Sunday 18 August 2019

Television: Perilous rescues of refugees made for riveting viewing

To the rescue: The Crossing
To the rescue: The Crossing

John Boland

During a week of barbarism in Aleppo, The Crossing (RTÉ1) showed that acts of humanity still somehow survive in a world largely indifferent to the fate of desperate millions.

Filmed and directed by Judy Kelly, this was a salutary documentary, not least because it eschewed any attempt at moralising, trusting instead in the frightening footage it was showing and in the observations of the rescuers on board the LE Samuel Beckett as it traversed the Mediterranean sea between Libya and southern Italy.

It was hard to credit that a flimsy rubber dinghy crammed with over 100 refugees had made it to where the Irish rescue ship found it in the open ocean, while the sight of a rickety wooden barge containing up to 800 people defied belief as it bobbed precariously in the waves. Some of these unfortunates died in the process, toppling into the sea as they stood up excitedly at the rescue boat's arrival ("their screams will haunt me for a long time," said petty officer Patricia O'Sullivan), though almost all of them were saved by the herculean efforts of the crew.

However, even in the safety of the ship, all wasn't always well, with antagonism breaking out between Christians and Muslims. "That I can't understand," said Lieutenant Diarmuid O'Donovan as he reflected on the ordeal they'd all just undergone.

As for the fate of these refugees when taken to the promised land of Europe, a caption near the film's end informed us that less than 40pc of them are granted asylum when they reach Italy. Meanwhile 250,000 more refugees are currently on the Libyan coast intending to make the same perilous journey.

"What we're doing won't solve the situation", O'Donovan conceded, yet though that's undeniably true, the heroic work undertaken by himself and his colleagues made me feel proud to be Irish.

There was antagonism, too, in the two-part Muslims Like Us (BBC2), almost all of it caused by the presence of Abdul Haq, one of 10 Muslims who'd been selected to share a house in York for 10 days in an effort to discover what being a Muslim actually meant in today's Britain.

The other nine seemed like nice people, though Haq wasn't nice at all. Having converted from Christianity a decade ago, changing his name in the process from Anthony Small, this former boxer now made fundamentalist videos, believed that men and women shouldn't mix, and avoided eye contact with the latter.

So what was he doing there? Well, clearly he was the programme's fly in the ointment, disturbing the feel-good ambience of the house with his show-boating intransigence and occasioning rows every time he opened his mouth.

"They're queuing up to challenge him," the voice-over excitedly confided, though after 40 minutes of tedious confrontations I let them all at it.

The final instalment of Planet Earth II (BBC1) ended with the 90-year-old David Attenborough pleading with us to look after our fragile world, which, in the era of Trump, seems a forlorn hope. But the series was a marvel, this concluding episode focusing on the extraordinary way in which animals and birds have adapted to urban challenges.

"The complexity of urban life favours the clever and the brazen," Attenborough said, and there was spectacular footage of peregrine falcons on Manhattan skyscraper ledges, leopards prowling the streets of Mumbai and raccoons roaming around Toronto. However, I was just as enthralled by a re-run on the same night of Wild Cities: Dublin (RTÉ2), in which Rob Gandola introduced us to the deer, hares, geese, falcons and foxes of our capital.

In the second instalment of This is Ireland with Des Bishop (RTÉ2) the hectoring comedian declared that "we're a show about what matters in Ireland", and so he embarked on a lecture about our libel laws and an even lengthier tirade about anti-vaccine scaremongers. Neither of these harangues was accompanied by even a titter of wit, while segments by fellow comedians Colm O'Regan and Dermot Whelan were similarly laugh-free. And an interview with film-maker Jim Sherdian meandered on pointlessly until the show's end-titles abruptly cut it off, thus saving me the bother of reaching for the remote.

Professional chef Michelle won The Taste of Success (RTÉ1) with her Irish beef brisket pie. A cool €100,000 was the prize she got from Lidl, which is also selling the pie in its 140 nationwide stores. One of the three judges was from Lidl, too, while fellow judge Paul Flynn has for years been the celebrity face of Lidl media promotions. As far as RTÉ is concerned, it's clear that a Lidl can go a long way.

Amiably presented by Harry McGee, Polaitíocht: Power on the Box (RTÉ1) has been a lively and entertaining series about the role of television in Irish political life, with lots of pithy soundbites.

"This is where careers can be forged or finished," McGee said at the outset, though Martin McGuinness's career wasn't ended when Miriam O'Callaghan asked him "How do you square with your god the fact that you were involved in the murder of so many people?" However, he himself effectively ended the presidential hopes of Sean Gallagher with a live-on-air question about sources of money that left Gallagher flailing.

Claire Byrne, who showed her steeliness during another political leaders' debate, told McGee that politicians were "not my friends" and that "the day I'm buddy-buddy with politicians is the day I should stop doing what I'm doing". That, of course, should be the stance of every self-respecting journalist.

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