Friday 23 March 2018

MPs, oddballs characters and a riveting fly-on-wall series


Inside the Commons on BBC2
Inside the Commons on BBC2

John Boland

The recent RTÉ1 series on the Shelbourne hotel was no fun at all. Despite its boast of unprecedented access and its fly-on-the-wall manner, there were none of the oddballs and indiscretions that had made the BBC series, Inside Claridge's, so enjoyable.

Indeed, all we got was what the proprietors would wish us to get: a respectful, almost reverential, homage to their institution. Still, there's always room for mischievous observational documentaries. So what might a fly-on-the-wall series about the Dáil reveal? Bickering in the corridors? Brawls in the bar? Swordfights on the stairwells? Well, that last is what the recent drama about Charlie Haughey would have us believe, though I fancy that an RTÉ peep into the workings of Leinster House would be just as timid as the Shelbourne series.

They do things differently across the water, or at least that's been the case with veteran filmmaker Michael Cockerell, who's made a well-earned name for himself in a succession of revealing documentaries and who showed no sign of flagging energy in the first instalment of Inside the Commons (BBC1).

Cockerell focused much of his attention on two fairly recent women MPs, feisty Labour representative Sarah Champion and cooler Tory Charlotte Leslie, both of them intent on making their presence felt in what largely remains an old boys' club, here represented by Churchill's self-satisfied grandson Nicholas Soames.

There were walk-on parts for more famous names - David Cameron availing of the camera's presence to congratulate Leslie for the "excellent" query she'd just put to him at Prime Minister's Questions, and former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy marvelling at some of the antiquated things to be found in the male cloakroom.

But the stars of the show, aside from Champion and Leslie, were lesser-known figures, especially Sir Robert Rogers, whose official title was Clerk of the Commons, though in fact he was responsible for running the whole place. He kept telling us that he was a keen moderniser, while all the time garbed in a cloak and legal wig and snorting snuff through a splendid beard that was topped by the bushiest eyebrows I've ever seen.

Indeed, the film was crammed with eccentric characters and fascinating insights into how business was conducted - loyal MPs encouraged in advance emails to stand up at PMQ sessions and essentially tell the prime minister how wonderfully he and his government were performing. Charles Kennedy thought the practice "pathetic", while Cameron blandly riposted that "politics is about the team putting over a team message".The programme was both genuinely informative and extremely entertaining and I look forward to the remaining two instalments.

There's little to be said at this stage about Gay Byrne's interview with Stephen Fry on The Meaning of Life (RTÉ1) except to wonder at all the attention it's received. After all, Fry has been making much the same withering comments about the God he doesn't believe in for a long time, so it's not as if his comments would have surprised anyone who hadn't been living on Pluto for the past decade.

Still, the programme was worth watching for Fry's customary eloquence and for those final, quite bizarre reaction shots of the host. Plainly, whoever in RTÉ leaked those concluding few minutes to YouTube thought so, too. And I chuckled at the headline dreamed up by the satirical website Waterford Whispers News: 'Gay Byrne to Receive Counselling after Interview with Stephen Fry'.

On a more sombre note, Adrian McCarthy's RTÉ1 documentary, OCD and Me, was an intriguing insight into a condition that many of us share to some degree - though artist Jacob, who can't bear to be touched, confessed to fury when people nonchalantly say that they're "a bit OCD".

Jacob, of course, is an extreme case, more extreme than his mother Mella, whose own obsessive compulsions forced her to give up her job as a fashion photographer. All the stories here were interesting, though I confess that by the end I didn't really know much more about the condition or what causes it than at the outset.

A Rebel Act: Poems that Shaped the Nation (RTÉ1) wasn't as interesting as I'd hoped, though maybe viewers unacquainted with the subject learned something from its superficial trawl through 12 centuries of Irish verse.

Mind you, literary scholar Declan Kiberd was intent on making it all seem cool and contemporary, describing 18th-century poets who took to the road as "the Bob Dylans of their era" and comparing the impact of each new Heaney volume to new albums by the Stones or the Beatles.

But in a programme that was overly intent on political correctness, with all the right social and gender bases dutifully covered, little attention was paid to the verse itself, most of the poems being reduced to bitty fragments. A missed opportunity, not least because its makers tried to cram into one programme what was deserving of a series.

After a slow start, Wolf Hall (BBC1) has been gaining momentum, largely through the mesmeric performance of Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell. Seldom have I seen an actor who so relies on watchful stillness to convey character. He's almost not there and yet you can't keep your eyes off him.

That's just as well because for much of the time very little seems to be happening. "May I speak?" Cromwell said to Henry the Eighth as they strolled through a garden. "God, I wish someone would", the king replied, echoing my own sentiments. Yet this adaptation has me engrossed - unlike Hilary Mantel's Booker-winning original novel, which I found so turgid that I abandoned it after a hundred pages.

RTÉ2's new US import, Scorpion, was slammed in the Huffington Post as "a pile of nonsense" and in the Washington Post as "a show about geniuses that gets stupider and stupider". They're both right, and if you need to watch a show about brilliant nerds, you're far better sticking with The Big Bang Theory, which has fewer heroics but far more laughs.

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