Thursday 22 August 2019

'Liveline: Call Back' review: ‘surprisingly satisfying viewing, polished and compelling’

Liveline: Call Back, RTE One, Mondays 7pm
Liveline: Call Back, RTE One, Mondays 7pm

Pat Stacey

Liveline is an institution. And no, there isn’t an ancient joke about what kind of people end up in institutions on the way. I’m being completely serious here.

Depending on what day of the week it is and what kind of a mood you’re in, Joe Duffy’s long-running radio phone-in show — and it’s hard to even credit now that Liveline’s original host was Marian Finucane, who lacks the down-to-earth touch the Ballyfermot man brings to it — can either be a shouty soapbox for all manner of whingers and weirdos, cranks and crackpots, or an example of public service radio at its crusading best.

No other radio programme has done more over the years to expose scams, scandals, rip-offs, sharp practices and state-sponsored ineptitude. When it’s at its very best, it’s essentially radio for the people, by the people.

It’s this side of the show that’s being celebrated in Liveline: Call Back, a six-part series revisiting some of the most memorable stories and items to feature on the programme over the years.

The first episode, which went out on RTE1 last night, movingly recalled the campaign by cancer victim Cathy Durkin and her family to persuade the government make the melanoma-treatment drug Ipilimumab, or “Ipi” as it became known, available to patients free through the public health service. They eventually succeeded, but sadly too late for the treatment to save Cathy, who died in 2012.

Also featured in a busy half-hour were the controversy that erupted when Joe took a call from criminal John Daly, who rang the show on his phone while serving a sentence in Portlaoise Prison, and the heartwarming story of dog lover Joe Keating and his appeal for help finding his beloved collie cross Sona, who went missing during a thunderstorm. Sona never turned up, but Joe’s appeal touched the hearts of listeners and the wider public.

For a television series about a radio series — a less than promising pitch on paper — Liveline: Call Back is surprisingly satisfying viewing, polished and compelling, and a welcome change to the kind of anodyne pap the channel usually shoves into early-evening weekday slots.

In fact, it’s good enough to make you wonder why someone in RTE didn’t have the nous to package it into three hour-long programmes instead of six half-hour ones and give it a primetime slot. The radio show attracts upwards of 400,000 listeners a day, so Liveline: Call Back could almost certainly have counted on a large, readymade audience.

It’s not as if these long winter nights are stuffed with unmissable documentaries, each competing for viewers’ undivided attention.

There are plenty of documentaries being produced, all right. Quantity is definitely not a problem.

Leaving aside series, which usually run to four or six episodes, there have been around a dozen new standalone or two-part documentaries aired in the last three weeks. The real problem is the lack of variety and ambition.

The documentary departments of RTE and its biggest domestic competitor, TV3, are currently stuck in a groove of mediocrity, and neither of them seems to be in a particular hurry to get out of it.

The Sunday before last, RTE1 showed Paddy Moloney: Chieftan. You can’t but respect the 78-year-old musician’s achievements, even if the music he makes is never likely to find its way into my record collection. But is a film about an already lavishly lauded musician, a darling of the cultural establishment with more awards on his mantelpiece than Meryl Streep, necessarily the best way to spend a chunk of a dwindling arts documentary budget?

Surely there’s an Irish writer, artist, actor or director — or perhaps even another musician — who could use the exposure more?

The channel’s other documentaries that week included All- Ireland Day — which is pretty much self-explanatory — and the wretched Ballyfin, which spent very little time examining Ballyfin House’s grim past as a Patrician Brothers’ school but an awful lot of it drooling over its transformation into an obscenely expensive hotel for the super-rich.

RTE2’s increasingly tiresome Reality Bites strand served up yet another hard-to-swallow helping of vacuous, vanity-driven drivel — of the male variety, for a change — with The Gun Show, featuring 2FM radio presenter Keith Walsh gym-bunnying his way to a six-pack.

Even when RTE did come up with something fresh, the vibrant RTE2 three-parter Dole Life, it scheduled it directly against RTE1’s Better Abroad, featuring George Lee hobnobbing with wealthy Irish in Silicon Valley and Dubai. Either someone in RTE has a mordant sense of humour or they’re just really bad at scheduling.

TV3 didn’t fare any better with The Joy, yet another depressing look inside the prison system (how many of those have we been sentenced to already?). 

The fact that the finest Irish documentary in some months was tiny TG4’s film about controversial Dublin detective ‘Lugs’ Branigan tells you all you need to know about the status quo.

Liveline: Call Back continues next Monday on RTE One at 7pm.

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