Monday 23 September 2019

Review: Francis Brennan sets up camp in Vietnam, but at what price to the viewer?

Waving the flag: Some of Brennan's latest entourage appear to have been selected on the basis that they are more camp than their host
Waving the flag: Some of Brennan's latest entourage appear to have been selected on the basis that they are more camp than their host

John Boland

Timing, we're told, is everything, and if that's true, the timing of RTÉ boss Dee Forbes in seeking a licence fee hike is somewhat unfortunate.

On Tuesday, she told an Oireachtas committee that the fee should be increased from €160 to €175, even though two nights earlier, Francis Brennan's Grand Tour of Vietnam (RTÉ1) reminded us all of how RTÉ chooses to spend our money.

In the previous season of this bizarre exercise, the Kerry hotelier dragged 12 Irish tourists around India, with lots of moaning about the food and the heat, and now he's in Vietnam with another 12, some of whom seem to have been selected solely on the basis of being even more camp than their host.

That, alas, didn't make them interesting as they traipsed from mausoleum to pagoda to puppet theatre, stopping along the way for lunch, where there were predictable gripes about the foreign food on the menu - the host, all the while, waving his Francis Brennan Grand Tour flag so they wouldn't get lost.

His frantic gaiety was backed up by Colm O'Regan's voiceover, which in Sunday night's opening instalment blithely ignored the country's turbulent past and the horrors of the Vietnam War in favour of witless banalities - Hanoi, he informed us, was "a fascinating blend of East and West" with "colourful" streets where "you never know what you'll come across".

There are five more weeks of this nonsense. Honestly, Dee.

Money, though, was well spent on How to Defuse a Bomb: The Project Children Story, a Northern Ireland Screen documentary that enriched RTÉ1's Monday night schedule.

Written and directed by Des Henderson, this absorbing film related how in 1975 New York police bomb disposal expert Denis Mulcahy came up with the idea of giving Belfast schoolchildren an American holiday away from the dangers and traumas of the Troubles.

Kevin, a Catholic, and John, a Protestant, were among the initial group of six children, and over the six vacationing weeks they shared a room in the rustic New York State house of Duke and Carol Hoffman. We saw the two boys being interviewed at the time for an American television segment, and we met them again 40 years later as they were reunited with their host family.

When they had returned to Belfast after that initial holiday, they had little chance of seeing each other again. "He may as well have lived in South Africa", Kevin said of John, whose family home was only a mile or so away. "It seemed cruel that we could not remain friends." But Duke and Carol paid their airfares for further trips, and in later years, Kevin and John ended up as best man at each other's weddings.

Other stories ended less well, and the project became controversial when, after the father of one of the holidaying schoolgirls went on fatal hunger strike and she was interviewed on American television, it was accused in the tabloid media of furthering IRA propaganda.

Yet over the decades, the determinedly apolitical Denis and his similarly-minded brothers, all of them Cork-born, helped to arrange summer vacations for 23,000 Northern Irish children, some of whose stories were told here.

Interspersed with these was stark archive footage of the violent streets to which they would soon return, and there were good contributions from journalist Peter Taylor and from former US president Bill Clinton, who was so impressed by Denis that he asked him to accompany him on his crucial mid-1990s visits to Belfast.

My main problem with This is Christy (RTÉ1), an hour-long profile of Aslan frontman Christy Dignam, was that I felt I'd heard it all before, whether on various Late Late Show appearances down through the years or on countless radio shows.

Indeed, he's as ubiquitous as Louis Walsh, though at least he's written some decent songs, even if here he was rabbiting on again about his Finglas roots, the heroin addiction that scuppered the band's bid for global stardom, and the rare form of cancer for which he's been receiving treatment.

Perhaps because of over-familiarity with his life story, I was more interested in hearing from the other band members, who seemed amiable guys and who have clearly, indeed heroically, forgiven him for their missed chance at international fame.


Fame has also eluded the musicians who featured in Rock 'n' Roll Guns for Hire (BBC4), an engrossing account of those sidemen and women who accompany famous acts on tour but never even get to be session players in the recoding studio.

This was engagingly told by Earl Slick, a regular concert guitarist for David Bowie and who here looked so wrecked as to make Keith Richards resemble George Clooney. Indeed, Richards was on hand to observe of the Stones' regular tour guitarist Bernard Fowler and other such players: "The better you are at your job, the less people notice you."

That clearly rankled with most of the musicians who were interviewed, while they constantly fretted about the insecurity of it all.

Epidemic: When Britain Fought Aids (Channel 4) was both very evocative of the early 1980s and surprisingly upbeat in its story of how, despite an averse Margaret Thatcher, British health secretary Norman Fowler managed to get informative leaflets about the disease into 20 million homes and institutions.

The concern engendered by this new openness encouraged many gays to come out to family and friends. The cost in lives, though, was high.

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