Wednesday 29 January 2020

Television review: Official Ireland has always been burying the good stuff

* Scannal (RTE1)

Madelyn Erskine, actress who appeared in The Spike in 1978
Madelyn Erskine, actress who appeared in The Spike in 1978
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

There may be a misunderstanding out there about the nature of Official Ireland, with some believing that our rulers are simply useless, that they are no good for anything.

In fact they are extraordinarily good at one thing, which may not seem like a lot, in the nature of things, but which has served them well for generations - they have an unerring eye for anything that threatens their own mediocrity, their "stability" as they would prefer to call it, and they have a kind of a genius for shutting it down.

It amounts almost to an artform in itself, this way in which they bury anything that might cause them trouble, the way that they protect their own kind.

We were brought back to a classic of the genre in an old Scannal feature on The Spike, which many of us probably remembered as one of the more amusing examples of Paddy disgracing himself again with his fear of women, but which was actually far more troubling than that.

When the most egregious scandals are recalled, the one about this 1978 drama series set in a vocational school is usually down the list, placed in the standard 'sexual repression' category due to the series being taken off the air after a scene in which the actress Madelyn Erskine (pictured) played a nude model in an art class in the 'tech'.

In truth it can now be seen that the naked woman provided a perfect distraction, enabling the destruction of a series that was bringing a lot more to the game than that - it was about class, the way in which the "techs" in these working class areas had become a dumping ground for youths whose fate had already been decided, who had been deemed unsuitable for a proper education with the Brothers or the nuns.

It would have gone on to feature scenes of domestic violence and political violence, themes that would have been just as unwelcome in the higher echelons as the suggestion that there was some sort of a class system in Ireland, and that it mightn't be working very well.

Indeed the impression you get, looking at some of these scenes, is that this seemed like one of those programmes that they had been making in England for a long time, these Plays For Today in which writers were dramatising such matters of class and of a troubled society in general.

Official England hadn't come out of all that too well, and Official Ireland was not going to make the same mistake.

Indeed it was fascinating to observe the efficiency with which they swept it away, the dovetailing between the RTE mandarins and the politicians, the worst elements in Irish society as a whole, the newspapers who couldn't really see beyond the naked woman and the head of the League of Decency having a heart attack while he was complaining about it to them.

And it was clear that while Paddy would be a victim of this in the long term, with RTE preferring the safer option of the costume drama, if it had any option at all, there were individual victims here too - talented and progressive people such as the directors Brian MacLochlainn and Noel O'Briain, and the writer of the series Patrick Gilligan, had had their work junked by the forces of darkness.

Which reminds us of another of the abiding characteristics of Official Ireland - it's not just that they don't know the difference between a good TV programme and a bad one, between good and bad in general, it's more that they don't care. Nor did this particular Scannal belong entirely to the 1970s, it felt like one of a series of training videos for other scandals that were to come, it revealed the instinct for collective self-preservation that always emerges when it seems that some form of justice is about to take place.

Or that the people might get something that they need.

That same instinct that was developed in the service of 'Catholic teaching' and suchlike, has been refined to keep a lot of other things where they belong - out of sight.

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