independent

Thursday 24 April 2014

Call the cops: an RTE drama that works . . .

Here's that rare oddity - an RTE drama that works. In fact, the only thing really wrong with Single Handed (RTE1) was the decision to split it over two nights, thus breaking its slow but remorseless momentum.

But apart from that, and maybe a few niggling little errors of detail (oh, and its dreary title, too), this was the real deal and it didn't lose its nerve by resorting to far-fetched plot twists or ludicrous melodrama.

Indeed, the plot was simplicity itself. Sergeant Jack Driscoll, transferred back from Dublin to his home place in the west of Ireland, discovers the body of a young Balkan woman in a caravan, senses that this might not be an accidental death and begins to make inquiries that aren't welcomed by anyone in the community, least of all by his father, who's just retired as the local sergeant.

Of course, there was more to the storyline than this. Indeed, by the end, a whole web of family and community secrets had been uncovered, if not resolved, and I was somehow reminded of Polanski's Chinatown - just like that movie, we were presented with a protagonist who didn't really know what he was getting himself into, a malevolent paterfamilias intent on burying the truth, an underlying motif of incest and a conclusion that offered no consolation to anyone.

In the final scene, I half-expected someone to take the main character aside and say wearily: "Forget it, Jack, it's just Carna."

Well, if you're going to borrow, do it from the best, and in every other respect Single Handed negotiated its own tone, pacing and rhythms, aided by Barry Simner's lean and suggestive screenplay, which kept true to our sense of the characters, and by Colm McCarthy's unfussy, almost gaunt direction, which furthered the action without ever feeling the need to distract from it and which persuasively depicted the west of Ireland as a troubled and troubling place far removed from the happy-clappy images manufactured by our tourist board.

And there wasn't a false note in the performances, either. Laura Murphy was seriously affecting as a young woman who, for reasons she could never know, was the real victim of what happened.

As another woman caught up haplessly in the intrigue, Donna Dent had only one scene but made it very poignant, while Ian McElhinney as the corrupt garda father was a quietly monstrous figure and Liam Carney as his seedy businessman friend managed to be both repulsive and all-too-humanly pathetic. All of these, you felt while watching, were real people, not just actors conscripted into a drama.

Carrying the burden of the film, though, was Owen McDonnell as Jack, referred to by his father as "a self-righteous little shite." It was a measure of McDonell's playing that we were aware of the self-righteousness - the unattractive priggishness even - while also recognising the admirable sense of honesty and duty in his character that drove him implacably onwards in search of a truth that he knew would only isolate him further from a community to which he had hoped to belong.

I've dwelt at some length on this drama, partly because it was so good in itself and partly because it shows that we don't have to be subjected to garbage like Trouble in Paradise. Now if only someone in RTE could tell the difference.

They have that knack in HBO, as the fourth season of The Wire, which has just started on TG4, demonstrates, though I'll confess I'm a late convert to this despairing, if compelling, take on life in the projects of Baltimore, where teenagers ape the criminal adults, pre-teens mimic their older brothers and an untainted cop is extremely hard to find.

And that's not even to mention the venal mayoral candidate, played with cynical aplomb by Aidan Gillen. Something has happened to Gillen's face and demeanour since his tour de force as the mesmerically repellent predator in Queer as Folk - here, as a wannabe Bill Clinton of the boondocks, his features are almost eaten away by the corruption and compromises of small-time ambition. It's a remarkably uningratiating performance and even while you're recoiling from his bullying and blandishments you can't take your eyes off him.

Would that I could say the same about the moneyed slappers in Marbella Belles (UTV), a six-part series about the shenanigans of blonde bimbettes on the Costa del Sol. These are truly repulsive creatures as they flaunt their fake tans and their bling, and screech on about their supposedly alluring lifestyle. Dennis Waterman narrates their exploits in the manner of a Ray Winstone gangster, but there's no sexy beasts here.

If you wanted sex this week you turned to Ulrika Jonsson, specifically to Ulrika: Am I a Sex Addict? (Channel 4), though the programme should really have been titled Ulrika: Am I a Publicity Junkie? To which the answer would have been an unequivocal yes. Nice woman, Ulrika, and pretty, too, but, God, does she need attention.

Anyway, Ulrika was worried that she might be a sex addict, even though getting beaten up by Stan Collymore and going to bed with Sven Goran Eriksson seemed more an indicator of appalling choices than any kind of disease.

But, lo and behold, there were lots of counsellors and therapists on hand to persuade her that, yes indeed, she was a sex addict and that her addiction could only be confronted and cured by taking the courses they just happened to be offering.

To this end, they earnestly entreated her to find the necessary "tools" that would "fill that hole" (I'm not making this up), and in the process she went on a "spiritual journey" from which she discovered "startling truths" about herself.

One of these spiritual journeys involved caressing a horse, but I don't think we need to go there.

I'd have been more susceptible to the supposed charms of Mansfield Park (UTV) if I hadn't just watched Patricia Rozema's fine movie version, starring Frances O'Connor, and if I could have believed for a second in Billie Piper as anyone other than Dr Who's feisty sidekick.

This was the first of three Austen adaptations by ITV and it made me wonder what they'll do with Persuasion, of which the BBC made an outstanding film a few years back.

jboland@independent.com

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