yearnfully at each other, the next Stephen is stepping over maimed body parts; then it's back to the enraptured duo barely concealing their lust and immediately forward again to Stephen watching more men get slaughtered; 90 seconds later the couple are consummating their desires and two minutes later Stephen is wistfully recalling it all as bullets whizz by his head.

The sexual interludes, it should be said, were more erotic than is the norm in TV drama, but for a male viewer (and, no doubt, an appreciative female one, too) that had less to do with the cowlike, indeed vaguely catatonic, playing of Eddie Remayne as Stephen than with the grave, wispy beauty of Clémence Poésy as Isabelle.

The second and final episode is screened tomorrow night. My guess is that it will all end badly.

Suffering from irreversible motor neurone disease, Colm Murray has much to feel bad about, which makes his tenacity and good cheer all the more remarkable. Diagnosed with the disease in March 2010, the RTÉ racing man took a lengthy break from broadcasting until a chance conversation with Willie Mullins led the trainer to observe: "You're talking normally -- there's no reason you can't do your job."

Murray recalled that conversation in MND: The Inside Track (RTÉ One), noting that it was the "kick in the behind" he needed.

So he returned to live coverage of racing, broadcasts I recall fondly for their expertise and drollery. Sadly, he has now retired from the rigours of onscreen commentary ("I became aware that my voice was not what it was"), but his spirit seems undimmed.

Indeed, one of the most bracing aspects of this engrossing documentary was that it portrayed someone who was entirely free of self-pity. Instead, he has spent much of the last year willingly undergoing treatments that might lead to a reprieve or eventually a cure for future MND sufferers, if not for himself.

An extraordinarily brave man.

Jim Bolger's another fascinating racing figure and his achievements were well documented in the Setanta profile, Jim Bolger: Master of Cool, which was broadcast on TG4. The title, though, hinted at the film's problem, which was the awestruck approach it adopted towards this trainer and breeder.

At the outset, Phelim Drew's reverential voiceover assured us that we were about to encounter a man "who took on the establishment and won" and that "he did it all the Jim Bolger way".

And as the film progressed there were so many tributes to Bolger's courage, expertise, independence, vision, decency and philanthropic concern for humanity that I began to wonder if I'd strayed by mistake into a programme about Nelson Mandela.

This was a pity because Bolger's story was interesting enough to need no such hype, while the man himself was engagingly down-to-earth in interview.

Mandela featured prominently in the first instalment of The World Against Apartheid (BBC4), which documented the vile regime introduced by South African prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd in 1948 as a system of "good neighbourliness" -- a system that oppressed millions until Mandela took that final walk to freedom more than 40 years later.

Mandela wasn't interviewed for the film, while his ANC colleague, Oliver Tambo, died 19 years ago, but in this first episode the willingly-exiled Tambo was the crucial figure, mobilising anti-apartheid opinion in England, Europe, the USSR and Africa. It would take another generation for the racists to realise that the jig was up, but that's for a future instalment of Connie Field's absorbing chronicle.

Meanwhile, on this little island of ours, history never lets up. I had naively imagined that when the findings of the Saville inquiry were published two years ago and David Cameron said "I am deeply sorry" to the relatives of the Bloody Sunday dead, that grim chapter had been finally closed.

But it was reopened this week with BBC One Northern Ireland's Bloody Sunday: The Long Wait, which went over the same old ground yet again.

RS Thomas wrote of his Welsh countrymen "worrying the carcase of an old song," while in Memory of Brother Michael, Patrick Kavanagh asked "Shall we be thus for ever?"

It must be a Celtic thing.

Indo Review

Read More

Promoted articles

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment