Sunday 19 January 2020

Television: Lions, hip-hop in the concrete jungle and all that Baz...

Notorious: Bill Stephens was mauled to death by a lion he bought from Dublin Zoo
Notorious: Bill Stephens was mauled to death by a lion he bought from Dublin Zoo

John Boland

Netflix's latest original drama series, The Get Down, is its most expensive ever, costing $120m overall, or $10m per episode.

That's a lot of money and it would be nice to say that it's evident on-screen, but actually it's not, especially when you consider it has no big-name stars whose fees might have pushed up the budget.

What it does have is Baz Luhrmann as co-creator and director of the 90-minute first episode, and it's upon some of Luhrmann's typically extravagant set pieces in this pilot episode that much money has obviously been spent, and to exhilarating effect, too.

A pity, then, that the storyline, which concerns the birth of hip-hop in the south Bronx of the 1970s, isn't more thrilling and that Luhrmann's fondness for self-indulgence is so reminiscent of his earlier over-the-top exercise in teen angst, the 1996 Romeo + Juliet.

There's a winning lead performance by Justice Smith as the teenager intent on escaping his social and economic shackles, and from Herizen F Guardiola as his similarly determined love interest, but too much of this pilot episode seems to play uncomfortably to stereotypes about drugs and violence in the American black community.

Mind you, this is the only episode I've so far watched, but in an era of abundant TV drama alternatives I don't know if I'm really encouraged to investigate further - just as I abandoned Martin Scorsese's cliché-ridden Sky Atlantic series Vinyl after a couple of episodes. Still, The Get Down is certainly more persuasive than Netflix's new acquisition, Zoo, an ill-written and ham-fisted series which posits the notion that, after centuries of abuse by humans, the animal world decides to retaliate - though in the opening episode, instead of Hitchcock's malign birds, there were marauding lions in Botswana and sinister gatherings of domestic cats in the Los Angeles suburbs.

The African sequences were arrestingly filmed, but the acting was mostly wooden, not helped by the dialogue with which the players were saddled by co-creator James Patterson. I'll certainly be giving further episodes a miss.

Lions were also at the centre of the 70-minute RTÉ1 documentary Fortune's Wheel, which began with the solemn on-screen declaration that this was "A Joe Lee Film", as if the director were in the same league as François Truffaut or Quentin Tarantino.

Either of these luminaries would have got to the story's essence more speedily, while here we had to listen to the reminiscences of a bewildering number of elderly Fairview residents before we gained a sense of the man they were talking about - local lion tamer Bill Stephens, who achieved national headlines in 1951 when one of his animals escaped and mauled a petrol attendant before being cornered and shot dead.

At the age of 30, Stephens himself was subsequently mauled to death by a dangerous lion he'd just bought from Dublin Zoo and this was vividly recounted by Lee's interviewees, while there was a touching coda in which his widow, remarried and now elderly, met up with Stephens' niece, but the film was too long for its own good.

RTÉ1's other main documentary of the week was Legion of Christ: Scandal at the Vatican and it concerned the loathsome Mexican priest Marcial Maciel, who founded a cult-like religious order that produced thousands of seminarians throughout the globe and was much favoured by a succession of popes - even after revelations that Maciel was an obsessive sex predator who had abused scores of boys.

Now elderly, some of them were interviewed for the film, but I'd seen it all before in a documentary screened a few years ago on RTÉ1 and had no wish to reacquaint myself with this papal-protected paedophile.

Francis Brennan's Grand Indian Tour (RTÉ1) continued on its fecklessly insulting journey through its host country. "If your man doesn't stop playing", Francis declared of a nearby musician, "I'll have a headache", before deriding him as that "one-note wonder over there".

Elsewhere, B&B owner Geraldine prided herself on being "the real me", this revelation coming after she'd ordered a bespoke apron in a fabric shop. "Be careful," she instructed the tailor, "remember I explained it to you, it's very important you get it right, now don't make a mistake." The tailor managed to maintain a civil silence throughout these commands.

Francis later got up on a chair in the hotel where they were staying and ran his finger over the top of a piece of furniture. "No dust, good sign," he declared. No dust in India, what a relief. Now if they could only do something about the heat everyone would be happy.

For the final instalment of Creedon's Epic East (RTÉ1), the presenter promised to show me "a surprising tomb in a deserted town in Kilkenny" and to have his own go at "monastic life in Waterford". Some things, though, are best done in solitude so I decided to leave him at it.

In his 1945 essay, 'The Sporting Spirit', George Orwell suggested that "if you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world" the best way of achieving that was through international sports competitions. That's generally my view, too, and yet along come the O'Donovan brothers and Annalise Murphy in Olympics: Rio 2016 (RTÉ2) and I'm as thrilled as everyone else. Go figure.

We wuz robbed, though, was the consensus on the RTÉ panel after Katie Taylor and Michael Conlan were deprived of glory. I watched both matches, but I'm no expert and I bow to the superior knowledge of Mick Dowling and colleagues. But there was certainly Orwellian ill-will in the studio.

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