Friday 18 January 2019

Television: Plucky women and a rewriting of history in RTÉ's latest soap

 

Fiery women: Simone Kirby as Ursula and Natasha O'Keeffe as Agnes in Resistance
Fiery women: Simone Kirby as Ursula and Natasha O'Keeffe as Agnes in Resistance

John Boland

The #MeToo movement has been bracing in its impact, but I'm not convinced that it should be used to rewrite the history of the Easter Rising and the War of Independence.

Yet if you're to believe the scenarios devised by screenwriter Colin Teevan for the 1916-set drama series Rebellion, and now for Resistance (RTÉ1), which is set in 1920, the crucial figures in both of these traumatic conflicts were women - and never mind Michael Collins and the rest of the lads running around plotting and shooting and generally doing what men do.

And so, centre stage in last Sunday night's opening episode, we had fiery women journalists, republican-minded society hostesses and female employees in Dublin Castle who were persuaded to spy for the cause.

I'm not saying that such women, or at least women like them, didn't exist at that time and in those circumstances, but in Teevan's telling they were the only characters of any substance - the men mainly there as stock cut-outs: heroic freedom fighters, ruthless assassins or sneering upholders of empire.

There were various subplots, the most intriguing concerning Ursula (Simone Kirby), a young single mother whose baby was about to be given away by nasty nuns to a wealthy family in America. This was a storyline seemingly lifted from later decades and transplanted back to an era where the British still ruled and where the unholy collusion between the Catholic Church and an Irish state hadn't yet happened. Perhaps it was historically accurate, but it didn't ring true.

Nothing, though, rang very true in an opening episode where soap opera reigned and where most of the action scenes kept reminding me of Neil Jordan's biopic of Michael Collins, which at least had the commanding presence of Liam Neeson to hold it all together. Valiant playing by Catherine Walker, Aoife Duffin, Natasha O'Keeffe and Brian Gleeson didn't quite manage that here.

There are soap opera elements, too, in Call My Agent!, whose third season is now on Netflix, but it's soap opera of a superior kind, with a script of real wit and depth and with a cast of conniving characters in whom you quickly become engrossed.

Titled Dix Pour Cent in its native France (10pc being the agent's cut), this amused take on the movie business and its idiocies was Netflix's best-kept secret last year, not least for its recurring use of such major stars being themselves as Juliette Binoche, Nathalie Baye, Isabelle Adjani and Cécile de France - all of them clearly having a ball playing around with their image.

And in this new season there are extended cameos from Jean Dujardin, Monica Bellucci, Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Lambert, while the antics of the four main agents remain as amusing and compelling as before. A real treat.

I was also amused by James Graham's drama, Brexit: The Uncivil War (Channel 4), in which Benedict Cumberbatch gave a bravura turn as Leave's chief strategist Dominic Cummings, though the viewer never learnt what made this Machiavellian character tick - beyond the obvious glee he took in pandering to voters' baser instinct regarding race and "taking back control".

Rory Kinnear had less success with the thankless role of the Tory party's Remain strategist Craig Oliver, though there was fun to be had in the caricatures of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Arron Banks. What it was all meant to convey, though, remained unclear, though we'll probably find out soon enough.

The last season of Catastrophe (Channel 4) began this week and I can't say I'm sorry it's coming to an end. Yes, it began brilliantly, with wince-inducing barbs being flung back and forth as Sharon and Rob embarked on a very uncertain married life, and it continued well, too, as their problems grew bigger, but during the third season I felt that something had curdled, not just in the relationship but also in the gags, most of which were too bitter to be funny.

The sour tone persisted this week but somehow (absence makes the heart grow fonder) I was back on board again as Rob undertook community service in a charity store for his drunk-driving conviction and Sharon tried to embezzle shops by switching prices on labels.

This led to some standout moments, including Sharon telling Rob "A criminal in a neck brace, what a fucking catch!" and the revelation that Rob's mobile phone still identified his spouse as "Sharon London sex". And co-creators Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney still inhabit their roles with almost frightening conviction. But I do feel that enough will be enough in a few weeks' time.

Meanwhile, the characters in Les Misérables (BBC1) remain in the dismal grip of fate and, just as in Thomas Hardy, the viewer recoils from how preordained it all seems. Certainly, as Myles na Gopaleen said of the Abbey, you wouldn't get a laugh out of it.

One Day: Keeping Ireland Beautiful (RTÉ1) was a 24-hour "snapshot" that set out to detail how "it takes an army of 30,000 to keep us looking beautiful".

And so we saw early-morning Aer Rianta staff in Dublin airport flogging cosmetics ("Hello, would you like to try our body lotion on your arms?"), while in Waterford make-up artist and "social influencer" Niamh spent two hours "getting glam" for the day ahead. I lasted until the ad break, by which time I'd lost the will to live.

I recognised three of the 11 "celebrities" on the new season of Dancing with the Stars (RTÉ1). I must get out more.

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