Entertainment Television

Friday 22 November 2019

Television: A nation 'bad with its nerves'

Clean Break (RTE1)

Illustration Jim Cogan.
Illustration Jim Cogan.
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

It used to be quite common in Ireland for a person to be "bad with their nerves" which could mean anything from feelings of mild anxiety to the most severe forms of stress-related illness, and no doubt there was quite a lot of alcoholism in there too - it may indeed have been mostly alcoholism, because "nerves" affected women at least as much as men, if not more.

And the fact that women, of course, could not officially be alcoholics at that time, may indicate the underlying truth of the euphemism.

But whatever it was, there seemed to be a lot of it around.

Now we have made such progress in this whole area, we tend to call things by their actual names, and a country full of people who were "bad with their nerves" now has nobody with that condition.

Yet I wonder if there may be place for it still, in the national lexicon. We have, after all, been through something of a collective trauma in recent years, and we have had only the desiccated language of the economists to describe it.

Words like "downturn", or "recession", or "we are where we are", don't really get close to capturing the damage done to the national psyche by the actions of our many enemies, within and without.

Certainly it's not easy to name such things, but then we may already have a name for that overall feeling of demoralisation - perhaps we are "bad with our nerves"?

And if we are, the people who seem to understand that most clearly, are the makers of these RTE dramas Love/Hate and now Clean Break. I found the first episode of Clean Break to be tremendously scary, and of course Love/Hate was scary beyond compare.

To be frightened in your own home, in a good way, is probably another feeling for which we don't yet have a proper name. But it definitely seems to be happening.

Neither of these productions are "about" the state of Paddy's soul, or even the state of his nerves, yet they seem to strike at something beyond our mere desire to watch a crime drama.

Clean Break is a fairly regular story about a Tiger kidnapping. There is a very dislikeable banker in it, but it isn't only the Irish who are against such men, and all that they represent.

We know how these thing work, we know the sort of characters we will encounter, we even know roughly what they'll be saying to one another, we know it all. This one is set in Wexford, which is unusual, but then we have seen many such dramas which are set in unusual places, we know all that.

What we don't know, is why we are so bad with our nerves when we are looking at this one - not just because it portrays some of the terrible people who are living in Ireland at this time, doing terrible things, but in almost every scene? Even the ones with the good people can make you deeply uneasy, for reasons you don't quite understand.

Partly of course it's because they've found clever ways of showing things from angles you mightn't have seen before, with Wexford itself an unsettling presence. Indeed the "character" of Wexford reminds us how much of Ireland is as yet unfilmed, what strange visions may be out there. And it's written by Billy Roche, who wouldn't be wasting your time with shallowness.

But I feel there's something more than that, a sense that as an audience we are now particularly wired into this kind of TV drama, just as we were with Love/Hate. That we feel this stuff is true, in a way that we didn't feel it before.

We realise that violence and destruction are not just things that happen in Schwarzenegger films, that all sorts of extreme events have happened here too. And they can take many forms. And they can happen to anyone.

There's a man in Clean Break who figures he owes so much money to the bank, his position is so impossible, he has no option but to do something completely disgraceful.

No more is such a character a desperate one-off, he is not too far away from being everyman. And after episode one he is bad - very, very bad -with his nerves.

Sunday Independent

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