Sunday 19 November 2017

Ripping yarn of the forgotten Irish Sherlock Holmes

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Radio is an unmatched source of education and entertainment. Sometimes you get both at once – I've spent the last several days learning about the history of cocaine, the movie Apocalypse Now (Talking History, Newstalk, Sun 7pm), Abba and summer blockbusters (The Dave Fanning Show, 2fm, Sat-Sun 10am).

In a way, I suppose, it's all history: the coke is pharmaceutical/political/social, Apocalypse Now cinematic, Abba musical and the blockbusters whatever term we use for films that aren't good enough to deserve the term "cinematic".

The most entertaining show all week was another mix of history and entertainment, a brilliantly enjoyable radio play called William Melville: The Queen's Detective (Radio Kerry, Mon 10am).

Written by Daithí McMahon and Fred O'Connor, and made by award-winning Henchman Productions, it told one of those stranger-than-fiction stories.

The titular Melville, from Sneem, Co Kerry, was one of Queen Victoria's top espionage agents in the 19th Century. He became head of Scotland Yard and even inspired M in Ian Fleming's James Bond.

This episode from Melville's life saw him foiling a Fenian bomb plot, which is perhaps one reason he's been neglected by official Irish history.

His position was awkward and controversial – an Irishman arresting Irishmen for the Crown. But as the drama explained, Melville wasn't necessarily opposed to independence: he just didn't believe it was worth killing for.

That makes it sound very dry, one of those tediously worthy dramas that are balanced and informative but forget to entertain. But The Queen's Detective was a superb story, with great writing and acting, and a twist at the end that had me simultaneously clapping and laughing in delight.

I love all that Victoriana stuff – foggy streets, nefarious deeds, violent conspiracies, murky men hiding in the shadows. This was like the best Sherlock Holmes stories with an Irish spin, making it even more enjoyable. So good, in fact, that with respect to Radio Kerry, it was almost wasted on a provincial station.

Melville's story was, what's the word again? Ah, yes: cinematic.


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