Tuesday 21 November 2017

Television: RTÉ's 1916 history lesson lacks touch of real drama

Ruth Bradley as Frances O'Flaherty in Rebellion
Ruth Bradley as Frances O'Flaherty in Rebellion

John Boland

RTÉ has insisted that the five-part Rebellion (RTÉ1) is "a drama, not a history lesson", but you'd have been forgiven for thinking otherwise throughout last Sunday night's opening episode.

In the script devised by Colin Teevan, who also came up with last year's rather shaky Charlie Haughey drama, characters spent most of their time declaiming political attitudes as if from a soapbox, even when they were in intimate conversation with each other.

And so, in the run-up to the Easter Rising, you had earnest socialist Jimmy assuring well-bred radical student Elizabeth that "the English are going to be driven out and the high windows of the rich pulled down" and Elizabeth ruefully acknowledging that "the English have treated this country shamefully, and the rich, my father included, have treated the poor worse".

Have people ever actually talked like that? Well, in this series they do, and so you had a scene in which Elizabeth's caddish brother loftily informed his sister that "in an age of excessive ideals, the cynic is the true rebel". Where did he think he was? In a cut-price Oscar Wilde play? You also had a scene in which revolutionary Frances enquired of her friend May, who was having an affair with her Dublin Castle boss, whether it was "all right to be f**ked by a married Englishman" - May countering that she'd "rather be f**ked by an Englishman than brainwashed by an Irishman". Did polite young women in 1916 really converse in this manner?

In fact, there was much that didn't convince, largely because Teevan had come up with embodiments rather than individuals, character types that could be ticked off a checklist: the republican firebrand, the dogged socialist, the burgeoning feminist, the smug middle-class patriarch, the returned resentful soldier - and, not least, the beastly Brits, all of them so cold and clipped as to be no more than cardboard figures.

In its favour, the episode was handsomely mounted (perhaps too handsomely - was Dublin ever so pretty that even its tenements looked rather charming?) and generally well acted, especially by Charlie Murphy, Ruth Bradley and Sarah Greene as its central trio of women.

Indeed, I liked that Teevan chose to tell his story through the experiences of these three women, thus giving the drama a satisfying shape and also a distinctive sensibility that would have been missing if the narrative point of view had been male, who in this first episode were a pretty uninteresting bunch - Brian Gleeson's Jimmy a stock O'Casey character and Marcus Lamb's drab Patrick Pearse never suggesting why anyone might join him at the barricades.

But tension was well-maintained, which should ensure an audience for this weekend's second episode. Let's hope it features more attention to character and less speechifying. Still, it was more engrossing than the first episode of War and Peace (BBC1), which shares the same Sunday night slot and which, for all the opulence ostentatiously on display, proved to be a very damp squib.

The main problem here was miscasting, with Paul Dano's Pierre charmlessly dim where he should have been engagingly bumbling and James Norton's Andrei quite lacking the brooding charisma that Poldark's Aidan Turner would have brought to the role. It didn't help that I couldn't get Norton's vicious rapist from Happy Valley out of my mind.

There were incidental acting pleasures. The increasingly camp Stephen Rea chewed the scenery amusingly as the conniving Prince Vassily, Irish actress Jessie Buckley was a touching Princess Marya and Lily James was a very likeable Natasha. And in minor roles Brian Cox, Jim Broadbent and Rebecca Front were reliably impressive.

But, aside from a few shots of the Neva and the Hermitage, there was little sense of Russia, while Andrew Davies's script seemed more intent on identifying characters (always a problem in adaptations of great Russian novels) than in doing anything much with them. Even the battle scenes were underwhelming.

Nor did I derive much pleasure from the one-off Sherlock (BBC1), in which Benedict Cumberbatch's Holmes and Martin Freeman's Dr Watson (left) were transported back to the late 19th century for the case of 'The Abominable Bride', a woman fleetingly mentioned in one of the Conan Doyle stories.

This much-lauded series has always struck me as so pleased with its own inventiveness and meta-fictional tricks that it becomes smug and tiresome, and I felt the same about this episode, its sleight-of-hand editing never quite concealing the fact that the plot ultimately didn't make any sense. Or maybe I'm just thick.

Meanwhile, the amiable Francis Brennan (minus brother John) was back for a new season of At Your Service (RTÉ1), this time advising Co Louth country house owner Caroline, who wanted to run self-catering holidays in two of the estate's cottages.

However, the programme neglected to tell us anything about Caroline's family background or how she had acquired her impressive, if ramshackle, abode or how she managed to keep it going - or, indeed, any of the basic things we wanted to know.

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