Monday 26 August 2019

John Boland on TV: Tribal fashions aren't always music to the viewer's ears


Rockabilly: Christian and Sorcha on My Tribe
Rockabilly: Christian and Sorcha on My Tribe

John Boland

My Tribe (RTÉ1) is a bilingual series that purports to tell you about different kinds of music and their devoted fans, but this week's first instalment came across more like a fashion shoot than anything else.

Rockabilly was its supposed subject, but I learned nothing about this early form of rock 'n' roll or its links to country music, rhythm and blues and bluegrass. Instead I got to see a lot of the frocks worn by rockabilly fan Sorcha, which were certainly eye-catching if somewhat beside the point.

However, the filmmakers were so taken by them and by the flash suits sported by Sorcha's hubby Christian that they kept showing us artful shots of the natty duo promenading about the town.

Sorcha, to be fair, did say that her reason for loving rockabilly was that it "instantly brightens your mood", but that was as insightful as the analysis got - aficionado Eamonn informing me that the music "touches you, it connects with you", while similarly smitten Jenny assured me that it "comes from the heart".

The fans also spoke fondly of Teddy boys, which was odd given that they were all too young to have had any recollection of them, but this was a film in which arcane fads were viewed as style accessories for a subsequent generation.

As for the music, ah shure, you can't have everything, even in a series that's supposedly about music.

And music was almost beside the point, too, in Slán Leis an gCeol (RTÉ1), despite the fact that its subject, accordionist Tony MacMahon, was one of the most celebrated exponents of traditional Irish music for nearly half a century. But the tunes played second fiddle here to the darker and bleaker notes being sounded in the musician's verbal utterances.

The problem, though, was that with no guiding narrator to provide information and lend context, the viewer had to try and piece the story together from what MacMahon was telling us, which was presented to us in bemusingly fragmented form.

So did the musician, who is 80 this year, suffer from Parkinson's or, as he told Joe Duffy on Liveline in 2015, was it something else? And was he also still contemplating assisted suicide, as he had said on that same Liveline show?

And what about the wife and eldest son who, he said, "don't speak to me today"? Was she the "dark-skinned" and "beautiful" woman he had met when he was a student in the College of Surgeons? And did he pursue his medical studies? These and many other questions remained frustratingly unanswered.

That's because we were continually inside MacMahon's head, which wasn't a comfortable place to inhabit. A self-declared depressive ("the black dog") and sufferer from bipolar disorder, he came across as relentlessly self-absorbed, even when acknowledging the toll that had been exacted on his loved ones by his selfish quest for fulfilment, whether musical, social or personal.

Cathal Ó Cuaig's film was a hard watch, indeed distressing for anyone who has valued MacMahon's contribution both to traditional music and to RTÉ's coverage of it down through the decades. And too little music was played here to compensate for the overall mood of angry despondency conveyed by its subject.

Pose (BBC2), on the other hand, pulses to the beat of music, whether in the stage acts performed by young the wannabes or via the vibrant late 1980s soundtrack to this latest Ryan Murphy series. A trans take on Murphy's smash hit Glee (with echoes of Fame, too), this depicts a New York subculture I knew next to nothing about, but the opening episode was so winning and so fond of its quirky characters that I soon wanted to discover more about them.

The cast of unknowns, mostly LGBT themselves, are very good, especially MJ Rodriguez as Blanca, who sets up the House of Evangelista for waifs and strays in search of dancing fame, and Indya Moore as Angel, a sex worker who embarks on a relationship with a married white executive from Trump Towers.

But the series pays due attention to all the lost boys and girls trying to find their niche in an uncaring world and it does so with empathy, wit and some terrific musical set pieces.

Dancing with the Stars (RTÉ2) was full of set pieces, too, but its cast of low-level Irish celebs were nothing to write home about and I watched last Sunday night's finale merely out of professional duty. As it happened, I thought runner-up Johnny Ward was by far the best dancer, but what do I know?

The success of Brendan O'Connor's Cutting Edge (RTÉ1), which has returned for a new season, has always depended on the quality of its panellists, and I still miss Al Porter, who's clearly in media limbo.

But Brian Kennedy was excellent this week and interacted engagingly with journalist Alison O'Connor and actress Norma Sheahan. It made for a sparky and interesting hour, nudged along expertly and genially by the host.

Scripted by Arthur Mathews, The Road to Brexit (BBC2) was a one-off skit, with Matt Berry mulling over Britain's hostile attitude to its European neighbours. I chuckled a few times at the codology, while feeling it could have been much funnier.

Meanwhile, the peerless Fleabag (BBC1) just keeps getting better and this week found new depths with an extraordinary confessional scene in which the main character (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) laid bare her soul to the priest (Andrew Scott) she's been fancying for the last four episodes.

An earlier scene with her father was very affecting, too. This is no ordinary sitcom.

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