Monday 23 July 2018

Television Review: These princess diaries failed to reveal much we didn't already know

Happier times: The late Diana pictured in 1981 with Britain’s Prince Charles
Happier times: The late Diana pictured in 1981 with Britain’s Prince Charles

John Boland

Diana: In Her Own Words (Channel 4) was the occasion of some controversy in England, with The Times headlining its morning-after review 'Diana Takes Revenge in Trashy TV'.

It wasn't that, but it wasn't much of anything else, either, and it wasn't even predominantly "in her own words" - the hitherto unseen 1992 video conversations with her voice coach occupying no more than a small fraction of the programme's 100-minute running time.

She got to say a few things, monarchists taking particular exception to the disclosure of her lacklustre and then non-existent sex life with Prince Charles, but most observers had long guessed that to be the case.

What the film succeeded in doing was to remind viewers (or those old enough to be reminded) of how isolated this young woman must have felt in a family that abhorred public emotion, and probably the expression of private feelings, too, and of how, after escaping these constraints, she managed to reinvent herself in a way that must have appalled them.

Her sons have clearly picked up a few media tricks from her and they used them affectingly in the recent ITV documentary, Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, but her own gift for empathy exceeded even their most strenuously heartfelt efforts. Indeed, even when her voice coach asked why she had embarked on so much charity work and she chortled "because I've nothing else to do", it was clearly more than that - as became evident in her responses to homelessness, Aids and the obscenity of landmines.

Certainly I came away from this overlong and frequently portentous film (and, indeed, from the film featuring her sons, too) with increased admiration for a woman who fought against an intolerable marriage and subsequently made her life more meaningful until a brutally abrupt death intervened.

But if Diana died far too young, Hubert Butler was 85 before his first collection of essays was published - even though he'd spent the previous half century writing on European and other affairs for various newspapers and journals. For this we should be grateful to publisher Anthony Farrell, who came across a submission of the elderly author's essays while working as a reader for Seamus Kavanagh of Wolfhound Press. "Anglo-Irish stuff doesn't sell", Cashman told him, but Farrell went ahead under his own Lilliput Press imprint and the result was 'Escape from The Anthill' (1985).

This was followed by four other Lilliput collections and soon the wider publishing world took note of a man who's now rightly regarded as Ireland's greatest 20th-century essayist, comparable in his political and social insights and his humanist concerns with George Orwell.

You got a sense of this achievement in Johnny Gogan's film, The Nuncio and the Writer (RTÉ1), but unfortunately it didn't emerge until near the end, when tributes from Roy Foster, Fintan O'Toole, Olivia O'Leary and other admirers finally set it in context.

This should have come at the start. Instead, viewers who were unfamiliar with both the man and his work (most viewers, I would have thought) were plunged into a muddling melange of snippets both about Butler's privileged Kilkenny background and about the Croatian war-time atrocities that so exercised his conscience.

His courageous writings on the Catholic church's complicity in the latter led to him being shunned by the religious and political authorities back in Ireland, yet the film's title was misleading, as Gogan's profile of the man was only partially about this single incident - just as Butler's own Balkan essays were only a part of his wide-ranging concerns, whether global, national or local.

Still, if this film encouraged viewers to explore this marvellous essayist, it will have achieved something good. A shame, then, that RTÉ consigned it to a late-night slot while giving prime-time prominence the same evening to a film about vulture capitalists that it had already screened a few months earlier.

Billy Connolly is now in his 75th year and is suffering from Parkinson's disease ("I wish the f*** he'd kept it to himself"), and so BBC2 thought it time he had his portrait painted.

Three portraits, as it turned out in Billy Connolly: Portrait of a Lifetime, with the sitter in characteristically exuberant form throughout, despite his ailment. He was even exuberant about the results. "Oh my God, it's amazing!" he said of Rachel MacLean's rather silly painting. "Oh, my God, it's great!" he told Jack Vettriano, though it was far from great.

Real affection, though, came through in his chats with John Byrne, who had created the album sleeve for Connolly in his Humblebums pop days with Gerry Rafferty and had done the equally brilliant covers for Rafferty's early solo albums. "John is a genius," Billy said at the end, and he clearly meant it. Then the two frail old guys hugged each other. It was really touching.

The second episode of Man in an Orange Suit (BBC2) aimed to be touching, too, but was mostly too schmaltzy for its own good. Here we had Adam, beloved grandson of Flora, who in last week's instalment had discovered to her horror that her husband Michael was a clandestine homosexual.

Age hadn't eased her attitude and when she learned that Adam was also gay, she deemed it "disgusting" that men could be living "like animals". Gradually, though, she softened, telling him: "I'm trying to adjust, but I can't turn overnight into a liberal". And by the end strings soared on the soundtrack as she met Adam's partner. It was all a bit much, though Vanessa Redgrave was genuinely affecting as Flora.


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