Sunday 19 November 2017

Television: Lights, cameras and some headline-grabbing TDs...

Price of power: Mary Harney of the PDs and Bertie Ahern of Fianna Fáil during their coalition.
Price of power: Mary Harney of the PDs and Bertie Ahern of Fianna Fáil during their coalition.

John Boland

So who's the canniest Dáil performer when it comes to creating soundbites for the six o'clock news?

"Mary Lou McDonald would be very good at it," journalist Geraldine Kennedy told John Bowman in Through a Lens: Leinster House 25 Years on TV (UTV Ireland), though Ruairi Quinn thought that Labour party colleague Pat Rabbitte was "absolutely brilliant", while both Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Sinn Féin's Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin plumped for Joe Higgins - Martin marvelling at some of the socialist's "classic one-liners".

Mind you, Quinn was sceptical of such "very carefully rehearsed spontaneous outbursts", while former PD leader Desmond O'Malley had his own quirky take on the matter, being of the opinion that quite a few TDs were "well capable" of headline-grabbing antics, "including some of the semi-clothed ones". Surely not Mick Wallace?

As the reference to Pat Rabbitte might suggest, this documentary was made a while back, but given the current political shenanigans it was well worth rescreening, especially when shaped so scrupulously and presented so well by John Bowman. Along with Eileen Dunne and Una O'Hagan, who remain by a long distance RTÉ's best newscasters, Bowman has the unfussy authority of a true broadcasting veteran and I find his Sunday morning radio archive show unmissable.

And this UTV Ireland film about the advent and impact of Oireachtas camera-coverage was just as absorbing, not least in its incidental details and some of its Dáil footage.

I had forgotten former Green party TD Paul Gogarty's "Fuck you, deputy Stagg, fuck you!" outburst in 2009 and wondered whether he was one of the "more exotic members" of O'Malley's recall, while I lamented, along with Bowman and some of his interviewees, that TV coverage came too late to capture such key events as the 1970 arms crisis Dáil debate.

However, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern recalled that Charles J Haughey had never been "that keen" about live Dáil coverage, though as for himself: "I didn't care a monkey's". No surprises there, but the film was constantly engrossing.

Meanwhile, given the week that was in it, someone in RTÉ had the foresight to commission a two-parter on Irish political coalitions, of which there have been more than you might imagine. Indeed, we learned from Comhrialtas: The Price of Power (RTÉ1) that, despite the perceived dominance of Fianna Fáil throughout the past eight decades, there have only been six single-party governments.

Here again some of the best moments were in soundbite form, RTÉ political correspondent David McCullagh deeming the 1948 inter-party arrangement to be "the maddest government in the history of the state" and later describing Jack Lynch's courting of convent nuns in 1969 as a matter of having "a Carmelite in one hand and a ballot box in the other".

There was fun to be had, too, in Après Match Presents Election '82 (RTÉ1), which evoked a decade in which everyone wore brown and in which, with few leisure alternatives, men indulged in the pastime of growing beards.

The footage was a hoot and so were the ads of the time, while the comedy trio of Gary Cooke, Risteárd Cooper and Barry Murphy clearly had a ball putting cod dialogue into the mouths of Charlie Haughey, Garret FitzGerald, Margaret Thatcher and other luminaries of the era.

The four-part Fire in the Blood (RTÉ1), commissioned as part of the 1916 centenary, concerns the Celtic revival of the 1890s and 1900s and began with a profile of Lady Gregory presented by Derbhle Crotty, who has frequently acted in the national theatre that was co-founded by Gregory.

The story of her privileged background and of her enduring association with WB Yeats is well known, though Crotty retold it very well. The half-hour also featured interesting insights from Fintan O'Toole, who deemed the Gregory-Yeats alliance "one of the most important friendships in modern Irish history", and from Sr De Lourdes Fahy of the Kiltartan Gregory museum.

In the opening instalment of Pet Island (RTÉ2), the excited voiceover invited us to meet "one of Ireland's most glamorous couples and their dogs".

These turned out to be a duo called Martin and Jennifer, of whom I'd never previously heard and about whom I learned nothing beyond the fact that they lived in Kildare and swanned around the town with six canines.

I also learned nothing about Jackie and Darragh apart from Darragh's declaration that "when I met Jackie, it was my first contact with ferrets". Hmmm, though what Darragh actually meant was that Jackie was the proud owner of such creatures.

For Darragh, this took some getting used to given that, in Jackie's words, their smell is like "a mixture of onions and mustard" and that when they crawl into the couple's bed they immediately seek out the warmest bits of their minders' bodies.

Why we were being told any of this remained a mystery, much like the programme itself, which seemed to have less interest in the animals themselves than even I could muster.

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