Tuesday 20 March 2018

Television: Not worth raising a pint to this celebration of pubs

Bar life: Kingscourt publican Paul McGartland
Bar life: Kingscourt publican Paul McGartland

John Boland

There's an excellent programme to be made about the role of drinking establishments in our lives, but I'm afraid The Irish Pub (RTE1) wasn't it.

Instead, what was offered was the traditional Irish pub as espoused by Fáilte Ireland and Cara magazine. Indeed, technical quality aside, the film could well have been made in the era of The Quiet Man - quaint, rural premises predominated, with no mention of suburban superpubs or the bars favoured by the urban young.

In fact, there was hardly a young person to be seen - and hardly a woman, either - among the various, mostly solitary, customers captured by the camera, though this was never remarked on. And nor was there any consideration of such pressing contemporary concerns as the economic difficulties that have caused the closure of so many licensed premises throughout Ireland.

Producer/director Alex Fegan mostly opted to film his pub proprietors (22 in all by my count) head-on as they stood behind their counters, and while initially his artfully-framed compositions were arresting, they soon became wearyingly monotonous.

As did the anecdotes and reminiscences of the publicans, none of whom were identified until the end credits of this 75-minute film. Some of their stories and observations were interesting in themselves (Billy Keane in Listowel and Liam Aherne in the Palace in Fleet Street providing especially good value), but after a while the viewer had the doom-laden sensation of being trapped at the bar counter not by one pub bore, but by a seemingly endless succession of them.

And while the various topics being aired included the sanctity of the snug, the secret of a good pint and the importance of characters and of chat, the downsides of pub life (its enabling of alcoholism, its baleful effects on relationships and families) were never raised in this determinedly celebratory film.

Still, it wasn't as bizarrely lopsided as The Twelfth (BBC1), which offered an hour-long round-up of the previous day's marches and from which you'd never guess that this ritual fostered anything but noble and peaceful celebration of a Northern Protestant heritage.

But it was the sheer boredom of it all that left me sitting stupefied on my sofa. The St Patrick's Day parades may be a hard watch, but at least there are a few floats and other gimmicks to divert the viewer. Here, all we got were banners and sashes and men in grey suits endlessly walking down city streets and country lanes.

Presenter Helen Mark tried to make it seem worthy of my time, but after a half-hour watching parades through Belfast, Bessbrook, Benburb, Coleraine and Holywood, and with the prospect of lots more to come, I lunged for the remote.

Happily, BBC4 (where would we be without BBC4?) came up with Last Days in Vietnam, not just the best documentary of the week, which wouldn't be hard, but arguably of the year, too.

The American debacle in Vietnam continued to the very end, with thousands of terrified local people crowded into the US embassy compound in Saigon as the North Vietnamese descended on the city. Many of them were airlifted to safety but many others were left behind to face the untender mercies of the invading forces.

This being a Storyville film, the narration was left to those who'd been there - mainly CIA analysts, US and South Vietnamese army and navy officials, and trapped civilians - and the effect was cumulatively riveting, with brilliant use of video footage from the time.

Most striking were the recollections of former army captain Stuart Herrington and of CIA operative Frank Snepp - the latter recalling the US ambassador's unwillingness both to face the reality of what was happening and then to leave any vulnerable local civilians behind; the former still distressed 40 years later by the fate of these civilians. "I felt absolutely awful", he said, "it was so serious and deep a betrayal."

Rory Kennedy's film chronicled the complicated events with great clarity and with a mounting sense of tension, and managed an implicit critique of American imperialism while acknowledging the heroism of helicopter pilots and other personnel who did all they could to save as many lives as possible.

Meanwhile, back in the tawdry celebrity world, BBC2 offered us Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen: Cracking China, in which the foppish poseur from that 1990s lifestyle series Changing Rooms sought to foist his knick-knacks on an unsuspecting Chinese public.

There was a similarly self-serving foray into Mexico, but what was most distressing about this film was the BBC's uncritical indulgence, indeed blatant promotion, of this obnoxious prat, who treated both his underlings and the filmmakers with derision. The programme should have skewered him but instead it sucked up to him.

The two-part The Outcast (BBC1), based on Sadie Jones's award-winning novel about an alienated young man in repressive mid-century England, began well, with Hattie Morahan luminously good as a skittish but loving young mother. Within 20 minutes, though, she had drowned in a river accident and all we were left with was the alienation and repression, which wasn't much fun.

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