Thursday 22 August 2019

Television review: Doctor with a cure for death

* The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson (BBC4)
* Claire Byrne Live: Oliver Callan (RTE1)

Jim Cogan cartoon
Jim Cogan cartoon
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

Many of the things you need to know about life and death are to be found in the story of Wilko Johnson, the celebrated guitar-man with Dr. Feelgood.

And that was just when he was in the band, making great records in the 1970s, working out of the old seaside resort of Canvey Island in the Thames estuary.

Then, in 2012, he was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, which raised the stakes somewhat, with Wilko embarking on the ultimate Farewell Tour, making a last album with Roger Daltrey, finding that his appreciation of life was heightened a hundred-fold by the certainty of his death, deciding that, "if it's gonna kill me I don't want it to bore me".

And then, having reached a point whereby he was somehow still alive when he should really be dead, he was advised by one Charlie Chan, a "photographer and cancer expert", to take another look at his illness, a process which resulted in Wilko being declared fit for a big operation after all, one that removed much of his viscera, but which also left him as alive as most of us, the sentence of death commuted to life with no date of release.

Which is wonderful news in one sense, complicated by the fact that the ecstatic visions he was experiencing when he knew he was going to die, that heightened awareness of each moment, is clearly not what it used to be. Now Wilko has a different kind of proposition to face - how to live again, without a definite time of departure.

And all through this strange journey, the film-maker Julien Temple has been creating a monument to match the story of Wilko, with two documentaries shown on BBC4, first Oil City Confidential in 2009, which was mainly the story of Dr Feelgood in general, and now "The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson", which is all about Wilko.

And there is a lot to this man, who has "died" and been "resurrected" not once but twice. Long before his recent return from the oblivion that surely awaited him, there were years, decades even, after he left the Feelgoods, in which the great Wilko Johnson somehow got lost out there.

It was Julien Temple who put this right, who refused to accept the mysterious disappearance of Wilko from all known charts as just an unfortunate fact of life, who reclaimed him as one of the great English artists of the 20th century - indeed by concentrating so deeply on Canvey Island as a source of inspiration, you can sense that Temple is placing Wilko in a particular setting in the manner of Thomas Hardy's Wessex or Wordsworth's Lake District, with Dr. Feelgood's Thames Delta Blues.

Meanwhile his own two films on this seminal force, Oil City Confidential, and "The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson", will outlive all of us.


A comedian dies many times, of course, and often he is not in love with life either. But for Oliver Callan there are perhaps other ­options, in the light of his special Claire Byrne Live ­report on Enda Kenny to mark his 40 years in the Dail.

It wasn't a "funny" report, as such, but it contained humour as a natural element. It was a "personal" assessment, but then all Claire Byrne Live and perhaps even Prime Time reports should be done in this vein - the false device of the "impartial reporter" has been perhaps the single biggest cause of bad journalism in our time.

Driven by the energy of Callan, the talking heads seemed more talkative than usual, and oddly enough Eamon Gilmore was even more boring than usual, or maybe it just seemed that way due to the liveliness of the others.

While Mario Rosenstock is drawing on the golden age of TV comedy, with a bit of music thrown in and Morecambe & Wise-type appearances by the stars who are being mocked, Callan could be striking out here towards the American model, towards the likes of Jon Stewart.

Always more sophisticated at the high end of things, the Americans know that Jon Stewart being hilarious has not in any way prevented him from being an extraordinarily good journalist - not only is it possible to combine these things, it is often obligatory.

It is still hard to imagine RTE just letting Callan loose in such a fashion, but who knows? - Wilko Johnson has "died" twice and is still rocking all over the world.

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