Friday 24 January 2020

Television - Myles apart: Flann and the repentant drugs mule

John Boland

Half of Ireland has spent the week talking about Prison in Peru: Michaella's First Interview (RTÉ1), the comments mainly focused on how glamorous the 22-year-old convicted drug courier looked after a couple of years in jail and on her rueful insistence that she was "a good person" who had simply made "a bad decision".

There's been much less analysis of the interview itself, which was conducted by Trevor Birney, who also produced and directed (he previously directed the unsatisfactorily partial 2014 RTÉ1 documentary Michaella, Peru and the Drug Run).

That's a pity because throughout the whole half-hour, he failed to ask McCollum any questions that might have ruffled the image of contrite victimhood that she was so assiduously intent on conveying. Indeed, none of the crucial questions to which viewers would reasonably have expected answers were even put to her.

Who, for instance, were these people who had persuaded her to run drugs from Lima to Spain? Were they Spanish, English, Irish or part of a global cartel? Was she coerced or did she willingly agree to carry the drugs? What, if anything, was she being paid for her services and did she get the money in advance?

And what about her fellow traveller, Scotswoman Melissa Reid, who's still in prison? Were they in contact with each other in jail? And what prospects does Reid have for being similarly paroled? But Reid's existence wasn't mentioned throughout the interview.

And even when McCollum mentioned aspects of her life that invited follow-up questions, they weren't asked. She claimed that in 2013, while still living in the North, she was warned to leave the area as soon as possible or else "something would happen" and that this was based on religious grounds. "Sectarian?" Birney inquired. "Of course", she replied. "Right", he said, and moved on to another soft question. What on earth was that all about?

This was quite the worst television interview I've seen in a long time, indeed a low point for RTÉ's factual department, which commissioned it from Birney's Below the Radar company but which seemingly never demanded that a few basic hard questions be put to McCollum - or indeed that care should be taken to ensure that the result amounted to something other than a promotional aid for the interviewee: from slammer to glamour, as Paddy Power put it when inviting odds on McCollum's post-jail choice of career.

Brian O'Nolan's official career came to an end when his civil service bosses decided they'd had enough of his alcoholic waywardness. He had the reputation, Tim Pat Coogan recalled in Flann O'Brien: An Beal Saibhir (TG4) of being "nasty and very waspish", a verdict with which my mother, who was his shorthand-typist for a time, would have concurred.

"An addict who depended on drink", Anthony Cronin remembered, and if you haven't read Cronin's marvellous memoir, Dead as Doornails, it features much more remembering about O'Brien, Behan, Kavanagh and other lost literary souls of the Forties and Fifties.

But O'Brien/O'Nolan/Myles na Gopaleen was much more than a drinker, and Brian Reddin's hour-long documentary sought to give him his artistic due, with passionate endorsements from Dara O Briain, Fintan O'Toole, Alan Titley, Eoghan Harris and others - all of them, perhaps significantly, male devotees, as in my experience most women have never really warmed to his peculiar genius, just as the schoolboy antics of Monty Python always left them unmoved.

Unfortunately, the documentary was all over the place and far too much time was spent in the company of an actor who was pretending to be Myles and who spewed out tedious tirades from a bar stool. Still, he did warn us, as an ad break loomed, to "expect a lot of blather" about his masterpiece, At Swim-Two-Birds, after the interval and, do you know, he was right.

TG4 also began an intriguing half-hour documentary series called Scéalta na nÓstán, which focuses on hotels throughout Ireland and started with the history of three such establishments in Cork, about which the voiceover-narrator was armed with determinedly quirky facts.

I learned, for instance, that Liszt, who once stayed in Cork city's Imperial, gave rise to the term "Lisztomania" and that, although "we recognise the term from Beatlemania, Franz Liszt was doing this back in the 1840s". Actually, we recognise it from Ken Russell's dreadful 1975 biopic of the same name, but never mind.

But I was reminded, too, that Michael Collins stayed at the Imperial on the night before he was murdered, while in the segment devoted to the Metropole on MacCurtain Street I was happy to make the acquaintance of Donal and Kathleen Mathúna, a lovely elderly couple who began their life together at a Metropole dance.

In the first instalment of Crainn na hÉireann (TG4), presenter Manchan Magan told me lots of interesting facts I'd never known about the Scots pine, while in the nightly Big Week on the Farm (RTÉ1) presenter Aine Lawlor was so bursting with enthusiasm about agricultural life that I thought she'd explode.

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