Saturday 21 September 2019

John Boland’s week in TV: 10 minutes with Chris O’Dowd beats 55 with Dermot Bannon

 

Two-hander: Rosamund Pike and Chris O'Dowd in State of the Union
Two-hander: Rosamund Pike and Chris O'Dowd in State of the Union

John Boland

State of the Union (BBC2) arrived with impressive credentials: an original script by Nick Hornby, direction by Stephen Frears, starring roles for Rosamund Pike and Roscommon's Chris O'Dowd and advance rave reviews from enchanted critics.

So where did it all go wrong? Well, actually, it didn't. The first two episodes of this 10-parter about a middle-class married couple chatting in a pub on their way to counselling sessions were perfectly fine, with nuanced dialogue and fine playing by the leads, but they were also very slight - and not just because each episode of this two-hander lasts only 10 minutes or so.

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O'Dowd's currently unemployed Tom predictably came across as the more laid back and engaging of the duo, and indeed I couldn't quite imagine him married to successful gerontologist Louise, whose brief fling with someone else had led to this crisis and who, in Pike's cooly demure playing, cut a more glacial figure.

No doubt we'll learn more about the two of them as the series progresses (a brace of episodes every Monday night), but so far I'm not quite getting what all the excited critical buzz has been about - unless it's been coming from similar middle-class metropolitans who can see themselves in this couple and their dilemma.

Still, I'd prefer 10 minutes in the company of Tom and Louise than 50-plus minutes with Room to Improve (RTÉ1), now back for its umpteenth season and with Ireland's only architect Dermot Bannon still persuading couples that what he wants to do to their homes (Let there be glass!) is the only way to go.

This week, along with a Kildare house where "none of the rooms work", he was confronted with a back garden so upwardly sloped it almost blocked out the sky. What to do? Better call Saul, or in this case Diarmuid Gavin ("landscape supremo", according to the voiceover), ostensibly to solve the slope problem but mainly, I suspect, to add something, indeed anything, to a series that by now has become so formulaic and predictable as to be groan-inducing.

There were arresting moments in The Troubles: A Secret History (BBC1/BBC4), not least the hitherto unseen amateur video of Martin McGuinness hovering around a car while a bomb was being primed inside its boot. However, as the Sinn Féin deputy leader and subsequent deputy first minister had long acknowledged his active past in the IRA, that footage was more surprising (why let it be filmed?) than revealing.

Also striking were some of the secret memos and comments unearthed by presenter Darragh MacIntyre - a British army commanding officer describing the 1972 Bloody Sunday killers as acting "like hooligans in uniform" and the most senior army officer recommending a united Ireland as early as 1973.

Yet while MacIntyre's ambitious series (six more episodes to go) was scrupulously assembled and responsibly presented, it was hard not to feel that we have been here before in countless other programmes about the Troubles and that there's very little new to be said about the dreadful things that happened on all sides.

Maybe it will all prove revelatory to viewers across the water, though current attitudes to Ireland seem to confirm that not only does the British political ruling establishment know nothing about their nearest neighbour, they care less and thus won't bother watching.

Mary Black: No Frontiers (RTÉ1) was a commendable profile of one of our finest singers, though I wondered why no room was found to interview songwriter Jimmy McCarthy or her long-time producer and guitarist Declan Sinnott, who was such a dynamic and pivotal presence in her earlier albums.

And not enough time was given to her own stage performances, most of the songs tailing off soon after they'd begun, but the woman herself came across vividly, as did the importance to her of her family life.

Under the title 'Comedy Showcase', RTÉ is burying three standalone sitcom pilots late on Sunday nights. First up was Headcases (RTÉ1), set in a northside hair salon, starring Seána Kerslake and created and written by Charleigh Bailey, who also co-stars.

I wish I could be nice about it but, despite the gusto of the playing, I spent the entire half-hour with my pen poised to scribble down amusing one-liners that never transpired. Ah well, back instead to This Way Up (Channel 4), which has been overpraised but which remains excellent on the complicated sibling interplay between Aisling Bea's scattergun Áine and Sharon Horgan's exasperated Shona.

Another week, another culinary show. Beyond the Menu (RTÉ1) began its six-instalment run with a mission statement from presenter Mark Moriarty, who wanted to find out what "drives" a generation of new young chefs who are "creating experimental and innovative dishes".

Moriarty, who's in the cooking game himself ("World Young Chef of the Year", he proudly told us) then went to Rosscarbery in West Cork, where he met Mark Jennings and Sadie Pearce, partners both in life and as co-owners of vegetable-based Pilgrim's restaurant in the town.

For the non-foodie, it was all as interesting as you'd expect and I'm sure the couple appreciated the publicity.

The second episode of Rise of the Nazis (BBC2) began with an assessment of how the nation's new leader operated: "He refuses to engage in the boring day-to-day detail of running a country. He has no interest in the opinions of experts and refuses to read briefings. Instead he tasks his team with a simple assignment: destroy democracy and make him dictator. Destroying democracy will take just six months."

Plus ça change and all that.

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