Tuesday 11 December 2018

Barbarism, dealing with addiction and spending a week as a Muslim

My Week as a Muslim with Katie in prosthetic nose and hijab, third right
My Week as a Muslim with Katie in prosthetic nose and hijab, third right

John Boland

My main thought on watching Living with an Addict (RTÉ1) was to marvel at how people are prepared to go public about private family traumas.

All of us experience some degree of turmoil in our personal and family lives, but most of us would be unwilling to share it with outsiders, so it was brave of the people here to talk so candidly to the nation, whether about their own addictions or those of family members.

Three casualties of addiction featured in the film, along with mothers and children affected by their addiction, but perhaps the most poignant story concerned someone who was neither seen nor named: the eldest daughter of Bray businessman Dave, whom he recalled as an "outgoing child" before she succumbed to hard drugs over the last 16 years.

He hadn't seen her in the six months before the interview, but her former partner and fellow user Wesley, clean now for the past four years, featured in the film, though mainly to talk about himself in a self-serving way - just as drug-addicted Paudie in Cashel "thinks he's hard done by", according to his mother Cora.

This was an affecting film, though I felt somewhat voyeuristic watching it, largely because it was unclear whether these stories of family devastation served a useful purpose beyond reminding us how traumatic life can be for some people.

Meanwhile, across the Irish Sea, a couple of programmes generated some degree of controversy, not least My Week as a Muslim (Channel 4), in which Muslim-fearing Katie, who lived in a very white Cheshire town, had her face darkened, a prosthetic nose attached to her own one and her head shrouded in a hijab for the purpose of passing herself off as a Muslim in Manchester.

In the early 1960s, a white journalist called John Howard Griffin did much the same, darkening his face and travelling through the Deep South as an African American before publishing his experiences in Black Like Me, which was an instant bestseller.

That was an earnest but phoney exercise, and so was the Channel 4 film, a fact recognised if not stated by the young Muslim woman, Saima, with whose family Katie stayed. How can anyone know what it's like to be a Muslim by daubing their face and wearing a false nose? Indeed, wouldn't it have been a lot more truthful to get Saima to wear a hidden camera and record the abusive taunts that Muslims have to endure in Brexit Britain?

But the first episode of Gunpowder, BBC1's new Sunday night drama, drew even more criticism with its unflinching depiction of the barbarities inflicted on Catholics in early 17th century England.

And certainly the scenes featuring an elderly woman being stripped naked before being ritually crushed by heavy weights and a young priest being hung, drawn and quartered were not for the squeamish. The Daily Mail also got in on the act, describing co-creator and screenwriter Ronan Bennett both as "a left-winger" from a Northern Irish "Catholic family" and a "dedicated disciple of Jeremy Corbyn". Oh, the villainy.

The drama, though, was both vivid and tense, with Kit Harington playing the subversive Robert Catesby, whose descendant the Game of Thrones actor actually happens to be. And Guy Fawkes made a memorable entrance at the episode's end.

Back on RTÉ1, though, Acceptable Risk got even battier, this penultimate episode concluding as Sarah's slimy brother-in-law threw himself off a high-rise for reasons that entirely escaped me. Earlier, the shifty garda superintendent and even shiftier TD had to deal with the fact that evil pharma boss Hans Werner Hoffman (such a cartoon villain that you kept bursting out laughing) had just run over the TD's mistress outside the TD's front gate.

No sweat, said the TD, "I know everybody, everybody that matters". But he plainly doesn't know how incorruptibly dogged garda Emer can be and I'm sure that she and an increasingly vexed Sarah will do for him and all the other toerags by the end of next week's finale. Personally, I can't wait.

Back in the real world, the three-part Louis Theroux: Dark States (BBC2), which had already featured heroin addiction and sex trafficking in the disunited states, turned its attention to guns and murder in northern Milwaukee.

Descrbing it as "one of America's most desperate communities" with "sky-high levels of gun violence", Theroux soon found himself at the scene of fatal shootings - mostly of young black men and mostly by other young black men. He also spoke to families, friends and police officers, and the overall picture was truly grim.

Jacqueline du Pré: A Gift Beyond Words (BBC4) was compiled by Christopher Nupen from four earlier films he had made about the great young cellist, whose career was blighted by the multiple sclerosis that finally killed her in 1987 when she was just 42.

Nupen's view was starry-eyed and all the interviewees contributed to the adoration - not least the late Irish violinist Hugh Maguire, who spoke of her with great eloquence and obvious love. Her playing, needless to say, spoke for itself and there was wonderful footage of her in the Elgar concerto and in recital with husband Daniel Barenboim and others.

In the concluding episode of Painting the Nation (RTÉ1), Teresa from Leitrim declared herself "surprised" that she wasn't among the two final contestants. Teresa hadn't been shy about her abilities earlier in the series, but it was Hazel who won.

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