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Thursday 18 October 2018

Some programmes simply leave you flat on your back

Stand-out performances: Ben Whishaw and Hugh Grant in A Very English Scandal. Photo: Sophie Mutevelian
Stand-out performances: Ben Whishaw and Hugh Grant in A Very English Scandal. Photo: Sophie Mutevelian

John Boland

Television has been rather far from my mind over the last four weeks. Flattened by a fall, I've been slowly recovering and have been extremely fortunate to do so in the Royal Hospital, Donnybrook.

This, you may recall, was where Seamus Heaney was paid a surprise visit one afternoon in 2006 by Bill Clinton, who was in town for the Ryder Cup and who had just heard that his old friend had suffered a stroke. A fine Heaney poem, dedicated to the hospital, marks his sojourn here and is framed in the reception area.

Donald Trump, alas, hasn't been into see me yet, but if he did arrive, he certainly couldn't fault either the marvellous staff or the beautiful grounds, though he'd probably change the latter into a nine-hole golf course. Still, he might invest in a super-duper broadband system - as it is, my laptop and iPad internet reception has been somewhat patchy and unreliable.

So I've had to fall back on the hospital's television feed, which does offer the main basic channels, though not any extras, unless you count nightly reruns of Perry Mason on True Movies Plus One or the terrifying apparition of UTV out of nowhere.

Remember the UTV of olden days? You know, with its lace-curtain aura of provincial 1950s unionism and with dear old Julian Simmons trying to offer some kind of dotty antidote by camping it up like crazy as a weatherman.

Well, after that it was rebranded as UTV Ireland, which didn't work out at all, despite such big signings as Pat Kenny, and then it got completely fragmented, with TV3 poaching bits of it.

It has now vanished entirely from most TV sets and in fact is only available for viewing in Arlene Foster's back parlour. Oh, and in the Royal Hospital Donnybrook, where you can watch aghast at 24-7 coverage of Coronation Street, Britain's Got Talent, Jeremy Kyle, Loose Women and Lorraine.

Or you can suffer through RTÉ's two main channels, which isn't always much better for the incarcerated. The notion of yet another series of Daniel and Majella's B&B Road Trip is perhaps bearable when you can make a hasty exit from the living room, but when you're trapped in your hospital bed, desperately scanning the listings, it's a bit of a downer to realise that this nonsense is not just RTÉ's programme of the night but its programme of the week, too.

For these and other reasons, the confined person soon becomes fixated on what isn't available, like that new Netflix series that seemed quite run of the mill (actually quite rubbish) when you watched its first episode a few weeks back but that has probably turned into an unmissable drama.

And please don't mention Sky Atlantic, which of course you don't have access to but which you've now convinced yourself is the greatest TV channel in the entire world and you just know that its new Benedict Cumberbatch series, Patrick Melrose, is the finest drama ever made, even though you haven't been in a position to see one second of it.

Well, there were other dramas, of course, that you could actually watch but somehow you sensed that you weren't really meant to be looking at BBC2's prestigious version of King Lear on such a small screen. Anyway, what was all the fuss about? Personally, I didn't think Anthony Hopkins that distinctive - he just looked very grumpy to me. And why was it all chopped down so drastically that at times it became quite confusing?

But then along came the three-part A Very English Scandal (BBC1), which was as good as it gets. Written by Russell T Davies and directed by Stephen Frears, this retelling of how Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe was put on trial in the 1970s for trying to have his former young lover Norman Scott murdered was hugely funny, occasionally quite poignant and ultimately quite sinister about how the Establishment look after their own.

Hugh Grant, who becomes more interesting the older he gets, was terrific as Thorpe and Ben Whishaw had a ball as the flamboyant Scott, but there wasn't a weak performance or a false note in the whole series.

I had looked forward to Nothing Like a Dame (BBC2), in which four eminent octogenarian actresses chinwagged in a country house about their lives and careers, but it was very disappointing.

As you'd expect, Maggie Smith furnished most of the withering barbs and put-downs, with Judi Dench gamely trying to match her, but a suffocating aura of luvviedom prevailed throughout.

In hospital I also recalled the old maxim about radio being the best of companions, and that proved to be true, especially late at night. Indeed, if I hadn't been convalescing, I might never have come upon Lyric FM's late-night weekend show, Vespertine, a marvellous mix of mostly unfamiliar classical, jazz, folk and world music presented by Ellen Cranitch with ease and erudition. This is as compelling a music programme as you'll find anywhere.

And one night, in the wee small hours, I texted the presenter with a query about a haunting song whose singer's name I hadn't caught, and the warmth of her response gave me a warm glow.

Then, alas, it was back to RTÉ1 and its new series, Raised by the Village, in which surly Kimmage teenager Scott found purpose among the cows in a Co Leitrim farm and cranky teenager Leah from Lucan found there was more to life than her smartphone when she stayed with a Co Cork family.

This was Teens in the Wild rebranded, shuffled around and dragged out way beyond its length.

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