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Television... Last-minute parties and first dates are the perfect antidote right now

FLEABAG

Monday, RTÉ 2, 9pm

DAVY'S TOUGHEST TEAM

Monday, RTÉ One, 9.35pm

WANTED: A SIMPLE LIFE

Daily, BBC One, 11am

FIRST DATES

Tuesday, Channel 4, 10pm

AFEARED

Sunday, BBC Two, 10pm

MASTERMIND

Monday, BBC Two, 7pm

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Fleabag creator, head writer, and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Fleabag creator, head writer, and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Fleabag creator, head writer, and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Fleabag has finally made it to RTÉ, four years after it first appeared on screens elsewhere, and it's a testament to Phoebe Waller-Bridge's groundbreaking comedy-drama that it still feels as sad, fresh, funny, rude and relevant as ever, even if it is set at a magical time when people apparently did get invitations to "f**king last-minute trendy b*****d parties". It's hard to believe, admittedly, that anyone who wouldn't love the show hasn't seen it many times already; and it would be even better if RTÉ could give young Irish women a Fleabag of their own. Waller-Bridge surely has enough money and awards at this stage. But as an antidote to our relentless diet of media misery about Covid, it hasn't come a moment too soon.

Davy's Toughest Team - in which Wexford GAA manager Davy Fitzgerald takes seven young men, none older than 22, all of whom have faced serious struggles around mental heath, drug addiction, and homelessness, and attempts to give them some self-belief by reaching Everest base camp - was, presumably, an attempt to inject some overdue positivity into the slowmotion train wreck that is 2021.

On the whole, it did what it set out to do, and Davy's sincerity was never less than admirable.

"I really, really want to make a difference," he declared early in Monday's first episode, and he clearly meant it. He wants these boys to know that "anybody can turn themselves around".

Viewers in turn know what to expect. There will be ups and downs, tears and tantrums, but ultimately it will be an inspiring parable of triumph against the odds, set to wistful music. Nothing wrong with that.

At the same time, getting to that pay-off does still require wading through an awful lot of distressing scenes first. In normal times, the contrast between one's own relative good fortune and the hard lives of people on screen is sufficient to provoke the right response. It's finely crafted, but aren't we all just too fragile at the moment to get solace from it?

The need to inject poignant narrative arcs into every programme has also made its mark on the latest BBC daytime property show, Wanted: A Simple Life.

Made by a Belfast-based production company, it follows a classic formula by taking a couple looking for a change of pace, and offering them a glimpse of the tempting new world that awaits if they abandon the rat race.

So far, so good. But the appeal of such shows, for those of us who happily hold up our hands and admit to loving them, is seeing lots of houses along the way.

Here, the househunters only get to see two properties on the market in each 45-minute episode. It's just not enough. The rest of the time this week, attention was concentrated on one woman's battles against physical and mental ill health; a black, gay London couple's dilemma as to whether they'd find acceptance in the countryside; and so on. They were all lovely people, but seeing a few more kitchens would have been nice too.

In a world gone mad, it's escapism that we're after, which is what made the return of First Dates, back for an incredible 16th series, such a welcome joy.

Four couples, looking for love, meet for dinner at a restaurant (remember them?). We watch their awkward introductions, hear their stories, and respectively root, or worry, for them.

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Stephen and Alan had met (and more) before. Winston and Donna were in their 60s, with no time to waste on small talk. Kristina from Lithuania just wanted a nice man with whom to settle down.

It's charming, warm, benign, though how they filmed it while social distancing is another matter. Perhaps it's best not to pry.

Another new show from Northern Ireland is Afeared, in which local writer Darren Gibson and Ulster-Scots historian David Hume investigate places in the nine counties of Ulster that have become associated with ghosts. They started at Sharon Rectory in Newtowncunningham, Co Donegal, home to a "Blue Lady", said to be a woman tragically killed at the time of the United Irishmen. Sadly, apart from a few references to "strange sounds in the dead of night", the two men were more interested in history than hauntings, and barely mentioned ghosts at all.

Ancient tales of sectarian strife will always find an audience in Ireland, but Afeared shouldn't draw in general viewers with a promise of paranormal activity, then not give them what they came for. Anyone interested can find videos of the house's resident spooks on YouTube instead.

Finally, I thought my chance had come to show off when a contestant on Mastermind picked Friends as her specialist subject.

In the end, I only got a handful of answers right. In my defence, some of the questions were quite obscure, including one about the show's costume designer.

The next contestant came top after choosing artist Damien Hirst as her specialist subject, which may sound more impressive, but I did some research of my own and discovered that every one of her questions could have been answered by reading a few pages on Wikipedia and Hirst's own website.

Don't tell me that's harder than knowing what children's TV show was on the poster briefly shown behind Ross as he put up flatpack furniture in Friends. That's certainly not on Wikipedia.


Podcasts

The Almanac of Ireland

Apple, PlayerFM, RTÉ Radio, Spotify

Amplify Archaeology

Podcast

Apple, SoundCloud, Spotify

Sounds Like Folk

Apple, SoundCloud, Spotify


Lucy White

"The past is a different country," goes the famous LP Hartley quote. But ignore it at our peril, because to "other" our past is to dismiss the DNA that can oftentimes spark our imagination and stir our intellect. Whether it's folk culture, ancient sites or antiquities, here are some familiar but no less surprising Irish terrains to explore anew.

Have you ever wondered how to tie a sheep with hay rope or whether you've met a changeling? There's a podcast for that. In The Almanac of Ireland, writer, broadcaster and Gaeilgeoir Manchán Magan reveals lost native arts, rites of passage, biophilia and fantastical folklore. The episode 'Hellmouth' is particularly memorable, in which Magan goes the extra mile - or, rather, several metres underground - to broadcast from a pitch-black cave in Roscommon with just a microphone for company. Why? Tune in to find out, as well as a new episode that celebrates Imbolc, aka St Brigid's Day.

Also delving underground - literally and figuratively - is the Amplify Archaeology Podcast. Host Neil Jackman is himself an archaeologist and also the director of Abarta Heritage, an online resource offering audio guides that champion sustainable heritage tourism. In episodes of up to an hour, Jackman and guests - such as Robert Hensey, author of the book First Light: The Origins of Newgrange, and keepers of antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, Maeve Sikora and Matthew Seaver - excavate the past and how it informs our present, such as the nuts and bolts of digital archiving.

Sounds Like Folk is a newly minted podcast from Siamsa Tíre, the National Folk Theatre of Ireland, which, like most cultural institutions, has had to reinvent its artistic output around Covid restrictions. "We thought it would be wonderful to recreate the idea of a coming together, the 'bothántaíocht' idea, that Siamsa inspires," says Joanne Barry, the theatre's repertory director. "The essence of the podcast is to create an intimate experience, resembling the events people are missing from their local theatres and live venues." The result involves 30-minute conversations and performances that celebrate folk voices past and present, while exploring the idea of the "relevance" of folk traditions in 21st-century Ireland. Episodes drop every Monday at noon and will run until March 22, which leads us nicely to the clocks going forward and springtime officially commences.


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