Back in the days before it was illegal to get your hair cut or buy clothes, we were all very worried about Britain leaving the European Union. The cost of things will go up, we were warned. People seem less worried about that now that it’s not possible to buy those things in the first place. Still, our relationship with our nearest neighbour is going to come into sharp focus over the coming weeks.
Dramatists and documentary-makers this week shone a light on some of the darker chapters of that relationship. First up was the return of The Crown. The Netflix drama follows the trials and tribulations of a London family headed by Elizabeth and her husband and cousin Philip. Through long centuries of conquests and inter-marriages, Elizabeth and Philip own Britain.
An underlying premise of the series is that it is quite difficult to be a queen. People always want to line up and have you inspect them when all you want to do is ride around on horseback through all those countries you own. The queen (Olivia Colman) sits forlorn in a dining room the size of Naas town centre, weighed down by tradition and jewellery, her eyes cursing the life bestowed on her. “Poor queen,” we say, “she’ll never realise her dream of toiling in the service industry so long as those dastardly taxpayers insist on buying her palaces.”
The Crown is a show I didn’t think I’d like but I became an unlikely convert to its slick storytelling, if not to the system of government it portrays. It reels you in through its combination of historical study and dysfunctional family life. The Crown is essentially an episode of EastEnders written by Diarmaid Ferriter.
The new series sees the introduction of another strong female character, namely Margaret Thatcher. The queen is very taken with her new prime minister. She watches her on television with a giddy gleam in her eye the rest of us only get when Professor Luke O’Neill appears on the news. The acting, as ever, is faultless. Gillian Anderson does an impersonation of Maggie Thatcher so good she should probably be in Fine Gael.
The Crown often deals with the bureaucracy of monarchy but the first episode of the new series dealt with darker matters when Lord Mountbatten, mentor to the young Prince Charles, is killed by the IRA along with the mother of his son-in-law, his grandson and local boy Paul Maxwell. The episode successfully creates tension and drama in the immediate build-up to the murder, rapidly flicking between scenes of the queen hunting pheasant, Prince Charles fishing for salmon and unnamed IRA men waiting for the elderly royal to enter their trap.
Disappointingly, the tension dissipates almost immediately. The funeral is, somewhat confusingly, spliced together with footage from civil rights rallies. Almost before the church has emptied, the queen has gone back to cheering on horses, while Prince Charles is chatting-up a young blonde named Diana.
The tension certainly is maintained in Bloody Sunday 1920, RTÉ’s excellent documentary on the events of November 21, 1920, precisely a century ago today. A day that began like any other ended with 30 dead bodies lying around Dublin and the history of these islands changed forever.
The documentary opens with IRA members gathering early that morning. Such was the secrecy of the day’s plans that many of the IRA men themselves did not know what their mission was.
The reality of that mission is not romanticised in this documentary. Unarmed men were shot in their beds with their wives and children begging for mercy. Although it is only hinted at here, several of that morning’s assassins struggled in later life most likely because of that fateful day. The focus then shifts to Croke Park, where a morning of targeted assassinations turns to an afternoon of indiscriminate murder. The British army is ordered to shoot anybody who runs away from them, neglecting to realise that the sight of multiple army units arriving at the venue would lead to pretty much everybody running. Within 90 seconds, 14 civilians were dead.
The events of Bloody Sunday are familiar to most people. What makes this documentary stand out is the reliance on family members to tell the story. Grandchildren and other relatives speak of those who lost their lives both in the morning and afternoon. It humanises the victims and reminds us that Bloody Sunday was not just a historical event but a day when families were inflicted with great pain that lasted for decades. The last word is given to Nancy Dillon, whose father James Matthews was shot dead in Croke Park six months before she was born. “It was a terrible time for all,” she says. Never was a truer word spoken.
From historical conflict to modern-day tragedy. On Monday, Channel 4 brought us Lockdown Chaos: How the Government Lost Control. The programme was based largely on secret filming by an undercover reporter at a Covid testing facility run by Randox on the outskirts of Belfast.
This filming showed a team of extremely busy young people trying to unpack a seemingly never-ending stack of boxes containing Covid tests from across the UK. Under immense pressure, sometimes tests allegedly and accidentally ended up in the bin. Sometimes the test tubes were leaking upon arrival.
The programme was billed as a study of how the British government lost control of the pandemic. In reality, it highlighted the logistical challenges facing people trying to process hundreds of thousands of tests rather than the political decisions that led to so many of those tests being positive. That is an issue dramatists and documentary-makers of the future will no doubt grapple with for many years to come.
John Boland is away