Tuesday 21 November 2017

Television: Bob has sex on the brain when it comes to Yeats

Quirky engagement: Bob Geldof in his programme on WB Yeats
Quirky engagement: Bob Geldof in his programme on WB Yeats

John Boland

The two-part A Fanatic Heart: Geldof on Yeats (RTÉ1) was so distinctively quirky that it could only have been fronted by this famously cut-through-the-crap presenter.

For instance, we learned that WB Yeats was 31 before he lost his virginity to Olivia Shakespear, and though the deflowering was "an absolute disaster", at least it meant "no more wanking".

Indeed, sex was never far from Bob's thoughts in this week's opening instalment - he informed us that Yeats's indulgence of Maud Gonne's revolutionary fervour was mainly a case of "I'm with you all the way, Maud - now can we shag?" and he asked Edna O'Brien how she might have reacted if the poet had recited his early lovelorn verse to her. "Would you swoon and just shag him?" he enquired. "Probably, yes," the 85-year-old novelist coyly replied.

Was it for this the wild geese spread their grey wings? Politics, though, was never far from Bob's thoughts, either, mainly expressed in a lengthy preamble where he recalled being a teenager during the 1966 Easter Rising commemorations and feeling completely alienated by the "mawkish, emotional, nationalistic guff" being broadcast for the occasion by RTÉ.

And standing in the GPO, he contended that what had happened in this subsequently sanctified O'Connell Street venue wasn't "the cradle of our national Bethlehem" but rather "the original sin of a mismanaged, misgoverned, often abusive and corrupt state".

This was heady stuff, as was his denunciation of physical-force republicanism, but it seemed to have strayed in from another and perhaps even more interesting film - though as the documentary progressed, Geldof's engagement with Yeats also became clear, and he had interesting chats with Roy Foster (the film's consultant) and others.

However, the frequent interludes in which such celebrities as Liam Neeson, Damian Lewis, Tom Hollander, Bill Nighy, Colin Farrell and Bono recited Yeats were mostly unsatisfactory - not just because too many of the performances were overly "actorish" but also because they mainly read snippets rather than complete poems.

The great 'Adam's Course', for instance, would have taken a mere two or three minutes to recite, but what we got instead were snatches of it read by Richard E Grant and Geldof himself, as if our attention span couldn't be trusted to absorb it in its entirety. If that was what was felt, why bother embarking on a two-hour tribute to a major poet?

Still, the film was never less than absorbing and the concluding instalment, which takes Yeats from 1916 to his death in 1939, should be just as intriguingly argumentative.Given the week that was in it, there were other reminders of 1916, most notably in The Enemy Files (RTÉ1), which invited Michael Portillo to consider the Easter Rising from the perspective of the British authorities of the time.

Needless to say, this former hardline Tory (the party's lost leader, some would argue) brought his own distinctive personality to the film, though he went out of his way to be even-handed - arguing that the slaughter of the Sherwood Foresters at Mount Street Bridge was "unnecessary carnage" but also conceding that "even as a Brit, I find Arbour Hill a pretty moving sort of place".

At the end, he acknowledged that the British government had failed both to "read Irish minds" and to "control" the general who had ordered the executions of the rebellion's leaders. But he also felt that the "rebel dream" of a unified Ireland was "no closer today than it was at Easter 1916".

An engrossing film and so, too, was Seven Women (RTÉ1). Earlier this year, RTÉ1's cack-handed drama series, Rebellion, had placed women at the forefront of the Rising's action, but this documentary, written by David Ryan and Martin Dwan and directed by the latter, did so more persuasively.

Only one of their chosen women, Countess Markievicz, is familiar to us today, but the stories of the others proved just as interesting. These included Abbey actress Helena Molony, described here as "at the top end of the radical spectrum"; Scottish-born teacher Margaret Skinnider, who "loved the idea of shooting" and was "out to kill"; teacher Louise Gavan Duffy who, although a friend of Pádraig Pearse, thought the rebellion a "frightful mistake"; and TCD Provost's daughter Elsie Mahaffy, who deemed it "a shameful scene of Irish folly".

The dramatic reconstructions were well handled in this account of Irish women whose various roles during the Rising were never recognised by the paternalistic Irish state that eventually transpired.

Quite the most bizarre few minutes of the week came in Claire Byrne Live (RTÉ1), which featured a pre-recorded short film of seven Irish worthies seated around a hotel-room table as they tried to create a new proclamation for Ireland.

These included journalist Tim Pat Coogan, academic Elaine Byrne, psychologist Maureen Gaffney and former PD leader Michael McDowell, and they all finally came up with some do-goodery guff about equal opportunity, sexual respect, "bodily autonomy" and other pressing issues in this brave new state of ours. You couldn't make it up.

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