Wednesday 19 June 2019

Television: Love it or hate it, crime drama doesn't always pay

Unanswered questions: Aidan McArdle, Kelly Thornton and Adam Fergus star in Clean Break on RTÉ One
Unanswered questions: Aidan McArdle, Kelly Thornton and Adam Fergus star in Clean Break on RTÉ One

John Boland

The four-part crime drama, Clean Break, has been talked up by RTÉ as a successor to Love/Hate, but it's only so in scheduling terms - certainly on the evidence of its first episode it's as far removed from that ratings winner as any crime series could be.

That was only to be expected from Billy Roche, whose nuanced understanding of the frailties and failings of small-town Ireland has always been light years away from the one-dimensional approach to violent urban thuggery that was to be found in Love/Hate.

This imaginative empathy is what drew theatre audiences to Roche's remarkable trilogy of Wexford plays in the late 1980s and early 90s (subsequently filmed by the BBC with Dervla Kirwan, Aidan Gillen, Gary Lydon and Liam Cunningham among the cast) and to the equally impressive The Cavalcaders, premiered at the Abbey Theatre in 1993.

These were wonderfully good, as was Roche's 1986 novel, Tumbling Down, but crime drama is a different kettle of festering fish and the first episode of Clean Break suggested that both author and director could learn a lot from the makers of Love/Hate about scene-setting, pacing and basic credibility.

"Crime seems to be the only way to get on television," Roche said in a recent interview, adding that "I'm much more about the characters caught up in this crime" - which is all well and good except that a mastery of plot mechanics are essential for any crime drama to succeed, and here the episode merely invited questions that went unanswered.

Why didn't the kidnappers of the bank manager's family just keep the hostages in their posh house while hubby Desmond got them the money they wanted? And if they felt obliged to take the terrified wife and daughter somewhere else, why let them scream their heads off during the ordeal? And, indeed, why bury the money under a bridge rather than just hand it over to financially strapped car dealer Frank, who had devised the kidnapping?

Other elements niggled, too, including Frank's encounter in a restaurant with old flame Annette, who was now Desmond's wife. In a town where everyone seemed to know everyone else (half the population seemed to be involved in the boxing club), was it credible that these two former lovers hadn't met in years?

Other failings were beyond the writer's control, such as some ropey performances, while the casting of Aidan McArdle as the slimy Desmond was quite odd - with his boy's face and his jumper, school tie and anorak, he didn't look old enough to be a bank manager and it was as if he'd strayed in from a sixth-form production of an adult play.

Still, the kidnapping storyline (with its echoes of last year's superb Happy Valley on BBC1) couldn't fail to hold the attention and I'll be watching the second episode tomorrow night to see how it develops - and indeed whether it manages a more successful blend of character and action.

BBC1 ended its impressive Sunday night series of classic adaptations with a new version of Laurie Lee's lovely 1959 memoir, Cider with Rosie, a drama in which nothing much happened, except the growing of a boy and the vanishing of a way of life.

Set and filmed in the rural Gloucestershire of Lee's childhood during the early decades of the last century, this latest adaptation (there were two others) had affecting performances by two young actors as the young author at different times in his life and fine playing, too, from Samantha Morton as the resilient mother who wouldn't accept that her husband had abandoned both her and her offspring.

A young deserter who had been hiding in the woods was finally caught, two old neighbouring ladies passed away, yet while that was about it in terms of incident, the film beautifully evoked childhood and adolescence in all its excitement and occasional bewilderment.

There was no sentimentality here but much well-earned sentiment and the ending, as the boy left home to set out on his questing travels, was very moving.

In the new season of The Meaning of Life (RTÉ1), most of Gay Byrne's elder-statesman questions were met with either polite giggles or bemused chuckles by singer-songwriter Hozier, who was too young to have been acquainted with the presenter's Late Late Show heyday but was plainly and amicably aware of his father-figure status.

It made for a very engaging encounter, and a touching one, too, as Hozier spoke of his own father, who had been stricken down by a crippling spinal condition. "It changed all our lives," he recalled. "You're watching someone you love fade away". Happily, his father now was "much better", but his illness had obviously affected his son deeply.

He was just as eloquent articulating his beliefs and his doubts, while remaining tickled by his host's line of inquiry and the way in which some of the questions were couched. "You're cross about baptism as well," Gaybo remarked. "Cross about baptism!" Hozier chuckled.

Here was a meeting of two generations who weren't quite on the same wavelength but who yet made a definite quirky connection.

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