Monday 20 August 2018

Ecstasies of vacuuming wallpaper in an Irish castle

Monica Galetti and Giles Coren outside Ashford Castle, Co Mayo for Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby
Monica Galetti and Giles Coren outside Ashford Castle, Co Mayo for Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby

John Boland

Journalist Giles Coren has always struck me as the poor man's AA Gill, a writer he revered but has never matched for elegance, wit, insight or provocation.

Even when he eviscerates a restaurant as the worst he's ever reviewed, as he did recently in the London Times, it comes across as over the top, lacking the lethal touch that the late Gill brought to such demolitions.

He's even less persuasive when he's in positive mode, which is what's required of him for Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby (BBC2), a series he co-presents with chef Monica Galetti and which usually finds the duo learning how extraordinary hotels operate in exotic locations.

This week, though, they were in Ashford Castle. "I do love Ireland", Coren announced at the outset, and even though he has said unkind things in the past about Irish food, he was allowing himself no negativity here in the wilds of Co Mayo.

"Wow, it's enormous!" he yelped on first sighting the hotel. "It looks like Camelot!" His co-host concurred. "Wow, my goodness!" she gasped. "That is magical!" And inside the sprawling establishment, Coren's ecstasies continued with "Wow, that is the highest ceiling I've ever seen" and "That's an extraordinary chandelier. Blimey!"

After that, thankfully, he calmed down and went about the usual business of this series: meeting the staff and mucking in on such jobs as vacuuming the fabric on the bedroom walls and greeting guests as a liveried, top-hatted doorman, while Galetti (a rather colourless co-presenter) attempted such other tasks as learning the rudiments of falconry.

Along the way, viewers learned a good deal about the castle's history and its various fortunes down through the centuries and about the hotel's admirable tradition of employing generations of staff from the same local families. We also got to meet Beatrice Tollman, the elderly South African woman who, along with her husband, bought the ailing hotel in 2013 for €20m and has ploughed another €75m into its refurbishment. On a flying visit to the place, she was greeted by the staff with the kind of awed obsequiousness that's normally reserved for royalty, but Coren didn't comment on that.

Indeed, you yearned for even a teensy bit of the snarkiness that he customarily brings to his Saturday restaurant reviews, but clearly even basic scepticism wasn't part of the brief here. Mrs Tollman, though, must be thrilled by the hour-long free ad her Irish acquisition has been given.

The Funeral Murders (BBC2) reminded us of another and less comforting Ireland, one of great hatred and little room. It's 30 years ago this month since three unarmed IRA activists were shot dead by the SAS on a Gibraltar street, an execution that appalled even those of us who were vehemently opposed to the murderous campaign of the Provisionals.

This led in the same month to the IRA funeral in Belfast at which loyalist Michael Stone killed three men and injured scores of others, and to a subsequent funeral during which a republican mob dragged two British soldiers in civvies from their car and stripped and beat them before they were shot dead.

Vanessa Engle's film revisited those dreadful few days, interviewing republicans, loyalists and members of the security forces about what they remembered and felt regarding the atrocities. It didn't make for easy viewing, one former IRA man speaking of "an ongoing battle to justify past actions" and a loyalist recalling how news of Stone's lethal rampage had himself and his father jumping up and down with joy in their living room.

Another former Provo thought the savagery against the soldiers "grotesque, not a properly conducted IRA operation". Would he have felt that, Engle asked, if the men had just been shot? "No", he replied.

This film, though commendably even-handed, seemed to have its own agenda - reminding viewers of the fragility of the current "peace" that exists in the North and of how Brexit could endanger it all.

The Belgian thriller, 13 Commandments (Channel 4) began shockingly with a pregnant young Muslim woman abducted from her home by her uncle, who then cuts her throat for bringing dishonour to her family. Soon afterwards, he's set on fire by an unknown attacker who leaves a message "Thou shalt have no other gods before me".

It becomes apparent that a self-appointed correcter of moral turpitude is at large, just as in the David Fincher movie Se7en, which is referenced here by one of the investigating cops. The first episode was certainly arresting, though if you want to watch the rest of this eight-parter you'll have to do so on All4.

I was also intrigued by the two episodes I've seen of Borderliner, all of which is available on Netflix. In this Norwegian series, city cop Nikolai visits his rural homeland, where he discovers that his brother, also a policeman, has murdered a local man.

Nikolai tries to cover up his brother's crime by planting false evidence, but investigating officer Anniken is already becoming suspicious. Binge-watchers will know how it all pans out, but it seems worth staying with.

I can't say the same about Gone (Universal) in which a young woman who'd been abducted as a child joins a special task force and brings her insights and intuition to bear on current abductions. Chris Noth (Mr Big in Sex and the City and Mike Logan in Law and Order) is her commanding officer and he's really the only reason for watching a show that otherwise keeps reminding you of Without a Trace, which was much more engrossing.


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