Wednesday 16 October 2019

Darragh McManus: RTE's Nationwide is a grossly underrated bit of television

In praise of... the upbeat charms of Nationwide

Nationwide presenters Anne Cassin and Mary Kennedy. PIC: RTE
Nationwide presenters Anne Cassin and Mary Kennedy. PIC: RTE
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

It’s nice – and what’s wrong with that?

Nationwide has been on the go since 1993.

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Ireland then was so different from today that it almost deserves its own name, but in some ways the country hasn’t changed at all – which brings us back to Nationwide, a grossly underrated bit of television.

What made the magazine show work in 1993 remains the same in 2019 (and clearly it does work: nothing would last this long unless there was a large and unflagging public enthusiasm for it).

'Nationwide' presenters present and past Mary Kennedy and Michael Ryan. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
'Nationwide' presenters present and past Mary Kennedy and Michael Ryan. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

It’s good-natured, open-minded, curious about people, curious about the world. It tells genuinely interesting life stories from around the island. Its brief is essentially without limits: Nationwide ranges across environment and lifestyle, culture and community groups, sport and science, daily life and distant history.

It also manages the difficult trick of switching tone deftly: from amusing items on quirky local characters and phenomena to an appreciation of beautiful art or significant heritage to something more sombre – how Brexit will affect borderlands dwellers, say.

The programme began on October 24, 1993, and was the brainchild of Michael Ryan. He presented until 2011 – that longevity in itself is a noteworthy side-story.

Mary Kennedy came on board as co-host in 2004; she’s still there, joined on Ryan’s retirement by Anne Cassin.

Three evenings a week, for 30 minutes, over 26 years, Nationwide has taken the pulse of this nation and it has found, in the main, that it’s in a pretty healthy state. Watching this show, you realise Ireland is quite a nifty place to live.

We’re lucky, in that sense. It’s prosperous and free and peaceful. If that sounds a little boring, Nationwide also reminds us that Ireland is packed full of breathtaking scenery, sublime architecture and archaeology, a thriving arts scene and myriad fascinating activities and groups.

This is mainly why I watch it: it’s comfort television of the most healthy kind. There’s beauty and goodness and decency and, most importantly, it’s all real – this stuff actually exists, they’re not making it up.

Unlike other comfort TV, Nationwide isn’t selling a dream or a mirage or an aspiration: it’s merely shining a light on the best aspects of life in this country.

I feel this is why the programme has never been a particular critical darling. It’s all a bit too sugary-sweet, the critics moan. It’s all too nicey-nice. It doesn’t “expose Ireland’s dark underbelly”. Where’s the grit, where’s the crime, where’s the reality of urban deprivation and kids eating heroin for breakfast?

Well, those are found in other shows: the news, Prime Time, Love/Hate. That’s fine, but it’s not what Nationwide does. Criticising this programme for a paucity of hard news stories is pointless and stupid.

You may as well lambaste Match of the Day for showing only soccer or Top of the Pops for focusing on music to the detriment of cinema and literature.

That’s what those shows are, and this is what Nationwide is: it emphasises the positive, and that’s necessary. Solely focusing on the bad things in a society is just as dumb and inauthentic as only ever focusing on the good.

That said, Nationwide doesn’t shy away from tackling difficult topics. This week, for instance, they’re looking at mental health, including a young Dubliner whose YouTube video about his own problems got a million views in 24 hours and a voluntary suicide prevention group that was set up in Kinvara, Co Galway.

Of course, this is also mixed in with happier stories – things to see and do in Longford, Tidy Towns, the Athy man behind posters on local history currently papering trains around the land.

That’s the nice thing about Nationwide – the blend, the diversity. What’s wrong with being nice?

Nationwide, RTE One, 7.30pm, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays

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