Monday 22 January 2018

Television: Not much food for thought in Donal's new travel show

Top trumps: Top Gear is back, but not as we know it.
Top trumps: Top Gear is back, but not as we know it.

John Boland

For all I know, the off-screen Donal Skehan may well be the most laid-back guy on the planet, but onscreen he lives his life in exclamation marks.

"Wow!" he remarked of Budapest in the first instalment of Follow Donal (RTÉ1), a new series that has our chirpy food-blogger and photographer taking weekly trips to foreign destinations. "Bring it on!" he exclaimed of a local gourmet food festival. "That's really incredible!" he yelped of tasting a chicken paprika. "Now that's what I call cake!" he raved of another culinary offering.

Information was thin on the ground amid this orgy of excited assertions.

"I know nothing, I'm here to learn," he happily revealed at the outset of his Budapest visit, and indeed he told us next to nothing about the place beyond noting that "the architecture here is awesome" and assuring us that, after a drive through the main thoroughfares with Hungarian food blogger Andras, "I've soaked up the culture".

A pity, then, that he didn't tell us about it, but in Donal's world, enthusiasm is all that really matters. "This is my first time eating testicle stew and I'm excited," he confided of a dish that none of us will be eating next time we're in Budapest, while all we learned about the chicken paprika that had him in ecstasies was that "you can probably guess the main spice used in this by its name".

Is that good enough in a programme that's ostensibly about food? Well, RTÉ clearly thinks so, though viewers may wish for something more nourishing than relentlessly upbeat epiphanies.

There were epiphanies galore, too, in Euro '88: We Can Beat This Lot (RTÉ1), screened as a feelgood prelude to Ireland's bid for glory in the upcoming European football fest.

"Gaelic football without the hand-passing" was how Alan Titley described Jack Charlton's game of booting it up the pitch and seeing what happens, and Ray Houghton, Ronnie Whelan and other heroes of that long-ago adventure were there to recall the thrill of it all.

"We did ourselves proud," Whelan said. "We didn't let anybody down".

Indeed they didn't, though it was the innocence of the whole thing that seems most striking now - that and the footage of all those players and pundits as they once were.

TV3, however, brought us back to earth with Ireland's Teen Killers, which began by informing us that in the past 10 years 16 Irish teenagers have slain others, mostly as the result of gangland feuds.

Offering his insights, former prison governor John Lonergan told us that many of these young thugs have "major personal difficulties", "negative role models" and come from "disadvantaged areas" in which there's a "social disconnection".

Other experts spouted similar platitudes, while the rest of the film provided lurid re-tellings of various killings. If there was a point to any of this, I missed it.

Loathsome or not, Jeremy Clarkson and his two preening pals were the epitome of Top Gear (BBC2), and an identically named programme without them simply isn't the same show.

This week's reboot began with new host Chris Evans promising that in the upcoming hour "I get chased, Matt gets chased, and then in a bizarre twist I chase Matt and Matt chases me".

The Matt in question was former Friends star Matt LeBlanc and I couldn't think of anything more boring than the prospect of these two charmless guys (Evans being the least charming) pursuing each other around various terrains. So after 20 minutes, I switched off.

But last week I gave a second chance to Brendan O'Connor's Cutting Edge (RTÉ1), which had featured a lacklustre panel for its opening instalment, and found myself much rewarded. Here the panel consisted of comedian Al Porter and journalists Alison O'Connor and Niamh Horan and they were excellent - Porter especially revealing a passionate eloquence and cogency on social and other issues that I'd never have predicted.

And while Horan rather boxed herself into a corner over working women, she was very good on other issues.

My advice to the host, who's a bracingly alert and unshowy moderator, and to his producers, is to make these three the resident panel.

In this golden age of television drama, standards have become so high that the opening episodes of French thriller The Disappearance (BBC4) registered as merely pretty good, but I'll certainly stay with this intriguing story of a missing teenage girl and the family secrets that may explain her vanishing.

And the same channel's documentary series, Revolution and Romance, began arrestingly with presenter Suzy Klein focusing on the lives and music of Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz and Liszt - all of them offering a radically personal riposte to their Enlightenment predecessors.

This theme was so taken up in The Secret of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (BBC2), in which Ian Hislop invigoratingly explored the composer's intentions in creating this masterpiece.

Here, the main thesis came from conductor John Eliot Gardiner, who was of the view that Beethoven, rather than brooding over fate knocking at his door, was espousing the aspirations of the French revolution.

But the programme also found a lot of time for the music itself, played by Gardiner and his orchestra with fiery urgency.

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