Wednesday 21 March 2018

Television: Gaybo's history sermon promised to deliver more

Personal journey: Gay Byrne with a group of worshippers at a mass rock
Personal journey: Gay Byrne with a group of worshippers at a mass rock

John Boland

Last Orders with Gay Byrne (RTÉ1) began arrestingly, with the veteran broadcaster recalling "the most awful feeling of foreboding and fright and anxiety" as he turned up daily for classes at the Christian Brothers' school in Synge Street.

This, he said, was "because I knew, like most of my classmates, that I was going to be physically hurt that day, I was going to be belted, I was going to be thumped".

It seemed as if we were about to encounter a different, more revelatory Gay Byrne than either the inscrutable chat show host who had dominated Irish broadcasting for decades or the latter-day pietistic interviewer archly questioning celebrities about their beliefs in The Meaning of Life.

But that's not really how it turned out, the film soon devolving into a history of the Catholic Church in Ireland that was too partial and bitty to be satisfying -indeed so fixated on the role of the Christian Brothers in educating the economically disadvantaged that it ignored those religious orders which schooled the more fortunate and influential middle class.

In fact, the programme fell between so many stools that the viewer hankered for a properly comprehensive series on the subject - one that would encompass the Church's crucial historical importance to a marginalised people, its balefully repressive heyday throughout most of the 20th century and the sex-abuse revelations that led to its self-inflicted fall in the last couple of decades, with all the ruined lives such scandals entailed.

These topics were touched on here, with occasionally interesting insights from various academics and clerics, but it was hard to tell what the presenter thought of it all - beyond his fond recollections of a particular Synge Street teacher and his final reflection that the corrupting power granted to these clerical masters of our lives made for "a very sad story".

Still, the film did concern seriously interesting issues, unlike this week's instalment of Francis Brennan's Grand Indian Tour (RTÉ1), which continued to gratuitously insult its host country's traditions and ways.

The afternoon tea being offered at one of the hotel stops was treated with such chortling contempt by the Irish tourists and their guide that the unamused serving staff showed remarkable reserves of politeness in merely reacting with stony faces. These, of course, were the same tourists who previously had demanded sandwiches in a restaurant instead of the local dishes on the menu.

Elsewhere, a visit to an historical site elicited the comment that "I'd rather be at the dentist getting all my teeth pulled", while the general verdict of another in the Irish party was "This is India, it's chaos, hello?" - causing this viewer to reflect that maybe the Brit brigade in Benidorm aren't that bad after all.

In this week's episode of Creedon's Epic East (RTÉ1), we got to see host John tucking into a meal at Ballyfin House: "Wow, that is some gaff!", he exclaimed of a hotel that was "dripping with opulence". He was attired in a grey frock coat and a white dicky bow for the occasion, though he sounded somewhat forlorn as he reflected that the €1,000 a night being demanded for the most modest of the gaff's rooms was beyond him.

Earlier, he had met publican Bobby who had "a passion for High Nellies", the Nellies in question being bicycles just like your dad or granddad used to have. We watched as John and Bobby slowly cycled down a long country road. It was very exciting.

BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg fronted Brexit: The Battle of Britain (BBC2), an entertaining retelling of the recent referendum campaign with self-serving guff from the leaders of both campaigns and typically waspish comments from Peter Mandelson, who hasn't lost his love of the lethal jab.

He was withering about Jeremy Corbyn's lukewarm, indeed almost non-existent, contributions to the Remain cause and was derisive of rich public schoolboys like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove trying to pretend that they were somehow anti-establishment defenders of the disenfranchised.

"I've never known a story like it", Laura said at the very end, "and this is just the start". She sounded thrilled at the prospect of more scandals and scoops to come.

In The Mystery of Van Gogh's Ear (BBC2), Jeremy Paxman accompanied amateur art historian Bernadette Murphy as she attempted to solve what exactly happened on that December night in Arles in 1888.

Did he cut off all the ear or just the lobe? And was the recipient called Rachel or Gaby, and was she a prostitute in a local brothel or just the girl who did the cleaning?

Jeremy deemed this bloody act "the most famous incident in the history of modern art" and he proved an alert, even interested, companion to Bernadette, an English expat who's been living in Provence for over 30 years and has been on a seven-year mission to uncover the truth about the painter's ear. This involved retelling Van Gogh's story and lots of trips around Arles and its countryside.

By the end she had learned that there were no Rachels registered in Arles in 1888, but that there were 31 Gabys and that in the brothel, the name Rachel had been used as a nickname. And she found out that the Gaby in question was indeed a cleaning girl and that her descendants lived in a village nearby.

However, none of them wanted to talk to camera. Perhaps they'd caught sight of Jeremy and had recalled the famous grilling he'd given Michael Howard on Newsnight.

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