Sunday 19 November 2017

Television: Gay snog and revolution all in the Rebellion mix

Domestic detail: Life Before The Rising was crammed full of information about how people lived in the run-up to 1916
Domestic detail: Life Before The Rising was crammed full of information about how people lived in the run-up to 1916

John Boland

Towards the end of the final episode of Rebellion (RTÉ1), firebrand feminist and freedom-fighter Frances walked up to her friend May and passionately snogged her.

There was no discernible reason for her to do this, but series creator Colin Teevan had clearly decided that, having kitted her out in a cloth cap, braces and men's trousers for the street fighting, she might as well go gay as well.

What the pregnant May thought of the lengthy kiss was anyone's guess, though it was noticeable that she didn't repel Frances's lustful action. Perhaps, during season two, they'll meet up again in Bloomsbury, swapping lovers with Vanessa Bell and Lytton Strachey.

Indeed, the possibility of a second season was suggested by this finale's very last line, which had lecherous cad Harry informing one of his floozies that he had "plans for this brave new Hibernian world". The best plan, though, would be to drop any notion of continuing a drama that had begun promisingly but that all too soon setttled for the tritest of soap-opera conventions.

Initially the device of viewing the Easter Rising through the prism of three young women's lives had seemed promising, but this rapidly degenerated into cliche, not least because these invented women were nothing more than stock characters, embodying types and attitudes instead of having any personalities of their own.

"What were you thinking?" legal eagle George asked the incarcerated Lizzie near the end, but the truth was that she hadn't been thinking anything at all beyond the scriptwriter's fuzzy idea of a demure middle-class girl who'd suddenly gone all rebellious.

Meanwhile, the dreary May was left moping about her own predicament while farcically sharing the same house as her lover's unwelcoming wife. And as for the furious Frances, she ended her crusade for Irish freedom by stalking and shooting a loathsome detective before walking off into the sunset.

It was all too silly for words, with the Rising itself mostly relegated to the sidelines of these tedious storylines. Yes, it was handsomely mounted, strikingly filmed and generally well performed, but in terms of substance it did its momentous subject a trivialising disservice.

War and Peace it certainly wasn't, even if BBC1's current adaptation of Tolstoy's great novel is not without its stock elements - mainly arising from trying to cram a long and complex story into six episodes. But last Sunday night's re-enactment of the battle of Borodino was properly impressive in scale and savagery.

Maybe RTÉ should have rescreened Insurrection, the Hugh Leonard-scripted drama that it commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the Rising in 1966. This was recalled in Monday night's instalment of Ar Son na Poblachta (RTÉ1), another of Montrose's contributions to this centenary year.

Certainly, Leonard's take on the rebellion, which featured Ray McAnally as a 1960s newsman covering the event, was innovative for its time, and though it would probably look very creaky now, at least it stuck both to the main facts and to the main participants.

Historian Diarmaid Ferriter added his tuppence worth here and reappeared the same evening in Life Before the Rising (RTÉ1), an hour-long film in which archivist Catriona Crowe evoked the Dublin that had existed just before Patrick Pearse and his colleagues changed everything by invading the GPO.

Two years ago, Sean O Mordha's A Sovereign People, which could be viewed as a kind of prelude to his outstanding Seven Ages series, also chronicled a pre-Rising Ireland, though this week's film was less concerned with political and more with domestic issues.

Thus we learned of pre-1916 Dublin as a popular holiday destination (though was it then still the "second city of the British empire"?) and of the importance to middle-class households of vacuum cleaners and flushing toilets that had odour-removing S-bends.

Skirts had become shorter so that women could more easily hop on and off doorless trams, and hats had become smaller for the same reason. Meanwhile, poverty-stricken families had to live in tenement houses, each of which provided accommodation for up to 100 people. And no flush toilets there.

The film was crammed with interesting information and Catriona Crowe was both an engaged and engaging presenter, not least when chatting to Michael Gorman, whose parents had endured the trauma of coming from two different religious backgrounds.

Meanwhile, Pearse and comrades were plotting their nation-changing revolution, though, as the presenter observed, none of this was "remotely imaginable in the months leading up to the Rising". Never such innocence again, as Philip Larkin said of the prelude to the bigger war that was claiming other Irish lives.

To mark the passing of Terry Wogan, RTÉ1 rescreened Gay Byrne's 2010 Meaning of Life interview in which he spoke with arresting frankness of his lack of faith in an afterlife. It remains one of that series' most striking and memorable encounters.

He'll be missed, both as an incomparable broadcaster and as someone of whom we in Ireland could always feel proud.

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