BBC4 and TG4 led the way with some inspiring and mesmerising television, writes John Boland
Published 31/12/2011 | 05:00
It was the year in which RTÉ should have been enjoying compliments for its expert coverage of major state occasions but instead incurred disgrace for libelling a priest. How that particular Prime Time Investigates film ever came to be aired remains a mystery to anyone who was instantly alarmed by it when it was screened last May, though the official probes into its making should clarify matters.
A week before that programme went out, Montrose had been doing what it's always done best: recording history with extraordinary images from Queen Elizabeth's state visit and, a few days afterwards, from the now-you-see-us-now-you-don't Obamas -- both events enabling us to pat ourselves on the back and to feel, if only fleetingly, that Ireland was a grand little place after all.
This year's general election and presidential campaign threw up many unedifying moments, gleefully captured on our television screens. And if the presidential campaign debate that was chaired by Pat Kenny and that spelt doom for Sean Gallagher was the dramatic highlight, Vincent Browne's book-brandishing grilling of Martin McGuinness over on TV3 wasn't far behind.
In sport, rugby lovers were allowed, for a tantalising couple of weeks, to feel pretty good about the great Brian O'Driscoll and his hopeful World Cup colleagues. RTÉ's customary expertise in this area, with pundits far superior to their counterparts across the water, added to the gathering excitement -- until, of course, the Irish team went the way of all their predecessors in this tournament, after which the contest suddenly didn't seem that engrossing.
Still, there was both high and low drama elsewhere during the television year, if mostly of a fictional kind.
BEST DRAMA SERIES
I've been assured by a couple of people that the second season of RTÉ One's Love/Hate was superior to the first, but I'm afraid I gave up on it after the opening episode, having decided there was more to life than hanging out with a crowd of snarling scumbags.
Nor did I spend much time with the second season of Downton Abbey (ITV), the contrivances of which quickly became too silly for words.
Three cheers, then, for the Scandinavians. Sweden had previously raised the thriller-series bar with its superb Wallander series and at the start of 2011 along came Denmark with the 20-episode The Killing. (Where would we be without BBC4?)
Everyone marvelled at the woolly jumper worn by Sofie Grabol as dogged detective Sarah Lund, but the real marvel was that the series took its time, inviting the viewer to care as much about the victim's grief-stricken family as about matters of policing and whoever dunnit. The second series, which has just ended, wasn't as startlingly good, but Grabol remained so mesmerising that the role has elevated her to international stardom.
Still, the series of the year for me was the same channel's The Slap, which was based on a bestselling novel and explored how the whacking of an uncontrollable child at a suburban barbecue in Melbourne exposed a complex web of family, social and racial tensions. Each of the eight episodes focused on a particular character and the performances by a cast of largely unknown actors were outstanding.
These almost invariably came from either BBC4 or TG4, the latter's Who is Dervla Murphy? getting the year off to a good start with its intriguing insights into the life and career of the great travel writer.
The same channel's An tÉireannach Fain was an absorbing profile of Irish-American documentary pioneer Robert J Flaherty, while Misineiri Radacahcha served as an unplanned rebuke to RTÉ's Prime Time debacle by focusing on Irish missionaries who are brave and radical agents for change in impoverished and unjust societies.
TG4 also gave us Farraigí na hÉireann, not quite as visually extraordinary as David Attenborough's Frozen Planet over on BBC One, but amazing to look at all the same.
Courtesy of the superb Storyville strand, BBC4 screened so many outstanding documentaries that I've only space to list the very best of them: China's Bleak House, Voices from the Killing Fields, Pol Pot's Executioner, The Life of Karen Woo, The Billion-Dollar Art Heist, Deadline: The New York Times, Julian Assange: Secrets and Lies, and Riding Giants -- the last-named celebrating the exploits of surfing heroes, not a subject I knew anything about but utterly absorbing.
Meanwhile, RTÉ's most substantial documentary was Sean O Mordha's two-part The Home Place: The Irish Family Farm, while Anne Roper's The Ashes of 9/11 was a fine contribution to a whole range of programmes remembering the World Trade Centre atrocity 10 years later.
But Montrose came up with nothing of any interest on the arts and its series of gloomy I-told-you-so autumn documentaries on our economic plight were both tediously repetitive and quite pointless.
BEST MUSIC PROGRAMMES
BBC One's Simon and Garfunkel: The Harmony Game featured the duo, along with producer Roy Halee, as they revealed, track by track, how each song on the Bridge Over Troubled Water album came to be written and recorded.
The TG4 series, Spin, in which Philip King chatted to various Irish musicians (including Jimmy Crowley, Paul Brady and Andy Irvine) about seminal albums they'd made, was just as riveting.