Friday 23 August 2019

Television review: Francis sets up camp in heat, dust and bad toilets

On tour: Francis Brennan was his usually flamboyant self as he guided the 12 volunteers around India
On tour: Francis Brennan was his usually flamboyant self as he guided the 12 volunteers around India

John Boland

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movie, in which a motley crew of ageing English expats sought fulfilment amid the heat and dust of India, wasn't up to much, but at least it had Maggie Smith and Judi Dench on hand to give it a shot of adrenalin. By contrast, Francis Brennan's Grand Indian Tour (RTÉ1) only has Francis Brennan, which isn't half as much fun unless you're a connoisseur of amateur theatrics.

Indeed, Brennan's persona in this week's opening episode was so flamboyant that the series might well have been retitled Carry On Camping. Nothing new about that, of course - he was similarly extravagant in a previous televised tour of European destinations, and his fussy energy has done much to enliven the long-running series At Your Service.

But for one viewer at least, his shtick has become somewhat wearisome, chiefly because there's no discernible warmth or empathy behind the cackling admonitions to the 12 volunteers who paid good money to accompany him on this latest excursion.

Why they would want to do that rather than take a holiday of their own is puzzling to anyone who doesn't crave television exposure, but this lot seemed quite content to bask in the host's presence as he conducted them on blithely uninformative visits to a succession of historic and cultural sites.

Indeed, the opening episode seemed so uninterested in India's rich heritage and traditions that it highlighted instead the tourists' horrified reactions to the public toilets they encountered. That really tells you all you need to know.

The Irish abroad was also the subject of The Judas Iscariot Lunch (RTÉ1), its title deriving from Pope Paul VI's verdict that missionaries who abandoned the priesthood were comparable to Christ's betrayer.

Some of the 200 Columbian missionaries who did just that were the now elderly interviewees in a film that was at its most evocative and striking when they recalled life in the Dalgan seminary where they spent more than a decade preparing for postings in the Philippines and elsewhere.

This was in the Ireland of a slavishly pious age in which local bonfires celebrated one priest's ordination, even though "I had done nothing, I had achieved nothing, I was nobody". And another said that he had become a seminarian mainly as "a way of dodging growing up".

Neither were they prepared for what they experienced in their foreign postings, though the film told us next to nothing about the actual missionary and social work they did, instead focusing almost entirely on their awakening sexuality and suggesting that the constraints of celibacy constituted the crucial reason why most of them left the priesthood.

Nor did we learn how they had fared when they had returned as laymen to Ireland: how they had found jobs and how many of them had formed relationships or had children. Indeed, though the men themselves were articulate and mainly engrossing, the film contained so many factual omissions that it left the viewer frustrated.

Channel 4's new reality series, Eden, began with its narrator portentously asking: "If we could start again, what kind of world would we build?" To this end, 23 volunteers were dispatched to the Scottish Highlands and asked to build society from scratch.

In other words, it's Big Brother in the wilds, though with no evictions. Already, though, there's friction among these do-gooders and there's the promise of various glum sexual couplings, too. Get me out of here.

Elsewhere, the week was dominated by drama, some of it very good, though I'm not sure about the three-part adaptation of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (BBC1), which evokes Victorian London very well but sacrifices almost all of the book's nuances for rather thin plotting.

And while Toby Jones is his usual striking self as the dour and hapless main anarchist spy, I found it hard to believe that this sad sack was married to the radiantly lovely Vicky McClure, who could profitably have been paired with Tom Hiddleston in the recent The Night Manager. Am I being ageist? Probably, but there you have it.

Shades of Blue (Sky Living) features corrupt cop Jennifer Lopez coerced by Internal Affairs to rat on even more corrupt cop Ray Liotta. The writing so far has often been ropey and some of the set-ups quite clichéd, but Liotta and Lopez bring a real dramatic lustre to it.

And don't miss Stranger Things, whose eight episodes you can binge-watch on Netflix. Set in small-town Indiana in 1983, this sci-fi series has borrowings from all over the place, including Rob Reiner's Stand By Me, Spielberg's E.T, John Carpenter's Halloween and any number of Stephen King scenarios.

And yet it's got a feel of its own, with Winona Ryder very good as the fraught mother of a boy who has vanished near a shadowy research facility and David Harbour excellent as the local sheriff trying to find out what's going on.

The dialogue is alert and there's no shortage of spooky moments, either. I've only managed two episodes so far, but I'll certainly see it through.

I'm not so sure about Belgian drama The Out-Laws (More 4), in which four sisters murder the ghastly husband of their fifth sibling. This is pitched as a comedy thriller, though it's not as funny as it thinks, and not that thrilling.

I'd prefer reliable old Beck, back for another BBC4 season. This Swedish series is quite old-fashioned and none the worse for that as middle-aged Beck and his charismatic sidekick seek to unravel mysteries.

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