Tuesday 21 May 2019

Television review: Play it again please, Imelda

  • Jools' Annual Hootenanny (BBC2)

Imelda May performing during The Imelda May New Year's Eve Special for RTÉ One. Picture Andres Poveda / RTÉ
Imelda May performing during The Imelda May New Year's Eve Special for RTÉ One. Picture Andres Poveda / RTÉ
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

I have noted a disturbing tendency on the part of certain commentators and quite a few tweeters to say bad things about the Jools' Annual Hootenanny, which is of course one of the last pillars of our civilisation.

They think they're very smart, pointing out that it's not actually going out live on New Year's Eve, and that it's essentially the same programme every year.

But they are not very smart. Personally I don't care if it's live, or dead, as long as it works. This is a deeply held belief of mine which was formed in the area of comedy, in which "improv" is accorded a special regard due to the high degree of difficulty it presents to the performer.

Unfortunately it also presents a high degree of difficulty to the audience, which has to rely on the performer having these moments of utter brilliance which would enable him or her to be funny, without the benefit of rehearsal or preparation of any kind.

That is hard, indeed it is too hard, and anyway it has never mattered a damn to me that someone who is succeeding in entertaining me, has worked very hard to achieve a precise result. I do not consider the artist who has planned a routine in advance, to have some kind of an unfair advantage over the one who is improvising. I just want to see something great, however it is conceived.

Therefore when I am watching Mavis Staples on this year's Hootenanny, singing Come Go With Me and The Weight, I cannot begin to describe how irrelevant it is to me, that she is not doing it right now, in this moment. The fact that she did it at some time in the recent past is all that matters.

This is Mavis Staples, after all, one of the Staples Singers, giants of the gospel tradition without which we would not have rock'n'roll as we know it, and thus we would not have the great art form of the 20th Century. If you can look at any programme that has Mavis Staples on it, and start cribbing about it on Twitter, frankly you are capable of anything.

Likewise the fact that George McCrae can still do a sublime Rock Your Baby, including the high note, at the age of 73, is sufficient unto the day, without wanting him to do it at a specific time on a specific day. Indeed the only thing that really does matter here, is that Jools and everyone on board are able to pretend so convincingly that this is a live programme, to simulate the kind of energy you would have in that situation.

That is a talent in itself, the only one you're looking for really, in a show that happens once a year, when half the world is drunk.

And it is a talent that is being developed by Imelda May in her RTE New Year's Eve Special, which was admirable in its absolute determination to do everything just like Jools.

In the past RTE has done its own versions of BBC shows which copy the formula up to a point, but which perversely tend to leave out some vital ingredient. They're not going to make that mistake this time.

Maybe the studio looks too big, draining away some of the energy, and the people in the crowd are not as well-trained as their counterparts on the Hootenanny, but the mood is one of good-time rock'n'roll which as Jools has demonstrated is all that a human being needs to be happy in this world. For a while at least.

The "house band", the RTE Concert Orchestra, echoes Jools Holland's Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, though they are not quite as rhythmic or indeed as bluesy, there was an immortal legend in Finbar Furey, there were modern contributions from The Strypes and Gavin James, and there was Jerry Fish who was born for this.

In its reluctance to stray beyond the ancient laws handed down by Jools, there was a kind of honesty to it, that could only have been bettered if they had called it Imelda May's Hootenanny.

But that is easily fixed.

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