TG4: Fifteen years on, our best TV is still coming from 'little' TG4
RTé could learn a lot from our pioneering and quirky Irish-language channel, says Darragh McManus
Fifteen years on the go, 15 years on the grow: a hearty 'bualadh bos' to you, TG4, and a hearty 'told you so' to all the doubters and cynics.
When the brainchild of our new president, Michael D Higgins, debuted on Irish screens at the end of October 1996, naysayers and sceptics lined up to prophesy disaster. What a waste of taxpayers' money, they wailed. Why bother trying to keep this dead language going? We're 'modern' Europeans now and should just speak English.
TG4 -- Telefís na Gaeilge as it was then known -- would be a drain on exchequer funds before petering away to a miserable, early expiration. But how wrong they were: and good job, too. It would have been unbearable had all those culturally colonised clowns been proven right.
Instead, TG4 carved out a nice little niche for itself: minority interest within the broader broadcasting framework, but with healthy viewership, its future safeguarded and, most importantly, its own identity. It's now a cool, alternative channel, almost an Irish version of what Channel 4 used to be like before it turned into wall-to-wall reality TV rubbish.
They have the young, funky continuity and presenting staff; the non-Hollywood movie choices (European art-house, old westerns, obscure Asian kung-fu); the cult heroes (Hector, Neelo); and the cherry-picking of excellent imported shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Gossip Girl, The Wire and True Blood, often ahead of all other Irish and UK broadcasters.
(Incidentally, these are just one reason why you don't need to be fluent as Gaeilge to watch TG4. Besides a lot of English-language programmes, almost all Irish shows are subtitled, except for live news and sports coverage.)
And of course, there's been a great commitment to indigenous programming in the native tongue. It's amazing how many original programmes this titchy little station has produced. Travel has long been a TG4 strongpoint. Amú le Hector was one of the first proper 'travel' shows broadcast in Ireland, as opposed to the tourism industry-approved likes of RTé's No Frontiers.
In a similar vein were Neelo -- affable Dubliner tools around the world, following his curiosity and getting into trouble -- and Manchán, which was of a whole other intellectual level. Manchán Magan's travels in Asia were cerebral and engrossing in a beautifully low-key way.
A raft of excellent documentaries have also been produced, and what is admirable about TG4's approach is that these don't focus solely on the predictable 'issues' of the day. Such diverse subjects as haunted houses, sexual mores in pre-Christian Ireland, the culture of the Gaeltacht and the Irish immigrant experience have been lovingly and affectingly documented.
Their programming for young people is anarchic and witty, and also features many original commissions: from Punky, the world's first cartoon about a child with Down Syndrome, to Aifric, the wryly funny, and award-winning comedy-drama about a teenage girl's growing pains.
But it's in the realms of drama that TG4 truly excels -- and puts its state broadcaster big sibling in the shade.
They've produced an incredible amount of really good drama (that's meant in the broad sense of both serious and comedic) over the last 15 years; it stands comparison with any TV station, and this on a relatively tiny operational scale.
And in contrast to a lot of RTé's output -- which is usually well made but often artistically uninspiring, like it was put together by a focus group -- TG4's drama is inventive, courageous, unpredictable and authentic. It strikes you as having been made for its own sake, not because some nervous, uninspired executive thought this is what people wanted to see.
Eireville (an homage to Godard's classic science-fiction movie Alphaville), Na Cloigne (deliriously creepy supernatural horror), Fear an Phoist (hilarious cross between Charlie Chaplin and Mr Bean), Rasaí na Gaillimhe (political dodgy dealings at the height of the boom), Paddy Whackery (Peig reimagined as a comical spirit), Yu Ming is Ainm Dom (humorous short movie about cross-cultural confusion), Seacht (the Irish version of Fame) ...
It's unimaginable that shows like these would ever be commissioned by RTE.
And not forgetting, of course, the barmy and brilliant Ros na Rún, itself 15 years old and now airing on US and Scottish public service TV.
But that's enough praise: we'll finish with a simple, heartfelt 'go raibh maith agat'. Here's to the next 15.