Sunday 25 August 2019

RTÉ2's new sitcom shows signs of quirky promise

Small-town syndrome: Alison Spittle in Nowhere Fast
Small-town syndrome: Alison Spittle in Nowhere Fast

John Boland

As the end-credits rolled on Nowhere Fast (RTÉ2) last Monday night, the voiceover assured us that "one episode in and already it's must-see telly".

Well, given RTÉ's dismal track record with comedy, make that must-see-how-it-goes telly, though it's certainly better than Bridget & Eamon, Damo and Ivor and any number of other cack-handed RTÉ sitcoms we've had to endure over the years.

Indeed, maybe it will become as interesting as Stefanie Preissner's Can't Cope, Won't Cope, which began discouragingly but then found a quirkily dark soul as its hapless heroine began to alienate everyone around her. It wasn't quite Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag, but it had its own tone, and it also had a terrific central performance from Seána Kerslake.

Maybe I'll be saying the same about Alison Spittle, who co-wrote Nowhere Fast with Simon Mulholland and who stars as Angela, fired from her Dublin radio job for slanderous remarks about a guest and now back home in the midlands as she tries to figure out what to do next.

My main problem with this week's first episode was that I had no idea what kind of person Angela was meant to be. We glimpsed her teenage diary festooned with drawings of penises under the slogan "Smile is the second-best thing you can do with your lips" and there was much ribald talk - her pal Mary initiating a night out with the rallying cry, "Right, girls, let's get out of here, that football team isn't going to fuck itself" - but the bawdy didn't really square with what we gleaned about Angela's personality, which wasn't that of a raver.

In fact, the most fun to be had came from Mary, raging against the petty constraints of the small-town life in which she was trapped and played with such withering invective by Clare Monnelly (also a stand-out in Moone Boy) that you wished she was the main character.

There was good playing, too, from Cathy Belton as Angela's ditzy mother, and in general there were enough amusing moments to warrant a look at next week's second episode.

Irish journalist Anne-Marie Tomchak runs a London-based online media company called Mashable and in Will a Robot Steal My Job? (RTÉ1) she wondered if both her own work and that of millions of others will soon be taken over by artificial intelligence.

This was a subject you might have expected in a Vogue Williams docuseries, and indeed the programme started with shots of the presenter in Vogue-style aerobics gear, though Tomchak managed to get through the hour without feeling the need to mention herself every two minutes.

In fact, she evinced a genuine sense of enquiry, whether asking a patient about the robotic prostate operation he was about to undergo, getting behind the wheel of a driverless car on a motorway or attending a football match in which she compared a computer-created account of the game with that of a sports journalist.

Moving further afield, she chatted to various pundits and experts about sociological and ethical issues, and by the end the viewer felt both that facts had been learned and that intriguing ideas had been interestingly teased out.

Howards End (BBC1) is a four-part adaptation of EM Forster's great 1910 novel about the state of England, and my initial reaction was to wonder: why bother? After all, James Ivory's 1992 movie had offered a fine version of the book, with commanding performances by Emma Thompson as the liberal idealist Margaret Schlegel and Anthony Hopkins as the pragmatic materialist Henry Wilcox.

However, at twice that film's length, the new version (scripted by Kenneth Manchester by the Sea Lonergan) can afford to be more spacious in its treatment of the characters, and in Sunday night's opening instalment this paid off, helped considerably by Hayley Atwell's lovely playing of Margaret and by Philippa Coulthard's spirited turn as flighty younger sister Helen.

Matthew Macfadyen as a younger Henry than in the movie has yet to register, and I'm not sure about Joseph Quinn as the hapless Leonard Bast (Forster anyway was not good at portraying characters from a lower social milieu than his own), but this strikingly shot evocation of Edwardian England looks set to be a weekend winner for the BBC.

Philip Larkin was quintessentially English, too, and in this week's edition of Passions (Sky Arts), friend and biographer Andrew Motion paid fine tribute to this great poet, while only too aware of the fact that his 1993 biography had contributed to damaging Larkin's reputation.

Racism and misogyny were the main charges, though the former was not unusual among men of that time and the latter was demonstrably untrue - Larkin had deep friendships as well as love affairs with a variety of women.

After confronting these issues yet again, Motion was left to conclude that "the man is sometimes difficult but the poems are always beautiful". Indeed they are and many of them were read beautifully in this film.

Another kind of Englishman was profiled in Toffs, Queers and Traitors (BBC4), an engrossing film about Cambridge spy Guy Burgess, who defected to the Soviet Union in the 1950s and died a lonely death there.

The documentary also sent me back to John Schlesinger's great little 1983 film, An Englishman Abroad, scripted by Alan Bennett and featuring Alan Bates in one of his finest performances. By now I've seen it at least ten times, but it remains wonderfully droll and very poignant.

In Christine & Adrian's Friendship Test (BBC1), long-time co-hosts Christine Lampard and Adrian Chiles travelled around Northern Ireland hugging everyone they met. This was to experience "the warmth of the locals" and it was truly gruesome.

Indo Review

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top