Sunday 21 January 2018

Television: Brendan's fervent 1916 film no laughing matter

Nationalist fervour: Brendan O'Carroll.
Nationalist fervour: Brendan O'Carroll.

John Boland

The star of Mrs Brown's Boys may be a famous funnyman, but in Brendan O'Carroll: My Family at War (RTÉ1/BBC2) it was ubiquitous historian Diarmaid Ferriter who provided the best laugh.

Asked by O'Carroll what the British were doing about armed militia operating in Ireland during the run-up to the Easter Rising, the shaven-domed and usually very earnest academic opted to let his metaphorical hair down and enter into the spirit of his questioner's usually ribald approach to things.

"Very little," he replied, before adding, "I could put it in a ruder way - what the British government is doing is sweet FA". What next? Perhaps a civil war documentary presented by Hozier in which Diarmaid feels compelled to bust into song.

Otherwise, the film, made by the BBC and framed as a Who do you Think You Are-type contribution to the 1916 centenary, was low on laughs but high on nationalist fervour as O'Carroll told the story of his three rebel uncles - while also offering a potted history of the Rising's main events and its aftermath for the benefit of an English audience.

But it was the fervour that was striking, and while acknowledgement was made of the Mount Street bridge slaughter of "young and inexperienced" Sherwood Foresters, some of whom thought they were being sent to France, there was no doubting O'Carroll's allegiance - not just to his insurrectionist uncles but to the cause for which they took up arms.

Some politically old-guard British devotees of Mrs Brown's Boys may have found the overall tone a little too derisive of empire for their liking, but O'Carroll remained defiantly nationalist throughout, thanking his uncles for the fact that "if anyone asks me where I come from, I get to say the Republic of Ireland".

The film had its uneasy moments, as in the street-corner history lesson he gave to his dutifully attentive sons, but it was never less than engrossing, which is more than can be said about A Terrible Beauty (RTÉ1), in which Declan Kiberd pondered the relationship between cultural revival and revolutionary nationalism.

There was nothing new here (RTÉ1's current series, Fire in the Blood, is covering much the same ground), and while some lesser-known academics made a welcome change from RTÉ's usual roster of go-to pundits, what they had to say wasn't terribly interesting.

And RTÉ's main go-to pundit - yes, Diarmaid Ferriter yet again - did turn up, too, though here declaiming passages from the writings of the period, with Olwen Fouere and Theo Dorgan among other such reciters of Yeats, Synge and their contemporaries.

These interludes were very stilted and the film itself was all over the place, jumping from the Gaelic League to the co-operative movement, from feiseanna ceoil to the Playboy riots and from feminism to the popular press. I felt I'd seen it all already, and more coherently shaped, too.

Meanwhile, the GPO's central role in the 1916 rebellion provided the raison d'etre for Inside the GPO (RTÉ1), a series of half-hour fly-on-the-wall programmes about the current workings of the famed O'Connell Street institution.

I could have done without the flowery Dub-toned narration by Peter Coonan, though he was only uttering a script provided by Niall Murphy in which we were told that the building was "the high church of post and parcels", that "every day was a big day" and that the whole enterprise required "team spirit and visionary leadership".

Clearly, one of these visionary leaders was branch manager Shay Cullen, who had a great sense of himself as he assured us that the "single most important ingredient" of his job was that "you must care" and that, as "captain of the ship", he cared deeply.

We met some of the other 950 employees, too, along with a few customers, but there was too much aren't-we-great malarkey about the whole tone of this week's opening instalment to make me want to watch the remaining episodes.

The Truth Commissioner, a 90-minute BBC2 drama based on David Park's novel, starred Roger Allam as a senior British official sent to Belfast to preside over confessional hearings involving former paramilitaries.

The premise was interesting but, despite the presence of Allam and Sean McGinley (as a republican minister with secrets to conceal), the pacing was so sluggish that I caved in halfway through.

I was sorry, however, to reach the end of Happy Valley (BBC1), even though the ending was brilliantly achieved, with all the loose ends satisfyingly tied up - except for the haunting, indeed unsettling, final shots in which policewoman Catherine observed her grandson walking ahead of her through a field.

This has been an outstanding series, both extremely tense and often very funny and with considerable emotional impact, too. If ever a crime drama could be said to be "real", this one was, not least because creator Sally Wainwright refused to pass judgment on most of her characters, even those who were caught up in criminality.

And the series was as much about family as about wrong-doing, with the remarkable Sarah Lancaster capturing the essence of put-upon human decency.

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