Saturday 24 August 2019

John Boland's week in TV: 'RTE's 50 Years: To the Moon and Back was all over the place and so were the interviews'

 

Unanswered questions: Bobby Coote in The Man Who Wanted to Fly
Unanswered questions: Bobby Coote in The Man Who Wanted to Fly

John Boland

Last Saturday night, 50 Years: To the Moon and Back (RTÉ1) celebrated the Americans who took that first giant leap for mankind on the lunar surface. On Monday night, the same channel's The Man Who Wanted to Fly celebrated an 80-year-old Cavan man as he landed a biplane in a neighbour's field.

The former was presented by Áine Lawlor who, taking a break from her interrogative duties on the lunchtime radio news, was in light entertainment mode as she chatted in the grounds of Blackrock Castle Observatory to sundry guests, with frequent backup from perennial Moon observer Leo Enright.

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The programme was all over the place, and so were the interviews. Indeed, where else but on RTÉ would the honouring of such a historic global event find room, among its distinguished national and international contributors, for cleric Brian D'Arcy, former newsreader Anne Doyle and comedian Neil Delamere?

Meanwhile up in Cavan, octogenarian brothers Bobby and Ernie Coote were the subjects of The Man Who Wanted to Fly, a feature-length documentary that apparently took director Frank Shouldice over five years to make and that occasionally seemed almost that long to this viewer.

Still, it was a good deal more watchable than The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid, recently screened on RTÉ1, which was also about rural life but which sacrificed basic information in favour of brooding atmosphere.

Here the only puzzle that wasn't answered was the one suggested by the film's title: why Bobby Coote wanted to fly.

Had he always had that obsession and, if so, where did it come from? We weren't told, nor were we told if he'd ever been on a plane before, even for a holiday. Indeed, had he ever been abroad, apart from time spent working in England, and had he gone by plane then or had he taken the boat?

But if these and other questions remained unanswered, there was rich material to be found in this nuanced and often poignant portrait of two lonely rural bachelors with different perspectives on life: Bobby the incurable optimist and Ernie the sceptical sibling acknowledging that his brother had "a head of brains" but with "this daft notion about flying".

Clearly the more sociable of the two, Bobby played the fiddle in a local pub and we saw him expertly fashioning the instrument from pine, white oak and catgut, while he was also adept at mending antique timepieces - which had earned him an interview on a Frank Hall television show back in the 1970s.

But he wasn't immune to self-analysis, acknowledging that "nothing seems to be going right" with his aviation dream and speaking of himself in the third person: "You know, Bobby always fucked up everything."

At the end, guided by a flying instructor seated directly behind him, he did manage to land a microlight two-seater on the makeshift runway of a nearby field, and this provided a feel-good conclusion, but the film had been at its strongest and most affecting as a character study of two quirky brothers.

Elsewhere, the Apollo 11's monumental mission was given personal focus in Neil Armstrong: First Man on the Moon (BBC4), with telling contributions from his brother Dean, sons Rick and Mark and first wife Janet.

He wasn't really a recluse, except from the media, which constantly pursued him - Dean deeming it "an awesome price to pay" for what he'd achieved, and co-astronaut Mike Collins' wife Pat pointing out the fact that "none of us had married an astronaut". Yet in the first 45 days back on Earth, the three astronauts, along with their wives, were required to visit 23 countries, their mission being "to shake hands with the world".

As for Armstrong, who later found fulfilment in teaching and business, his sister June had the last word: "He was true to himself. He was the man you saw." A fine film that also managed to weave into its reminiscences a gripping account of the lunar mission itself.

In the week of the new Tory leader's coronation, political commentator Gary Gibbon posed the question Boris Johnson: Fit to be Prime Minister? (Channel 4). The answer seemed to be no, though the film took more than 50 minutes, aided by footage with which we're all familiar, to come to that conclusion.

But maybe he won't last long, in which case BBC4 rescreened Michael Cockerell's 2007 documentary, How to be an Ex-Prime Minister, which might give him a few tips on how to survive life after Downing Street.

The evidence, though, wasn't too encouraging, with Harold Wilson having no money, Edward Heath almost reduced to homelessness and Margaret Thatcher succumbing to dementia.

John Major, though, took it all in his stride and he's now one of the few notable Tories who's admirably sane and forthright about the current lot's apparent bid to destroy Britain.

Atlanta (Netflix), created and written by Donald Glover, who also stars, has been billed as a comedy show, but as comedy, it's very dark.

Black lives don't matter much in the subworld that Glover conjures up, with himself playing college dropout Earn hitching his wagon to his cousin Alfred's improbable chance of stardom as rapper Paper Boi.

Things generally don't work out too well for this duo or for their feckless and dangerous sidekick Darius, while you wonder why Earn's long-suffering girlfriend hasn't left them all to their own ill-thought-out devices.

But there's an energy to this show, now in its second season, that keeps you watching even when the main trio seem intent on self-destruction.

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