Friday 14 December 2018

Television: Brendan's new show is even more baffling than the Booker

True or false games: Brendan O'Carroll and company on the set of For Facts Sake
True or false games: Brendan O'Carroll and company on the set of For Facts Sake

John Boland

Belfast-born writer Anna Burns won the Man Booker prize this week for Milkman, a novel described by the judges as "challenging" and "experimental" and causing The Times in London to headline its news story 'Booker winner so baffling it's best read aloud'.

I haven't yet got round to it. Instead I've been catching up with Sally Rooney's marvellous second novel, Normal People (even better than her debut, Conversations with Friends), and all that's baffling there is that it wasn't even shortlisted for this year's prize.

But then the Man Booker is no stranger to controversy, Joanna Lumley declaring to her fellow judges in 1983 that Keri Hulme's The Bone People would win "over my dead body". It duly won. And when, in 2005, John Banville's The Sea was announced the winner, the author's first thought was "Just imagine how many people hate me at this moment".

The Irish author was a mischievous contributor to Barneys, Books and Bust-Ups: 50 Years of the Booker Prize (BBC4) - describing the annual gala dinner as "full of drama and pathos and silliness - authors bursting into tears, authors fighting with each other" and recalling getting "thoroughly drunk" at the 1989 ceremony in which he didn't win for The Book of Evidence.

Anne Enright, who won in 2007 for The Gathering, was startled to discover that "you're not allowed to go out to the loo" during the dinner but also recalled the upside of winning: "You just sell and sell and sell everywhere."

But the last word should go to Banville, who in 2005 told his award-night interviewer that it was "nice to see a work of art winning the Booker Prize". His literary rivals must have hated him even more after that.

Who Do You Think You Are? (RTÉ1) came to the end of a rather lack-lustre season last Sunday night, though its contributors weren't as uninspiring as the presidential hopefuls selling their wares on the following night's Claire Byrne Live (RTÉ1), which should have been retitled Who Do They Think They Are?

But I'll leave expert analysis to the political pundits and move on swiftly to For Facts Sake (BBC1), though maybe the less said the better about this latest Brendan O'Carroll vehicle, which made even his chat show seem bearable in comparison.

Here, in the time-honoured O'Carroll tradition of keeping it in the family, he enlisted son Danny and Mrs Brown stalwart Paddy Houlihan as team captains, with members of the studio audience invited to join them as they played true-or-false games.

The level of supposed banter was woeful as they had to decide whether redheads go grey earlier than people of other hair colours or whether 13pc of Scottish people are ginger-haired.

It was all such a shambles that at times the host didn't even bother listening to what his panellists were saying, and the viewer was left wondering who on earth the show was meant to be aimed at. Not me, anyway.

Some fine documentaries held the week together. Mediterranean with Simon Reeve (BBC2) sounds like a travelogue, but there's real grit behind Reeve's boyishness and so far there's been nothing cosy about his travels through Malta, southern Italy, Albania, Cyprus, Lebanon and the Gaza strip.

Corruption and violent criminality have constantly come under his dismayed gaze, though dismay doesn't cover one's reaction to what's being exposed in A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad (BBC2), whose second episode documented how a mild-mannered eye doctor in London not only assumed dictatorial power in his native Syria but gradually became as ruthless as his late father and his siblings.

Here was Michael Corleone from The Godfather, dragged reluctantly into the family business but then succumbing to the unlimited power it gave him and to the delusions it nourished - when he won 97pc of the votes in the second general election, which had permitted no other candidates, he declared: "They love me. This shows that they love me."

But the real horror of his despotic reign hadn't even begun. That will be covered in next Tuesday night's final instalment, which doubtless will make for grim viewing.

The first instalment of Black Hollywood (BBC2) featured a wry comment from Don Cheadle about the attitude of movie moguls to black performers: "The colour they mostly care about is green."

We are now in an era of racial diversity both in movies and television, but in the past actors like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier were at best permitted the stereotype of the noble negro and weren't, of course, allowed to play chracters who had anything but the most chaste relationships with white women.

Belafonte, now in his nineties, was the most interesting and eloquently sardonic interviewee in this opening episode of what looks set to be an absorbing series.

Despite its somewhat corporate tone, Great Lighthouses of Ireland (RTÉ1) has been a fascinating series. Written and directed by Frank Delaney, its visuals have been spectacular and the contributions from former lighthouse keepers have been engrossing. It's been impossible not to marvel at what we we've been told and shown.

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