Friday 22 November 2019

A sense of déjà vu as Claire finds herself on the frontline

In all but name: Claire Byrne Live has the same time slot, studio set-up and sort of panelists as the axed The Frontline. Photo: Andres Poveda.
In all but name: Claire Byrne Live has the same time slot, studio set-up and sort of panelists as the axed The Frontline. Photo: Andres Poveda.
Independent.ie Newsdesk

Independent.ie Newsdesk

Claire Byrne Live (RTÉ1) is The Frontline but with Claire Byrne instead of Pat Kenny. So why did they axe The Frontline? Answers, please, to Pat Kenny at Newstalk, who I'm sure might like to know.

This week's opening show occupied the same Monday night time slot as The Frontline, had much the same studio set-up and had the same sort of panellists and the same sort of variously aggrieved studio audience members. In fact, the only real difference I could detect was that Pat Kenny never favoured hipster jeans and stiletto heels.

Given that Health Minister Leo Varadkar had just revealed to Miriam O'Callaghan, and therefore to the nation, that he was gay, there was only going to be one topic for discussion on Claire Byrne's new show, though it began arrestingly, with actor Colin Farrell interviewed via video link on the traumas endured by his gay brother in the Ireland of an earlier time.

Farrell spoke with passion and eloquence in support of same-sex marriage, a cause further espoused on the studio panel by Labour TD John Lyons and journalist Una Mulally, with blogger Keith Mills and Breda O'Brien from the Iona Institute arguing the opposite - indeed, the latter being accused by a woman in the audience of a homophobic stance. Oh dear, is that another legal writ I hear winging its way into the RTÉ offices?

In fact, O'Brien was overly indulged by the show's host, who for all her determinedly professional severity never asked the one simple question that you keep vainly hoping will be put to self-appointed moralists, whether they're panellists or outraged audience members: how are the personal lives of other people any of your business?

In more general terms, a great weariness descended on me while watching this debate. With the referendum on same-sex marriage not due until May, do we really have to endure four whole months of rancorous wrangling on the matter?

Homosexuality was also the subject of the new Channel 4 sitcom, Cucumber, the brainchild of Russell T Davies, who previously dreamt up that groundbreaking gay drama, Queer as Folk, starring Aidan Gillen in a role far removed from his recent portrayal of Charles J Haughey.

And it was the subject, too, of Coming Out of the Curve (RTÉ1) in which former Cork hurler Donal Óg Cusack sought to find out why, for some people, the mere notion of a person being gay "can't be got over".

To this end, he travelled to Moscow during the Winter Olympics and hung out with some gay activists trying to combat hatred there, and he then visited St Petersburg where he interviewed Vitaly Milonov, the right-wing politician responsible for Russia's repressive anti-gay laws.

"Every normal person is homophobic," Milonov informed him. "Homophobia is beautiful." But did Milonov himself never have homosexual thoughts? "That's a disgusting question," he replied.

In a thoughtful and properly provocative film, Cusack also went to New York, where he asked an anti-gay activist the question that never occurred to Claire Byrne: "Why would you care?" The activist, a "cured" homosexual, said he cared not only because he found that being gay had been "shallow, lustful and immature" but also because "science shows it's not natural, normal or healthy". There being no answer to that, Cusack returned to Ireland, where he talked to a garda and to a woman footballer, both of them gay and the latter now "very comfortable with who I am". And clearly Cusack is, too, though others whose business it isn't still have a problem with that. Shall we be thus forever?

Channel 4's other new sitcom, Catastrophe, starred Sharon Horgan as Irish woman Sharon and Rob Delaney as American guy Rob, both of them meeting cute in a London bar - though Rob's idea of being cute was to tell Sharon that he stopped drinking "after I shit my pants at my sister's wedding". Sharon, for her part, informed Rob that she'd "never had casual sex with a sober person before", though she soon corrected that situation with lots of frantic sex with this visiting stranger.

Then she got pregnant and the mismatched couple vowed to make a go of it. That was about it, really, but the script, written by both performers, was so good and the playing so unforced that I found it very winning.

Less beguiling, but still amusing, is the RTÉ2 American import, Benched, in which an ambitious lawyer, played by Eliza Coupe, finds herself demoted to the public defender's office. There she meets cynical male colleague Phil and all sorts of mayhem ensues.

Coupe has a droll comic touch and so does Jay Harrington, last seen in the short-lived but very funny Better Off Ted. It's not exactly hilarious, but it's quite engaging, more so than E4's new US import, Marry Me, which is about yet another mismatched couple but suffers from the fact that Casey Wilson is deeply irritating as the female lead.

And what to make of TG4's new sitcom, Barney Bunion? This concerns a dopey middle-aged private eye in the west of Ireland and is full of set-ups and visual gags so corny they hark back to the days of silent cinema, though not in a good way.

Finally, there was the concluding episode of Charlie (RTÉ1) in which, at the very end, we were asked to consider that Haughey's 1992 resignation was forced upon him by shadowy forces blackmailing him over complicity in the importation of arms decades earlier.

So what evidence had the blackmailers got that he thought might destroy him? We saw their file being thrown on to his desk but we learned nothing about what was in it. Scriptwriter Colin Teevan would probably justify that in the name of drama, but I don't.

And yet in other ways the series stayed so closely to actual events of the period that only viewers of a certain age would have been familiar with what exactly was going on. And these events were anyway so local that I can't imagine the drama being optioned by foreign broadcasters.

Still, Gillen was very persuasive as Haughey and some of the incidental players also kept us watching this shallow portrait of a complex individual.

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