Tuesday 24 April 2018

A week of intriguing offerings, though none of them on RTÉ

Biological hit: In BBC2's Putin: The New Tsar, Trinity College professor Ian Robertson said that Putin was unambitious when he first became president in 2000
Biological hit: In BBC2's Putin: The New Tsar, Trinity College professor Ian Robertson said that Putin was unambitious when he first became president in 2000

John Boland

It was a week of intriguing factual programmes, though not on RTÉ, which seemed to have gone on an unscheduled midterm break - not that almost every week doesn't constitute a midterm break for our national broadcaster.

Yes, there was Dermot Bannon with his continuing services to the Irish glass industry; yes, there was Catherine Fulvio flying all the way to Vancouver so that she could cook a Roscommon mother's lamb cutlets for her expatriate daughter; and yes, there were such other food-obsessed programmes as Grow Cook Eat, What Are You Eating? and Neven's Food Trails.

But there was nothing to actually watch, unless you wanted to add to your lexicon of superlatives by listening to the gushing judges on Home of the Year (RTÉ1). In this week's instalment, the three competing houses were variously "beautiful" and "wonderful" and "magical" and "dreamy" and "fantastic" and "fabulous" and a "delight". Who said critical standards were dead?

Mind you, I almost drowned in the torrent of gush that was unleashed in Sir Bruce: A Celebration (BBC1). Filmed in the London Palladium, this tribute to Bruce Forsyth featured Shirley Bassey, Elton John, Alexandra Burke, Ant and Dec and a host of other luvvies telling the viewer that Brucie was "a national treasure" and that he was probably Britain's "finest entertainer of all time".

Didn't he do well? Yes, except that he died last August and so wasn't around to wallow in all these encomiums. "He made you feel like he was in the room with you", one of the celebs said, but I always thought him such an ingratiating old ham that he made me feel like escaping to another room.

Ken Dodd died on the day this twaddle was screened. Now there was an entertainer, with a career just as long but with oodles more talent and mischief.

A new documentary from film-maker Molly Dineen is always an event and I recall being impressed by The Lie of the Land, in which she brought her unobtrusive skills and her empathy to a farming community that was struggling to make a living.

But that was a decade ago and we've had to wait until now for her to come up with something else. The result was this week's Being Blacker (BBC2), which concerned Jamaican-born Blacker Dread, who came to London at the age of nine and has lived there for almost five decades.

Dineen, who knew him while making a student project, agreed a couple of years ago to film his mother's Brixton funeral. But then she discovered that he was due to be sentenced for money-laundering, so she kept filming as Blacker was imprisoned after being forced to disband the record shop that had made him locally famous.

The resulting documentary was an affecting portrait of a marginalised community, with vivid contributions from Blacker's sisters, son and friends and from Blacker himself, an exuberantly engaging character who conceded that "I've allowed some things to happen in my life that I shouldn't have allowed to happen".

Dineen presented all of this with tact and without any sermonising, while managing to touch on issues of class and race, and the precariousness of living in a strange and "unforgiving" country that you'd once hoped would someday become your own.

As the film ended, the recently released Blacker was returning after five decades to Jamaica, where his young son, rejected by British schools as too troublesome, was doing very well. And the viewer wished both of them well, too. The Russian president, though, remains an enigma, even if Putin: The New Tsar (BBC2) did its darnedest to psychoanalyse him. The psychoanalysis came from Professor Ian Robertson of Trinity College's institute of neuroscience, who informed us that when the formerly unambitious Putin was inaugurated in 2000, this was "an enormous biological hit" to the "reward network" in his brain.

Furthermore, one of the features of his unlimited power was an "acquired narcissism", which led to an "enormously inflated ego: you're just the smartest, cleverest, strongest and best-looking guy in the world... I am so amazing, God must have something to do with this".

Presumably, the same is also true of the current US president, though Robertson didn't say, but it was hard not to think of Trump in the academic's assertion that one of the indicators of "extreme narcissism" was that "you lose the ability to distinguish your own interests from the interests of the country".

This absorbing profile also featured arresting contributions from colleagues and rivals of the Russian leader - former senator Sergei Pugachev recalling him as "weak, envious, greedy" and as someone who "always lies", and one-time presidential opponent and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov deeming him as someone who "needs chaos".

Well, he certainly seems to love causing chaos, whether it's in the Ukraine, Syria, the US administration or indeed in eliciting feeble "ultimatums" from Theresa May over the Salisbury nerve gas attacks.

Finally, a few words of praise for TV3's handling of the Six Nations tournament. The common wisdom is that, whatever its other failings, RTÉ is unbeatable when its comes to sport, but TV3 has disproved it over the last few weeks with rugby coverage that's been truly excellent.

The match commentators have been fine, while Joe Molloy's anchoring of the studio discussions has been more astute and politely probing, and much less mannered, than that of either Tom McGurk or Daire O'Brien.

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