Tuesday 22 October 2019

John Boland’s week in TV: Scandals, car crashes and a very British political leader

 

Standing outside the fire: Garth Brooks promoting his ill-fated concerts at Croke Park in 2014. Photo by Steve Humphreys
Standing outside the fire: Garth Brooks promoting his ill-fated concerts at Croke Park in 2014. Photo by Steve Humphreys

John Boland

The bilingual documentary series Scannal (RTÉ1) has been going for so many years that it has long run out of scandals worth talking about, and this week it reached its nadir with an account of how country star Garth Brooks cancelled his Croke Park concerts in 2014.

According to the narrator, it was "a full-blown scandal", but in truth the standoff between local residents who were alarmed at the prospect of five nights of concerts and promoters who hadn't secured a licence to do so didn't merit revisiting, especially when presented as such an epic battle that the retelling became ludicrous.

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And it was left to writer Fiona Looney (who went on to write a play about the debacle) to note at the very end that the person who was ultimately responsible for leaving 400,000 fans in the lurch (and in many cases severely out of pocket) was the singer himself. But at this stage, who else really cares?

So what next for the producers of Scannal? How about doing an episode on Fine Gael TD Maria Bailey, whose unfortunate encounter with a hotel swing has become famous and was followed this week by an even less fortunate encounter with Sean O'Rourke on RTÉ Radio 1.

This interview added greatly to the gaiety of the nation, which can seldom have heard such a heady blend of victimhood, denial, entitlement and the blaming of others. "The curious case of the TD and the swing" was how the host of Claire Byrne Live (RTÉ1) introduced it later that night, with RTÉ political reporter Paul Cunningham deeming the interview an "unmitigated disaster". Fascinating, though, for connoisseurs of car crashes.

The week was also notable for the rise of Nigel Farage's Brexit Party and the demise of Theresa May, so it was an opportune moment to recall the person who, 40 years ago this month, became Britain's first woman prime minister - a similarly divisive figure to May though with much more charisma, influence and impact.

Indeed, after two episodes, the four-part Thatcher: A Very British Revolution (BBC2) is shaping up to be a major series, with absorbing social and political substance, fascinating footage from the archives and terrific soundbites from former colleagues and adversaries.

Her first trade secretary, John Nott, recalled her being surrounded in cabinet by old Etonians who regarded her with "supercilious disdain", while he deemed Heseltine to be "as loyal as Michael could be". Heseltine, for his part, thought her "dictatorial", though grudgingly acknowledging her talents.

Kenneth Clark, Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson and Kenneth Baker were among the other contributors and listening to their measured, if often self-serving, recollections, it was hard not to contrast them with the dreadful current lot who are seemingly intent on destroying all remnants of what were once deemed to be Tory values.

The Planets (BBC2) is presented by the beatifically boyish Brian Cox and is full of visual wonders, but for most of this week's opening instalment I hadn't a clue what he was talking about. Blame that on my woeful ignorance of science, astronomy and various other subjects, but I got the impression that all isn't well with the universe.

Mercury is nothing but craters, Venus was awash with water for two billion years before becoming unbearably hot, Mars is nothing like Matt Damon would have you believe, and as for Earth... well, beaming Brian doesn't seem to fancy its chances of lasting much longer

Ah, well, there's always lesbianism in Yorkshire, with aristocratic Anne Lister swaggering through Gentleman Jack (BBC1) in pursuit of fanciable young heiresses. Camilla Long in the Sunday Times has wittily renamed the series Poldyke, though if Ross Poldark confided to the camera about how exactly he was going to seduce a young woman, viewers would be up in arms.

But, hey, it's the era of #MeToo, so it's okay for Anne to make such confessions. Different strokes and all that, especially in a 19th century setting where men are either doddery old fools or dastardly villains.

Anyway, two weeks in and there's still no sex, despite the BBC drama department telling us all that it had hired an "intimacy co-ordinator" just in case its cast members didn't know how to perform pretend sex with each other.

But it remains a rollicking romp and maybe by next week Anne and the meek object of her predatory affections will finally get round to the co-ordination that's long overdue.

Still, I prefer Years and Years (BBC1), which is part dystopian nightmare and part family soap opera, the latter mostly winning out. Indeed, Rory Kinnear, Russell Tovey, Jessica Hynes and Ruth Madeley are so persuasive at playing siblings that you come to see them as members of your own family.

And while some of the soap-boxy agitprop stuff doesn't work, Emma Thompson's populist politician grows more frightening with each episode, while creator Russell T Davies's affection for his other characters remains palpable.

I wanted to like What We Do in the Shadows (BBC2), but this spoof vampire sitcom has more misses than hits, and despite lines like "Why would you walk home when you can turn into a bat?", it's mostly not really very funny.

What it does have going for it is Matt Berry, who was brilliant both in Graham Linehan's The IT Crowd and Toast of London (co-written by himself and Arthur Mathews) and is such an imperiously amusing presence that he doesn't really need to do anything in order to get laughs. Which is what he does here, despite the lack of a decent script.

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